How to Believe in God… Or Not

I have a couple of readings to set the tone for what I’ll be sharing this morning. The first comes from a book by the late Dr. Huston Smith titled Why Religion Matters:

“There is within us—even in the blithest, most lighthearted among us—a fundamental disease. It acts like an unquenchable fire that renders the vast majority of us incapable in this life of ever coming to full peace. The desire lives in the marrow of our bones, and the deep regions of our souls. All great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, and religion try to name or analyze this longing. We are seldom in direct touch with it, and indeed the modern world seems set on preventing us from getting in touch with it…But the longing is there, built into us like a jack-in-the-box that presses for release.”

The second one is from John Updike’s Rabbit Run:

“Well, I don’t know about all this theology, but I’ll tell you, I do feel, I guess, that somewhere behind all this…he (Harry Angstrom) gestures outward at the scenery; they are passing the housing development this side of the golf course, half-wood, half-brick, one-and-a-half stories in flat bulldozed yards holding tricycles and spindly three-year-old trees, the un-grandest landscape in the world—there’s something that wants me to find it.”

We’ll get back to Smith and Updike a bit later.

One of the rewarding, and at the same time sobering, aspects of being in the ministry is the entrée you are sometimes granted into the deeper regions of human lives.

One such entrée granted me, many years ago now, was a conversation with a young man in his mid-thirties who was enraged at God. I’ll call him Charles. He had no ties to the church I was serving, and we’d never met until he came in for the appointment he’d scheduled. Someone had suggested he talk with a UU minister about the dilemma he was facing, and he found me.

Charles had spent a couple of years caring, on a round-the-clock basis, for his very ill mother who was slowly dying from a debilitating disease of the nervous system. To help make expenses meet (since Charles had to give up his job to care for his mother), and pay the medical bills that the insurance didn’t cover, his elderly and retired father took on extra jobs. Now his mother is dead, his father is exhausted, and Charles is angry; angry at a God in whom he sincerely believes.

Charles is also a recovering alcoholic. God is his Higher Power, and as Charles sees it, had been keeping him sober even through the most difficult and devastating period of his life. But when I broach the idea of letting go of the idea of a God who could cause his mother to suffer and die, it doesn’t work. To go that route, as Charles sees it, would also mean losing the Higher Power God that is keeping him sober; and neither he, nor I, want him falling off the wagon.

I admit there is a certain logic to his thinking. Charles has put God in charge of his life, and God is keeping him sober. Well, then, he asks, isn’t the God who is in charge of my life also in charge of the life my mother had until recently? It’s the same God isn’t it? How am I supposed to hate the God that’s keeping me clean and sober? But the hatred is there; and Charles’ anger at God, coupled with his need for God, is tearing him apart.

I’m hesitant to turn Charles into a “type” because his specific situation was hardly what one would call typical. But his predicament, in a much broader sense, and in a way that transcends the tragedy and frustration and anger he’s feeling, typifies, I feel, the modern predicament when it comes to belief. That predicament, simply put, is wanting—or needing—to believe in a God that is not always believable.

What I don’t say in this conversation, because the time does not feel right for it, is that the problem here is not with God as such, but with Charles’ way of believing in God. Unfortunately, we did not get to have that conversation because after another visit or two, Charles ended our brief encounter. I do not know how he resolved his dilemma, or if he did. I can only hope he did come to some measure of peace and find some spiritual comfort.

What I want to share with you this morning is the conversation I would have liked to have had with Charles, had we continued. Beyond Charles, it’s the conversation I like to have with anyone who for any number of reasons is trying to make some sense out of any idea of God; as, I will admit, I’ve been doing for much of my life with greater and lesser degrees of success.

An opening question is: What does “belief in God” even mean? Is it belief in a Supreme Being who oversees and can intervene in the workings of nature and human affairs? Is it the Someone, with a capital ‘S’ who is in charge of everything, and whose interventions we can seek through prayer? Is this a God who, in the soothing words my father used to sing to me when I was a child, “Walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am His own”? A lot of belief in God does stem from a real human need—the need to feel that someone—again with a Capital ‘S’—is in charge. And it can be very comforting to have a Capital ‘S’ Someone who know us and cares about us and keeps us sober if need be. “His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me” as another soothing song I heard from my youthful days put it.

But a God who can act in purposeful ways and cause things to happen can also create problems. He or She or It (take your pick) can become a God we have to rationalize about when a tragedy strikes, or when some of life’s injustices or terrible cruelties come our way. But that’s not God, the traditional theist says, God is the one who gives us the strength to deal with such adversities. But sometimes these kinds of rationalizations—which are, in a sense “apologies for God”—just plain give out. The reason Charles came to see me was because he couldn’t do that kind of rationalizing anymore; he could not hold the two together anymore: The two being the God who was keeping him sober, and the God who caused his mother to die. For him they were one and the same.

But God does not cause tragedy and cruelty and horrible losses one may protest—and I absolutely agree. I agree because I don’t believe in a Supreme Being who “causes” anything—good, bad, or indifferent. I’m willing to believe that more people become atheists over this idea that God “causes things” than for any other reason. So, on this voyage of faith and belief and doubt that I embark us on, the first thing that gets tossed overboard is a God who causes things. And the second thing getting tossed over is a Supreme Being with any kind of a will or intent.

The God I’m tossing over is the God that Richard Dawkins takes on, and sets about debunking, in his book The God Delusion. He says so, right in the first chapter where he posits what he calls “the God Hypothesis” which he sets forth as “a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.” He goes on, “God, in this sense defined, is a delusion.” From there Dawkins goes on for nearly 400 pages explaining why the God he has so defined is a delusion.

Ironic as it sounds, I found Dawkins book to be of very limited value in my own journey of faith and spirit because I agreed with practically all of it. I will say that if you feel the God Hypotheses that Dawkins sets forth is a delusion, and you want to have that belief reinforced in nearly every possible way, then by all means read the book. For me, it came up way short.

What Dawkins does offer, however inadvertently, is a beginning place rather than an end. The beginning point is, in fact, atheism. By atheism I mean the rejection of traditional theism, the belief in a Supreme Being who has a will and an intent. Traditional theism is the “or not” part of the title of this sermon. But “or not” is the beginning of a trip and not (not necessarily anyway) the final destination.

A question some of you may be raising at this point is: Is this trip necessary? Sure, you may say, I can sympathize with the plight of the young man you’ve described. I’d be angry too if I were in his situation—but not at God. I’d just be mad because life had dealt me a lousy hand. And indeed, this is how I’ve felt when I’ve found myself in trying and painful situations.

But behind Charles’ immediate and painful situation is, I feel, this longing that Dr. Huston Smith describes in the passage I read earlier. Dr. Smith’s book, Why Religion Matters, came out many years prior to Dawkins’ God Delusion, but Smith actually picks up where Dawkins leaves off. What Smith points to in his passage is a longing to find some greater depth in our living; some greater purpose beyond the rubrics of our day to day demands.

As he writes: “All great literature, poetry, art, music, philosophy, and religious tries to name and analyze this longing.” When Dr. Smith calls this longing a “disease”, by the way, he is not referring to a physical ailment or a mental illness. He is using the term in its most literal sense: “dis—ease,” that is to say, an underlying uneasiness that maybe we’re missing something with respect to what life and living could be.

The longing Smith describes is one that John Updike locates in the fictional Harry Angstrom. Rabbit Run was the first of four “Rabbit” novels Updike would write. Mr. Updike gives his central character in his four “Rabbit” novels, a name drawn from the German word angst, which is a kind of yearning without quite knowing what one is yearning for. Harry Angstrom expresses the dis-ease Smith identifies in a conversation he has with an Episcopal minister, which the non-churchgoer Harry has befriended, as the two head off for a round of golf: “Well, I don’t know about all this theology…But I guess I feel that somewhere behind all this there’s something that wants me to find it.”

Note that the operative word in Smith’s rather academic language, as well as in Updike’s Rabbit Run, is a simple “It.” “Something wants me to find it.” “We are seldom in touch with it.” The longing that Smith describes, and that Updike gives Harry Angstrom, is what has drawn persons to religion and to the search for God over the course of human history. Even for those who disavow any concept of, or relationship with, someone or something called God, the IT still has a way of hanging around.

The reason for this, as I see it, is a basic fact of human evolution. We are the species on this planet whose minds have evolved to the point where we can question the very meaning of our existence. My wife and I have two fine dogs. As best I can tell they do not go around thinking about what it means to be a dog in this vast and mysterious universe—they just go about being dogs. That is all they have to do—be dogs.

We human beings, on the other hand, are not content to just be—that’s the dis-ease Smith writes about it. We want, need, and in fact demand, some greater reason for our existence—the “IT” however defined or understood. We are a mortal, time-bound, earthly species—just like every other species on this planet is—but a species, nonetheless, whose minds have evolved to the point that we ask ultimate questions. And for some the answer to our ultimate questions is a God of one kind or another. And debunking a particular notion of God—as Dawkins does—does not get rid of the questions themselves.

My pursuit of ultimate questions has gone from the evangelical Christian church of my upbringing to what are by now my waning years in the Unitarian Universalist ministry. I’ve come to a stance—the term for which I know I’ve used before—of “pan-entheism.” For me it’s a “third way”; neither traditional theism nor atheism. It should not be confused with pantheism which holds that all of material reality is a manifestation of God. I could never quite go with that. If everything is God, then the term “God” itself is meaningless since there’s no way to distinguish it from anything else. Pan-entheism is not really a definition of God as it is a way of looking at, experiencing, and relating to, life. It is a particular way of encountering the world in which we live. It holds that there is something of a sacred and the holy contained within the ordinary or every day; and if we can stay open to it, that sacredness on occasion can break through.

I have long lost interest in trying to come up with an intellectually defensible definition I can put after the word G-O-D. What I am more concerned about, and focused on, at this point in my life is how do I continue to walk through life and really see and experience it. In the concluding act of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town the character Emily Gibbs asked from her deceased state, as she looks back at her life in Grover’s Corners: “Don’t people ever realize life while they live it? All of it?”

This, indeed is the challenge of faith as I have come to see it: To realize life as we live it; to believe that within this seemingly mundane world there is an element of the holy that on occasion breaks through and blesses us and lets us know that life is worth the journey. While I tread pretty lightly with my use of the term “God,” from the perspective just stated I regard God as that Presence—that Sacred and Holy Presence—contained within the ordinary and even in the sometimes terribly broken pieces of life.

So, I use terms like “sacred” and “holy” to identify a Presence or a Power which I feel I can on occasion access and experience as they are found in the world of people and events and nature that surrounds and enfolds us. If pressed to give a definition of such terms I find I cannot fully do that. But then I cannot give a precise definition for such things as beauty or peace or love either, yet I still believe in these things and believe in them deeply.

And when I find myself in especially painful or challenging or inexplicitly terrible situations I do not look to an external Supreme Being God to whom I can turn for answers or ask for a way out of. Instead, when I can get to the right frame of mind and spirit in the midst of times of trial, I ask myself: Where might I still find the Holy in this most un-holy of circumstances? Where might I still find the Sacred in the midst of all that is denying the Sacred? I that my wrestling with these questions sustains me as much as any answers I may find.

I’ll end with this for today: In one of the conversations between Bill Moyers and the late Joseph Campbell on the television series The Power of Myth, as it first aired some 30 years ago, Mr. Moyers asked Dr. Campbell why should anyone care about mythology and all the layers of insight and meaning that he—as a mythology expert—found in them. Campbell replied that, sure, one could live a perfectly good and full life without giving two hoots about mythology. But he went on to say that for some folk, learning of the power of myth offered an outlook and offered a way of deepening their lives that they might not otherwise have and know.

We now move into a Season where the stories and myths and symbols that have been brought forth over the centuries come to the fore once again. One of those stories, myths, and symbols has to do with the birth of a child to poor peasant parents under very trying and near desperate circumstances. I’ll pick up on this topic next Sunday. But as it relates to our topic for today I’ll say here that one of the things I see in this mythical story is how the sacred and the holy can manifest themselves in the most unlikely of places—even as they can show up in some of the most unlikely of places in the lives we each and all live. Catch you next Sunday for more on this idea.

“When we share the silence of a sacred space,
And the God of our hearts stirs within,
And we feel the power of each other’s faith,
Then our heart is in a holy place.”

These words are found in our closing hymn. Let’s sing them together.

Stephen Edington
December 3, 2017

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