A response toTwo UU sermons I’ve read recently present an interesting contrast. Each is a sermon delivered by a UU minister from his UU pulpit a little over four years ago. Each (like almost every piece I’ve discussed on the Internet) speaks explicitly and directly about atheism. Importantly, each minister believes in God, making the sermon’s treatment of atheism all the more interesting.“Where is God?: Locating the Holy in Our Lives,” by Rev. Patrick Price,
“Atheism,” by Rev. Roger Fritts
The two UU theist ministers and their respective sermons, though, take decidedly different approaches toward describing and reacting to nonbelievers. For anyone interested in understanding where UU nonbelievers who are concerned for our future within Unitarian Universalism are coming from, it seems to me the differences are worth examining.
Rev. Price starts by describing a common variety of personal crisis he has seen in his role as counselor:
Over the last few weeks, as I have been busy refurbishing my new house, I have had a great deal of time for solitude and reflection. In the midst of the wee hours while scraping and painting, I thought about my many encounters with people who were in various states of crises or distress in their lives, everything from medical emergencies to the dark night of the soul some many traverse. I was also reminded of an acronym I encountered while taking a counseling class last spring at our local Lutheran seminary up on North Main Street. The acronym is W.I.G.I.A.T. or “Where Is God In All This?” In my experiences this and similar questions are often on the lips of those who are in places of struggle in their lives.It’s not always fun to be an atheist sitting in a pew when a UU minister gets going in this direction. One’s internal Redefinition Engine (elsewhere on this site I’ve compared it to Douglas Adams’ Babel fish) generally has to be working overtime to make this kind of material meaningful to us. My personal Babel fish tends to sputter after digesting such a long string of confusing stuff; it has a tough time with matters such as:
It is a normal human experience for us to at least occasionally feel alone or bereft or cut off from our Source. In our current age, in our Western society this is even more common than perhaps in other times, but the experience it self is much the same over time. The Psalmists of the Hebrew scriptures write in Psalm number seventy-seven, “I cry a loud [sic] to God, aloud to God, that he may hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.” And in Psalm 102 it is written, “Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come to thee! Do not hide thy face from me in the day of distress! Incline thy ear to me; answer me speedily in the day when I call!”
Most of you know that I do not quote the Bible very often. But I find this anguish, the need for connection to be too uni[v]ersal to ignore.
Part of my role as a minister is to help people to explore these types of issues and to engage with them for myself as well. Part of what I have found to be interesting about this work is that there are so many different ways for each of us to connect with and to articulate what our experiences of the Holy, the Ultimate, or Goddess/God is. On the maps of our lives and beliefs, the Holy is located in very many different places and experienced as often differing types of terrain.
When doing spiritual direction work with people in existential or spiritual crises, the question of “where is God, or the Holy?” becomes paramount. The loss of one’s feeling of connection to the Universe as we understand it is debilitating and frightening. To reconnect with our sense of relationship with the All, the Holy is a reassuring, healing, and liberating home coming.
- the notion that “Where Is God In All This?” is a deep-seated concern of all of us,
- the idea that that we’re all adequately represented by the psalmist,
- the decision that consulting the Lutherans up the street is a worthwhile way to figure out how to deal with all of our existential conundrums,
Still, though, the offense meter can’t be registering terribly high here. So we have a UU theist deciding that his own (and the American theist majority’s) perspectives apply universally; that is a little unfortunate, but surely we’ve all been guilty of the “Everyone else sees the world the same way my peers and I do” unexamined-premise fallacy. Perhaps the guy just needs a little consciousness-raising concerning the fact that plenty of secular people don’t particularly see a “sense of relationship with the All, the Holy” as a fundamentally important (or even useful) thing. That group unquestionably includes lots of UU nonbelievers, but still: no big whoop.
Unfortunately, Rev. Price doesn’t intend to leave our little corner of the (a)theological world unmentioned. Shortly after the above introduction, he writes:
Unitarian social ethicist and theologian James Luther Adams claimed that “people are incurably religious.” ... Adams later writes that “religious faith is a response to that which is held to be ultimately reliable.” ... Or, to put it more succinctly, we have an appetite for the certainty of the sacred. At some point most people have this yearning and it is our role, as a liberal religious community to be around when they come looking for a place to fill it. According to black liberation theologian James Cone, people are searching for Ultimate meaning. “The more things change, the more people are looking for meaning.”So it appears that Rev. Price (via Borg) has decided that he does know better than I do what’s going on in my mind regarding “the sacred,” “the Holy,” “the Ultimate” and so on.
What of those who say they don’t have these yearnings or experiences? Noted Jesus scholar and Christian, Marcus Borg muses that they may have, “A tin ear for the sacred.” But he also feels that it is more likely that they are having the experiences but lack the language to unpack or articulate them.
What do we mean by the “God we don’t believe in?” Marcus Borg himself does not believe in a God of supernatural theism. For him “God is all around and within us.” He holds a version of panentheism which he feels is described by the Christian scriptures of Acts 17:28. A God “in which we live and move and have our being.” God as life giving and sustaining.
In talking about God, Borg feels it is important in our modern world to ask people to, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” He points out that there are really two basic types of atheism. The first is what he calls, “absolute atheism.” Absolute atheism rejects any or all concepts of God or the sacred. This is what most people think they are practicing when they call themselves atheists, but this is often not the case.
Borg offers a more nuanced category of disbelief he calls “relative atheism.” Relative atheism is being an atheist relative to a particular idea or concept of God. We are all relative atheists to some degree. There are lots of concepts of god which we don’t ascribe to. Borg holds that much of the atheism we encounter in contemporary Western culture is actually a relative atheism in which it is the god of traditional supernatural theism that is rejected, basically because it just doesn’t make sense to people. Those rejecting the god of supernatural theism often are unaware of other ways of understanding the sacred or God.
In the above, we nonbelievers are informed that our own skeptical notions of how we relate (or don’t) to “the Holy,” etc., should be ignored, because:
- We’re disabled, spiritually deaf (“tin ear for the sacred”—what a delightful thing to “muse” about).
- Our “language” is all wrong, indeed denuded.
- We’re extremely ignorant, to the point that our own accounts of our non-beliefs should be doubted from the first. (How silly we are to “think” we’re atheists!)
But all that is more substantive than this post really needs to be. The far more important point is that the passage quoted above is really insulting. Price responds to differences in belief and terminology by declaring nonbelievers incapacitated and ignorant. His argument necessarily implies that, in an ideal world where everybody had Price’s enlightened understandings of terminology, there would be no atheists, because we’d all understand the acceptable (liberal) meanings of “God,” and we’d have the language to “unpack” the existential issues that Price has decided we all struggle with.
The upshot of this passage is that atheism stems from personal flaws, and that it’s a curable malady. I submit that that’s not an acceptable message to be sending from a UU pulpit. Surely atheist visitors who recognize the antipathy in this sermon toward our ways of seeing the world cannot help but get the feeling that they and their perspectives are not welcome in Rev. Price’s congregation.
Standing in stark contrast to that message is the one Rev. Fritts delivers. His sermon starts off in fairly similar territory to Rev. Price’s:
I define myself as a theist, but I understand the perspective of an atheist. Almost daily, I hear comments about a God that rewards some and condemns others to terrible suffering.It’s nice to hear a common concern that atheists have about the ordinary uses of “God” understood and stated respectfully.
A woman who lives in a lush, luxury apartment building in Bethesda with high ceilings, leather sofas, and book-lined shelves said, “Every morning I thank God for waking up in such beautiful surroundings.” I wonder: What does God have to do with her comfort?
A minister said to a sorrow-stricken congregation at the funeral of a nine-year-old who drowned in Rock Creek “God needed this child in Heaven.” I wonder: How does he know that?
On the other hand, it’s hard to forget that this kind of material is frequently just the setup for a nasty twist. Indeed, at a first glance the above seems like it could be nothing more than the beginning of a fleshed-out version of the Borg material quoted by Price—that is, a passage describing those silly conservative-theist ideas (such as, in Price’s terms, “the god of supernatural theism”) that atheists take to characterize all theism, because we’re too stupid to understand that “God” can be seen in other ways. It’s a familiar pattern: attack fundamentalism and then present atheism as nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction to it, a reaction that becomes meaningless or harmful when fundamentalism is booted from the arena by superior liberal believers.
The first wonderful thing about Fritts’ sermon, though, is that that other shoe never drops. When he writes that he “understand[s] the perspective of an atheist,” good gravy, he means it! There’s no “But you’re ‘tin-eared’ morons when it comes to liberal religion” follow-up; instead, he just keeps plowing ahead with the understanding:
A Baltimore quarterback said after the Super Bowl win, “This last month, I’ve meditated on a verse in the Bible--‘Everything is possible for he who believes.’ And I really thank God for our win.”And so on.
A University of Colorado basketball coach, after ten members of the Oklahoma State Basketball staff were killed in a plane crash while returning home from a game in Colorado, said “Tragedies catch you off guard and by surprise. But, you know, I put my faith in God, so every time we board the planes I think it’s his will whether or not we make it back safely.”
I wonder: Who would worship a God that gives a football victory to one team and on the same day kills ten members of a basketball staff in a plane crash? I understand the perspective of an atheist.
Fritts then segues into a historical look at atheism, to some brief synopses of modern atheistic worldviews, and to the rough time that atheists can have in a culture that looks upon religious dissent as harshly as ours does. All this goes by without the slightest hint of finding some fundamental flaw in atheism, some shortcoming that atheists have—in fact, at the end the sermon veers in the opposite direction entirely:
Why are people condemned for their atheism? Is it not because the condemners are weak and uncertain in their own faith? Is it not a fearful insecurity?And to this I say (if you will pardon a word from the Christian tradition), Amen!Wow—amen indeed.
The discrimination, the hostility, the taboo, against atheists in our country is a crime. Some of my best friends are atheists. They don’t believe in God. They never pray. And yet they are good, caring, honest people, sensitive to the needs of others, generous with their time, their love, their wealth. I have known the kindness, the sincerity, and the thoughtfulness of many atheists. Their friendships have enriched my life and their insights have added to my understanding.
So to all the atheists within the sound of my voice, I say: belief in God is not a requirement of membership in this religious community. Theists and agnostics are no more noble or more honest than atheists, and I have never met a person who could be judged solely on the basis of a theological position. To all atheists, I say that you are welcome and that your presence enriches the life of our religious community.
In proclaiming their views atheists help free us from the chains of illusion. They say to us:Use your mind!
Make reasonable judgments!
Dig for more insights!
Examine the evidence!
Think for yourself!
The above is stupendous. Here we have a theist minister arguing vociferously for the value of atheists as thinkers and as people, and even going out of his way (seven, count ’em, seven exclamation points!) to point out the ideas in skeptical worldviews that he finds valuable.
This sermon sends an unmistakable message to visiting atheists that they are overwhelmingly welcome in Rev. Fritts’ congregation. That their ideals are respected, nay, celebrated. That dialogue with theists (and whomever else) in the congregation promises to benefit everyone, such that the atheist visitors have something to contribute to the community.
This, I submit, is what UUism should be about. This is how we should treat people who come in the door with ideas different than our own.
To conclude: It’s not terribly reasonable to expect every UU minister to write a “rah rah atheism” sermon. (I don’t think I could write a paean to nonbelief—or perhaps to anything—that would be as stirring as the final several paragraphs of Fritts’ sermon myself.) But given the clear contrast between the two sermons quoted here regarding the ways they treat nonbelief, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that UU public messages sound more like Fritts than Price in that area.
A respectful sermon can (and on occasion I think it even should) express disagreement with specific theological ideas held by UUs. But I submit that such critical messages have to be couched in the kind of fundamental and overt respect for differing perspectives that Fritts voices here.
It seems to me that sending the message to one’s congregation that the beliefs of a significant chunk of UUs are the result of (1) a sensory disability and (2) stupidity is fundamentally incompatible with our ideals. If you tell visiting nonbelievers that you know our minds better than we do, and that our role in your congregation is to be cured of our sorry non-belief (by removing the ignorance it’s founded upon), we won’t come back. And regardless, I can’t understand how that message can be reconciled with affirming and promoting the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
Please don’t mock us for having “tin ears.” Instead, listen to what we have to say about our ideals with your ears. Even if we all don’t end up agreeing on various theological points, one hopes we can at least understand one another a little better.
1: As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this LiveJournal, the “Tell me” gambit Price credits to Borg is a smug, insulting sneer that I submit should be abandoned by anyone who favors respectful communication. That line sets up the theist in a position of unbearably haughty superiority; it communicates quite openly that he presumes the atheist to be an ignorant dolt. If you’d like to know what your atheist neighbor means by “God,” the question “What do you mean by ‘God’?” will work just fine. If you think she isn’t aware of your broad notion of deity, describe to her your broad notion of deity. Don’t send her the message that you’ve already concluded her entire (a)theology to be based on blithering ignorance of your superior notion of what “God” means.
The presupposition of the entire “Tell me” line is that the nonbeliever doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I submit that nice people don’t pull stunts like that.
2: It probably doesn’t apply in absolutely every case, but in my experience it’s a good rule of thumb: when a UU theist minister capitalizes an adjective (e.g., “Ultimate,” “Eternal,” “Holy”), the idea in question is generally entirely foreign to a large proportion of nonbelievers—indeed, too often it’s much more foreign than said minister realizes.
Many of us just don’t revere those concepts the way you do, folks.
3: Fritts isn’t alone, though. (Thank goodness!) Here are two more sermons by UU theist ministers that are overflowing with respect and appreciation for nonbelievers. Reading that stuff (as well as discussing similar matters with the many UU theists I know who feel the same way) is what makes me feel that Unitarian Universalism is the right place for me and mine to be.