Tag Archives: theism

Discussion starter

“God Talk Checklist,” which you’ll find below, is something I came up with for our Coming of Age group. The youth who are participating in the Coming of Age program will be writing a statement of religious identity to present during a worship service in the spring. So how do you get someone to come up with a statement of religious identity? Well, in our society, many people equate God and religion, so one good place to start figuring out your religious identity is to think about where you stand on the God question. That’s what the checklist is designed to do — get you thinking with some degree of precision about where you stand on the God question.

Because the youth and adults who were present tonight found this to be a useful tool for starting a conversation about the God question, so I thought I’d share it here. Remember that it’s designed to be used in a group setting, where you fill it out and share your responses with other people. The checklist starts below the jump.

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Unsystematic liberal theology: God

Fourth in an occasional series of essays in unsystematic liberal theology, in which I assume theology is a literary genre more than a science, a conversation more than a monologue, descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Religious liberals perceive themselves as being profoundly ambivalent about God. There are the death-of-God people, there are the humanists, there are the moral atheists, there are the traditionalist theists, there are those who tell the local clergyperson, “I’ll believe whatever I want to believe.”

While most religious liberals believe that they can never agree on questions concerning God, in fact we religious liberals all share several basic beliefs about God:

— We all share a belief in heterodoxy, that is, that our opinions about God will differ. Some of the more theologically sophisticated among us are aware of the wide variety of definitions of god/divinity among those who are more orthodox within their faith traditions; proving or disproving one conception of god/divinity does not prove or disprove other concepts of god/divinity (e.g., disproving Karl Barth’s God does not disprove the Bhagavad Gita’s Krishna); thus a firm belief in heterodoxy seems the only sane response to the bewildering variety of of proofs and disproofs and beliefs and disbeliefs in gods, goddesses, and other divinities.

— We all share a belief that regardless of whether or not god/divinity exists, we are ultimately responsible for our lives. We do not believe it is acceptable to say, “It is God’s will that your baby died”; we know it’s the drunk driver’s fault, or the fault of the drug-resistant staph infection that we are unable to cure, or the fault of a random accident. A theological term for this is the “functional ultimacy of humankind”; that is to say, whether or not you happen to believe/disbelieve in god/divinity, from a functional perspective we all believe that humankind is ultimately responsible, allowing of course for the possibility of random chance.

— Generally speaking, we are less interested in ontology, and more interested in practical ethics. While we do have energetic ontological arguments, e.g., about the existence or non-existence of God, we are more inclined to work to make the world a better place. Those who are more interested in ontology than practical ethics are not likely to remain religious liberals for long. Thus over time the fundamentalist humanists who insist on an orthodoxy of non-belief in God get frustrated with religious liberalism and drift away to form their own orthodox humanist groups; pagans who insist in absolute belief in goddess/es over time find that they are more comfortable in orthodox pagan groups; etc.

Because we are so committed to heterodoxy, it may seem hard to understand why we religious liberals spend so much time arguing about God, when arguments about God are really appropriate only for the orthodox (who actually want to make other people think and believe just like themselves). However, we have to remember that the surrounding culture is dominated by orthodoxy as a mindset; it is a culture in which it is difficult for heterodoxy to survive at all, let alone thrive. It’s a miracle that we manage to hold on to our heterodoxy at all.

Religious Naturalism

One of the papers that’s on my summer reading list is “Religious Naturalism in a Unitarian Universalist Context,” a paper presented at General Assembly under the auspices of Collegium, June 23, 2006, by Jerome A. Stone [full text]. Here’s a short critical summary of my reading:–

“Naturalism,” according to Jerry Stone, is a “set of beliefs and attitudes that focuses on this world.” Stone says that naturalism rules out an “ontologically distinct and superior realm.” Religious naturalism, of course, concerns the religious aspects of this world “which can be appreciated within a naturalistic framework.” [p. 2]

Religious naturalism is of particular interest to Unitarian Universalists for two reasons. First, there are many people associated with Unitarianism or Unitarian Universalism who can be considered religious naturalists, including: Henry David Thoreau (raised Unitarian), Henry Nelson Weiman (theologian who joined a UU fellowship), Frederick May Eliot (president of the AUA), Stone himself, and others.

Secondly, religious naturalism is a theological position that encompasses both those who include the concept of God, and those who don’t, in their theologies. Many people think that if you believe in God you can’t find common theological ground with those who don’t spend time thinking about God, but religious naturalism proves this need not be so.

Stone identifies three basic types of religious naturalists, and his typology has to do with how different religious naturalists deal with the concept of God.

(1) The first type includes people like Henry Nelson Weiman, and they conceive of God as creative process within the world. Weiman was committed to common sense empirical inquiry and to scientific method. In the context of this kind of inquiry, Weiman wondered what allowed human beings to escape form evil (which we occasionally do manage to do). Weimen felt that individual human beings were not always capable of extricating themselves from evil, but that there was a transformative principle that could and did pull us out of evil. This he called “creative interchange” in his book The Source of Human Good; this he was willing to call by the name “God.”

(2) The second type of religious naturalist considers God to be the totality of the world, considered religiously. Stone gives Bernard Loomer as an example of this type of religious naturalist. In a 1987 essay, Loomer wrote: “If the one world, the experienceable world with its possibilities, is all the reality accessible to us, …then it follows that the being of God must be identified in some sense with the being of the world and its creatures.” Loomer, too, is committed to empirical inquiry as opposed to metaphysical speculation.

Stone believes Loomer coined the phrases “power with” and “power over” (the second phrase implies a relationship wherein one party has the power and uses it to dominate another party; the first phrase implies a relationship where the party with the power shares it with others, thus avoiding domination). Loomer also refers to an inter-connected or interdependent web of existence, and Loomer identifies this interdependent web with the concept of God. Thus, Loomer appears to be somewhat interested in creating a liberative theology.

(3) A third type of religious naturalism sees no need to use the concept or terminology of God. Stone himself is an example of this third type. He writes:

I hold that many events have what could be called a sacred aspect. I am not talking about a being, a separate mind or spirit. I am saying that some things, like justice and human dignity, and the creativity of the natural world, are sacred. This vision is very pluralistic. What degree of unity there is to this plurality I am reverently reluctant to say.

Stone is willing to allow for transcendence, but only relative transcendence. In other words, there isn’t anything that is absolutely transcendent, but in certain situations there are things that surely do feel transcendent. Stone says that if he were forced to choose between humanism and theism, he’d reluctantly choose humanism; but really he’s somewhere in between the two positions. Indeed, he has what he calls a “minimal definition of God” which he uses in ordinary conversation, when leading worship (he’s in fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist minister), and when talking with other “religious voices.” His minimal definition is as follows: “God is the sum total of the ecosystem, community and person empowering and demanding interactions in the universe.”

In order for me to be interested in a new theological position, I have to be able to understand how it will contribute to liberation. In this short paper, Stone does not adequately go into how religious naturalism might be applied to liberation (perhaps that will be a part of his book-in-process). But Bernard Loomer’s religious naturalism has definite implications for liberation; and Stone’s own religious naturalism could have as well. As attractive as I find religious naturalism to be, I can’t call myself a religious naturalist until I know more about how it will contribute to liberation.

God is in the argument

Today I have been reading in Introduction to World Religions, consulting the sections on African traditional religions for this week’s sermon. But while I was having tea this afternoon, I flipped to the section on Judaism, and read this:

The Talmud is at pains to blur any distinction between holy and profane. Even more striking is that it is not concerned with answers. It is far more concerned with the process of answering them. One of its most celebrated passages captures this tendency and is worth citing at length:

On that day, Rabbi Eliezer put forward all the arguments in the world, but the sages did not accept them. Finally, he said to them, ‘If the halakah is according to me, let that carob-tree prove it.’

He pointed to a nearby carobtree, which then moved from its place a hundred cubits. They said to him, ‘One cannot bring a proof from the moving of a carob-tree.’… [Two more miracles were performed by Rabbi Eliezer in a bid to have his argument accepted.]

Then said Rabbi Eliezer to the sages, ‘If the halakah is according to me, may a proof come from heaven.’ Then a heavenly voice went forth, and said, ‘What have you to do with Rabbi Eliezer? The halakah is according to him in every place.’

Then Rabbi Joshua rose up on his feet, and said, ‘It is not in the heavens….’ [Deuteronomy 30.12. Rabbi Joshua goes on to explain that since the Torah has already been given on Sinai, we do not need to pay attention to a heavenly voice.]

Rabbi Nathan met the prophet Elijah. He asked him, ‘What was the Holy One, blessed be he, doing in that hour?’

Said Elijah, ‘He was laughing, and saying, “My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.” ‘

Talmud, Bava Metsia 59B

In other words, God’s children are grown up enough to argue with him. For the rabbi it is even a responsibility. In this sense, the Talmud captures something essential not just of the historical period, but also of the ongoing life of Judaism: God is in the argument, and he [sic] may well be found in the delight of vigorous human discourse.

pp. 285-286, Introduction to World Religions, Christopher Partridge, general editor (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2005; U.S. edition of The New Lion Handbook: The World’s Religions, 3rd edition).

“God is in the argument.” I can agree with that, although I’d argue with the Talmud about the reason for agreeing: I don’t feel the need to accept that because the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, we can therefore ignore a heavenly voice; I’m happy simply to challenge the notion of God’s omniscience, and to advocate for the possibility that humanity has matured enough to be able to argue with God. Nor is saying “God is in the argument” sufficient; there’s more to religion, and humanity, and divinity, than argument. Nonetheless, I find myself convinced by the idea that God is in the argument.