Looking at the moon without long-distance spectacles - a Universalist affirmation and warning


From: The Cathedral of the World: A Universalist Theology by Forrest Church (Beacon Press, Boston 2009, pp. xi-xii)

We are standing on the shoreline of a mountain lake, moonlight against our boot tips, mesmerized by the golden carpet laid lapping out over the water as if lowered from the heavens to meet us at the very place we stand. Before us, along the moon's glorious trail, we can see all the way to the lake's rocky bottom. Above the sunken branches, we watch the water dance and sparkle, a rack of moonbeams on each ripple's crest. Across the lake, where the moon is rising, our path turns to liquid gold. Standing on the shore some distance to our right, a man contemplates the same view yet appears shrouded in darkness. To our left stands a woman, her silhouette all but obscured by the blackness that envelops her. Pondering these two apparently benighted people, we wonder to ourselves, "What can they possibly be thinking? Encompassed by darkness, the lake before them flat and lifeless, if only they would join us at the foot of the moon's luminous path, they, too, could bathe in celestial light." Henry David Thoreau once chastised the Florentine artist and adventurer Benvenuto Cellini for mistaking the aura he saw surrounding his shadow on a dew-drenched day as a special sign of divine recognition. In the moonlight, we experience a like illusion, and woman to our right and left, who share our vision though we perceive them to be in darkness. Judging only by what they see they, too, may feel themselves uniquely illumined. To their eyes, it is we who appear to languish in darkness. Expressive of both the wonder and danger of religion, on the one hand, the moon's golden light extends a path across the lake to the feet of everyone who stands under the spell of its supernal glow; on the other, given that each onlooker sees only his or her own golden pathway, all others standing in apparent darkness, we are left with the impression that we walk the one true path alone, whereas those who fail to join us are lost. Here nature can serve as our theological tutor. She reminds us that, in almost every way that matters, we and our most distant neighbour, sprung from a single source and sharing the same destiny, are one. This revelation encapsulates the essence of universalist theology. To perceive things as they are, not merely as they appear, we must view them with parallax vision. We must imagine seeing them through others' eyes as well as through our own. 

From The Myths of Christianity – The End of Religion by Richard Holloway

[Many religions] want to sell us their special spectacles, which have been theologically tested by experts to give us maximum power for long-distance looking. Given the extraordinary energy and variety of the human species, none of this should surprise us - but buyers should always beware of sellers. By definition they want to move their product, whether it is a Mercedes or a metaphysic.

To punish the metaphor a little longer, in the culture of global capitalism everything has become a commodity, including religion. The most blatant exponents of religious consumerism are the television evangelists, the best of whom are brilliant salespersons.

But even the subtler and more traditional religions try to push their brands. None of this would particularly matter if it were the case of rival systems inviting us to view reality from where they are sitting: "Come, try our view and see if you'd like to build your dwelling place at our bend in the river". More of that is going on today and I shall return to it in a moment.

In the past, however, religion. like everything else, was dealt with in an authoritarian way. We were told, for our own good, what to think and what to look at. And we were told, for our own good, what not to think and what not to look at.


As I mentioned before our AGM here in Cambridge last week, I think it is important to find ways of bringing to our regular gatherings little bits of distinctive Unitarian and Free Christian history and theology to help us to be better and more confident in who were are.

One important strand of our church tradition is that of Universalism. For us this word has two connected meanings. The first relates to salvation. The early Universalists believed, quite literally that God was a being whose primary characteristic was love. Such a supreme, loving being was for them never going to allow any human soul to experience endless suffering in hell but would, somehow, find a way to ensure that salvation was available and achievable for everyone. As one of the earliest Universalists, John Murray (1741–1815), once said to a congregation in the late eighteenth century:

"You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men [and women]. Give them not Hell, but hope and courage.  Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God."

In an age which was filled with communities preaching damnation to those who didn't belong to their sect or church this was, indeed, a powerful message of hope.

This message of universal salvation was, at that time, primarily articulated in Christian terms but it should be clear that once you have become captured by such a belief you will begin to embody and articulate a religious practice and a theology that is necessarily going to become much more open to other ways of being religious. Our forebears began, therefore, to look more closely, not for differences between religions, but for commonalities. Not surprisingly, given their emphasis upon God as love, the primary test of this commonality became not one dependent upon beliefs but upon practice (not orthodoxy but orthopraxy). Out of this came a variety of ways to say that which appears on everyone of our orders of service: "We need not think alike to love alike." Consequently, another of the early Universalists, Hosea Ballou (1771-1852) could say:

"We must not look for religion in creeds or formularies of human intervention. We must look for it in the honest, the pious, the devotional heart; in the heart which truly loves God, loves its [sister and] brother also. The principle of love to God and goodwill to all is true religion."

These points now bring me to story told by Forrest Church we heard earlier in his recent Universalist theology called "The Cathedral of the World" that we heard earlier. I hope it is a memorable one that will stay in your mind so that you can use it yourself when someone asks you about this church, "So what do your lot believe." BUT, and its a big, if subtle but, when we tell this story I think we need to be careful to avoid a certain understanding of it that Forrest Church momentarily seemingly allows us when he says: "Here nature can serve as our theological tutor."

This sentence, I have to admit, gave me more than a little frisson of concern because, as it has been wisely noted elsewhere (in 1931 by Wittgenstein - MS 112 221: 22.11.1931, Culture and Value 25e) there is a major difference between what a natural object like the moon can legitimately be said to "teach" or show us and what we *want* to learn from the moon when we let our words (or "lesson plan") go on theological holiday.

So the vital question we need to ask is, what Universalist lesson can we legitimately take from nature here?

I'll begin by saying that, I think Church is spot on when he says that we can take nature here to be reminding us that:

"To perceive things as they are, not merely as they appear, we must view them with parallax vision. We must imagine seeing them through others' eyes as well as through our own."

Amen, brother, say I. But my big, if subtle, BUT, comes into play when we allow the words in Church's story to go on holiday and let them start acting theologically, or at least theologically in an old-fashioned way. We catch a glimpse of this when he prefaces the words you have just heard by the claim that nature says that:

". . . in almost every way that matters, we and our most distant neighbour, sprung from a single source and sharing the same destiny, are one. This revelation encapsulates the essence of universalist theology." 

This is, for me, the moment when he reveals he is in danger of allowing himself (or rather encouraging us) to think that the moon in his illustration can, in fact, act as a stand-in for God. Not only this but that, from where he is standing, he seems to suggest he does in fact have sight of God and that God looks like, in this case, the moon. And not only all this, but also that his story is, by extension, saying that this same God that he sees *IS* going to look similar to other people standing on either side of him. He seems to be suggesting (to me) that he has moved (silently) from making a call to cultivate "parallax vision" and instead has put on Universalist spectacles which give him "maximum power for long-distance viewing" to see beyond, way beyond the moon, to God him(her)self.

To show that this move has happened let's firstly note that we can "produce" the moon, in the sense that we can actually show that it *is* a natural, celestial object. We were able to do this firstly thanks to many careful earth-bound observations and measurements and then, in 1969, by actually paying her a visit.

Because the moon is a natural object that reflects the sun's light back at us, that light is scattered through our atmosphere and onto the lake's surface such that, thanks to the laws of physics, the light's path seems to come across the water only to our feet and not to those of our neighbours on either side of us. These laws are known to us in such a way that we are enabled to say we know, with great confidence, that the moon's light is reaching our neighbours feet on the lakeside. This is, to repeat, a powerful reminder that: "To perceive things as they are, not merely as they appear, we must view them with parallax vision. We must imagine seeing them through others' eyes as well as through our own."

But with God the matter is very different. God is not a natural object like the moon. We cannot produce God like we can the moon. We cannot be said to be able to do any careful earth-bound quasi-scientific observations and measurements of God and we have most certainly never paid God a visit as the Apollo astronauts paid a visit to the moon.

In our own Judaeo-Christian tradition we are powerfully reminded not to objectify or reify God. As the second commandment clearly says:

"You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth" (Exodus 20:4–6 and Deuteronomy 5:8-10).

By my reckoning, that must include picturing God as the moon - even if it is only supposed to be an illustration/metaphor of what kind of God your long-distance spectacles seemingly reveal to you.

To think that anyone could ever know God in this "moon-like" fashion and then go on to suppose, on the basis of such a story, that down the lakeside this same (Universalist) God is really going to be known in a very similar fashion by those on either side of us is, it seems to me, at best spurious and, at worst, to bring silently into play not a true universalism but, once again, merely our own beliefs and desires in the kind of way that so worries Richard Holloway - and me. To say we can be absolutely sure we see this (Universalist) God is to find ourselves looking at the world with Universalist spectacles that have been "theologically tested by [our] experts to give us maximum power for long-distance looking." To do this in any extensive way would merely be to slip into "pushing or brand" just like many other traditional monotheistic religious communities.

Now I don't happen to think that, when taken in overview, that this is what Forrest Church is trying to do in his book. I think he was, in fact, trying to doing what Holloway hopes to encourage every religion and religious community to do, namely simply to invite people to "Come, try our view and see if you'd like to build your dwelling place at our bend in the river".

I also want to say that the theological bit of Forrest Church's story is fine as long as it is in its strong form primarily intended for internal consumption - i.e. simply an encouragement to us to live confidently by our Universalist intuition that, as yet another early Universalist, George de Benneville (1703-1793) said that, "the inner spirit makes us feel behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things." To be sure this can then be offered to the wider world but only as long as it is simply couched in the form of a gentle invitation to others to "Come, try our view and see if you'd like to build your dwelling place at our bend in the river".

But what we must not do is extend what we feel is our Universalist theological insight to the whole of reality. We must remember that the only thing nature teaches us in Forrest Church's story is the vitally important insight that, again to repeat with a couple of important additions:

"To perceive [natural] things [like the moon] as they are, not merely as they appear, we must view them with parallax vision. We must imagine seeing them through others' eyes as well as through our own." 

This lesson is, without doubt, a vital one to learn but another lesson, and the one I want to foreground today is that we must be very, very, very careful not to confuse natural lessons from the moon with the lessons we learn (or rather want to take) from the moon when we are wearing our own community's (Universalist) spectacles.

Never forget that the moon is a thing and God is not. 

None of this means that within this local liberal Christian community which lives out of a Universalist perspective we cannot draw a theological lesson from looking at the moon's light and to derive from this the courage and inspiration to live a life committed to our perspective. But when we tell this story to others as an illustration of our particular perspective on the world we must remember only to offer it up to them as an invitation to come and see if they like our view and would, in turn, like to dwell with us on our little bit of the shore. Theologically the moon DOES NOT teach us any absolute, secure lessons about the nature of God.

But whether or not our neighbours chose to come and visit and/or stay with us (or we with them) on our stretch of the coast we can all at least raise a glass of wine to the wondrous natural fact that, despite appearances to the contrary, we all, even though we see God differently, will always find the beautiful natural light of the moon run right up to the feet of every human being who stands by the shore.


Yewtree said…
I'm reminded of two things...

A kindergarten teacher was observing her classroom of children while they drew pictures. Occasionally, she would walk around the room to see each child's work.
“What are you drawing?” she asked a little UU girl who was working diligently at her desk.
The girl replied, “I'm drawing God.”
The teacher paused and said, “But no one knows what God looks like.”
The little girl replied, “They will when I've finished.”

The Buddhist saying "the finger pointing at the Moon is not the Moon." (The map is not the territory.)

I really can't get my head round the idea of a single divine reality that everyone is looking at. If one notion of deity is vengeful, another ascetic, another all-forgiving, one completely immanent, another completely transcendent, then they are either *very* different perspectives on the same underlying reality, or they are different qualities (I'm trying very hard not to say "thing" or "entity" here).