Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sermon: "Speaking Honestly of God" (Delivered 7-24-11)

Opening Words
[These words come from the book From Zip Lines to Hosaphones: Dispatches from the Search for Truth and Meaning by Jane Rzepka.]
What gods, if any, does a religious liberal look for? […]

Although atheism, agnosticism, and humanism are welcome and particularly popular, among Unitarian Universalists some gods are common.

God may be a spirit that offers a feeling of safety and advocacy close at hand, a feeling of belonging wherever you are. A warmth, a confidence, an acceptance.

Others experience a god that provides strength and encouragement, especially in the face of life’s challenges. A god that understands how difficult their situation is and how hard they are trying, as only a god can.
Some among us feel a life-force in the world, an energy, a liveliness, a connection that is not so much personal but universal.

No two Unitarian Universalist theists conceptualize their gods in exactly the same way – at least that’s my guess. But when people in our fold want a god in their lives, they are inclined to welcome a face of god that gives them strength for the good, with meaning and love.

Way back in March, I delivered a sermon about a book that had just been released. The book’s title is Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Its author is Rob Bell, minister of an Evangelical Christian mega-church in Michigan. In the book he argues for an understanding of the afterlife in which the gates of heaven are a whole lot wider than most people believe. He’s almost a Universalist, which is to say that he almost imagines an all-inclusive heaven and a shuttered and boarded-up hell… almost, but not quite. But almost ain't bad.

Bell's book made a lot of people furious. You can scour the internet and find countless examples of conservative Christians saying really nasty and vicious things about him for writing Love Wins. I’ve read and listened to some of those ugly rants, and I feel like asking a few of those people, “Do you praise Jesus with that mouth?”

The controversy over the book created a stir and helped to push up sales. Bell received numerous invitations to appear on various television news programs. These scheduled appearances just happened, as fate would have it, to coincide with the horrific earthquake and tsunami in Japan. So, all of a sudden, Rob Bell found himself in the position of theologizing, of giving religious voice, to this devastation in Japan that touched the entire world.

I want to read to you, word for word, a few of the questions Rob Bell was asked when he went on television. Appearing on Good Morning America, George Stephanopoulos asked him, “So how do you handle the big questions being provoked by what we’ve been seeing in Japan? Why would God simply allow this suffering? And then, most of the Japanese are Shinto or Buddhist. Are they condemned to hell?”

In an appearance on MSNBC, Rob Bell is interviewed by Martin Bashir who comes off as hostile, and, frankly, like a jerk. Bashir begins by asking much the same question, just a lot more bluntly. Speaking to Bell, Bashir says, “Before we come to talk about the book, just help us with this tragedy in Japan. Which of these is true: either God is all-powerful, but he doesn’t care about the people of Japan and therefore they’re suffering, or he does care about the people of Japan but he is not all-powerful? So, which one is it?”

Okay, I want to hit pause for a few moments. I watched these clips and I was surprised by how much I was struck by these questions. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t help but put myself in the seat where Rob Bell was sitting. It is unlikely that I’ll ever write a book that will land me a guest spot on a network news program but, hypothetically speaking, how would I answer a question like this? Tell us something about the nature of God and make it fit in a five second sound-byte. How would I answer those questions if they were posed to me by George Stephanopoulos and Martin Bashir? My mind went back to that time I took a course on ministry and media skills, how we videotaped ourselves being put on the spot and answering pointed questions, and then we watched the videos of our responses to see if our answers communicated any sense of assurance or clarity or authority.

I imagined some different possible responses I might give if I had been sitting where Rob Bell had sat. I imagined myself answering aggressively. “Those are stupid questions. They are theologically juvenile. And, to explain to you why they are bad questions would take longer than you are planning to give me in this interview. I do not accept your premises and will not give the false choices you’ve proposed the honor of my reply.” But then I decided that answering this way wouldn’t be helpful to anyone.

I imagined confusing and undercutting the question with agnosticism. “Nobody can possibly know whether God intervenes in human affairs, or whether God has the power to intervene, or even if God exists at all. We just cannot know.” If my first response was too aggressive, this response seems to err on the side of too much passivity. It is a weak answer.

And the problem, I now saw, could be found in my unwillingness to honor the seriousness of the question. Each of my imagined answers had a bit of honesty in them. Questions like these, questions about where God is in the midst of suffering, really can’t be answered satisfactorily with five second quips. And, all answers are necessarily tentative and speculative. But, by dodging the question, I think you do refuse to engage in discussions about that which has been a perennial question throughout all of recorded human history. Why do we suffer? Does God cause us to suffer? Where is God in the midst of suffering?

The questions George Stephanopoulos and Martin Bashir ask can be understood in a different light. Consider the following (paraphrasing of an email that contained an) observation made by my friend and fellow UU minister Brent Smith:
In this “nation with a soul of a church” theological issues still remain at the heart of our culture. We may think in terms of philosophy, and concern ourselves with questions of God’s existence, which is a philosophical question more than a theological one. Or, we might put ourselves in the privileged position of the social scientist and compare and contrast how these questions are answered in various cultures and across world religions. But, in our culture we lead with a theological question. What is the nature of God’s love and what is the nature of God’s judgment?
Let me go back to those questions asked by the television personalities. Martin Bashir comes right after Bell. “Which of these is true: either God is all-powerful, but he doesn’t care about the people of Japan and therefore they’re suffering, or he does care about the people of Japan but he is not all-powerful? So, which one is it?” Bashir is asking a theological question about the nature of God.

Now, listen to Bell’s response. “I begin with the belief that when we shed a tear, God sheds a tear. So I begin with a divine being who is profoundly empathetic, compassionate, and stands in solidarity with us. Secondly, the dominant story of the scriptures is about restoration, about renewal, about rebirth. It’s about a God who insists, in the midst of this chaos, that the last word hasn’t been spoken.”

In all honesty, Bell’s answer is not a perfect answer. But, the question he is answering is all about the nature of God’s love and God’s judgment. I could spend a bunch of time unpacking Bell’s answer and what I think about it, but I want to move along.

So, let me hit stop as we move away from these interviews with a heretical evangelical minister. We are going to put all of this aside and bring the conversation into this room. As Jane Rzepka reminded us in the reading from the beginning of the service, as Unitarian Universalists we gather together with differing understandings of God. Some of us are atheists, agnostics, and humanists who try to avoid speaking or hearing the word God as much as possible. Others of us do find some concept of God to be beneficial or even desirable, at least insofar as the concept of God that is offered isn’t reprehensible or barbaric. We are diverse. I don’t pretend that we are all in agreement or that it would be a good thing if we were.

But, this morning, I want to challenge all of us. I want to challenge the theists and non-theists alike. I want to challenge us to assume that my friend, Brent Smith, is right when he says that we as a nation tend to make sense of things by leading with a question about the nature of God’s love and the nature of God’s judgment? Can you see how differing ideas about God’s love and judgment are going to lead to justification for different approaches to poverty, war, environmental destruction, the justice system, the education system, and the meaning of nationhood?

If this is true, just suppose it is true, then it is incumbent on us, theist and non-theist alike, if nothing else, to speak honestly of God. And, I want to explore what that might look like.

I use the word “honestly” in a very intentional way. And, that word may cause us to stumble. Because, at first it would seem that the only way to be completely honest is to admit to agnosticism. “We don’t really know. We can’t really know.” But, I think there are certainly times when rigid agnosticism is unhelpful. Suppose a white supremacist uses the book of Genesis to argue that God created some races to be superior to other races. The agnostic turn would require you to say, “I suppose that could be possible.” Or suppose you are being visited by your crazy uncle, the one who goes on and on about the connection between the Freemasons and the aliens. Your response – “I suppose that is possible” – is not spoken with honesty. You suppose no such thing. You’re just trying to change the subject. There are times when agnosticism can be without honor.

It is possible to speak honestly of God even if you don’t believe in God. Some people insist that God has given the United States a special blessing, that we come before all other nations, and that our interests supersede the interests of other nations. Others insist that God views all people equally and does not play favorites with nations. And, one of these statements seems more honest than the other. In all honesty, God did not help you score that touchdown and, honestly, God does not care who wins the Super Bowl. In all honesty. Speaking honestly of God.

Annie Lamott once quipped that you know you have created God in your own image when God hates all the same people you do. So, is the God of the liberal church a God who likes to listen to NPR, just like we do? That is not what I am saying. If anything, I do actually think that Brent Smith is on to something when he observes, “We need to acknowledge that God’s ways are not our own in that we limit our love, but God does not. We set boundaries around our affections, unlike God’s love which knows no boundaries.”

The Hebrew prophet Micah once told the people, God does not want you to sacrifice calves or rams, or to pour out rivers of oil, or to put on a feast, or hold a big celebration to show your love of God. God is not impressed by this. “The Lord only requires that you do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.” (Micah 6:8) Oh, is that all? Justice, mercy, and humility are a lot to ask. Are you sure I can’t just prepare a feast? I find Micah’s image of God to be a very honest one.

If you question the usefulness of speaking honestly of God, consider this allegation from cultural critic Chris Hedges. Hedges claims that the liberal churches and liberal synagogues have often failed “to denounce Christian heretics who acculturate the Christian religion with the worst aspects of consumerism, nationalism, greed, imperial hubris, violence, and bigotry.” Speaking honestly of God requires us to challenge popular images of God, images of a God who smiles upon the powerful, selects favored nations or classes, is impressed by showy displays of wealth, and blesses war.

Rob Bell, in introducing his book, says, “What we believe of heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like.” That would be the nature of God’s love and the nature of God’s judgment. “It exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like.” If we believe that God has created a heaven in which a few select people win, then we will be satisfied with a world in which only a few select people get ahead and everyone else suffers. If we believe in a God who would punish billions of souls for all eternity, we ourselves will be indifferent to suffering in the world and won’t challenge systems of exclusion and separation. If we believe that God is a designer of torture chambers, we will see no issue with designing our own torture chambers. If we believe that salvation means evacuation from this fallen world, we’ll see no need to reduce our carbon footprint.

Indeed, “what we believe of heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like.” And, what we believe about who God is and what God is like is incredibly important because it will inform our notions of how we ought to live right here and right now.

Speak honestly of God, and speak of a God who does not limit love in the ways that we limit love. Speak of a God who includes all, even though our inclusiveness may have its limitations. Speak of a God who is “profoundly empathetic, compassionate, and stands in solidarity with us,” even though we sometimes have failures of empathy and commitment. Speak of a God for whom forgiveness comes easily even though for us it may come with painful slowness. And though we may judge with anger and contempt, speak of a God for whom there is no judgment apart from love.

To speak honestly of God is to speak honestly of those values that for us are noble and worthy and worth pursuing. Amen.