The living tradition we share draws on many sources. . . . [including:] Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbor as ourselves.
"God" is a difficult topic among Unitarian Universalists. Some of us resist any use of the word or concept. For others of us, God is a central part of our understanding and our life. Is this an ontological disagreement (involving competing claims about the nature of reality and what reality does and does not include)? Is it a semantic disagreement (involving competing claims about what words do and don't mean)? Or is it neither of these so much as a matter of identity and group loyalty?
Respond to Whose Love?
My Mom recently recounted to me a story from my childhood. I had no recollection of the incident or any previous retelling of it. It’s an anecdote that reveals something of my mind, and my mother’s. I was about five years old, and we were at a fair or carnival where there were helium balloons. I'd never seen such things before, and I was fascinated.
“Mom, why do they go up?” I asked – or so I’m told I did.
Mom, rational scientist that she was and is, answered, “Why wouldn’t they?”
“Things go down,” I said.
“Uh-huh,” said Mom. “Why do they go down?”
“Because of gravity,” I said.
“Ah,” she said. “Well, the balloon goes up because of levity.” And this satisfied me. What could I say?
When I heard Mom tell this story, it did not occur to me to think, “Egad, my mother lied to me!” After all, why not call it levity? Yes, it might imply a kind of Manichaean physics. (Manichaeans believe that good and evil are both substantive forces at war with each other, and in my five-year-old mind, maybe I had some inkling of a similar notion of there being two opposing physical forces named “gravity” and “levity.”) But I was also prepared to learn, had it ever come up again, that “levity” was the name for how, when something is less dense than air, gravity pulls the air down and under it, pushing the less dense object upward.
Mom wasn’t ready to explain all that – or, rather, she knew I wasn’t ready to follow such an explanation – so she me gave this word, “levity.” I delight in this new family story -- not because Mom’s answer was false, but because it’s so true. I had entirely forgotten it, but I love knowing again what apparently I first learned at age five: things go up because of levity.
The world is full of wonder. Just when I think that gravity makes everything go down, I discover that some things go up. Language is full of wonder, too. The words we select to express our experience give the experience meaning -- and sometimes delight.
The wonder of world and word comes to mind when I reflect on our text for today: the fourth source of the living tradition we share, "Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbor as ourselves." (See all of the seven principles and six sources: click here.)
“Respond to whose love?” I have heard asked. It’s a topic that calls for both gravity and levity, isn’t it?
Unitarian Universalists have different experiences of the world -- different from people in other faith traditions and different from each other. People have different stories to make sense of our world.
- Some stories about reality feature a creative force that is person-like in that it knows and it wants.
- Other stories tell of a creative force that kind of has beliefs and desires – in a rather metaphorical sense.
- Still other stories depict the forces of the universe creating and destroying utterly without anything that could be compared to knowledge, intentionality, or purpose.
Besides different feels for what does or does not exist out there, we have different feels for how words may reasonably be used. I was poking around for definitions of "God" and I discovered that a blog up in Rhode Island had quoted me about that. It said,
Meredith Garmon . . . once observed, “The word ‘God’ points to a source of beauty and mystery; a power inspiring gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; an ultimate context and basis for meaning and value; the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; a basis of ethics.” (Rev. James Ford, click here.)After some further rummaging, I confirmed that, yes, I actually had written that some months back. OK, I’ll take it.
- Source of beauty and mystery;
- power inspiring gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe;
- ultimate context and basis for meaning and value;
- widest reality to which our loyalty is owed;
- a basis of ethics.
I believe that theology is a kind of poetry, not a kind of science or natural history. As poetry-making and poetry-hearing beings we need to use words creatively, to sometimes treat a peripheral association as a central meaning and ignore the meaning that had often previously been central. I want a world in which that, too, is not a problem. Don’t you? Is this so hard? A world in which different experiences of what’s real are honored, in which different styles of poetry and metaphor are honored? Why is that hard?
Call it tribalism. Tribalism was named as an issue in the controversy around Rob Bell’s 2011 book Love Wins. Reverend Bell argued, as Universalists have been arguing for over 200 years, that there is no after-life hell of eternal damnation. A loving god would not condemn creatures of God’s own making to an eternity of agony. While many Christian readers were affirmed and moved by Rob Bell’s universalism, a number of other Christians attacked Bell (as their predecessors attacked John Murray and Hosea Ballou) as a heretic. One of Bell’s defenders -- in fact, the editor of Love Wins -- decried the attacks. He wrote:
“As a young evangelical, I was socialized to see the biggest threat to the church as theological liberalism. But now I think the biggest threat is Christian tribalism, where God’s interests are reduced to and measured by those sharing your history, tradition, and beliefs, and where one needs an ‘enemy’ in order for you to feel ‘right with God.’” (Mickey Maudlin, source click here)There is an awful lot of religion that is neither about a sense of what’s out there, nor is about a sense of the proper use of words. It’s just about: whose team are you on?
Religion can become talismanic – a mere talisman. Consider for example a report from this week’s Christianity Today: “Americans love their Bibles. So much so that they keep them in pristine, unopened condition." Or, as Gallup and Castelli said in a widely quoted survey finding, “Americans revere the Bible but by and large they don’t read it.” Time magazine observed in a 2007 cover story that only half of U.S. adults could name one of the four Gospels. Fewer than half could identify Genesis as the Bible's first book. Jay Leno and Stephen Colbert have made sport of Americans' inability to name the Ten Commandments—even among members of Congress who have pushed to have them posted publicly. (Christianity Today, click here.)
Yet Bible sales continue at a brisk clip. For many, apparently, the Bible is a sort of talisman: an object to possess as a symbol of tribal loyalty, not a text to study and understand. In a similar way, tribal loyalties get in the way of honoring and respecting different experiences about what is real, and different poetic inclinations for choosing words. We have a hard time simply accepting our differences when those differences symbolize what team you’re on – and when team membership requires being opposed to certain other teams.
Tribalism isn’t always bad. Recall that religion fundamentally is about three things:
- It’s about how you live -- the ethics and values that guide your life.
- It’s about community -- who you choose to come together with and share in rituals that strengthen your sense of group connection.
- It's about those moments of transcendence, one-ness, or mystery.
The problem arises when the #2 function isn't facilitating either the #1 function or the #3 function -- that is, when one's tribal connection neither affirms and supports any ethic or value other than tribe loyalty, nor facilitates or helps integrate one's transcendent experiences of interconnection and peace. If the primary function of my community is to nurse a shared sense of who the enemy is, then my community isn’t healthy. People who want to post the ten commandments but don't know more than a couple of those commandments, are using the issue as a test to identify who their enemies are.
What about our own Unitarian Universalist forms of tribalism?
It's worth noting that where there are no tribal loyalties at play, we humans are generally pretty flexible about adjusting our understandings of words. For example, one of my former in-laws referred to her refrigerator as "the Frigidaire." She would say, for example, “There’s cake in the Frigidaire.” A glance at the manufacturer’s label revealed that her refrigerator was actually made by Amana. But even at my most churlish, teen-aged self, I was not inclined to say, “No, it’s not in the Frigidaire, it’s in the refrigerator, which happens to be an Amana.” Would you say that? Me neither.
We simply adjust to different ways of using words. Longfellow says, “By the shores of Gitche Gumee,” and most of us can go with that, without the annoyed feeling, "If he meant Lake Superior he should have said 'Lake Superior.'"
Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky tells us:
Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe,Many of the words are made-up. You can call the poem “nonsense,” but it isn't meaningless. The sound and rhythm and context they create for each other invite us into a world of imagination, and most of us can go with that.
all mimsy were the borogoves, and ye mome raths outgrabe.
Tribalism, however, makes it difficult to extend the same flexibility and charity to language about God. To see how this works, consider the ways that some of us find our genial adaptability beginning to stiffen dogmatically when it comes to grammar. Attitudes about grammar illustrate how attitudes about "God" work.
For example, take me (. . . please!) I am sensitive to the difference between “lie” and “lay,” and I am capable of wishing that other people were, too. I have my pet list of words not to be used as verbs. Loan is not a verb, I say. Neither are impact, mandate, or critique. These words are nouns! The perfectly good verb forms are lend, affect, require, and criticize. Even more hideous: transition. Transition is not a verb.
You might remember a Calvin and Hobbes comic in which Calvin uses verb as a verb.
I have mellowed out a bit through the years. I actually rather like the Southern expression, might could, as in, “We might could do that.” I know that grates on some ears, but isn’t it more elegant than “might be able to”?
When LoraKim and I were first dating, I was a bit of an insufferable grammar dogmatist. I think that if I had corrected her one more time after she said "with you and I," the engagement would have been off. We Grammar Nazis like to make protestations about preserving the language, facilitating clarity of thought, and guarding against language so decaying that it becomes an impediment to understanding. Those protestations are hollow. What it's really about is loyalty: tribal -- or, more precisely, class -- loyalty.
It would seem a betrayal of our grandmothers or parents or beloved English teachers if we were to allow ourselves to relax the guard against the barbarians at the gate saying “got” when they should say “have.” Those adults we admire were the upholders of our class identity. The adults who sought to instill in me good grammar were teaching me to be faithful to my socio-economic class. The hidden message of prescriptive grammar instruction is: Don’t sound like those people – the lower classes. Grammar will be emotionally important to me precisely to the degree that my class identification is emotionally important to me – the degree that I desire to preserve privilege and separation between the other and me.
I'm talking about separation between the other and me. But if it will help close that separation, then I will say, "between the other and I." Hurts a little bit. But I can learn. If it will help me connect with others, then I will (gulp) transition to the next phase. Any noun you might could verb, go ahead. And if I don’t know what you mean, I’ll ask. It’s not like speakers of upper-class English are really, on average, a whole lot clearer.
Tribal – or class – loyalty might make us balk at some language, but we noticed that when loyalty isn’t at play, as when reading Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, it’s relatively easy to practice the gentle arts of flexibility and charity.
I’ve come to understand that whether or not I want to insist that “God” necessarily must imply an entity with awareness and intentions is mostly about my tribal loyalty, just as my grammar pet peeves are. Can we Unitarian Universalists engage in a process we identify as discerning what God is calling us to do? Can we have conversations about the question, "How do we serve God?" Yes, we can. In talking about serving God, we would be talking about serving life, and good, and the flourishing of all beings, while also reminding ourselves of the finitude and corrigibility of our own conceptions of life, good, and flourishing – which is just what I think Jews, Christians, and Moslems are talking about when they speak of serving God.
When we say, with our fourth source, that we are called to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbor as our selves, we are saying that the moments when we have felt the greatest belonging and connection inspire us to want to help our neighbors also feel connected and know they belong – which is what I think it truly means to respond to God’s love, whether or not God is conceived of as a person-like entity.
This was once hard for me to say. I was the proud "Class Atheist" at my rural Georgia public school from fourth grade through high school. To change my language seemed like a betrayal of my standards, which, of course, really meant a betrayal of my tribe: us rationalist humanists standing courageously intolerant of the language used by certain people whom we accused of intolerance.
My journey slowly and unevenly brought me to a place where I could see connecting with others as more important than separating myself from them. If they -- if even, say, you -- talk to me about your faith in God, and if you do so with certain phrases that trigger in me remembrance of enemies past, if you use religious words that conjure the battle lines in culture wars in which I have fought for much of my life, please give me just a moment, and I will dismantle my trigger. I will. That's my promise. There might be some days where it takes me a minute to remember myself, but give me that moment, and I am committed to disarming that particular reactivity in myself. I make that commitment because . . .
. . . because if I have a chance to connect with you, whoever you are, then connecting with you is more important than separating myself from you;
. . . because I know that if you and I have each felt mystery, wonder, and beauty come together with peace, compassion, and the softening of ego defenses; if we have opened our hearts to love; then we have a shared commonality that transcends both your dogmatic opinions about God and my dogmatic opinions about how wrong your dogmatic opinions are;
. . . and because that shared commonality matters more than maintaining my tribal identity.
It turns out that I can still oppose mandatory school prayer, support mandatory inclusion of evolution, favor reproductive rights, legal recognition of same-sex marriage, abolition of the death penalty, and public programs to take care of all our people -- and talk about God. I can talk about the impetus of the universe as God’s call for us to improve our understanding, respect our differences, serve life and freedom, and share God’s “preferential option for the poor.” Willing to employ "God talk" judiciously, I can be more effective than I ever could by a fastidious refusal to invoke the one word that, more clearly than any other, conveys a sense of spacious mystery tugging us toward the better angels of our nature.
I find my wholeness and healing growing the more I perform the imaginative exercise of pretending that the world might be whispering to me, calling, inviting me to love if I but listen, listen. Listen: it is God’s love calling me to respond by loving myself and my neighbor as my self. It is God’s love lifting me up . . . as levity lifts a child's balloon.
May it be so. May it be so for all of us.