A Free Mind, Love, and Good Tunes


I thought I would post a sermon. Here is the audio. Sermon starts at 9:12.

I think our descendants will regard David Ray Griffin as the most important theologian of the early 21st century. Any theologian who tells the truth about the stuff that really matters gets my ear regarding religion. Damn if he isn’t good at that, too.

My mind is changing again.

Last week in her interview of me, Pam Gross, asked me about a number of things, and one topic we mentioned but didn’t elaborate upon was my view on God. I don’t like to talk about myself, as if I am the topic, but these questions arise about what the minister believes. I always try to deflect these questions. Who cares what I believe? It is my business. The question for you is what do you believe? Churches have a tendency to make the minister the “designated believer.” If the minister has his or her beliefs right, then everything is OK. If not, then things are not OK.

So when I first came to Southminster, the Friendly Atheist blog published an essay I wrote and titled it, “I’m a Presbyterian Minister Who Doesn’t Believe in God,” many people thought, “That can’t be OK.” Those who read past the title saw within the article itself that I wrote I didn’t believe in a supernatural God. You should spell that word Gawd G-A-W-D.

G-A-W-D was coined by David Ray Griffin in his book, God Exists But Gawd Does Not: From Evil to New Atheism to Fine Tuning. (review by Kevin Barrett). GAWD is the supernatural being that is the subject of most religious creeds. GAWD created the world from nothing, intervenes in the natural order of things, rewards and punishes, and so forth. This is the GAWD that I wrote is the product of myth-making.

I don’t find the existence of GAWD to be particularly persuasive. I think the new atheists like Dan Dennett and Richard Dawkins are right to poke holes in that Gawd. But does that mean that God G-O-D doesn’t exist at all? And what is at stake here either way?

When I first went to seminary, as part of the requirements for admission, I had to write an essay about my beliefs and questions. I wrote in the essay something along the lines of, “Is the universe meaningful?” Is the universe (and are humans) the products of randomness and natural law alone? The things that humans value, love, wisdom, good tunes, are they only things we care about or does the universe itself care about those things, too?

Martin Luther King said a number of times in his sermons and speeches a phrase that is often attributed to him but goes back earlier. The phrase is, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, should be credited with that thought, though. In 1853 he said this in a sermon, titled “Of Justice and The Conscience:”

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

This question has been with me throughout my entire ministry, and I have never let it go. Are Parker and King right? Does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice or is that just something humans like to think?

So, in seminary, I was introduced to the post-modernists. I still don’t know what the word, post-modern, means, but for my purpose here, this is how I used it. It meant that all of these things that humans care about such as love and justice and even God, didn’t arrive until humans arrived. The universe is like a bus. It stops and starts. Picks people up. Drops people off. The bus has no intelligence, no concern for the lives of the people it carries. The love and justice that the humans on the bus exhibit is the result of human interaction. They care about love and justice. The bus doesn’t. I wrote a poem about it, “Riding the Bus with Jesus.” Jesus is the human interaction, not the bus. “Indifference is the law of the universe,” I wrote.

I would call this my post-modern phase. Language about God, about meaning, love, justice, is a human construct. It is an attempt at making meaning of an essentially meaningless universe. All the attempts to insert GAWD into this universe really have not been persuasive to me. The thing is, I talk about that. For many people, that is not OK. I on the other hand, think it is OK. Not only OK, but I think important and necessary for a free mind.

Our minds are not free if they don’t take us where our doubts take us. They are not free if we allow others to set the boundaries of what we can and cannot explore. We should search for what we think is true even if doing so challenges conventional wisdom.

I defend the way I think and the things I believe or do not believe because I come about them honestly and we all should have the freedom and encouragement to do the same. Hearing the views and the thoughts of those that are different from ours, challenging to us, can only make us wiser. That is how we learn. That is how we grow. That is what I do in my ministry. I don’t think being a minister is about rigidly sticking to a set of creedal statements about GAWD. I think being a minister is about challenging those statements and creating new statements that reflect the actual journey we are taking.

All that said, I find myself changing again. Moving not back to the GAWD of creed but answering affirmatively, even if tentatively the question, “Is there a GOD of meaning within the universe itself?” Yes. Is the love Paul writes about in I Corinthians 13 only a human expression, a human invention, or does it reflect something within the fabric of the universe itself? I am leaning toward the latter.

The only thing I really care about is the world my granddaughter, Pippa, will inherit. What are we leaving? What are we doing about it now? I personally find those questions to be very hard, discouraging, even despairing. I don’t back away from the via negativa, to use Matthew Fox’s phrase for the dark path. I don’t shy away from looking at the trajectories we are on in regards to our future. I don’t back away from the truths about ourselves and about our nation that are hard to take. I don’t think church is about hiding from that.

However, it is hard for me to muster up enough hope to be an honorable ancestor by myself. It isn’t enough, I am coming to realize, to have love and justice and God be human constructs in an otherwise meaningless, indifferent universe. I need to know that the universe in some sense cares that we do this well. The universe is somehow cheering us on. Love, morality, truth, goodness are not quirks of human evolution, but built within the fabric of the universe itself. I am starting possibly to embrace that again. I am changing. Perhaps I can embrace what Martin Luther King, Jr. and Theodore Parker said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

These changes that I experience in my reflections on GAWD and GOD do not come from a vacuum, from me sitting on a rock thinking day and night. They come from my life experience and my interactions. They come from a delight in observing the stars to learning about evolution to witnessing disease and death, and grief, and violence, and forgiveness and none of these are abstractions; they are flesh and blood experiences of life. They come from losing my son. They come from having a granddaughter. They come from lies, war and stupidity. They come from courageous peacemakers. They come from learning about species extinction. They come from learning about the vastness and the creativity of life.

These thoughts, beliefs, hopes, dreams, ideas are ours. We all have them. We should never have to be made to feel guilty or wrong or bad for having whatever thoughts we have about life and about God. We have earned them. We need to be able to go to whatever place we need to go even if it is a walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Even if it is a long journey of doubt. Sometimes we need to go there. Sometimes we need to go through it to glimpse a light on the other end.

What I am trying to say this morning is don’t settle for a sound bite. Don’t settle for an evaluation of someone based on a sentence or phrase or label. We are all far more complicated than that. We don’t stay the same. It is OK to change. We don’t have to make others believe or not believe like we do. Instead, I prefer to give people space to make their own honest discoveries.

This is what I think Paul was talking about in this beautiful passage from I Corinthians about love. This translation is due in large part to Art Dewey, who has the ear of a poet.

love takes its time
makes itself good and useful
love doesn’t envy
it doesn’t boast
it doesn’t bluster

it doesn’t make a scene
it doesn’t look after its own interests
it doesn’t throw fits
it doesn’t dwell on the negative
it takes no pleasure in injustice
but is delighted by the truth

love upholds everything
trusts in everything
hopes for everything
endures everything

love never falls way

That Love, I am coming to trust now, is the very fabric of the universe. Love is pulling, enticing, encouraging all of us to become more alive than we were yesterday, and as Love upholds, trusts, and endures, Love pulls us to be even more alive tomorrow.

Amen.

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