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July 14, 2013: “Progressive Theology Week I, The God I believe In”

Over the course of this first year with you, I have delivered sermons on a broad variety of topics. I mentioned in the beginning that my basic approach to life is that of a spiritual journeyer, and so my sermons have tended to focus on those themes. Lots of you have expressed appreciation for that, a couple of you have expressed a desire for more left brain sorts of topics, or more focus on current events. And a couple of you have pressed me further still, pointing out that while I have preached on subjects like Buddhism and Unitarian theology, I have been less explicit about my own personal theology which must be, you assume, given my ordination in the United Church of Christ, which must be at least to some extent, (coughing) Christian.

Well, it’s true, and I guess as I reach my one year mark with you, maybe its time for me to come out of the closet and share a bit of my own personal theology, confirming what you may have suspected, that I am indeed a Christian.

Of course there is a part of me that feels immediately compelled to start qualifying, and explain first and foremost, what kind of Christian I am not. Because whereas my brand of Christianity used to called “main line” it is now very much a minority version, and dissimilar to what most people assume when they hear the C-word. This, by the way, is why I lie on airplanes. I fly a lot these days, as you know, and in those brief chats with seat mates before the lap tops come out, it usually gets around to the dreaded question “so, what do you do?” And because I have learned that if I answer truthfully the door will likely swing open either to debate or proselytizing to try to save me, or, worse yet, to an assumed theological, political and cultural kinship the content of which I emphatically do not share; because of all this, I usually sidestep it, giving a vague, generic answer having to do with counseling or public speaking or end of life emotional support. It’s not that I am afraid or embarrassed by my faith, it’s just that by the time I land in that airplane seat, I am usually worn out from the work it takes to extricate one’s self from one’s life for X number of days, and talking about theology or religion or frankly anything very meaningful seems about as inviting as a sharp stick in the eye. This month, then, I offer the response that I should make, and would make, if I weren’t so lazy. So today, I will tell you a bit about the God I believe in and why I am, in fact, what I have come to call a Christian Universalist. Next week I will talk about the vision for life which inspires me, and which I try to live my way towards. And the third week I am reserving for wherever this all takes me as it evolves.

Speaking of evolution, that’s a good place to start. In his book Process Theology by C. Robert Measle, the author talks about old and new paradigms for faith. The old paradigm which emerged during a time when they believed in a three tiered universe, was understandably based on a top-down, external God of power, and so there was the central belief that God is all powerful. Of course this leads quickly into logic trouble, because another key tenant of that theology is that God is also all loving. So the question becomes, if God is all loving and also all powerful, then why doesn’t God use some of that power to prevent the unspeakable crucible of suffering and stop events like Auschwitz, Nine Eleven and Sandy Hook, just to name a few. In the words of Rabbi Kushner, “why do bad things happen to good people?”

Well, theology has spent long centuries trying to answer this question and has choreographed quite a two-step, having to do with human free will and the ways we would be dehumanized of God started messing with free agency, (which, if we believe the Bible literally, God in fact does, in selective cases.) Kushner’s book is an articulate treatise on this question, and I do recommend it. But in the end, I don’t think it goes far enough. In a post-modern, scientific world, I join the voices who want to shift the paradigm altogether and say that maybe omnipotence never was the real issue to begin with. It made sense in the days of tribal religion. “My God’s better than your God” by which we mean, stronger, smarter, and hopefully with a more impressive bag of tricks up his sleeve. But there are newer, emerging theologies, as well as old, indigenous ones, that say maybe showy, external power never was the issue. And so Measle and process theology in general talk not about an external God who shows His power by suspending the laws of nature on a case by case basis, what I call Divine Parlor Tricks. Rather, they suggest, perhaps God can be better understood as inherent within the processes of life, both the macrocosmic, ongoing process of evolution at large and the microcosmic personal processes that play out on the stages of our own lives. Perhaps God never was about external coercive power, but has always been about persuasive inner empowerment, luring us, in love, to live and act from love in each moment.

The God I believe in, to try to put it more succinctly, is an integrated spirit which is part of the whole life process, luring us to ongoing evolution through loving persuasion, empowering us to be the players on the stage, acting in love.

Perhaps a concrete image will help. I offer you an image for God which was the central metaphor in my ordination paper back in the day, and which has remained an important symbol for me throughout my ministry, it is a version of The Tree of Life. I have an artistic rendering of it with me this morning and invite you to look at it after the service if you are interested. It is a tree, growing out of sheer rock. You see them often along rugged coast lines, trees which we can only assume began with a seed pushing through a crack in the rock where maybe a little dirt was able to accumulate.

Who knows why, given those devastating conditions for life, a tender green shoot should emerge? Yet somehow it does. Who knows why the non-organic gasses in the beginning of time should stew for millennia, and then eventually and against all probability, turn organic and create life, and yet they did. All of these express metaphorically what I believe to be true and foundational about God. I understand God most primarily as that deep, central and abiding Spirit of Life. I believe “God” is the name we give to, or the word we put on that ever evolving spirit of life which is always insistently pressing forward, finding its way around whatever obstacles it meets, dying off in certain manifestations, only to have a new manifestation emerge from it, like a grain of wheat which falls to the ground and dies, only to generate anew the next year.

Underneath it all, this is what I believe God to be. Call it whatever you like: life force, depth, mystery, love, the universe- I believe it is the one reality that preceded all else, that became differentiated into the multiplicity we now experience and have, throughout history, and will someday contract back into itself. It is the untamed wind which blows where it will. All religions try to name it, tame it, reduce it to creeds and categories. But it is bigger and deeper and more complex and more simple than all of that. It evokes an awe which ultimately renders the wisest silent.

Felix Carrion, a colleague of mine in the UCC, said it this way: ” I, for one, would like to get rid of all tribal gods of our own creation. Really, they don’t exist. They are a projection of human madness. Let’s evolve.

But there is something that “never was born and never dies.” Without it we would not be here. We existed in and with it and will exist in and with it when this form fades. This is God, the mystery, the elegant principle. I want to know and feel it, in and through the wonder of consciousness, the wonder of miraculous senses, boundless and daring inquiry, the wonders of creation, communion of love and friendship, compassionate tears, human heartedness, the depths of sorrow and pain, forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, the “glory of the flower,” the dance of light and darkness, birth and death.

I’m enjoying this God! (Concludes Carrion) It just may not be your god or the one either of us grew up with.”

Maybe that’s what I should say next time I’m asked the question on an airplane.

So having affirmed that universal, underlying, mysterious life force, the next question is: why do I call myself a Christian, which from one perspective can indeed be thought of as a tribal religion? Ultimately, I understand Jesus as one who was consistently and deeply connected to that universal spirit of life, that underlying force field of love. I understand him as having come not to proclaim himself, and not to claim magical powers in the method of his death, but to live from conscious connection with the central Spirit which underlies everything. I believe that with his life and his words, he taught that when we work and live in consort with that underlying guiding spirit of love and wholeness, then everything goes a whole lot better for everybody. His words were culturally bound as they are for all of us. His language was about “the Father” and “the Kingdom of God” which was his most frequently discussed subject. But I believe that what he was talking about was not pie in the sky after we die, but a realm of peace and righted structures and wholeness and blessing and justice and love which emerges whenever and wherever people live not just for themselves and their own tribe, but rooted in a commitment to something deeper and better, to love and wholeness and blessing and inclusion of everyone, especially the least of these, right here and now. He said “The Kingdom of God is within you, among you, already! Now!” And I believe that in the verse where he supposedly said “I am the way, the truth and the life” a better translation would be “mine” or “this” is the way, the truth and the life. This way of love and inclusion, of compassion and wholeness.

He was profoundly, spiritually connected to his source. The vertical dimension you might say, like a tree whose roots plunge straight down to the water table. He was equally passionate about reaching out horizontally through the radical love ethic by which he lived… and there you have it, the cross as I understand it. Not a symbol of suffering or capital punishment or buying off the father through some atonement transaction, but a symbol of vertical rootedness in the underlying source, and the horizontal outreach of loving community. That, right there, is enough for me to make a life’s work of following.

The miracles and theology about him constructed by his followers then and later are not important for me. They come to us through the Bible which I believe to be NOT an inerrant communication delivered in toto from God to the transcribers, but which I view as more of a box of written snapshots, taken through the lenses of the time. The photos capture the beliefs and history of the followers, including some of the messy family fights and debates, and give us helpful opportunity to reflect on the important themes and values from the community’s past. As such, the Bible becomes a cherished part of the tradition, like a family photo album, but can better be understood as descriptive of the time and the lens that captured it, as opposed to prescriptive from the unmediated mind of God.

So there’s a start for my next flight. God help my seat mate, right? I hope this scratches the itch of those of you who have gently pressed me for this. And I really hope that attendance does not dramatically plummet in the next two weeks.