Tag Archives: James Weldon Johnson

Touching God

“I admit that through my adult life I have lacked religiosity. But I make no boast of it; understanding, as I do, how essential religion is to many, many people. For that reason, I have little patience with the zealot who is forever trying to prove to others that they do not need religion; that they would be better off without it. Such a one is no less a zealot than the religionist who contends that all who ‘do not believe’ will be consigned to eternal hell fires. It is simply that I have not felt the need of religion in the commonplace sense of the term. I have derived spiritual values in life from other sources than worship and prayer. I think that the teachings of Jesus Christ embody the loftiest ethical and spiritual concepts the human mind has yet borne. I do not know if there is a personal God; I do not see how I can know; and I do not see how my knowing can matter. What does matter, I believe, is how I deal with myself and how I deal with my fellows. I feel that I can practice a conduct toward myself and toward my fellows that will constitute the basis for an adequate religion, a religion that may comprehend spirituality and beauty and serene happiness….

“The human mind racks itself over the never-to-be-known answer to the great riddle, and all that is clearly revealed is the fate that man must continue to hope and struggle on; that each day, if he would not be lost, he must with renewed courage take a fresh hold on life and face with fortitude the turns of circumstances. To do this, he needs to be able at times to touch God; let the idea of God mean to him what it may.”

  — So wrote James Weldon Johnson, in his autobiography Along This Way, back in 1933. Reading this, I imagine that Johnson would have felt quite at home in one of today’s Unitarian Universalist churches. He would even have felt at home in one of our more progressive Unitarian or Universalist churches back in 1933, except for the fact that he was black, and in 1933 both the Unitarians and the Universalists were basically lily-white denominations. Well, be that as it may, I still like to imagine what Johnson would have felt if I could have said to him: That’s pretty much what I preach from the pulpit, and in fact I’m going to steal that last line of yours for my next sermon. And what you say is pretty much what we do in our church: we don’t have religion in the commonplace sense of the term (which is these parts means orthodox Christianity); we try to practice conduct towards ourselves and our neighbors that constitutes our basis for religion; we feel Jesus is a great spiritual and ethical thinker who inspires us; and each day, if we would not be lost, we take a fresh hold life life, and we renew our courage to do this by touching the face of God, whatever God may mean to each one of us individually.