God: a Universe of Connections
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Do you remember the Calvin and Hobbes comic? I loved that strip when I was younger, and my kids are jealous when I tell them how a new strip came out every morning with the newspaper. There’s one where the boy and his stuffed tiger are sitting on a hillside relaxing, Hobbes the tiger turns and says, “Do you think there’s a God?” Calvin thinks for a moment and responds “Well somebody’s out to get me.” In so many ways as a kid I could relate to Calvin, but on this count I must admit my experiences and my assumptions as a child led me to different conclusions.
When I was a young child I believed that God loved me. Growing up in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, I was nurtured in a community of acceptance and affirmation. At home, despite the chaos caused by alcoholism, there was a gentle undercurrent of universalism – an unwritten base of God’s love throughout it all. At times I was uncertain about life, about myself, about my family, even about God. Yet somehow I was certain that the God I was a little unsure of was a God who loved me.
Over the years my relationship with and belief in God has shifted, faded, resurged, matured, adjusted, and in turns grown overly complicated and blindingly simple. My starting place was one in which I knew myself to be loved by God. As I grew older that surety began to fade and I experienced times of God’s absence. As a teenager I felt my own angst and depression to be more real than any competing reality including the reality of God’s love; though I occasionally still offered myself as one who believed in God … provide I could include caveats and footnotes with such a confession. In college I passed as an intellectual atheist because that was the clever attitude to hold. But I was never a committed atheist. Later as a young adult with a young family, while still in college, I began to wind my way back toward God, to turn my face again toward the depth of mystery and that early feeling of being loved by God.
One of the great attributes of a Unitarian Universalist congregation is the breadth of theological diversity and the freedom for each individual to follow their distinct path. Many people in our Unitarian Universalist congregations work to develop a theology that makes sense and is honest with the experiences they have had. Whether or not you believe in a God with a physical form or a personal nature, whether or not you believe in a transcendent creator God or an imminent Goddess, whether you call on the multiple names of the Gods and Goddesses or respectfully refuse all names, whether you believe in a Great Spirit or a series of underlying principles that comprise Ultimate Reality, you are welcome here and you are loved and you are encouraged to nourish your spirit and walk your path.
I do not often offer sermons that witness strongly to my own theological stance in terms of God. Religious belief is a matter of conscience and cannot be coerced. I usually direct my words on Sunday morning toward life and how to live well, striving to keep my words open that each hearer may find therein sustenance for whichever path they walk. I have no wish to preach at people or convert anyone to my way of seeing the world. Indeed, I do not think it would be advantageous for you to see the world or to understand God as I do. I would rather you see the world and understand God as you do. Still, this morning I will offer my own understanding as an example for your consideration and encouragement. Let me tell you about the God I love and whose love sustains and transforms me.
Strictly speaking, my understanding of God’s love is paradoxical and contradictory when considered from the perspective of logic. The God I love, the God I believe in is not an anthropomorphic deity. I am not a theist in the sense that a theist is one who believes in a personal god with whom one can have a personal relationship. I do not believe in a personal God. And yet, I have a relationship with God. Perhaps if I share with you my caveats and footnotes, it will become clear. Perhaps not.
Partly how it all works for me is that I do not begin with the idea of God and then fit my life and my experiences around the idea. It seems to me that many people do exactly that, including many Unitarian Universalists with whom I have talked. A significant number of Unitarian Universalists were raised in another tradition and were given an image and idea of God. If we begin with the image or idea of God supplied to us by someone else, our choices are to accept it or reject it. An alternative is to begin, not with a pre-established notion of God, but with our own experiences of the holy. This is critically important and lies at the heart of our Unitarian Universalism tradition. Start with your personal experiences and work what interpretations and reinterpretations you may. Don’t start with ideas and images of God. Start instead with the experiences you have of mystery and the holy. At times I still catch myself starting with an idea of God and shaping my understanding around the idea, but when possible I begin again with my experiences of the Holy.
I have had, over the course of my life, several experiences that can be classified as religious or spiritual experiences. For me they seem to fall into two types. One is the sort of experience in which I feel a presence both loving and holy. The second sort of experience has been sometimes called an “oceanic” experience, in which I’ve felt swept up in the unity of existence. For years I kept these two sorts of experiences categorized as two strictly different things. I interpreted the feeling of a loving and holy presence as the presence of God. I interpreted the experience of universal oneness as a guide to understanding how I fit into the interconnected whole of the universe. Over the past several years I have begun to name this second type of experience, the deep interconnectedness of our universe, as God – as the Ultimate Reality.
Let me take a moment with that particular phrase: Ultimate Reality. Think for a moment about everything, about the whole compass of reality. Theologian and existentialist Paul Tillich used phrases like “Ultimate Reality” in place of the word “God.” In so doing, Tillich is trying to stretch himself and others beyond preconceived ideas of God by digging back into what the idea of God is meant to symbolize.
Early in the first volume of his Systematic Theology, Tillich writes, “God is the answer to the question implied in man’s finitude; he is the name for that which concerns man ultimately.” (Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, 1973, p 211) One of the ways Tillich is remembered as a liberal theologian is in his efforts to pull the concept of God away from the notion of Divinity as a personality and help people conceive of God as a power, a force. The phrases “Ground of Being,” “Ultimate Concern,” and “Ultimate Reality” are classic Tillich trying to name God without the word “God.” God is the symbol for that which concerns us ultimately.
Tillich goes on to say,
This does not mean that first there is a being called God and then the demand that man should be ultimately concerned about him. It means that whatever concerns a man ultimately becomes god for him, and, conversely, it means that a man can be concerned ultimately only about that which is god for him. (Ibid, p 211)
This reminds me of the passage from Emerson we read earlier together. “A person will worship something – have no doubt about that. …That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives.” (from Singing the Living Tradition Hymnal, #563) That which concerns us ultimately will determine our lives. Therefore, be wise in your choice of what concerns you ultimately.
But there is another piece of what Tillich said in that paragraph earlier that I want to look at again because it surprised me when I first read it. He wrote, “This does not mean that first there is a being called God and then the demand that man should be ultimately concerned about him.” In other words, this liberal theologian is saying, don’t start with an idea of God and then fix your experiences and your worship and your ultimate concerns around this pre-existing idea. It doesn’t start with God. Instead, look at your life, listen to your heart, heed your conscience and your inner knowing. Find what matters most to you, uncover the yearning for meaning, the anxiousness around your mortality, the passion for living that will occasionally grasp you, and there you will uncover the root of God.
We’re not talking about a being, a person or creature that looks a little like you and me, maybe with a beard and a thunderbolt. No. God is a symbol, a deep metaphor for the source of your living, for that which holds all, for the whole of which you are a part. I speak broadly and perhaps a little vaguely. But the trouble with God really began when people stopped describing God as a great symbol of faith and began to instead speak of God as a literal character in literal stories. Cast away all literal interpretations of the nature of God. They are illogical and irrational. Seek instead to source of your living; seek the whole of which you are a part. You do not need to then name it God, though many do.
We all live with the understanding that there is something greater than our individual lives at work. The whole of the universe is not simply material reality of time and space; there is also a quality of experience which we have in our living. There is a network of connections in which “we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) Apostle Paul uses that exact phrase to speak of the God of Christianity in whom we live and move and have our being. But Paul says he is echoing an earlier Athenian poet who said much the same thing, though it would likely have referenced a pantheist understanding of the known world, which is closer to, (though still not quite,) what I am talking about. God is the quality of experience we find in the network of connections in which we live, move and have our being.
God is a reality more akin to beauty that to literal fact. Beauty does not exist outside of our subjective perception of it. We name beauty as a quality of experience as we sense the light falling in a particular way across the texture and color of the world or the face of one we love. These things are not beauty, they have beauty. Beauty is our name for a particular quality of experience. Similarly, there is a depth quality to living for which I use the name God.
The video clip I played this morning (“We Are All Connected” by Symphony of Science) begins with this sentence spoken by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, “We are all connected; to each other biological, to the earth chemically, to the rest of the universe atomically.” I would add that divinity is the quality of experience found in these connections. Theology and science each show us truth. Science is ever searching for greater understanding of reality and religion ever striving to speak of the quality of experience felt, of the Ultimate Reality within the whole of reality.
And so, when I feel a calming and loving presence sitting with me while I am praying in a chapel during a tumultuous time in my life; when I stare meditatively at a stone on a quiet afternoon outdoors and tap into the feeling of both atoms and swirling galaxies as other aspects of myself, when I sit on the dock beside a mountain lake while a blue heron sweeps within inches of me and I catch the hint of kinship between us, when I feel the joyous energy of a common moment at home, I gather these moments around me like lifelines taping the deep wellspring of my life. And I find in these experiences a quality that I name God.
Perhaps you use another word. Or perhaps the word God symbolizes other meanings and qualities for you. Or perhaps your experiences have led you to other assumptions and interpretations. Look at your life, listen to your heart, heed your conscience and your inner knowing. Find what matters most to you, uncover the yearning for meaning, the anxiousness around your mortality, the passion for living that will occasionally grasp you, and there you will uncover the root of God.
In a world without end
May it be so.