Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Evolution of God: a sermon

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Jan. 31, 2010

It was a beautiful afternoon in fall on a Rocky Mountain hillside, where I sat enjoying the blue skies and warm sun with friends who had gathered at the home of a fellow member of Jefferson Unitarian Church, my church home there in Golden, Colorado.

I’d recently entered seminary and was beginning the school year excitedly engaged in studies of pastoral care, Old Testament, and Church History, surrounded by students from all different Christian backgrounds with a variety of doctrines and dogmas.

I felt a little like an outsider at seminary; I was one of only a handful of Unitarian Universalist students, there at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, a very liberal Methodist seminary. But I was loving my studies, feeling my brain stretch and my own theology grow clearer, as I compared it to the theology of my more traditional classmates.

Next to me in a lawn chair, was an older gentleman named Jakob, who was interested in what I was studying at Iliff, and during our conversation, he mentioned that he was a pretty staunch atheist. I’d known Jakob for many years and I knew this about him, so it occurred to me to ask him “what do you believe in, Jakob?” He paused a moment and then…

“Nature,” he said. “Nature. That’s what I believe in---the laws of nature, the way the universe works, the plants, the animals, the laws which govern life and how everything connects to everything else. I don’t believe in God. I believe in Nature.”

In my grad school-induced arrogance, I almost said to him, “but Jakob, it’s just that your God is Nature”. Luckily, I had retained enough of my mother’s teachings about respecting one’s elders to keep my mouth shut and just listen; consequently I went home that evening pondering Jakob’s words and marveling at their implications. It was another step in my own evolution of an understanding of the power beyond human power, which some call God. Or Goddess.

Some of you doubtless remember my story about having gone into a 12 step program years ago to find peace of mind after a number of experiences with alcoholic friends.

In a 12 step program, one is asked to find a Higher Power and use its strength to change one’s behavior. I’d outgrown my “old white guy on a throne” concept of God and when they told me that my Higher Power only had to be something stronger than myself, I thought of my hours of hiking up steep trails in the Rockies, defying and yet using gravity to get stronger every step of the way, and I decided to use Gravity as my Higher Power. There seemed to be a connection there.

When I had my conversation with Jakob, I was ready to grow again and his concept of Nature as Higher Power was very appealing to me. In fact, I’d already realized that gravity was only a piece of my higher power, that the entire universe seemed to be an infinite power that included much, much more, most of it mysterious and only partially understood by science.

This month we’ve been talking about “the driving force, the creative force in the universe, which many call God or Gods or Goddess”. A couple of weeks ago, we thought about one of the great religious and ethical figures of our time, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and how he might have conceived of that force, which he called God.

Today I’d like us to consider how human understanding of that power beyond human power, that which drives the universe, creates the universe, has evolved over the millennia of recorded human history.

It’s interesting to me that human history reveals, both in the larger sense and in the more personal sense, a concept of “God” that has generally evolved from a figure of parental-type authority to loving presence to independence from a fixed image.

In the earliest reaches of human history, the power beyond human power, or God or Goddess, was revealed in weather, in seasons, in drought and flood; it was a force to be appeased, bargained with, sacrified to. Whether that force was seen to be male or female, it mostly was a rule-maker, a boundary keeper, a teacher. I can almost hear Mother Earth and Father Sky giving instructions: “Now, children, wind and rain and snow can kill you; so make shelter, and, by the way, use fire when you discover it as a gift of weather.

“It will be hot for a period of time; it will then cool down; it will get much colder for a period of time (of course I’m excluding the tropical zone); then it will warm up again and the cycle will repeat endlessly. Each season will bring certain kinds of weather, mostly unpredictable; learn to cope.”

Humans tried to influence the weather, the seasons, the drought and the flood, using prayer, sacrifice, bargaining with the seen or unseen Gods and Goddesses. Some of it seemed to work; when it didn’t, it was assumed that the deities were displeased or busy elsewhere or had a different plan.

Across the globe, human beings were generally polytheistic, ascribing power to the sun and moon, earth, stars, trees and animals, considering them the beings which controlled their lives, sent the weather, governed the seasons, controlled fertility, birth and death, and were only partly predictable. Female deities were common and Mother Earth was seen by many to be the primary Deity.

So reverence for a God or Goddess figure was initially, and logically, attached to nature. Not so different from my friend Jakob’s perspective, though Jakob, as a scientist himself, had a lot more academic knowledge to make that judgment on.

Interestingly, ancient peoples often argued with their gods and goddesses, threatening to withhold sacrifice and obedience if the deities didn’t shape up. And intriguing rituals accompanied some of these interchanges. Robert Wright, in “The Evolution of God” which I’ve been reading in preparation for this sermon, recounts a ritualistic “interchange” between a Siberian native man and the wind, in which buttocks are bared to the breeze and incantations shouted at the wind, in an effort to stop the wind’s incessant and damaging blast.

Lest any of you be tempted to try this, it probably worked about as well as our own Whidbey Island hopes and prayers when a wind storm is predicted! Mother Nature, whether by indigenous or modern standards, is notoriously hard to influence. Me, I just pray that I can cope, if the power goes out. And that the Bingmans will take me in once again.

Eventually, polytheism began to lose ground to monotheism, to a powerful, all-purpose Deity who was jealous of other Gods and told his followers (for by now God was a He) to follow his commandments or he’d get mad. If they were good, he’d bless them, give them land of their own, harken to their prayers. Early scriptures bear this out but the willful Israelites were unwilling to give up their old gods and goddesses completely and frequently invoked the One God’s wrath, causing Him to threaten and punish those He called His Chosen People.

The Abrahamic religions---Judaism, Islam, and Christianity----are descendents of that God-form, having themselves evolved out of the experience and the necessities of human living in early times.

But monotheism has had its own set of problems. The God of Abraham was a top-down, moralistic, parental authority upon whom followers were to be utterly dependent. This God was male in form and in language, which has encouraged followers to assume that God intended that human males be dominant and females be submissive.

Patriarchy was the starting place for a triumvirate of Abrahamic religions that eventually dominated the early Western world. God’s attributes were measured by human attributes, making assumptions about God’s opinions, God’s preferences, and God’s marching orders.

This God was rather cruel and autocratic much of the time. This God kicked native peoples out of their lands so that the Chosen Ones could live there. This God sent an avenging angel to kill firstborn Egyptian children, among other plagues, to allow His People to escape into the desert, even though they weren’t happy once they got there.

The history of God as portrayed in the Hebrew scriptures is that of a strict and punishing male parent. Scholars like Karen Armstrong and others have posited that when God created humankind, he (like all parents) found himself with unanticipated problems on his hands. The Hebrew legends around the creation of humankind portray God’s children as independent thinkers whose curiosity landed them in trouble and eventually got them kicked out of Eden.

This God got so upset with human behavior that he decided to drown all but a few and start over. Hence the legend of Noah and the ark, with its male and female starter species.

When Jesus began his ministry centuries after the Israelites established a monotheistic tradition, he had been raised and educated in the Jewish tradition of a God who demanded that certain purities be maintained, that certain customs were required of devout Jews, and that God was a Father figure. Indeed, Jesus called his God “Father” and, in times of greatest crisis, even called God “Abba” or Daddy.

Christianity modified the portrait of God to include a male parent’s loving side and brought a female near-deity into the family constellation. Mary, the mother of Jesus, became a figure women Christians could identify with and even venerate. But as the concept of the Trinity evolved, the idea that God was Three in One---Father, Son and Holy Spirit---Mary was merely the mother, albeit the mother of a God figure. Mary was a mortal, after all, and had only been the recipient of God’s grace, not a Goddess herself.

And remember that monotheism, the idea that God is One, was at stake. Even the doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were identical to each other and were simply different functions of the One God, was a stretch for many.

Acceptance of the idea of the One God was pretty much universal in the world influenced by the Abrahamic religions for centuries after Jesus’ ministry. There were skeptics, to be sure, particularly around the concept of the Trinity, but belief in God was unquestioned by most. Heretics were punished, sometimes cruelly as in the case of our own religious ancestor, the young Spanish doctor Michael Servetus who was burned at the stake for his denial of Jesus as God.

But as understandings of the natural world grew and science became an influential resource to human beings, particularly to those with access to education, a period of time known as The Enlightenment in the eighteenth century brought huge wide-spread change and conflict about religious ideas and the very concept of Creation and the nature of the universe.

No longer did every facet of human living depend on belief in God. The earth revolved around the sun, not the sun around the earth. Discoveries about any number of everyday things, such as plants and seasons and the movement of the stars in the sky, created new questions in human minds.

Before this time, belief in God was taken for granted. Not to believe meant abandoning any coherent world picture. This was unthinkable to most humans in that time in history.

But emboldened by new ideas and knowledge, thinkers of many stripes took courage and began to wonder: what is the real authority of the church and to what end does the church demand human obeisance? Those who traveled observed other religious practices and saw that there was a larger world than the one which accepted the idea of One God with three manifestations; there were nontheistic religions such as Buddhism and Confucianism and there were polytheistic religions such as Hinduism.

Three different conceptions of God, through the lenses of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, called into question the idea of One God. Each of these Gods had such different characteristics----how could they be the same God? And yet again, humankind’s shaping of the idea of God was illuminated. No longer was it so clear that God had created humans in his image; perhaps humans had created the God that they wanted to create.

So---that’s a quickie rundown on the history of the concept of God up to about now. It’s not exhaustive, it’s a little irreverent, and my knowledge is far from complete, but what I think we’ve done so far is establish that as human understandings of the universe have progressed, humans have increased their questioning of the reality of God or Gods or Goddess.

Part of it is due to our increased scientific understandings and discoveries. Part of it is due to the relaxed insistence on belief in a Deity. Part of it is due to our own mystical spiritual experiences which may lead us along non-traditional paths.

I’ve collected some quotes from scholars and theologians about their own concepts of the power beyond human power.

For example, Albert Einstein said this: “It was the experience of mystery, even if mixed with fear, that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty. It is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude. In this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. Enough for me, the mystery of the eternity of life and the inkling of the marvelous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavor to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.”

James Luther Adams, a renowned pacifist and Unitarian theologian, said and I am paraphrasing and pulling together a couple of related ideas: “God is the power that holds the world together. We are called by God to participate in holding the world together and we are seduced to return to the task of putting the world back together again and again. God is the force in the Universe that calls us to love.”

In the 60’s, a theologian, John T. Elson, the religion editor of Time Magazine, wrote an article entitled “Is God Dead?” which illuminated the shifting sands of theology and belief as religion tried to accommodate scientific discoveries. The article stripped bare the fact that there are multiple concepts of God and that the traditional “old man in the sky” was woefully out of sync with science. Therefore, was it possible, even likely, that God as we knew God was actually dead.

Elson wrote: “Secularization, science, urbanization---all have made it comparatively easy for the modern man (and woman) to ask where God is and hard for the man (and woman) of faith to give a convincing answer, even to him or her self.”

Henry Nelson Weiman, another Unitarian theologian and philosopher, offered this definition of God: “God is an event, a Creative Event, an event of Creative Interchange. God is Creativity. God is trustworthy, reliable, and sustaining. God is that which can transform and save humans in ways in which we cannot transform ourselves, provided that we understand and fulfill the requisite conditions.”

Feminist theologians have illuminated the feminine face of the power beyond human power. They cite the earliest evidence of deity worship as being the worship of Mother Earth, for female powers of reproduction, of community, and nurture, and many religious people today honor and revere the feminine attributes of the Goddess, rather than a male figure of God.

Atheist writers who have become popular in recent years have primarily stated their rejection of the traditional view of God as an anthropomorphic figure, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent. I have not heard much from them about other concepts of God or Goddess and wonder if they too are out of sync with new ideas of God.

Yet quantum physics has revealed an entirely new possibility about the power beyond human power. As the Large Hadron Collider lurches toward its grand experiment of recreating a smaller version of the Big Bang, the event which appears to have set the universe in motion, it is possible that science may unveil the deepest roots of the universe yet explored.

And will they find God? Well, probably not the God most people assume is the Ruler of the Cosmos.

So where are we? Here’s what I think.

I’ve noticed that the power beyond human power, which some call God or Goddess, can be viewed through many lenses. Even as a parent or guardian can be called a mother or a father or a chauffeur or a cook or a teacher or a cruel tyrant or any number of other names, so can God and Goddess.

There is the lens of religion: God as a personal servant and ruler. There’s the lens of physics: God as energy. Of psychology: God as emotional need. Of biology: God as creator, God as mere brain chemistry. Of evolution: God as an orderly, purposeful system. Of Love: God as human connection and nurture. Of parent: God as protector, caretaker. Of child: God as rule-maker, guidance giver. Of art: God as designer, creator of beauty. Of indigenous person: God as nature and ancestral wisdom. Of poetry: God as metaphor and simile. Of fear: God as the punisher. Of ethics: God as source of the moral order. Of the abstract: God as ground of being, Ultimate Reality. Of the concrete: God as old white guy in the sky.

I’ve probably missed your favorite lens and you can tell me later what yours might be or if you disagree. But I think it all comes back to the recognition that there are so many ways to think of the power beyond human power, so many ways we have found to use that power both for secular and spiritual and religious meaning, so many names and faces for God and Goddess, that it is useless to argue about whose version is right.

Ken Merrell spoke to us last September about a discovery he had made in his religious journey: that when we encounter different language and ideas from our own, rather than dismissing them as useless or offensive, we might try translating those words and ideas into our own language and worldview, to see if we and those who are different from us have any common ground. And I would reiterate Ken’s wisdom: we all have different ideas about what God or Goddess means. Let’s share those ideas, rather than reject each other because we don’t speak the same language.

The Evolution of God is a journey of countless millennia, from prehistory to the present. The Evolution of our personal understandings of the concept of God has taken our whole lifetimes and continues to offer opportunities to change our minds. Whether we are theists, nontheists, atheists or agnostics, we can learn from each other and respect each other’s language and experiences, both here and in the larger community. As Ken has said, the key is to translate! You too can be religiously bi-lingual!
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that all humankind shares a reliance on the faithfulness of that power beyond human power, which we call by many names. May we respect one another’s language and thoughts, listening carefully that we might learn from one another. And may we offer to our children, our grandchildren, friends and family the opportunity to think large about what it means to have faith in these troubled times. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


Miss Kitty said...

That was freaking fantastic, Ms. K. Thank you for posting what I really needed to hear. :-)

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Miss K. I did get some good feedback on it from the folks here too.

Frank Darpli said...

Bad weather here in central Virginia caused our UU church to cancel services yesterday. Your sermon was "church" for me this Monday morning.

My conception of God in its simplest term is Other. Denoting so completely beyond human understanding to render god formulations weak attempts to render the the unknowable in ways we can work with. Thanks for your posting and getting my spirit started to-day

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Frank, I'm so glad you could visit us here at the Road Show.

kimc said...

Lovely. I think we need to hear that story more often -- to be compassionate with where others are on the journey.
Beyond that, I want to point out that God is a female to male transsexual.
and it wasn't the serpent who lied to Adam and Eve....

ms. kitty said...

That's a great comment, KimC. A trans God!

DairyStateDad said...

Wonderful. And gotta ask -- was one of the hymns in your congregation this Sunday "Bring Many Names"?

ms. kitty said...

You betcha, DSD! Also "When in Our Music God is Glorified" and "Joyful, Joyful". "Bring Many Names" is one of my all-time favorites.