God in Nature

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning is a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson, titled “Blight.”

Give me truths,
For I am weary of the surfaces,
And die of inanition. If I knew
Only the herbs and simples of the wood,
Rue, cinquefoil, gill, vervain, and pimpernel,
Blue-vetch, and trillium, hawkweed, sassafras,
Milkweeds, and murky brakes, quaint pipes and sundew,
And rare and virtuous roots, which in these woods
Draw untold juices from the common earth,
Untold, unknown, and I could surely spell
Their fragrance, and their chemistry apply
By sweet affinities to human flesh,
Driving the foe and stablishing the friend,–
O that were much, and I could be a part
Of the round day, related to the sun,
And planted world, and full executor
Of their imperfect functions.
But these young scholars who invade our hills,
Bold as the engineer who fells the wood,
And travelling often in the cut he makes,
Love not the flower they pluck, and know it not,
And all their botany is Latin names.
The old men studied magic in the flower,
And human fortunes in astronomy,
And an omnipotence in chemistry,
Preferring things to names, for these were men,
Were unitarians of the united world,
And wheresoever their clear eyebeams fell,
They caught the footsteps of the SAME. Our eyes
Are armed, but we are strangers to the stars,
And strangers to the mystic beast and bird,
And strangers to the plant and to the mine;
The injured elements say, Not in us;
And night and day, ocean and continent,
Fire, plant, and mineral say, Not in us,
And haughtily return us stare for stare.
For we invade them impiously for gain,
We devastate them unreligiously,
And coldly ask their pottage, not their love,
Therefore they shove us from them, yield to us
Only what to our griping toil is due;
But the sweet affluence of love and song,
The rich results of the divine consents
Of man and earth, of world beloved and lover,
The nectar and ambrosia are withheld;
And in the midst of spoils and slaves, we thieves
And pirates of the universe, shut out
Daily to a more thin and outward rind,
Turn pale and starve….

The second reading this morning is by Bernard Loomer, Bernard, from his essay “The Size of God” [in The Size of God: The Theology of Bernard Loomer in Context, ed. by William Dean and Larry Axel. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press]:

“In our traditions the term ‘God’ is the symbol of ultimate values and meanings in all of their dimensions. It connotes an absolute claim on our loyalty. It points the direction of a greatness of fulfillment. It signifies a richness of resources for the living of life at its depths. It suggests the enshrinement of our common and ecological life. It proclaims an adequate object of worship. It symbolizes a transcendent and inexhaustible meaning that forever eludes our grasp. The world is God because it is the source and preserver of meaning; because the creative advance of the world in its adventure is the supreme cause to be served; because even in our desecration of our space and time within it, the world is holy ground; and because it contains and yet enshrouds the ultimate mystery inherent within existence itself” (Loomer 1987, 42)

SERMON — “God in Nature”

In case you’re wondering, I’m not going to preach about Christmas this week. It’s only NOvember, and still too early to preach about Christmas. Instead, this sermon is the third in a series of sermons on Unitarian Universalist views on God.

I’ve been thinking about the current hullabaloo raised by Richard Dawkins’s latest book, The God Delusion. Dawkins, as you probably know, is an evolutionary biologist; he is also an atheist who delights in pointing out the ridiculousness of believing in God; and as a result he has been getting lots of coverage in the popular press. I have to admit, I don’t even plan to read his book. Tending towards cynicism as I do, it’s hard for me to take Dawkins seriously, because it’s clear that the more he fulminates against established religion, the more books he will sell. In today’s world, iconoclasm can be very profitable.

Come to think of it, maybe I should read Dawkins’s book, and learn how to write my own bestselling book in which I trash-talk religion from a minister’s point of view.

On the other hand, while the media has been giving Dawkins lots of coverage, but they have not been covering how theological scholars are responding to Dawkins’s book; popular culture doesn’t want to hear experts on religion talk about religion. The theologians are politely saying that Dawkins’s book simply displays his ignorance of theology: that the God Dawkins describes is not a God that any theologian would take seriously either. They are also saying Dawkins should know better: in order to write seriously about a subject you should read up on the subject first, and Dawkins clearly knows nothing about theology.

On the other other hand, the theologians are probably jealous that their books don’t sell as well as Dawkins’s. Which may be because too many of the theologians write about a traditional, abstract God that I can’t believe in. So where does that leave someone like me? I don’t believe in the cartoon-caricature of God that Dawkins vilifies; who does? Nor am I interested in the traditional God of the theologians, a lifeless God which I sometimes find even less believable than Dawkins’s cartoonish God.

I suspect there are quite a few you out there who find themselves in this same position. The cartoon-God of the God-bashers, while entertaining, is also faintly embarrassing because it’s too easy to bash a cartoonish God. The traditional concepts of God hold little interest for us any more. The academic God of the theologians seems simply irrelevant. Yet here we are, sitting in a church; we’re still religious. Whether or not we believe in God, we still take religion seriously.

So this morning I’d like to talk about one concept of God that I find I can take seriously; and that’s the idea that God is inextricably intertwined with Nature, with the natural world. Not that you or I or anyone should unquestioningly accept this concept of God-in-Nature;– but I do think it’s worthy of our serious attention, for at least three reasons: first, because many people find personal religious inspiration in Nature; second, because it seems easy to reconcile such a God with the insights of science; and third, because it seems that such a God could help us understand the current ecological crisis, and help us understand why we should do something about that crisis.

Let’s start with that first reason:– It’s worth considering God as Nature because many of us find personal religious inspiration in Nature. By “religious” inspiration, I mean an experience of awe and wonder, or an experience a sense of the sublime; a personal sense of religion often grows out of such experiences. Not that these experiences lead necessarily towards one narrow religious viewpoint. You can experience a religious awe and wonder at the coming of springtime and the rebirth of the natural world; but that doesn’t mean that you will necessarily fit that experience of awe and wonder into the traditional Western Christian celebration of Easter and the risen Christ; no more does it mean that you will fit that experience into the celebration of the ancient Celtic pagan holiday of Beltane. Or you can experience a religious sense of the sublime when you are in the eye of a hurricane, when you see and hear the storm raging all around you but overhead there is that small, quiet patch of blue sky; but that sense of the insignificant self being overwhelmed by the sublime power and grandeur of the universe does not lead to any specific religious theological belief system.

I get a good deal of my own religious inspiration from Nature. When I’m in the White Mountains, hiking above treeline into the alpine ecosystem, being in the midst of the low shrubby trees and tiny delicate flowers, that is a religious experience for me. Or the other day when I was out on Pope’s Island, I flushed a Cooper’s Hawk out of some shrubs near the city marina, and the surprise of its sudden appearance, and the sight of it flying off low over the waters of the harbor, was a religious experience. I don’t know how to explain that feeling of connection to another living being except as a religious connection; I’m not going to eat a Cooper’s Hawk, nor will it eat me; seeing a patch of lichen above treeline is not going to give me some evolutionary advantage that will help me pass along my genes to the next generation. These powerful experiences of nature don’t move me to believe in the traditional God, but my personal experiences of the natural world make me think that it might make sense to describe Nature as God.

And this is related to the fact that it is possible, even easy, to reconcile such a God, God-in-Nature, with the insights of science.

Science can provoke awe and wonder and sense of sublime; at least, I suspect it can do so for nearly everyone in this room. Haven’t you ever been thrilled by one of those science programs on television? Admittedly, some of them are terminally boring, but I do get excited by the programs about astronomy. How can you not get excited when you hear about the Big Bang that (so it is theorized) was the beginning of our whole universe? How can you not react in awe and wonder when you learn about the vast distances in our universe? What’s even more thrilling is when you get to experience science first-hand. Last winter, one of the local astronomy clubs brought their telescopes out for AHA! Night one month, and I got a chance to look through their telescopes at Uranus and Mars — that was far more memorable than a television program, and it was certainly an experience of awe and wonder for me.

On a more personal level, as an avid bird watcher I’m thrilled by bird biology. When you see two different kinds of sandpipers feeding side by side at the edge of the ocean, almost identical to one another except for the length of their bills, and you know that they evolved from a common ancestor, evolving different bill lengths so one could dig a little deeper in the sand and mud and exploit a slightly different ecological niche, I find that thrilling. Those two birds are living, breathing examples of how evolution works, which I find awe-inspiring and wonderful. Now I had better stop talking about birds before your eyes glaze over in boredom. The science of ornithology happens to fill me with awe and wonder; even if you find birds mind-numbingly boring, I trust that you will be able to think of other examples of science that fills you with awe and wonder.

Richard Dawkins notwithstanding, many religious people have no problem reconciling God with science. Liberal Christians find it easy to reconcile a fairly traditional Christian God with science, as long as you don’t take the Bible literally. Pagans, Jews, and many other religious faiths say that science is completely compatible with belief in Goddess or God. But I would like to tell you about “religious naturalism,” a religious position which I probably adhere to.

Jerry Stone, a philosopher of religion who is affiliated with Meadville Lombard Theological School, came up with the term “religious naturalism.” I went to hear Jerry give a talk about religious naturalism last June at General Assembly, our big annual denominational meeting. Jerry says that ‘naturalism’ means “a set of beliefs and attitudes that focus on this world,” whereas ‘supernaturalism’ would imply that there is something beyond the natural world. So according to Jerry Stone, “religious naturalism is a philosophy or theology that there are religious aspects of this world which can be appreciated within a naturalist framework.” Which means that religious naturalism is easily compatible with science.

And religious naturalism allows belief in God. (Jerry Stone also says that there are also religious naturalists who see no need for any concept of God at all; but that’s a topic for a different sermon.) Some religious naturalists would say that God is the whole universe, the totality of everything; as we heard Bernard Loomer say in the first reading this morning. Other religious naturalists would say that God is a part of the total universe; for example, a theologian named Henry Nelson Wieman said that the creative process in the universe is God. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau fall into one of these two camps: they found God in natural processes and in the connections between living beings, and it may be that they find God in everything.

To find God in the interconnections between living beings: it seems to me that such a God could help us understand why we should do something about the current ecological crisis. This is the big problem I have with people like Richard Dawkins: he gives me no compelling reason why I should try to stop species extinctions, or try to clean up New Bedford harbor, or do anything at all about the ecological crisis.

Our ecological crisis fascinates me. It horrifies me, too, but I’m fascinated by the fact that we have the science and the technological know-how to end the ecological crisis — and yet we aren’t ending the crisis. I’m fascinated by the fact that we have the financial resources to pay for solving global warming, to take one example, to pay for it with relatively little disruption to the economy — and yet we aren’t ending global warming, or any part of the ecological crisis. I’m fascinated from a religious point of view, because I think our society refuses to deal with the current ecological crisis because of certain prevailing religious beliefs. Let me outline what some of those religious beliefs might be.

First, and most obviously, there are substantial numbers of right-wing Christians who don’t worry about the current ecological crisis because they fully expect the end of the world to come, and all the true believers will be “raptured” up to heaven. If you think you’re going to get “raptured” up to heaven, I’ll bet you don’t think you have to deal with global warming, species extinctions, or the PCBs in New Bedford harbor. Second, there are substantial numbers of people of many different religious persuasions who are willing to passively sit back and trust to God, or to Goddess, or whomever. If you think it was meant to be this way, ecological disasters and all, if you say “I’m sure God will provide”; I’d have to say there isn’t much incentive for you to take responsibility yourself to clean up the world.

Thirdly, and least obviously, there are lots of people who believe that human beings are the most important life form, not only more important than any other plant or animal but also more important than the ecosystem considered as a whole. If you think you, as a human being, are so special then why would you cut back on your fuel consumption just because global warming is going to melt the polar ice caps thus killing off all the polar bears? This third group includes plenty of people who would not think of themselves as religious, but I count them as religious since they hold onto this belief with religious zeal in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Yet if the theory of evolution teaches us anything, it teaches us that human beings are not special and not unique; we’re just another organism that happened to develop through the chance processes of evolution.

We human beings do have a deep need to feel special. At the moment, too many of us satisfy our need to feel special at the expense of all other life forms. If we are willing to affirm God as being intertwined with Nature in some way, that means that we, too, are a part of God. It doesn’t get any more special than that: there is that of God in each of us; or maybe it’s that there’s that of each of us in God; in either case, we too are divine, we too are Godly. If you prefer, you can substitute “Goddess” for “God” here, and everything will still be equally true.

Yet if we say that God or Goddess is intertwined with Nature, we have every incentive to do no harm to Nature, for doing harm to Nature is not only doing harm to God or Goddess, it is also doing harm to ourselves; since we too are divine. It is morally and ethically wrong to cause harm to Nature.

In the first reading this morning, Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us that we have become strangers to animals and plants, strangers to ocean and continent, strangers even to the night and to the day. Why is this so?: “For we invade them impiously for gain,/We devastate them unreligiously…”. Emerson tell us that it is morally and ethically wrong to cause harm to Nature. He also tells us that in causing such harm, we only harm ourselves: “The nectar and ambrosia” of the Gods “are withheld” from us; “And in the midst of spoils and slaves, we thieves/ And pirates of the universe, shut out/ Daily to a more thin and outward rind,/ Turn pale and starve.” Causing harm to ourselves is itself morally and ethically wrong, to say nothing of being stupid.

“Give me truths,” says Emerson, not delusions. The truth is that it wouldn’t do us any harm to start treating Nature as divine. I’m not trying to convince you that you should accept this idea of God; I’m not even sure that I accept this notion of God; I need to think about this some more. But the idea of God as Nature is worth taking seriously.

Affirm that Nature is divine, and maybe humans will stop unleashing blight on the natural world. Affirm the divinity of Nature, and maybe we will figure out how to extend our morals and ethics beyond human beings to all of Nature. Such affirmations do not strike me as delusional, but as good practical common sense.

Giving Thanks — To Whom?

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning is from Mourt’s Relation, a journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, written in 1622. This reading gives the story of the first Thanksgiving celebration in the words of one of the Pilgrims who was actually there [source of this version].

“You shall understand, that in this little time, that a few of us have been here, we have built seven dwelling-houses, and four for the use of the plantation, and have made preparation for divers others. We set the last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and peas, and according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our ground with herrings or rather shads, which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors. Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown, they came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom.

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after have a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

Instead of the usual second reading this morning, we’ll have a story instead: the old story of Thanksgiving. This is a story that you already know. But even though you’ve heard it about a million times, we tell it every year anyway, to remind ourselves why we celebrate Thanksgiving.

The story begins in England. In England in those days, every town had only one church, and it was called the Church of England. You had to belong to that church, like it or not. It’s not like it is here today, where families get to choose which church they want to go to — back then, there were no other churches to choose from! But a small group of people decided they could no longer believe the things that were said and believed in the Church of England.

When they tried to form their own church in England, they got in trouble. They moved to Holland, where they were free to practice their own religion, but they felt odd living in someone else’s country. Then they heard about a new land across the ocean called America, a place where they could have their own church, where they could live the way they wanted to. They found a ship called the Mayflower, and made plans to sail to America. These are the people we call the Pilgrims.

After a long, difficult trip across a stormy sea, the Pilgrims finally came to the new land, which they called New England. But the voyage took much longer than they had hoped, and by the time they got to New England, it was already December. Already December — it was already winter! — and they had to build houses, and find food, and try to make themselves comfortable for a long, cold winter.

It got very cold very soon. The Pilgrims had almost nothing to eat. The first winter that the Pilgrims spent here in New England was so long and cold and hard, that some of the Pilgrims began to sicken and die. Fortunately, the people who were already living in this new land — we call them the Indians — were very generous. When the Indians saw how badly the Pilgrims were faring, they shared their food so at least the Pilgrims wouldn’t starve to death. Half the Pilgrims died in that first winter, yet without the help of the Indians, many more would have died.

After that first winter, things went much better for the Pilgrims. Spring came, and the Pilgrims were able to build real houses for themselves. They planted crops, and most of the crops did pretty well. The Pilgrims went hunting and fishing, and they found lots of game and caught lots of fish.

By the time fall came around again, the Pilgrims found that they were living fairly comfortably. To celebrate their good fortune, they decided to have a harvest celebration. They went out hunting, and killed some turkeys to eat at their celebration. They grilled fish, and ate pumpkin pie, and we’re pretty sure they had lobster, wild grapes and maybe some dried fruit, and venison. However, they probably did not call their holiday “thanksgiving,” because for them a thanksgiving celebration was something you did in church. At that first celebration, they did not go to church.

Their harvest celebration lasted for several days, with all kinds of food, and games, and other recreation. The Indian king Massasoit and some of his followers heard the Pilgrims celebrating, and dropped by to see what was going on. In a spirit of generosity, the fifty Pilgrims invited all ninety Indians to stay for dinner. Imagine inviting ninety guests over to your house for Thanksgiving! More than that, in those days only the Pilgrim women prepared and cooked meals, but there were only four Pilgrim women old enough to help with the cooking — four women to cook food for a hundred and forty people!

The Indians appreciated the generosity of the Pilgrims, but they also realized that there probably wasn’t going to be quite enough food to go around. So the Indians went hunting for a few hours, and brought back lots more game to be roasted and shared at the harvest celebration. At last all the food was cooked, and everyone sat down to eat together: men and women, adults and children, Indians and Pilgrims.

That’s how the story of Thanksgiving goes. As you know, the Pilgrims called their first town “Plymouth,” and as you know, they also started a church in the town of Plymouth. But did you know that a hundred and eighty years later, that church became a Unitarian church? That church in Plymouth is now a Unitarian Universalist church. So it is that we Unitarian Universalists have a very important connection with the Pilgrims, and a special connection with Thanksgiving.

SERMON — Giving thanks — to whom?

In a way, this sermon is the second in a series of sermons on Unitarian Universalist views on God, in which we will address the question: If Thanksgiving is for giving thanks, to whom do we give thanks?

For it is indeed time to celebrate Thanksgiving once again. Needless to say, those of us who are religious liberals know how to celebrate Thanksgiving; yet liberal religion can also lead to a certain amount of tension at Thanksgiving time. For example:– Of course we make the traditional turkey with stuffing and all the trimmings; yet many religious liberal families have at least one person who is a vegetarian or vegan as part of their spiritual practice, which means that we also have to have the traditional tofu with all the trimmings. Oh, and by the way, the vegetarians can’t eat the stuffing or the gravy either, because of the meat in them; which can cause further confusion in the kitchen, and a certain tension at the dining table.

Or perhaps the vegetarians and vegans in your household bow to peer pressure on Thanksgiving, which can lead to a different kind of tension: for them. I was a vegetarian for maybe fifteen years, because in college I read the book Diet for a Small Planet and learned that it took six pounds of grain to produce one pound of turkey, which meant that every time you ate a pound of turkey you were stealing five pounds of food from the mouths of starving people around the world. Being a good religious liberal, I immediately stopped eating meat, in order to save the world. Except at Thanksgiving. After a couple of years of being a vegetarian, I got sick of fending off the turkey, and I’d just quietly eat what was put on my plate. Feeling guilty the whole time: I’m taking food out of the mouths of starving people!

Turkey’s not the only food that can cause tension; other traditional Thanksgiving foods like mashed potatoes, winter squash, and turnips can lead to tension, too. In my household, part of our spiritual practice is to eat locally-grown food as much as possible, to remind us that we are rooted in the local ecosystem. But at Thanksgiving, we often run short of time and have to compromise our principles by buying at least some of our vegetables at the supermarket, which at this time of year generally means buying vegetables trucked or flown in from thousands of miles away. I have little doubt that Carol and I will find ourselves at one of the big supermarkets along Route 6 at eight o’clock this Wednesday evening; I will hold up a butternut squash, and Carol will hiss, “That was flown all the way from California, it might as well be soaked in diesel fuel”; and we’ll both feel horribly guilty. But we’ll buy it anyway, and eat it, and probably imagine that we taste the diesel fuel.

Tension also arises for many religious liberal families when it is time to say grace before the meal. I grew up as a Unitarian Universalist, and we never said grace before meals the rest of the year. At Thanksgiving, however, Mom or my aunt Martha or someone else would tell us kids, before we started eating, that we all had to say grace together. In our household it could be a little awkward, saying grace. Sometimes we just held hands and had a moment of silence, which I liked best. The awkwardness went on until the year our oldest cousin, Nancy, joined the youth group in her Unitarian Universalist church. “I’ll say grace,” she said that year. “I’ll say the grace we use in youth group. ‘Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub, yay, God!'” We laughed, but it worked for us, and it reduced the tension around saying grace.

If your family includes rabid atheists, or those who follow more conservative religious paths, there can be even more tension. But even entirely Unitarian Universalist families that say grace before dinner every day can still feel a little tension at that moment. Why? Because in our culture, to say grace most often implies that we are giving thanks to a traditional Christian god. But we have such high standards for ourselves, we won’t settle for an unquestioned acceptance of traditional religious concepts. The Unitarian Universalist Christians do not have a traditional conception of God, and may not be willing to settle for the traditional understanding of saying grace; certainly the religious humanists, the pagans, the Transcendentalists, the pantheists and panentheists, and all the other Unitarian Universalist theological varieties, will not settle for a traditional understanding of saying grace. If we are giving thanks when we say grace, we would like to know to whom, or to what, exactly, we are giving thanks.

That is the question I’d like to explore with you this morning. If Thanksgiving means giving thanks, to whom are we giving thanks? –or to what are we giving thanks? We will not find one answer to this question; nor will we have time to explore all possible answers; it may be that there are as many answers to this question as there are people in this room. Yet let us outline a few responses to this question, as a beginning to deeper understanding.

Let’s start with those of you who are Unitarian Universalist Christians. If you’re a Unitarian Universalist Christian, it should be obvious that you give thanks to God — that’s God spelled capital-G, Oh, D-as-in-dog. It’s spelled the same way, but to the Unitarian Universalist Christian God probably does not look much like the orthodox Christian God. Because of our Unitarian heritage most of us don’t see Jesus as God; and because of our Universalist heritage we can affirm universal salvation for all beings (meaning that there is no such thing as hell). That idea of universal salvation comes about because the God of the Unitarian Universalist Christian is a loving God. This loving God, who will never damn us to eternal torment, is also a God who is active in our lives by helping us to create justice in the world — for what is justice, but an expression of radical love? The story of Jesus is important to Unitarian Universalist Christians, not because it tells that Jesus is God, but because it shows how God is concerned to help the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the downtrodden people of the world. And the story of Jesus shows us how God can provide personal support to those people who, like Jesus, advocate for the poor and the oppressed. If you are a Unitarian Universalist Christian, you are not giving thanks to a bearded man in a white robe up in the sky: you give thanks for the love, and for the vision of justice that God brings.

Next, let us turn to the Unitarian Universalist pagans. Unitarian Universalist pagans are a diverse bunch. For some Unitarian Universalist pagans the divine is manifested in multiple goddesses and gods, and for others there is a single Goddess. Yet even when there is a single Goddess, she manifests herself in more than one guise; for example, as three different stages of life: Maiden, Matron, and Crone. You don’t have to interpret this literally: the phases of the Goddess or the various goddesses and gods can represent different aspects of ourselves, such as the different stages of life represented by maiden, matron, and crone; or different aspects of the world around us, such as the seasons or the phases of the moon. This rests on good psychological common sense: you don’t have to take the goddesses and gods entirely literally; as Carl Jung pointed out, various goddesses and gods can serve as concrete personifications of abstract qualities like love and strength and wisdom and shared power.

In addition to embodying good psychological common sense, Unitarian Universalist paganism is explicitly feminist, and it is explicitly ecological. If you’re a feminist, paganism lets you say “Goddess” instead of struggling with that masculine pronoun for God. If you’re an environmentalist, paganism offers a religious outlook that find divinity in Nature, meaning there’s a religious reason for not wrecking the natural world. If you are a Unitarian Universalist pagan, you can offer thanks for the true equality of men and women, girls and boys; and you can offer thanks for the wonder and beauty of Nature.

A third major group among us is the Unitarian Universalist humanists. Humanists have no need for some transcendent being or deity, no need for God or Goddess, or gods and goddesses; humanists find no need to believe in supernatural beings that can’t be proven to exist. Unlike some humanists, Unitarian Universalists still think of themselves as religious; and as religious humanists, they see that religion can be an enormous force for good in the world. Religion offers a moral framework that can tap into the accumulated wisdom of the human race; divorced from ancient creeds and beliefs, a religious community can seek together for human answers to human questions. If you are a Unitarian Universalist humanist, you might offer thanks for the miracle of evolution, the gift of life, and the human community which is capable of doing good (if we work at it). But you don’t have to offer thanks to a being or personification; you can just be thankful.

If we had the time this morning, I could go on and talk about other Unitarian Universalist theologies: pantheism and deism and Transcendentalism and existentialism, and many other kinds of “isms.” We don’t have time; our potluck Thanksgiving lunch awaits us.

But remember this: the lovely thing about being a Unitarian Universalist is that we can draw inspiration from all these “isms.” We can give thanks for the God of justice and love; we don’t have to believe in such a god, but it’s a good concept if we would but truly live up to it! We can give thanks for the wonder and beauty of Nature and for the interconnected web of life; even if you see nothing transcendent in them, we’d die without an ecosystem, so why not give thanks for it! We can be thankful for the miracle of evolution, the gift of life, and the human community which is slowly learning how to do more and more good; even those who believe in God or the Goddess can also give thanks for evolution and human community.

We Unitarian Universalists should give thanks for the diversity of our theological viewpoints. This diversity can create tension in our life together as a religious community; but it is a good tension, one which furthers our quest for truth and goodness. Whether pagan, Christian, humanist, undecided, or none of the above, we recognize that no one of us will ever have the absolute answer. We have such high ideals for ourselves, we Unitarian Universalists; we worry about having theological tension; but the only way we can remove the tension is when we finally attain to ultimate truth, a day which may never come. In the mean time, the tension is good; the tension keeps us from being complacent; the tension keeps us moving ever onwards in the search for truth and goodness.

Someday perhaps we’ll get all the way to truth and goodness, and I like to think that day will come:– a day when there is no more poverty, no more injustice, no more racism, no more war, a day when every state recognizes same sex marriage as legal, a day when the prisons are empty because crime has ended. Someday, maybe we’ll get there; then we’ll really have something to be thankful for. In the mean time, let us give thanks for our high ideals for ourselves — and let us give thanks for the tension those high ideals create in this gathered community.

No God But You and Me

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is from Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America, by James Turner.

“On an autumnal day in 1869, Charles Eliot Norton sat down in his Swiss resort to write to his friend and confidant John Ruskin. Norton moved with ease among the most eminent writers of England and America. Son of the distinguished Unitarian theologian Andrews Norton, he had helped to found the magazine Nation and had recently retired as editor of the North American Review. He counted among his intimates James Russell Lowell, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Frederick Law Olmsted, and shared friendships as well with such men as Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, Charles Dickens, Louis Agassiz, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Few men were as well positioned to register the early tremors of any slippage in the primordial strata of Anglo-American culture.

” ‘There is a matter on which I have been thinking much of late,’ he confessed to Ruskin. ‘It does not seem to me that the evidence concerning the being of a God, and concerning immortality, is such as to enable us to assert anything in regard to either of these topics.’ As he tried to sort out the implications of his loss of faith, Norton wondered, ‘What education in these matters ought I to give my children?… It is in some respects a new experiment.’

“It was in many respects a new experiment. For over a thousand years Europeans had assumed the existence of God. Their faith might be orthodox or heretical, simple or complex, easy or troubled — and for serious, thoughtful people, it was very often troubled, complex, even heretical. Yet failing to believe somehow in some sort of deity was not merely rare; it was a bizarre aberration. Then, in Norton’s generation, thousands, eventually millions of Europeans and Americans began to abandon their belief in God. Before about the middle of the nineteenth century, atheism or agnosticism seemed almost palpably absurd; shortly afterward unbelief emerged as an option fully available within the general contours of Western culture, a plausible alternative to the still dominant theism.” [pp. 1 ff.]

The second reading is from the Christian scriptures, Matthew 12.28. In this passage, the radical Jesus has gone to Jerusalem, and has already upset the authorities.

“One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ — this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

So end this morning’s readings.

SERMON — “No God but You and Me”

Just to warn you: this is the first in an occasional series of sermons this year on Unitarian Universalist beliefs about God.

Growing up as I did, a Unitarian Universalist in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the dominant religious influence in my life was religious humanism — or, as some people prefer to term it, religious atheism — the religious position that says that there is no God, no divine power of any kind, nothing supernatural about the world. I grew up in a church where most of the church members did not believe in God. Even though our minister at the time was an avowed Unitarian Christian, to the best of my recollection he never tried to impose his particular understanding of God on the congregation — not that it has ever been possible to impose such understandings on Unitarian Universalists.

Not that I had all that much to do with the minister of the church. As a child, my church experience was mostly shaped by Sunday school classes, by adults who were friendly to me, by children’s chapel, and, later on, by youth group. We learned about God in Sunday school, to be sure. We were even given Bibles when we got to fifth grade. We had no pictures on the walls of the Sunday school classrooms that supposedly represented God. If we wanted to believe in God, that was fine; and if we didn’t want to believe in God, that was fine, too.

When I was older and a part of the church youth group, we talked about all kinds of things, including God and whether or not each of us believed in God. Our youth advisor was the assistant minister of the church, and as it happened he did believe in God. (In fact, he later left Unitarian Universalism and became a minister in the United Church of Christ, although he later told me the reason he switched denominations had nothing to do with theology and everything to do with the fact that the United Church of Christ was more active in prison, which struck me as a very Unitarian Universalist sort of attitude.) The discussion from my youth group days that I remember most vividly had nothing to do with God; it was a discussion of Zen Buddhism, and ko-ans, and satori or enlightenment. When I was in youth group, I was much more interested in understanding what it meant to achieve enlightenment, than I was in arguing over God’s alleged nature or existence.

I tell you all this by way of an excuse. The end result of my upbringing is that I’m not particularly interested in arguments about whether or not God exists. When someone tells me that she doesn’t believe in God, I’m likely to respond, What are the characteristics of the God in which you do not believe? When someone tells me that he does believe in God, I’m likely to respond in much the same way, What are the characteristics of the God in which you do believe? In asking these questions, I have found that there are nearly as many descriptions of the characteristics of God, as there are believers and non-believers combined. That doesn’t make me any more or less likely to believe in God myself, but it does make me far less likely to argue with someone over the existence or non-existence of God, because more often than not the person you argue with is arguing about a different God than you are arguing about. Such arguments seem fruitless to me. Such arguments seem like a kind of idolatry, where idolatry means attributing too much importance to something, an importance far beyond its actual worth.

Now I’ve made my excuses about why I’m not particularly interested in arguing with you about whether or not God exists. Yet I remain very interested in the way different beliefs about God affect how people act in the world. And I suspect that my indifference to arguments about God’s existence, and my interest in how beliefs affect people’s actions, has very much to do with the fact that I was surrounded by humanists and atheists when I was a child. The humanists and atheists I knew didn’t give two hoots about what you believed, but they cared a great deal about what you did. And the humanists and atheists I knew were staunchly opposed to idolatry in any form; they taught me that action is always more important than belief.

The Unitarian Universalist humanists I have known have all cared deeply about what people do with their lives. I have a theory about why this is so. As Unitarian Universalists, we are heirs to the great traditional of liberal Western Christianity. The liberal Christian tradition in the West has emphasized one teaching above all others. Other Christians have emphasized the mysteries of the Trinity, or the rules by which Christians are supposed to live, or they have emphasized the final fate of humanity, or humanity’s sinfulness, or fear of a vengeful God, or the liberating power of a God who’s on your side, or Jesus as Lord and Savior, or one of many other aspects of Christianity. But liberal Christians have emphasized one simple teaching, summed up in the words of Jesus that we heard in the second reading: “The first [commandment] is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”

Those of you who are particularly observant will have noticed that Jesus says a few different things in this passage. First, being a good observant Jew, Jesus recites the Shema Yisrael: “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad” — and forgive my bad pronunciation of the Hebrew. “Shema Yisrael,” which means: Hear O Israel; “Adonai,” a word we translate as “Lord” and which is substituted because it is improper to say the true, proper name of God aloud; “Eloheinu” meaning roughly “our god,” as long as you remember that this isn’t a name of God; “Echad,” which tells us that God is one, or that Jesus pays homage to God alone. This prayer formula, which comes from the book of Deuteronomy chapter 6 verse 4, is something Jesus would probably have said each and every day when he prayed.

Then Jesus adds the next verses from Deuteronomy, as was likely done by Jews in his time as it is by Jews in our time. In Deuteronomy, the story is told that God says to Moses: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Jesus knew this old story about Moses. So after repeating the Shema, that’s what Jesus says next: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”

This is the first of two great commandments that liberal Christianity inherited from Jesus, who inherited it from Moses and the ancient writers of the book of Deuteronomy. When certain Unitarian Universalists chose no longer to believe in the God of Moses, or the God of Jesus, then as inheritors of this tradition, they were left with the second great commandment of Jesus, to wit: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

This second great commandment also comes from the books about Moses, this time to the book of Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 18. In this part of Leviticus, God is speaking to Moses, giving rules for good and moral conduct, and God says, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am [Adonai].” Or, as Everett Fox more dramatically translates it, “You are not to take-vengeance, you are not to retain-anger… but be-loving to your neighbor (as one) like yourself: I am [Adonai].”

Remove God from liberal Christianity, and what is left is this second commandment, this powerful moral injunction: Love your neighbor as yourself. Do not take vengeance, do not retain anger: be loving towards your neighbor who is another human being like yourself. And this has proven to be an adequate foundation on which to build religious humanism in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. Indeed, this has proven to be an adequate common ground for Unitarian Universalism as a whole to maintain its integrity as a coherent religious tradition, in spite of the fact that we differ widely in our views of the divine. The liberal Christians among us still repeat the other parts of Jesus’s dictum, that God is one and to love God with all your heart, etc.; and they say, love your neighbor as yourself. The Jews among us might still affirm that passage from Deuteronomy (or they might not); and they say, love your neighbor as one like yourself. The Pagans among us might pay homage to the Goddess, and they would say treat other beings with the respect you yourself are due. The humanists among us see no need for any gods or goddesses, and they affirm that we must love one another as we would ourselves be loved.

I sometimes think that could more difficult to be a humanist and not believe in God, than to be someone who believes in a God or gods or goddesses. If the universe does not include some sort of benevolent higher power, perhaps it is harder to maintain one’s faith in the goodness of the universe, and particularly the goodness of human beings. For if there is no higher power, if it’s just you and me, then who are we to blame for evil? Love other people as we would love ourselves — those are fine words to say, but in a world filled with evil, it may be hard to live those words into reality. Ours is a world in which some people torture other people; when I read the horror stories of what torturers do to fellow human beings, I find it difficult or impossible to love those torturers as my neighbor. Whereas perhaps if there is a god or goddess, he or she or it would perhaps be able to love even torturers. Or what about people who engage in genocide? –how am I supposed to love them? If there is no higher power, if it’s just you and me, then you know who we must blame for evil — we must blame humanity, we must blame ourselves.

So we come to one of the great teachings of the humanists. The humanists have taught us that we must take full responsibility for our own actions. We cannot blame evil on God, or on the devil, or on mischievous spirits. We human beings have to take responsibility for evil, because ultimately evil is caused by us human beings.

The great gift that we all have received from the humanists, from the atheists, is a great big mirror. Instead of looking up at some abstract heaven for answers, the humanists have taught us all that we should look in a mirror first, and ask ourselves for the answers. That also means looking in the mirror and seeing our own limitations. We are limited beings; we don’t have all the answers. Even if you believe in God, or in goddesses and gods, or in some kind of higher power, you must learn how to know yourself; and next you must learn how to love yourself; and you must also learn how to love your neighbor as yourself. All this comes from the great gift that humanists have given to all of us.

I said earlier that the humanists and atheists I knew were staunchly opposed to idolatry in any form; where idolatry means attributing too much importance to something, an importance far beyond its actual worth. It is fine if you are someone who finds God indispensable to your understanding of the universe; I know that I cannot understand the universe without some sort of higher transcendent power. It’s fine if you are a theist who believes in God, but religious humanism teaches us that to love your neighbor as yourself is of first importance; actions are more important than beliefs; what you do with your beliefs is far more important than the niggling little details of whatever beliefs you might have.

Jesus reduced his religion to two great commandments, but the second is greater than the first. Yes, you should love your God (or goddess, or the universe) with all your heart, mind, and being. But then, love your neighbor as yourself. The first commandment cannot be complete without the second commandment. If you believe in God, the only way to prove that you truly are a believer is to love your neighbor as yourself. If you are a humanist, and you believe that there is no God but you and me, you still show your devotion in the same way: by loving your neighbor as yourself.