[BLOG] Sorry, We’re Not Done With God Yet
Anyone that has ever stepped in to a Unitarian Universalist church and spent some time there will know the age old debate: The Humanists vs. The Theists. It’s the most anti-climactic battle of philosophies and one I’ve found few people truly want to engage. Keep in mind that many “un-churched” and millenial folks find the whole debate to be baffling in the first place. But it’s a discussion, an argument, a heated exchange that I am familiar with as a minister. I remember I once responded to the question “What do I wish someone told me before I entered seminary?” with “Trust in God.” A fellow seminarian chimed in: “If anyone had told me that I would’ve thought I mistakenly went to a Christian seminary.” I almost feel like that little exchange there highlights the problem and nothing else needs to be said.
It is true that most Unitarian Universalists do not affirm a traditional “God” figure. Whether or not they use the word itself is another discussion for another day. The short answer is that our use of religious language is all over the map — and that’s a good thing. But for many Unitarian Universalists, such as myself, the image of God as a wholly benevolent, almighty, loving, and ever-present being that rules the Universe simply does not compute. Where we go from that viewpoint is truly up to the person: agnostic, atheist, naturalist, humanist, choose your label and there are many. However, there is one aspect of this discussion that frustrates me. Often times it feels that we are “beyond God” in the life of our congregations. I find this to be so completely misguided.
Now I’m not going to force us to have the discussion around God as a symbol and what that means. I don’t find it particularly useful to dissect the various meanings of the word for people that are not theist but still find the word helpful. What would happen is a dissection of my own bias around the word. But what I think is crucial here is to remember that a majority of Americans still affirm a belief in a deity. And for many, that deity is angry, hateful, spiteful, homophobic, sexist, racist, jingoist, murderous, jealous, blood atoning, and petty. People live with a deeply rooted fear of their God and of the punishments outlined in their holy books or from the mouths of preachers. There is a swath of faithful people that hold on to that faith in fear, not joy.
It is important to remember this. It is important to recognize that Unitarian Universalists live in great luxury: Should a UU believe in a God or gods/goddesses, they are most certainly not vengeful, and we have no fear of hell or eternal punishment. Our Universalist tradition ensures this. The Universalists of old looked to the scriptures and found only love and reconciliation — not damnation. We often forget that piece of history in our introductory courses for newcomers. But it is important to recognize that in traditional Universalism, there was never a world in which someone was damned.
That should remain true to our faith today, with or without a formal belief in God. Hell should not be something we fear. Angry spirits and deities are not an option. Being faithful should be joyous and life-giving. Surely some people are nodding and going “yes yes, I get it, I know this.” So why aren’t we done with God?
I would contend that so long as there is a world where people live in fear of hellfire and brimstone, live in fear of their God, and find their worth and dignity diminished by their faith — God still matters. It is dismissive and privileged to write off someone’s dearly held belief as “hocus pocus” but it is something else to share with them the joy we (hopefully) have in our faith. The world needs that Universalist message. It needs to know that hell is not an option, it needs to know that if they come to believe in a God — it should be rooted in mystery, wonder, awe, and spiritual nourishment. There are far too many challenges in the world, why should faith be just another one?
Often people come to Unitarian Universalism seeking spiritual refuge. This is all well and good. We should continue to do this for people in need of healing. But I want it to be crystal clear that it is not just up to UUs to share different ideas about God, but it is up to all people who claim to understand a God that is loving and all-embracing.
As someone that does not believe in the God of theism, I feel just as obligated to share the message of Unitarian Universalism — and liberal religion in general — with people that live in fear. The opportunity to not believe and still appreciate and love the beliefs of others, as different as they may be, is something I want all people to have.
We are not done with God because there are still people whose dignity and worth are at stake. The fires of hell still need to be put out, the angry gods of fundamentalism still need to be quietened, and the world still needs hope. The old debates can continue but it doesn’t mean we are isolated from the realities people are still living. God is a thing…at least for now. What can we do to invite people to no longer be in fear?