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.