God: A Creative Event
By Rev. Douglas Taylor
I love how preaching about God in a Unitarian Universalist church is still considered a bold move. Many of those among us who consider themselves theists tend to have a quietly fuzzy theology of God. Many of us seem content with being a few steps beyond a respectful agnosticism. Recently there has been a push to reclaim traditional religious language. The president of our Association, Rev. Bill Sinkford, has called for a renewed interest in a vocabulary of reverence. While this should not by any means be limited to conversations about God, God certainly is a featured word within the lexicon of traditional religious words, and thus deserves a sermon of two as we consider the retrieval and clarification of a reverent vocabulary.
To seek a definition of God is tricky business. When I was talking with my wife about this Sunday’s topic she asked, “Well, what can you really say about God. I mean, either you believe or you don’t and even then, what can you really say about God?” I thought about that for a moment as she looked at me. She had a good point, you know. Anything we can say about God must necessarily be filtered through our human language. As a means of discussing all that is Holy, human words and concepts are woefully inadequate. Rev. Fred Muir from the Annapolis Unitarian Universalist Church has pondered upon this very point. In his recent book, Heretics’ Faith, he writes this:
God is a word that we’ve come up with to describe what no other single word can. Just in that alone, the word is insufficient. The ancient Hebrews recognized this right off, and so they made their word for God unutterable: it was sacrilegious to say that word. So then they came up with a word that meant the word no one could say!
It’s because of this kind of thinking (Muir continues) that I’ve called myself everything from atheist to agnostic to pagan – all done, in part, as a reaction to the misuse, overuse, and perversion of the word God. The most profound abuse has been accomplished by orthodox Western religions that have accorded their God with humanlike qualities as well as raising God above nature. My God is neither anthropomorphic nor supernatural: to me is it absurd, meaningless, destructive, and oppressive to conceptualize a higher power as having attributes like humanity has in addition to being above and outside what we know, see, and feel. (p 96-97)
In the second half of that quote, Muir tells us about the God he does not believe in. It is easy to expound upon the God I do not believe in. I suspect many of you could speak at great length about the God you do not believe in (whether or not there is a God you do believe in!) When it comes to speaking in the positive about God, as my wife asked me earlier this week, what can you really say? However, “The turtle only gets where it is going by sticking out its neck.” (James B. Conant) Even though words are at best second-rate tools for the task of defining God, it is nonetheless a worthy task. So I will now stick my neck out and we’ll see where that gets us.
Often the first place we land is among labels, so let us begin there. Labels are tricky. Muir says he calls himself an atheist some times and a pagan other times. Labels are useful in the beginnings of defining yourself and your perspective, but they paint with such a broad brush that it is hard to be comfortable with simply a label. What is my theological label? The quick and dirty answer is that I am a Theist. However, I grew up in a Humanist church, so Humanism is my first religious language. Also I was raised in a Universalist home and while I did not know God not so much as a personal God, I some how developed the feeling of unconditional acceptance and the transformative power of love which comes from God. And then I spent as much time as I could out in the woods near our house, out in nature where I developed another whole set of words to describe God which of course conflict at times with both my Humanism and my Universalism. All this adds up to some confusion for me when it comes time to choose a religious label, and so I usually just say I am a theist.
A basic Theist is defined as a person who believes in a personal God. There are, however, several variety of Theists beyond that basic definition. In working with the Building Your Own Theology workbook, we in the class discovered quite an assortment of theisms described in the manual. Mystics and Pagans and Liberal Christians are three types of theists that are usually found within Unitarian Universalist circles. Liberal Christianity within Unitarian Universalism looks most like what we usually think of when we talk about theists. Liberal Christians hold traditional perspectives about God in the form of either the first person of the Trinity (the Father) or the third person of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit). Paganism and other Earth Centered spiritualities often take a Polytheistic and Pantheistic view of God, speaking of gods and goddesses, and the embodiment of the holy in the rhythms of the earth. Mystics could be considered theists in that they believe unmediated experience with God is possible. Mystics are less concerned with any definition of God except that it not be too specific and that it includes love as an overwhelming quality. Historically there have been a significant number of Deists counted among our ranks. Deism is the belief the God created the earth along with the natural forces that govern it and then left. Many of the founding fathers are also reported to have been Deists.
But that’s just the first batch of theisms. Another distinction is drawn between a Theistic Monist and a Theist Dualist. These two definitions tease out a definition of God in relation to nature. The Theistic Monist believes that God “alone is real; the world or nature is at best an illusion or mere appearance.” This variation of Theism is the most diametrically opposed to Atheism, which would say the world or nature alone is real; God is at best an illusion or mere appearance. The Theistic Dualist believes that God “is completely transcendent over nature; [God] and nature constitute totally different realms of reality.” Similarly, a Natural Theist believes that “Nature includes the divine; God is but one force or process operating in the natural world.” A final type of Theist along these lines would be a Pantheist. Pantheists believe that God “and nature are in some sense identical; nature itself is divine.” Then there is the Panentheist. Panentheism is like Pantheism plus. Panentheists believe that “The divine is independent of and transcends nature, but also includes nature.” Nature itself is divine, but there is also a transcendent element to God.
Are you confused yet? I promise this sermon will be reprinted and available at the Book table so you can go over these again if you wish. The main point I want to present here is the amazing variety of definitions of God found among those who take up one of the many regular and traditional labels within Theism! For all of these types of Theists the word God means something different. But, wait, I have one more type of theist I want to talk about.
Process Theists believe that God is not a being; rather God is a process. From this point of view, “the world [is] a social organism growing toward fulfillment by means of mutual influence, including the persuasive aims of God.” In this way they it is like Natural Theism. It could be said, however, that for Process theists, God is a verb rather than a noun. My favorite theologians, Paul Tillich, Martin Buber, Henry Nelson Wieman, talk about God not as a noun but as a verb. Weiman, the only one among that short list who is really a Process Theologian, said that God is Creative Interchange. Buber spoke of the primacy of the I-Thou relationship. And Tillich was considered an atheist by some when he said, “God does not exist, God is.” It should be no surprise therefore to learn that the God I believe in is more like the Holy Spirit than any other part of the Christian triune God, for example. There is movement and presence. I believe God is something that happens, or better yet, simply, “God is.”
The concept of Creative Interchange articulated by Henry nelson Wieman is worth further exploration. For Wieman, Creative Interchange is God, or at least the closest thing that fills the role usually appointed to God. Wieman was a Presbyterian minister before returning to academia to become a philosopher and empirical theologian. He was born in 1884 and died in 1975. He spent the last decades of his life as a Unitarian Universalist. He wrote books with titles like, Intellectual Foundations of Faith, Man’s Ultimate Commitment, and The Source of Human Good.
Wieman did not say that God was simple a process, he took great pains to define just what sort of process is considered Creative Interchange. It is about transformative interaction between individuals in community. Wiemen defines the Creative Interchange as a four-step process. It is one event with four stages. Creative Interchange occurs in this way: beginning with “Emerging awareness of qualitative meaning derived from other persons through communication; integrating these new meanings with others previously acquired; expanding the richness of quality in the appreciable world by enlarging its meaning; [and] deepening the community among those who participate in this total creative event of intercommunication.” (The Source of Human Good, p58) In typical Theologian style, that one run-on sentence packs in this man’s whole concept of God. Let me unpack it a little.
First we get the perspective of another person. By sitting and listening or sharing in conversation with another individual we are made aware of another perspective of meaning beyond our own. This could happen in church on Sunday morning, over a meal with a relative of old friend, or nearly anywhere at anytime when we are listening to another person share about meaningful life experiences or beliefs. We take in another person’s understanding, not perfectly, of course, but well enough. That is the first stage.
Second we begin to integrate this new perspective with what we already know or understand or believe. If you just listen to another person’s perspective and do not let that perspective mix in with your own then we’re not at that level of creative interchange. Wieman wrote, “The mere passage through the mind of innumerable meanings in not the creative event.” (Ibid, p59) Also, this does not mean new meanings and understanding supplants what is already meaningful. If, however, what was shared and communicated in that first step is integrated, the third step does follow naturally.
The third step in the process of Creative Interchange is the “expanding and enriching of the appreciable world by a new structure of interrelatedness.” (Ibid, p61) Obviously, if you take in another person’s understanding of meaning and integrate it with what you already know of meaning, you will naturally experience an expansion of your world. This doesn’t need to be huge or really dramatic, but it is transformative all the same.
The fourth step is the commensurate expansion and widening of the community of mutual understanding. This last step in the Creative Interchange event seems the easiest one to argue against perhaps. Why would the communities I belong to expand and deepen simply because I have integrated another person’s perspective and grown in my understanding? We all exist in communities, and these communities exist because of us. And in terms of the Creative Interchange, Wieman is only speaking of the community or Communities involved in the interchange. Your community grows because you grow.
Are you still with me? According to Wieman, Creative Interchange, that particular kind of communication which involves the hearing and integrating of another person’s understanding of meaning with your own, and which therefore leads to transformative personal and communal growth, that is God. That event, that moment of transformation and growth where I take in a little of you and am different and better for it, that is God: that creative interchange between us. That event is God.
Now, this has got to be one of the most unusual definitions of God out there! I mean, if you’re using this word as a verb, the syntax alone is hard enough to grasp. (“Yesterday I was out for a walk when I suddenly God!”) The concept is both sensible and amazing, certainly worth pondering. There are so many ways of defining that one word. I have heard the complaint that the attempt to reclaim traditional religious language is a waste of time especially since we always redefine the old words anyway. It seems to me the word ‘God’ has such a plethora of definitions, it would be one of the easier ones to reclaim! Some look at the word God and see a lot of baggage and stagnant associations. I look at that word and see live possibilities for deepening understanding.
And if we should find we disagree about our definitions of God, then perhaps we can sit down and share them with each other, not for the goal of changing one another’s minds, but for the creative interchange that can take place, that God may take place.
In a world without end,
May it be so.