Our Theology, Part 2: Beyond Theism

A Sermon by Barbara Wells
Paint Branch UU Church
February 4, 2001

Call to Worship
words by Anne Hillman

We look with uncertainty
beyond the old choices for
clear-cut answers to a softer, more permeable aliveness
which is every moment at the brink of death;
for something new is being born in us if we but let it.
We stand at a new doorway, awaiting that which comes. . .
Daring to be human creatures.
Vulnerable to the beauty of existence.
Learning to love.


From City of God, by E.L. Doctorow

Einstein was one physicist who lived quite easily with the concept of a Creator. He had a habit of calling God, "the Old One." That was his name for God, the Old One. He was not a stylish writer, Albert, but he chose his words for their precision. One way or another God is very old. . . Einstein is right about that. And one . . . because God is by definition not only unduplicable and all-encompassing but also without gender. So the phrase is really very exact: the Old One.


The Web of Life, by Robert T. Weston

There is a living web that runs through us to all the universe
Linking us each with each and through all life on to the distant stars.
Each knows their little corner of the world, and lives as if this were all.
We no more see the farther reaches of the threads than we see of the future, yet they're there.
Touch but one thread, no matter which; the thoughtful eye may trace to distant lands its firm continuing strand, yet lose its filaments as they reach out,
but find at last it coming back to the one from whom it led.

We move as in a fog, aware of self but only dimly conscious of the rest as they are close to us in sight or feeling.
New objects loom up for a time, fade in and out;
Then, sometimes, as we look on unawares, the fog lifts
And there's the Web in shimmering beauty, reaching past all horizons.
We catch our breath; stretch out our eager hands, and then in comes the fog again, and we go on, feeling a little foolish, doubting what we had seen.
The hands were right. The Web is real. Our folly is that we so soon forget.



In the spring on 1999, when the search committee of this church asked Jaco and me to consider becoming your co-ministers, we came for our interview week filled with excitement. But, our very first services caused an uproar among some people. To be honest, it wasn't "our" service at all. It was the one that I led, and it was the fact that I used some traditional religious language and prayed that caused the stir.

It was a hard week, and a hard decision to come here knowing that my way of being spiritual in the world was not accepted by a significant group of people here. But, after a lot of conversation and a strongly positive vote, come here we did and we are not the least bit sorry for our choice.

It was important, however, that I face head-on the concerns some of you had. And so, last year, on the first Sunday in January, about six months into our ministry, I chose to preach a sermon that spoke about my theology, and why the words God and prayer carried deep meaning for me. I called it "Wounded Words" and I expect a few of you may remember it.

Following the sermon, there was a lot of lively discussion. Often, during the course of last winter and spring, I would hear people use the phrase "wounded words" when talking about such things as faith and Christianity and Jesus and Easter and God, even words like church or worship.

Clearly, I had touched a chord that made sense to many of you. Some of you spoke of how my sermon helped you listen more closely to words that might be wounded for you so that you could decide whether to reject them or not. Others challenged me to remember that some wounds heal slowly and that I should be more careful in using religious language. And some expressed appreciation that I used words and ideas that they found meaningful but had been afraid to use in this setting.

I found all of this process to be very energizing, even if at times I felt a bit beleaguered. I wanted so much to be able to be authentic in my spiritual life and still serve you well as your co-minister. I was glad that the "Wounded Words" sermon pushed the door open a crack into our acceptance of each other even if it was only a beginning.

Now a year has passed and I stand before you continuing to struggle and grow in my theological understanding. Jaco and I decided, based on some reading and reflection we had both done, that we wanted to talk to you again on a personal level about our faith. Many of you heard him speak about "Atheism: Always Right, Always Wrong" on January 21. Now it is my turn. The questions many of you raised after my "Wounded Words" sermon last year challenged me to dig deep and ask myself some hard questions.

The theological conversation that began around that sermon, continued in my mind for many months. Then, over the summer, Jaco and I went to be theme speakers at a UU weeklong conference that has been a spiritual home for us for over a decade. Eliot Institute takes place on the shores of beautiful Hood Canal, in western Washington State, and our time there has always been full of meaningful experiences. This summer was no different. It was a profoundly moving experience to share our ideas with people who have been with us on our journey for many years. But, it was also a time for us to really sit back and reflect—not only on our first year of ministry at Paint Branch, but also on some issues that have been stirring in our hearts for sometime.

As I often do during the summer, I had brought along a book which I hoped would stimulate my thinking about religious ideas. I can't remember who suggested it or even why I brought it along, but during the few free hours I had each day at Eliot, I took time to begin reading Bishop John Shelby Spong's 1998 book Why Christianity Must Change or Die; A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile.

I had heard about Episcopal Bishop Spong from my dad when I was a teenager. Even in the 1970s he was riling up the Christian community with his radical stands on race, abortion and homosexuality. But this recent book touched something deep inside me. He is an incredibly gifted and insightful religious leader, and has been a controversial yet powerful figure in the liberal Christian church. His book is written to people he calls "Christians in exile," i.e., Christians who can no longer believe the dogma of the church but who have been unwilling to leave it entirely. While I do not and have never considered myself a Christian, I found meaning in his writing. In particular, his exploration of theism and his challenge to broaden and deepen our understanding of God touched my mind and heart.

For nearly 20 years now, since I was in theological school, I have quite easily called myself a theist. I understood this to be a simple word to describe those of us who believe in God. In UUism, the term has been bandied about for years, usually to describe people within our tradition who prefer to use religious language and who have faith in what we have been taught to call God. While most of us in UUism used the word theist (and God for that matter) in quite non-traditional ways, I still did so without a lot of thought about what the word had come to mean. Bishop Spong's book forced me to think more carefully about what I was saying.

In one of his early chapters, he quotes the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of theism as "belief in one God as creator and supreme ruler of the universe." The Encyclopedia Britannica says that the theist "considers the world quite distinct from the author or creator." This leads Spong to define theism as "belief in an external, personal, supernatural and potentially invasive Being" (p.46).

While I suppose it is possible to argue with him about this definition, it struck me hard. Whatever God I believed in, it was not this kind of God. While I may have believed in some interfering God in the sky as a young child, I had left that definition behind decades ago. But not knowing any better, I called myself a theist. So, for all these years I was using a word that the majority in our culture understood in a way that was not true for me. According to Spong, and to the dictionary for that matter, I am not a theist.

This was an interesting place for me to land. After all, I am one among many UU ministers who have been encouraging a deeper and more spiritual approach to our faith. I have been doing so, or so I thought, because I was a theist, and wanted to find ways to bring the spirit of God into our churches. Yet, here is a famous Christian minister saying that he could not consider himself a theist! And, according to his definitions, neither could I!

I kept reading, then putting the book down. His ideas, so powerful and so true for me, were almost too much to take all at once. It actually took me months to finish reading it because each chapter forced me to look at my faith in new ways. I knew I was going to have to find a way to make it all make sense. But to do so required that I think long and hard about what I believed and why.

For you see, discovering I was not a theist did not mean that my faith in God was shaken. I just had to ask myself, as I have often throughout my life: What do I mean when I talk about God? Who is this God I believe in? Can I not be a theist but still call the ultimate source of my life by that old wounded word "God"?

Spong shares some of these concerns and his book addresses them. In his chapter called "Beyond Theism to New God Images," Spong suggests that the concept of God as an external force working from afar, capable of meddling in human affairs, is spiritually bankrupt. I agree with him. But he then asks: Is there "a depth dimension of life that is ultimately spiritual? If so, what is it?" He answers his own questions in the affirmative by reaching back to a great theologian who was writing in the 1930s but who is sadly neglected by most religious people today. That theologian is Paul Tillich.

Tillich was a refugee of Nazi Germany and thus knew first hand how the traditional theistic view of God as able to meddle in human history would not hold water in the face of the Holocaust. No longer able to see God as a "divine worker of miracles and magic, the dispenser of rewards and punishments, blessings and curses" (p.64), Tillich instead saw God as what he called "the ground of being."

I remember reading Tillich's seminal work, The Courage to Be, in theological school and how it deepened my understanding of and belief in what I called God. I remember loving that image of God as "the ground of being," for it made me feel like I was supported in my living by a great spirit that was present in all of life since the beginning of time. Despite the denseness of much of Tillich's work, this image was one that stayed with me.

It clearly stayed with John Shelby Spong as well, for Tillich was his teacher in the 1950s and started him on a path quite non-traditional for an American Christian.

Spong is an able interpreter of this great thinker. He writes that "the God to whom Tillich pointed was the infinite center of life. This God was not a person but ...a mystical presence in which personhood could flourish. This God was not a being but rather the power that called being forth in all creatures. This God was not an external, personal force that could be invoked but rather an internal reality that, when confronted, opened us to the meaning of life itself" (p.64).

Spong reminds his readers that Tillich suggested a moratorium on the word God for 100 years, until its theistic meanings could disappear and new and deeper meanings emerge. I imagine some of you for whom the word God has been a source of wounds could agree with Tillich here, and even I who often find meaning in traditional language wonder if Tillich might have been on to something.

Bishop Spong recognizes that many in our world who claim Christianity are clinging to old images of God which are authoritarian and theistic. He believes that despite the "Christian fervor" of these good folks, the faith they hold is mostly hollow and based on an image of God that no longer makes sense. But he also challenges those who would replace the old theistic God with the secular God of materialism. This kind of faith, he suggests, is also hollow. Rather, he asks his fellow Christians to find a new way of understanding God, one that allows for an expanded heart and a broadened sense of life's connections. And many in the liberal Christian church are doing just that.

But despite the fact that there are Christians who choose to live their spiritual lives within Unitarian Universalist congregations, we cannot claim to be a Christian church. What, then, can we learn from Spong about what is at the heart of our faith? Do we need to fill the space left by the God of old with something?

For many of us, rejecting the idea of a personal external God has already been accomplished. Is it possible to imagine a new image of the holy that might fill that part of us that longs for connection? That sees the web and knows it is real? That recognizes that if the holy is anywhere, it is in the human heart?

Here again, I found the good Bishop to be extremely helpful. Throughout his book, as in his life, John Shelby Spong suggests that if the holy asks anything of us it is this: to live fully and to love wholeheartedly. Whatever is holy in us emerges through our attempts to be fully and authentically human, and through the ways we seek to love our fellow mortals as if they were a part of us—which, if we only will notice, they surely are. When we do so, we discover the profound joy that is our heritage; a joy that reminds us that in our living and dying we are all truly one; a joy that reminds us that we are called in our living to serve the only God worthy of the name on our fragile planet earth: the God of love.

This message of the unity of all life and the ultimacy of love should not sound new to you; it did not to me. It’s at the heart of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. For Unitarianism reminds us that all of creation is one. The origin of the word, "unitarian," was an understanding that if God was anything, God was one. And that oneness we understand today to be a oneness of both time and space, a oneness that we know is found in both the cellular and cosmological levels, and mystically through our hearts and souls.

And Universalism—originally a term used to describe those who believed that God's love for human kind was unstinting and universal— Universalism today is usually understood to be a recognition that the greatest force in the universe is love.

All of us here share different understandings of the mystery that was once called God, and that diversity is always going to be real if we are truly and forever a non-creedal church. But, that does not mean that we cannot learn to speak of the mystery in ways that will touch some of us, some of the time. Our music this morning spoke of the many names of God. [Hymn #23: Bring Many Names.] Looking at different images of the holy can stretch our minds and hearts and help us grow.

For some of us, sitting in silence looking at the woods or the flickering candles in our sharing bowl is when we feel that sense of profound connection. For others of us we feel that wholehearted love in acts of service and compassion. And for yet others the ritual singing of a familiar prayer set to music each week keeps us centered on what is true and good about who we are. But all of us, I would hope, can celebrate our shared tradition and theological heritage as UUs. All of us can recognize the importance of growing into our full humanness even if we struggle to find the best ways to do that. All of us can try to love with our whole heart.

Bishop Spong understands that people who seek out religious community are looking for some way to bring meaning and purpose to their lives. He writes that the "task of the church is ...[to provide] opportunities for people to touch the infinite center of all things and to grow into all they are destined to be." He continues by saying that "worship...will not be oriented toward an external God but toward the world of human community...in a recognition that the place where God is ultimately found is in the depths of our own humanity. So there will be no attempt to escape life, and every attempt to expand life."

Are we this kind of a church? I think we are, at least at times. But I know that the task is always before us, and the road is always long.

A year ago, I spoke of wounded words, and of my own profound commitment to the holy mystery I called God. Today, I find myself still deeply committed to that great spirit of life, but more reluctant to name it. Words, it seems, can indeed get in the way.

That is not to say that I won’t occasionally use religious language. There are times when using the old words can work. And, in some settings, particularly interfaith ones, being able to speak the language of others can be extremely meaningful. I also want to be clear that my faith in the great spirit of the universe, Einstein’s Old One, Robert Weston’s web of life, Paul Tillich’s Ground of Being, is as strong as ever.

In the world we live in today—when global warming threatens our planet, hatred divides families and nations, and rigid religious beliefs keep people from discovering the love that is present in all of creation—in this world the spirit of life that is truly one and always loving is desperately needed. I believe in that spirit, and worship it with all my heart and mind and soul.

Last year you challenged me to be careful in the words I choose to speak of the mystery. And, because you did, and because I read John Shelby Spong’s exceptional book, I will no longer call myself a theist. Rather, I will say with pride that I am a Unitarian: a believer in the truth that all of creation is one. And I will say that I am a Universalist: a believer in the experience of love which is always greater than fear, hatred, and even death.

Bishop Spong dreams that someday his church will be the kind of place where what is best about human community will be celebrated and where there are no divisions between the saved and unsaved, believer and non-believer. He imagines such a church coming about over time, maybe in the next century.

Well, my friends, I think we have a head start on the good Bishop. For much of what he believes should happen in religious community in the future is already happening, right now, right here. We’re not perfect; we have a long way to go. But, I have faith—and I hope you do, too—that together we can bring about the kind of religious community that most people only dream about. The theistic God might be dead, but the spirit of life and love lives deeply in the hearts of all of us and all creation.

May that spirit be in us as we seek to live life fully and to love wholeheartedly.

Our opening hymn this morning reminded us to bring many names to speak of the holy. To close the sermon I invite you to sing a song that does not call the mystery by a familiar name, but which speaks to the same spirit that touches us and lives through us. Please join with me in singing hymn #86 – Blessed Spirit of My Life.


Closing Words

May we, as we weave together this web of community, remember to keep a vision before us of a world where the blessed spirit of life is worshipped not as a far away deity, but recognized as the holy and sacred love that lives in each of us.

May we bring many names to our shared table, and be open to experiencing the great mystery from different perspectives.

And may we hear the voice still and small that reminds us to live life fully and love with our whole hearts, so that the spirit of life may always move in us, inviting us to give our lives in service to what is good, and right and true. Amen.

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