The God Who Outgrew Itself

30 December 2007

Sermon delivered at the UNMC on August 15, 2004. See also the associated pastoral prayer.

“You Universalists,” said J. M. Pullman around 1900, “have squatted on the biggest word in the English language. Now the world is beginning to want that big word, and you Universalists must improve the property, or move off the premises.”

At the time, the great tension within the Universalist movement was whether, and to what extent, Universalism would be a Christian faith. Brainard Gibbons asked this very question in 1949:

“Is Universalism a Christian denomination, or is it something more, a truly universal religion? This issue [he continued] is the most vital Universalism has ever faced, for Christianity and this larger Universalism are irreconcilable. A momentous decision must be made, and soon! Unless Universalism stands for something distinctive and affirmative, it falls in[to] indistinguishable, negative nothingness—neither loved nor hated, just ignored!”

Christian Universalism, or the “larger Universalism.” You could not have both.

This congregation chose Christian Universalism; most of the rest of the Universalist churches are now Unitarian Universalist churches like the one in which I grew up, and they chose some version of this “universal religion.”

I’m certainly not here to try to persuade you to take their formula; for one thing, it hasn’t been universally successful, and more to the point, Christians have a necessary witness. But as our world grows more interconnected, it’s becoming more difficult to hold onto our old ways of talking about God. Our God is getting too big to remain within the constraints of our Christianity.

I’d like to recount (in English) a story that Richard Hurst told at last month’s Spanish-language service. None of you were there, so I don’t feel bad about appropriating it. The story is about a young Jewish chaplain in Japan during the Korean War, and his young Catholic assistant:

“The rabbi realizes how far he has come from the cramped apartment in the ethnic neighborhood of Brooklyn where he grew up. He senses how big the world is and how much there is to know and explore. The prospect is frightening but also exhilarating. ‘I was taught when I grew up that the Jewish religion made a fundamental difference to the world,’ he says to his companion. ‘….[But] more than half the world is on this side of the planet. They don’t even know what Judaism is, and they’re content without it.’

“The two of them … notice an old man, standing before the railing of an altar. He has a long white beard that lays upon his chest and seems possessed of a life of its own, like a waterfall. It catches the soft lights of the candles and glints of the sunlight that come through the door of the shrine. His body sways slowly back and forth, back and forth, as he prays.

“‘The rabbi says [to the priest:] ‘Do you think our God is listening to him, John?’

“‘I don’t know, chappy,’ [says his friend]. ‘I never thought of it.’

“‘Neither did I, until now,’ says the rabbi. ‘If God’s not listening, why not? If God is listening, then—well, what are we all about?’”

A universal God is bigger than we can manage to conceive of. God is always wider and deeper than we, no matter how wide or deep we manage to stretch. God has to be, or there’s no point in it. Now more than ever, it is clear that the idea of God that we have shared, couched in Biblical language and Western ideas (not to mention Western and Biblical prejudices), is not adequate to fully express the human experience of the divine.

This is not to say that there is not truth in this vision of God; there is a great deal. Christianity, like anything other than the Everlasting itself, may be true, and complete—but it must be insufficient, because only God is unbounded. The natural state of all things is yearning.

The Rev. John Beuhrens has written that “God is an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” If God is a sphere, and we are each at its center, then depth is breadth. We cannot go deeply into God without going out into the wideness of God. Like outer space, God has no up or down, left or right—only out, out, and ever larger.

I believe that we cannot be deeply Christian without being broadly religious—without engaging our Christianity in the truth that is to be found in other religious traditions, and in other parts of our existence that are not generally considered religious—but must be, or Universalism is not worthy of the name.

Our religion should be Universalist in its sources and in its application. We must engage our expanding perspective in every aspect of our lives—not just for consistency’s sake, but because the particulars reveal the Universal, and the Universal feeds the particulars.

No item is so small that we shouldn’t seek to put it in its universal context. How does your breakfast fit into your religious life? How are your pants connected to the divine Presence? How will the color of paint on your bedroom wall affect your relationship with the vastness of the Cosmos? These sound like silly questions—on some level, perhaps, they are—but as a poem is composed of words, and as a year is composed of days, the big decision to lead a meaning-full life is painted by countless small moments of transcendent grace.

Perhaps a year ago, I was driving home from school, and while I was stopped at a light, I happened to touch my earlobe.

oh brave new World
of Earlobe
I have known You not before
You End of new-found explorations
You vestigial Edge of skin
and soul

We all naturally explore our bodies from when we are very young; I imagine a similar glee when I first discovered that I had toes, or eyebrows. But I have no memory of that novelty. And surely in twenty years I had touched my earlobe before—but never like this. Whatever the source, this was a touch infused with significance.

Hang You there so
so soft and limp and cold
You final Stop of blood and breeze
You Flesh that bends
and knows

A major revelation? Maybe not. But like any religious experience, it was a source, albeit only briefly, of transcendent understanding, which makes it an experience worth cultivating.

Just as any of these everyday experiences are opportunities for communion, every religious tradition is a response to the stirring currents of the Eternal. The mere fact of their existence grants them legitimacy as conduits for divinity; the fact that they share certain truths makes it a little easier on parochial human minds.

The real dilemma is what to do with their differences. We can invent a cheap ecumenism that sands away their corners and whitewashes their brightest hues, but this leaves us dissatisfied. Different religions do differ—not only culturally and aesthetically, but ethically and spiritually. There are not just subtle differences—there are outright contradictions. The whitewash fails because the very fact of their differences helps us to understand the complexity of their common source.

For an infinite God, paradox is essential. There is no single way of understanding the Transcendent—just as there is no single way of understanding a flower. There are many poems about flowers, but none of them has to be wrong for another to be right—even though they may contradict one another, or contradict themselves. The poems don’t need any unity except in the flower they describe.

This is how God can come from all these directions at once—and why Universalism and Christianity are not only reconcilable but mutually necessary. Just as a poem may point to a flower, but is not a flower, Christianity points to God, but is not God. A God who does not transcend Christianity is too small to be the Christian God. It is in God itself, and not in the religions that nod toward it, that unity is found.

“When you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.” Buddhism teaches that religion itself is the final obstacle to enlightenment. The finger pointing at the moon, the Taoist saying goes, is not the moon. If we allow our affection for our Christian heritage to get in the way of pointing heavenward, we will have defaced Christianity by making it into an idol.

Like so many pointing fingers, religious ideas may be paradoxical, even conflicting, but they are all directed toward the God in whom they find their unity. This tension, far from being damaging, is a vital force in our religious lives. We are invigorated by paradox because it is a paradoxical Power that maintains us.

Michael Stewart, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, has written of the paradoxes that help sustain him:

“At this point on my own journey, [he writes] I consider myself a mystic, atheist, Goddess-affirming, rationalist, married bisexual husband and father. Is there unity in my diversity? For me, U[nitarian]U[niversal]ism provides a ‘zone of the lovingly and intentionally unexamined.’ Within the walls of [my church] and within my own U[nitarian] U[niversalist] heart, I do not have to justify my contradictions, as the outer world insists—or abandon parts of myself—but can celebrate my own inner paradoxes and gain strength from them.”

The deeper our paradoxes go—perhaps not unexamined, as Mr. Stewart says, but not artificially reconciled, either—the deeper they go, the deeper we find ourselves in the very soul of God. It’s not only okay, it’s necessary, to examine our paradoxes, find them contradictory, and adore them anyway, because they are the fingers that point to the moon.

I don’t have to choose between being a brother and being a son, or between being a friend and being a lover. I am all these things. I must tread all these sundry paths at once, and allow each to guide me to the corner of God that resides there. Are you Universalists, or Christians, or Buddhists, or atheists, or poets, or sisters, or husbands, or lovers? Universalism means that you do not have to choose, as long as you are honest in your loving, committed to your growth, and open to the truth that inhabits all things and all people.

To tread so many paths can seem easy, if one ignores the terrific burden of freedom, but in truth it is the hardest and noblest task of human beings. Universalism ought not be comfortable. God is big, and we are small, and Universalism is the conviction that to approach God we must grow our spirits evermore.

We imitate God by walking so many paths, because this is what God does—seeps in through all the chinks at the same time, if only we will perceive it. The great burden of religious liberals is that freedom strips us naked of excuses. We have the freedom to choose the part that makes us comfortable, and ignore the rest; but our calling is to refuse to choose—to insist that God isn’t just in one of those places, but in all of them—in every moment, in every person, in every experience. When we have no governors but ourselves and God, the comfort of boundaries deserts us. We have no earthly authority to hide us from the blinding light of the Whole.

This is the message that Christianity and Universalism share—the removal of all barriers to an authentic and expansive experience of Divinity. I believe, as John Murray did, that “Jesus Christ was the greatest Universalist.” Like Christ, the broader Universalism should come not to abolish, but to fulfill.

It is time, in short, to improve the property, or move off the premises. The Christian gospel demands movement—not beyond Christianity, but to a renewal of it in a larger, Universalist witness. Universalism is still “the biggest word in the English language.”

May it ever be so.



One Response to “The God Who Outgrew Itself”

  1. […] You know what the world needs? More blogs. « The God Who Outgrew Itself Pastoral Prayer 30 December 2007 See also the sermon delivered on the same […]

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