I don’t know how many of us have visited the chapel of our Unitarian congregation in Oxford. It’s an impressively grand late Victorian building with beautiful stained glass windows, all designed by Burne Jones and the William Morris Company. We could arrange to go and visit one day. The windows that always catch my eye show the six days of creation, with the earth cradled in the arms of Pre-Raphaelite angels. And on one of those windows is inscribed the motto ‘elargissez dieu’, which you may sometimes find translated as ‘magnify the Lord’ but is far better translated as ’broaden your ideas of God’. These are words of Denis Diderot, French 18th century philosopher and playwright. Today’s orders of service show various photos of these windows and you can also find photos of them online.
Diderot was a key figure of the Enlightenment and was brave in his explorations about faith. He had a healthy disrespect for authority – one of his famous quotes, ‘Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest’, is a clear expression of the frustration many of his time felt at the political entanglement between church and state, a connection of power which of course we still experience to this day in Britain. Diderot’s own faith position could be described as atheist – meaning not theist in his beliefs. He did not believe in a super-natural God, a being, a separate entity who could and would intervene in human affairs. And this is a view held by many people today, including some Unitarian ministers.
It was one such minister, back in 1990, who helped me start my own journey towards ministry. Trevor Jones was leading a course called Building Your Own Theology and when we reached the section on Definitions of God he said he didn’t believe in God. That was such a refreshing moment for me – to have discovered that there was a religious community called Unitarians whose ministers didn’t have to believe in God. I was intrigued.
Trevor then went on to say the line that Unitarians sometimes laugh about – ‘but of course, it all depends what you mean by God’! What Trevor explained is pretty much my own faith position today. He, like Diderot, did not believe in a being, a separate entity, with a name and an identity, looking down on the earth as his creation. Such a view is held by many Unitarians. There are also plenty of Unitarians who hold theist views and that’s absolutely fine – we are a non-creedal community – we do not have to hold the same theology as one another in order to belong here. We do have to respect one another’s faith and we are committed to an exploration of our varied faiths and to supporting one another in putting that faith into action in meaningful ways.
My ministerial colleague from Cambridge Andrew Brown writes well about the difference between God as A BEING and BEING: “the whole religious landscape changed whenever one stopped thinking about God as A BEING and started thinking of God as BEING … to be a (conventional) theist is to believe there exists a supernatural being who is God; to be a (conventional) atheist is to believe that such a being does not exist. But, if God is thought of as BEING, this is still not to believe in A BEING called God (so you are still, conventionally speaking, an atheist) but it IS to understand God as the mysterious “no-thing” which gifts every actual thing with existence and life. Such a move allows the mystery of why there is something not nothing to be given a name (either BEING and/or GOD) and for it to remain creatively at play in our everyday language.” (You can read more of Andrew Brown’s writing on his blog, http://andrewjbrown.blogspot.co.uk/)
I sometimes envy the sure faith of those who experience God as a being, able and willing to assist them. As we listen to a couple of verses of an old hymn, let’s imagine such a faith:
Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm does bind the restless wave,
Who bids the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea.
O Saviour, whose almighty word
The winds and waves submissive heard,
Who walked upon the foaming deep,
And calm amid the rage did sleep;
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea.
Just in those two verses there are enough theological issues to keep us thinking for quite a while.
• The idea of a God powerful enough to save us from the storms, yet so often not intervening to save the most vulnerable and needy.
• The male gender that is so often assigned to God.
• The Christian message of God in the human form of Jesus, coming to earth to share human suffering; strength and weakness combined; a saviour who does not save himself.
I have to broaden my ideas about God in order to make sense of any of this. And because language is so limited in its ability to describe the indescribable no wonder many of us avoid the topic. But it’s such a fascinating topic to explore. We could also say it’s an important topic, that it will be useful to be more religiously literate as our world seems to lurch towards more extreme right wing views. Let’s not leave religious language solely for the use of extremists. If I use the term ‘God’ I mean – containing all that exists. Nothing left out. You’ll find a post it slip stuck to your hymn sheet and I do invite you to jot down what God means for you or let me know some other time. Let’s keep this conversation going.
Any description, any definition in this community is provisional – it has meaning for you and that meaning is for now. Let’s not concern ourselves with how others might react to our ideas. There was a time for me when gendered descriptions of God enraged me. The mere mention of ‘Lord, King, Father’ and the like would have me buttoning my proverbial lips and refusing to sing. Now I find them quite comforting metaphors, religious symbols, not realities – to be used along with many other describing words, none of which can ever get close to a ‘true’ description of God as being.
So if I use the term ‘God’ I mean: that which contains all that is and that which is beyond human comprehending. If there is then, as I like to imagine, a spark of divinity within each and every one of us, some imperatives follow:
• An imperative to be who we truly are – as unique expressions of the divine.
• An imperative to allow and encourage others to be truly themselves, for they too are an expression of God.
• An imperative to attempt to understand that which is ‘other’, even that which we dislike or fear. We are all in this together.
The God that we may pray to is then within us all, we are the co-creators of all that is – both in our thinking and in the work of our hands. In the same stained glass window in Oxford as ‘elargissez dieu’ there is another motto – ‘thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’. In a world where everyone is in effect our neighbour, that is an injunction worthy of serious thought. It’s the work of a lifetime, truly to learn how to love all our neighbours even where their behaviours and beliefs may be so very different from our own. One of our aims for the year ahead here with Kensington Unitarians is to deepen our understanding of, and use of, religious language. My hope is that such an exploration will help us find ways to live in stormy times, times that clearly need to hear a message of inclusivity and love. Amen
Here are some of our answers from our congregation to the question: What Does God Mean To Me?
God is love
God means to me both more and less as I get older
A source of strength, love and hope. Outside of us, inside of us, inspiring us to be our best selves.
God is when I am truly present to / accepting of whatever I encounter. God is the capacity to empathically identify with what is ‘other’ / what is similar.
God – the universe – all-that-is – discovering itself as it unfolds – and an underlying pull towards justice and love.
God is a hugely important concept to me but I try to find other words to describe that concept.
Awareness, life force, grace.
God for me is in you and me and everything and often my delight and pain to consider
Buddha asked ‘if God is all powerful and entirely beneficent and created the world, why is the world and ocean of evil and suffering?’ Bertrand Russell called Buddha the ‘greatest atheist’ and Julian Huxley said much the same thing. Another topic to explore – ‘what does atheism mean for us?’
God is inside me, outside me, and around us.
God is no-thing.
God is both the known and the unknowable.
Mother and Father God. ‘Thou shalt love the lord thy God with all thy … might’. God is when I have an idea.
God is the life force of the universe.
God is the spirit in all that is and something beyond our comprehending.
Rev. Sarah Tinker
Sermon – 9th October 2016