Our Theology, Part 1: Atheism is Always Right, Always Wrong

A sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove
January 21, 2001

READING for two voices (adapted from Walter Royal Jones, First Days Record, 11/00):

In What Do We Trust?

In What Do We Trust? Deep-rooted convention would reply:
"In God We Trust."
But when people ask:
"Do you believe in God?"
They usually mean:
"Do you believe in MY God?"
If we are truthful, as often as not, the only candid reply must be, "Probably not."
Whatever "God" may or may not be, our human conjectures are only that: conjectures. "In What Do We Trust?" Here’s a clue:
In early Hebrew text, the holy Name was rendered JHVH, without vowels, and it would not be spoken out loud, a posture o fhumility before the inexpressible Mystery. JHVH also appears to derive from the verb TO BE.
So the mystery of God (whatever the name) seems inseparable from the mysterious IS-ness of Being.
Perhaps, then, know it or not, our deepest trust lies in the inexplicable but indisputable fact that we are here…
…in a universe which contains us in the very moment we are imaging it.
So the atheist is always right: the gods are creatures of our imaging. No matter how strenuously we strive to capture the inexpressible, mystery bursts free of the net.
And yet, in a paradoxical way, the atheist is also always wrong. The inexpressible has escaped; but it has not disappeared. The mystery of being remains.
And in the deep-breathing mystery: —not merely emptiness [inhale]…
…but fullness [exhale];
—not merely death…
…but life;
—not merely noise…
…but tranquility;
—not merely silence…
…but a song;
—not merely unknowing…
…but awareness;
—not merely indifference…
…but caring;
—not merely fear…
…but courage;
—not merely failure…
…but accomplishment;
—not merely fault…
…but forgiveness;
—not merely pain…
…but ecstasy;
—not merely selfhood…
…but companionship;
—not merely rivalry…
…but helpfulness;
—not merely the blood-stained jungle of tooth and claw…
…but the City of Love where children walk safely…
…and no one need fear the moment a back is turned.

In what do we trust?
In the mystery which holds these possibilities, for which our tangible lives stand witness.
In what do we trust?
In the inner dialogue of choosing which set of possibilities to serve: those that build or those that destroy.
In what do we trust?
In what Howard Thurman once called "The Sound of the Authentic:"
…the call to care for one another and for our many companions here on this Earth;
We trust in the rightness of honoring those who have made choices like this before us;
And in the grace of blessing those yet to come.

o o o o o

HYMN #194: Faith is a Forest

o o o o o

Our Theology, Part 1: Atheism is Always Right, Always Wrong
— Jaco B. ten Hove @ PBUUC, 1/21/01 —

Personally, I…

You probably begin some sentences that way, don’t you?—"Personally, I…"
Like when you want to announce that you’re about to speak only for yourself, often distancing yourself from an earlier statement or position. As in: "Personally, I think you’re way off the mark here." Or, "Personally, I prefer butterscotch topping on my ice cream."

Well, that’s what this two-part sermon series is about for us: the theology of butterscotch topping. No, actually, it’ll be me today and Barbara [Wells, co-minister] in two weeks, each speaking personally about our current understandings of some big religious issues, often gathered under the heading of Theology. She and I are not collaborating at all on these statements; they really are our individual perspectives, which have some commonality but plenty of divergence, too. We have to speak for ourselves because that’s what Unitarian Universalists do—must do, really.

This inclusive religion of ours doesn’t present dogma that all members must agree to, although it’s also not unusual for UUs to occasionally be described as dogmatic, in their own lovely ways. But generally, as a group, we prefer to flavor our philosophical ice cream with all kinds of toppings. Some are yummy to us but make others cringe. Some we can’t stomach but others rave about.

And then there are the UUs who put outrageous stuff on their ice cream, maybe just to have some fun, or perhaps to get a rise out of their fellow diners. Ever had oatmeal on your ice cream, or vice versa?

Preaching to this kind of a choir brings with it some curious and, I think, stimulating challenges. As UUs, we recognize religious authority only as it feels coherent to us individually, which means collectively we have to be open-minded about the spectrum of understandings that co-mingle under our UU banner. And we have to be articulate about what we believe, because we can’t point at a belief statement or creed that does that work for us.

This makes for some demanding but fertile ground. Yes, our UU faith is a forest—and ideally a rich, diverse, healthy forest, full of mutually supportive Variety, although of course if we carry this metaphor too far, we have to notice that some parts of the forest eat other parts of it, with or without toppings. Such is the drama of community evolution.

So in UUism we learn to thrive amid the dynamics of a religion in which everyone can only speak personally about theology. One way ministers deal with this is by occasionally stepping out on that limb—in the forest, remember—where we express some of what our current credo looks like.

"Credo" is Latin for "I believe," and I say "current credo" because it just wouldn’t do to etch one is stone for all time. No, we grow until we die, and while, indeed, portions of our belief system are always with us like roots, other perspectives and understandings of the universe grow and change with us, like bark and branches—unless, of course, we die inside before we are physically dead, but that is another sermon.

So, with the sustenance of this metaphorical forest, let me now start over and get into the gist of my credo.

Personally, I don’t relish the label of "atheist," but I can’t fully reject it, either. I have some harsh associations with atheism and other atheists, who can sometimes bring a kind of dogmatism to their stance that doesn’t feel familiar or coherent to me. And I’m not comfortable being lumped in with those who trumpet their atheism with smug superiority. That can be a stance that attempts to bring with it more flavor than it deserves.

I do agree with the founder of American Atheists, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, that "nothing exists but natural phenomena. There are no supernatural forces or entities, nor can there be any. Nature simply exists." But I part company with her when she also advocates an Atheistic Materialism that declares us humans to be "capable of mastering the forces of nature and making them serve (us)." That kind of hubris I don’t appreciate.

So I tend not to use the label of atheist when self-describing. I dislike labels in general. But today I’ve taken on the challenge of articulating the kind of atheism that I might be able to flaunt, were I so inclined. Climb on out with me onto this limb here…

…where the view initially looks very familiar to UUs, because it includes a lot of negations. "I reject this; I deny that; I’m not comfortable with such-and-such; I don’t use this-or-that," etc. The name Atheism is itself a negation. The Greek prefix "a–" means "without."

We can really be a bunch of deniers, can’t we. Many of you, I suspect, of all theological stripe, have had to say a pretty substantial "no" to some other religious path in order to get to where you are today, so it may be an important piece of your personal spiritual history, to reject certain ideas and religious philosophies. And that’s okay—necessary, even. But if your path stops there and rests upon negation, without constructing new associations that sparkle, then you might slip into dullness and even cynicism.

I think it’s much easier to critically point out what we don’t want to be a part of, than to articulate what we do feel good about, what we are faithful to, what is positively meaningful to us. That’s why Barbara and I were moved a few years ago to create the workshop she’ll be leading here again soon, called "Articulating (Y)OUR Faith," the middle word of which attempts to combine OUR and YOUR, making (Y)OUR [pronounced to rhyme with "hour"]. This semantic gymnastic makes the point that YOUR faith may or may not be OUR faith, but the two are in considerable relationship, and getting better at expressing it all is a worthy challenge.

I should note that I will not in this sermon be treating the related subject of agnosticism, which alleges a basic inability to know about God one way or the other. I find that it too easily clouds the issue, which to my mind is "God or no God." To say "Maybe God" just immobilizes me.

I admire folks who can affirm something religious, if it moves them into deeper relationship with the universe. (Superficial or authoritarian declarations, while often very positive and ostentatiously religious, are not what I admire.) The genius and challenge of our inclusive UU culture is to inspire people to find affirmations that work for them personally, and then to co-mingle all the diverse results into a glorious mix!

Unfortunately, atheism often seems satisfied to rest on negation, without affirming much of anything that is positively helpful. Certainly, it has to be true to its name and deny the existence of deity, but my main problem with it is that that sometimes gets inflated into a denial of mystery as well. And if anything, my atheism—even as it does deny the conjecture of a theistic image—my atheism is full of the awareness of mystery, which is just a word that, for me, begins to express the inexpressible.

And I don’t reject the notion that there is more to the universe than what meets my eye, or satisfies my left brain, or fits into a wordy definition. In fact, if I’m convinced of anything, it’s that there is a magnificent largeness to life that reaches beyond what I will ever be able to see, conceive of, or certainly explain. Hardcore atheists probably consider this fuzzy thinking, and if they won’t admit me into their club, well, fine; so be it. I just don’t think atheism and mystery are mutually exclusive.

I accept this ineffable dimension of my personal theology—and I do still use that word, "theology," to mean one’s understanding of the universe, whether or not there is a god figure in it. This larger dimension of cosmic life urges me to recognize that, as Roy Jones put it in our reading earlier, the atheist is always right and always wrong. Yes, there is only a natural universe operating around and within us, and no human imagination has the correct and complete description of its fundamental mystery. Declaring the absence of any god-force is within reason; denying the mystery is not.

I respect this Mystery, but find in myself no great need to categorize it or ascribe to it more power than it already has. I am curious about it, of course, but have no wish to name it further, let alone give it human qualities, let alone petition it for my own benefit. I don’t "believe" in it; it simply is, undeniably. I find no inclination to be overly humble before the Mystery, beyond a natural degree of awe that is woven into all our psyches.

—not merely emptiness [inhale] …but fullness [exhale];
—not merely silence… …but a song;
—not merely fear… …but courage…

Have you ever been asked if you "pray"? If so, you might have begun your answer with, "Personally, I…"—because if you do, it may not look like conventional prayer. It probably would not look like the two prayers that opened and closed the Inauguration ceremony yesterday. Both of those prayers were broadcast to a huge, multi-religious audience, but they each invoked a distinctly narrow Christian God, and seemed designed to at least exclude if not offend good people of all other religions or of no religion. (—Not merely audacity… but arrogance.)

About hundred years ago, a New York newspaper interview with our Unitarian ancestor, Susan B. Anthony, included her response to the question, "Do you pray?" "I pray every single second of my life," replied Susan B.; "not on my knees, but with my work. My prayer is to lift women to equality with men. Work and worship are one with me. I can not imagine a God of the universe made happy by my getting down on my knees and calling him ‘great.’"

Susan B. Anthony was a courageous leader on many fronts and set an inspirational example for many of us. One posture of hers that doesn’t usually get much attention, however, is her atheistic leaning, shared to a certain degree by her compatriot Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It was a dangerous posture—for anyone in that era, perhaps especially women—and Susan B. did not wish to emphasize it. Even so, as the suffrage struggle unfolded, it included a wide range of positions, which sometimes made for uncomfortable confrontation.

When Stanton wrote a critical commentary upon the chapters of the Bible that directly refer to women [The Women's Bible], in the Preface she made this statement: "...I do not believe that any man ever saw or talked to God, ..."

Immediately upon publication of Stanton’s work, Susan B. Anthony heard of fears that their National American Suffrage Association would be injured by her friend’s writing, so much so that official action was quickly demanded. So the committee on resolutions proposed a formal response which denounced any connection between Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s commentary and the Suffrage Association. Susan B. Anthony rose to speak to this issue with these words, inspirational ones to me, which I shall quote at some length:

"The one distinct feature of our association has been the right of individual opinion for every member. We have been beset at each step with the cry that somebody was injuring the cause by the expression of sentiments which differed from those held by the majority. The religious persecution of the ages has been carried on under what was claimed to be the command of God. I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires. All along the history of our movement there has been this same contest on account of religious theories.…

"What you should say to outsiders is that a Christian has neither more nor less rights in our association than an atheist. When our platform becomes too narrow for people of all creeds and of no creeds, I myself can not stand upon it. Many things have been said and done by our orthodox friends which I have felt to be extremely harmful to our cause; but I should no more consent to a resolution denouncing them than I shall consent to this. Who is to draw the line?"

The final vote was 53–41 in favor of the resolution against Stanton’s commentary. Anthony called it "this miserable, narrow action." In a message to a friend she remarked further: "I don't know what better one could expect when our ranks are now so filled with young women not yet out of bondage to the idea of the infallibility of that book," meaning, of course, the Bible.

********************

BONUS SECTION, Some Additional Relevant History
(edited out of the delivered sermon):

Despite Susan B. Anthony’s encouragement to be even-handed and inclusive, Unitarian and Universalist have always shown tendencies to focus on negation and exclusion, on all portions of the theological spectrum. It may just be part of our long struggle toward achieving the universality of our name. An understanding of this evolution is an important part of my own sense of heritage, so bear with me for another short side-trip deep into our American background. I’ll now illuminate a figure who cut quite a swath in his day, but like many unorthodox thinkers, is virtually unknown to us.

In the first half of the 19th century, Baptist-turned-Universalist minister, Abner Kneeland, was rejecting orthodox positions in radical fashion. For instance, in 1830 he declared:

… I could very well dispense with the term [god]; for truly, I can attach no other idea to it than that of a creation of the imagination.

Three years later he was to begin an ordeal that made him the last victim ever formally tried for Blasphemy in Massachusetts. A series of published writings— all fierce rejections of traditional Christian beliefs—garnered him quite a bit of adverse attention. One by one, he explained his rejection of: the virgin birth, prayer, god, Christ, miracles, and resurrection—no small list of minor doctrinal issues.

It wasn’t long before Kneeland was indicted, arrested and brought to trial to the Municipal Court of Boston, based on a state law, passed 51 years earlier, called "An Act against Blasphemy."

And remember that Abner Kneeland was speaking out in a time just prior to and then during the more famous and mostly more polite Transcendentalist challenges that have forged so much of our impression of the era. Kneeland was vociferous in his denunciations of Christian doctrine and he ended up in jail for his trouble. One passage of his "contained a quotation from Voltaire so indelicate that four successive judges protected four different juries from the embarrassment of listening to it."

However, his incarceration aroused considerable protest. Supporters invoked Puritan intolerance to vilify the judges and the law, but to no avail. A petition for pardon was drawn up by no less a person than William Ellery Channing, the well known father of American Unitarianism. It was signed by William Lloyd Garrison, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and about 170 other prominent persons and ministers, but it too had no effect.

In 1838, Abner Kneeland was released from jail after serving a relatively short sentence for the crime of expressing frankly his religious beliefs. It was the last trial for blasphemy in Massachusetts, although the state legislature did reaffirm the validity of the law just 20 years ago.

********************

Moving to a more recent and personal history now, I was raised UU in a very humanist congregation, and I’m as likely as anyone to fall into the trap of reliance upon negation. But the minister of my home congregation, in Ridgewood, NJ, who served there for 22 years beginning when I was 13 years old, was Kenneth Patton, a prolific writer of uplifting humanist prose and lyrics. His poetic statements often perform the acrobatic feat of being both grounded in a staunch realism and soaring into an appreciation for the natural world that borders on mysticism.

Ken Patton could easily be considered one of the most influential humanists of the 20th century, and I was touched formatively by him. Even though his gruff exterior personality left me cold, the inner fire which animated his musical renderings of the universe burned an indelible mark on my soul.

Grab a hymnal now and join me in giving voice to just one of the many written legacies he has left, Responsive Reading #437, called Let Us Worship. See for yourself, in this piece of tactile prose, how he captures what is most humanly meaningful and even draws on the notion of worship, yet refers not to anything beyond life’s own IS-ness.………

Another common inquiry made of UUs (often together with "Do you pray?") is "What do you worship?" and I think this passage is as good a testimonial for me as I have ever seen. We worship "a rising wave too great to be held in the mind and heart and body…[We] worship with the full outstretching of our spirits."

What I learned from the work of Ken Patton was how to be an atheist in loving relationship with what is holy. He showed me how to both honor our intellect and inspire the natural degree of awe that is our human birthright as participants in the cosmic drama.

This is the challenging dance of the atheist, as I see it: to be both rational and open to mystery; to be both intellectual and intuitive; to be steady but not arrogant when right and humble but not diminished when wrong.

When it came time for my mid-life crisis, which, for me, happened in my late 20s, I relied heavily— without even realizing it—on this background as a homebred UU humanist. (I suppose during most personal crises we draw, in one way or another, upon our formative philosophies.)

I had just been squeezed out of my first marriage after my wife had an affair (which shortly thereafter became her second marriage). I was extremely hurt, but not so much so that I couldn’t see the part I had played in the deterioration of our relationship. My emotional wheels were spinning in the mud of this break-up, so I decided to do what I often did in those days: I hit the road, to spin some wheels with tires on them.

And as I drove—solo—many highway miles that summer of 1978, with the pavement flowing by underneath me, I gradually hatched a new approach to my life, one that more adequately included the reality of struggling with pain. (I had been in great denial of anything painful, such as my mother’s death the year before.)

Looking back at this intriguing chapter, I can see that I had indeed integrated the intellectual humanism of my upbringing, so much so that I figured I could rationalize the pain out of anything, and I calmly set about doing just that, over and over again. But I couldn’t see the effect that this was having on my personality, as I became numb to the fullness of life, which—with some regularity—does provide struggle and unpleasantness.

On this path, I had became numb to my primary relationship, too, and had no resources to deal with its decline. I ignored all kinds of signals and buried any pain that came close to the surface.

As the wheels rolled, externally and internally, I stumbled into a new awareness of how the universe works, and how it includes the reality of pain and struggle. Amid all the lights of the highway, one single word flashed on inside me as a guiding beacon which has added layers of meaning for me ever since. It’s a word that I didn’t immediately relate to my UU upbringing, because at that time I was a sadly typical young adult of my generation, without congregational mooring, not active in any UU setting.

But again, in hindsight, I see now how this word and the insights it brought me—still brings me—are directly connected to Ken Patton’s portrayals of the universe. It was all of a piece. The word is Balance. Without launching into another sermon on this rich subject, let me just say that I suddenly became witness to a universe that hinged on balance at every level of existence.

From the way the heavenly bodies relate to each other to the way my own little problems emerged, it was all a function of balance—or in many cases, imbalance. As I cruised along, I realized that I was a microcosm of the whole, connected in kind, in direct parallel to everything else. My life issues, including my body and its processes, could be seen as human momentum that was either in or out of balance, just like what went on among the galaxies, and everything in between.

Anything that felt wrong, anything that was represented by pain and struggle might well be an imbalanced aspect attempting to realign itself. Pain and struggle were natural actors in this art. The universe was always balanced, although one might need to get some larger perspective in order to actually see and grasp the balance in its fullness.

From the moment of this vehicular epiphany onward, I found a new stability in my life, and have never looked back, really. Five years later I was headed to seminary, not without my own lingering self-doubts, mind you, but resting nonetheless in a reassuring awareness of how things worked. My training and further development, however, only made me want to be sure to also include the Mystery, which, I detect, is also always in ultimate balance, even though beyond my grasp.

What there isn’t, for me, is any particular figurehead guiding or creating this balance. It is simply a function of the way the universe works. How this ingenious balance began is a marvelous inquiry that our kind will probably always wonder about. And I can respect the variety of ways people might go about this wondering, and the stories that different cultures might use to depict their interpretations. However, personally, I have trouble, when the inquiry shifts toward authority, when it stops inquiring and starts issuing forth dogma that dictates. That I resist and reject.

Happily, though, there are plenty of diverse affirmations about the universe that make religious dialogue a very stimulating place to be, the need for constant translation notwithstanding. These days there is certainly an ongoing imperative for greater inter-religious understanding and cooperation, and UUs of all theologies can make important contributions to such interaction, at both large and small levels. At international conferences and in your family or workplace, articulation of our affirming values may be challenging task—and risky, even—but it also can model the general impulse to "Think globally and act locally."

As the noted but controversial Catholic theologian, Hans Kung, put it at an international inter-religious conference I attended some years ago, "There will be no peace in the world until there is peace among the religions." What you do, when embedded in any multi-religious context, matters. If you’re atheist, you may be severely tested, but your response to the universe is every bit as valid as anyone else’s.

I often get intriguing insights from my theistic friends, so I welcome and encourage such opportunities. In some ways, interfaith interaction is the best (and most important) game in town. It doesn’t take much foresight for me to predict that this new century will only demand of us even more authentic articulation across religious lines. So bone up, my friends!

While I was in seminary in the 80s, the UU General Assembly adopted a new statement of Principles and Purposes, which is usually shown in part in our Sunday Bulletin and in full early in the hymnal, just past the Preface [page x]. There are the seven principles themselves, including the pillar #7: "respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part," but I want to close by drawing your attention to the first of what we call the "Sources," the second section which follows the seven principles.

"The living tradition we share draws from many sources," it begins, and the first source named is: "Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life…"

Now that’s a positive and inclusive affirmation to my liking! Personally, I love it! It invites theist and atheist alike into relationship with creativity, which is the essence and embodiment of life.

May your spiritual path be a tasty one, with toppings that suit you and fellow travelers to stir you.

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