Who believes that God has eyebrows? - moving beyond the atheist/theistdivide and towards a religious naturalism

Outside the Memorial (Unitarian) Church this morning
Readings:Psalm 43

From Religious Naturalism in a Unitarian Universalist Context 
Paper Presented to General Assembly by Jerome A. Stone

Normally I prefer to use “sacred” or occasionally “divine” as an adjective or adverb. However I find that other people (and I myself in the past) have used the term “God.” So I have developed what I call a minimal definition of God for purposes of conversation and common worship, a translation device for communication between various religious voices. “God is the sum total of the ecosystem, community and person empowering and demanding interactions in the universe.” Another way I have of speaking of God, when I have to, is to say, that God is the world perceived in its value- enhancing and value-attracting aspects, placing me close to Frederick May Eliot. The term “God” has power, while phrases like “situationally transcendent resources and continually challenging obligations” replace the power of the language of devotion with the clarity of the language of theory. (The languages of devotion and inquiry are different, but not separated by a fixed gulf.) The term God can put an end to thinking, either in the fanaticism of belief or of unbelief. My point is that the theoretical term “the transcendent” and the devotional term “God” (minimally understood) share the same reference to situationally or relatively transcendent resources and challenges.


On Boxing Day something that has never happened before occurred on the BBC's flagship Radio 4 "Today" programme, when not one, but two Unitarian ministers, offered a "Thought for the Day". Jim Corrigall from Ipswich and Framlingham gave the official "Thought" at 7.50am whilst, earlier at 6.50am, Andy Pakula from Unity Church, Islington and Newington Green, offered an unofficial "Thought" at the request of the guest editor for the day, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Sir Tim is, of course, best known for his "invention" (if that is the right word) of the WWW but, amongst us he is better known as the most famous contemporary Unitarian Universalist - he's a member of our group of sister churches in the USA.

Sir Tim initially invited Andy Pakula to give the "Thought" but the BBC Religious Broadcasting department would not allow a minister who had openly expressed his atheism to occupy the slot. They insisted that a "theistic" minister did that and so Jim Corrigall was asked instead.

This meant that the major religious topic discussed by the programme and, afterwards, in the various articles in the national newspapers (click here for the Telegraph, click here for the Independent, click here for the Guardian), was not really anything specifically and obviously connected with the Unitarian, Universalist and Free Christian movement but rather with the ongoing theist/atheist, religious/secular split that so characterises our post 9/11 culture.

Before I continue it is important to say that, in my opinion, both Andy and Jim offered, different, but in their own ways some excellent and helpful thoughts for the day and they are both to be congratulated. You still have a few days to catch their words on iPlayer and I recommend you do. While the links lasts their respective contributions can also be found at the links below:

Today, I don't intend to comment specifically on Andy and Jim's individual words but, instead, I want to say something about this theist/atheist split as it relates to our own religious movement. I want to do it because, for a casual listener, the fact that there were two Unitarian ministers on the radio - one atheist and one theist - would simply have been confusing. It's confusing, well, because it is confusing!

To help me structure my reflections I'll begin with a story about something that happened to me during my summer vacation.

I was at an Anglican service at which it was known that I was a Unitarian and Free Christian minister. Before the service whilst waiting for the visiting priest to arrive I was talking with five of the parishioners. One of them expressed a deep concern about atheism and suggested that it was offering a very unwelcome threat to religion and asked my opinion on the matter. I said that for my part I did not actually see atheism as a threat to religion but rather saw it, potentially at least, as a co-worker in creating a much needed new religious paradigm. I pointed out that in my own church community (here in Cambridge) there were in fact a number of self-confessed atheists who were positively disposed towards religion. Extreme puzzlement was, naturally expressed. "How could this be the case?" they asked.

The visiting priest was just arriving to robe so I had only a minute or so to reply and I offer just these two, very brief, comments.

Firstly, I simply observed we shouldn't forget that many atheists understand and deeply appreciate religious language and symbolism and that they can still meaningfully connect with many, many aspects of religion without necessarily also holding formal beliefs about the existence of God. I pointed out that the writer Phillip Pullman was currently, perhaps, the best known example of this, This is the phenomenon known as "cultural" or "atheist Christianity". The phrase "belonging not believing" is also often used to describe people who feel this way about Christianity.

Secondly, I pointed out that the whole religious landscape changed whenever one stopped thinking about God as A BEING and started thinking of God as BEING. I reminded them that to be a (conventional) theist is to believe there exists a supernatural being who is God; to be a (conventional) atheist is to believe that such a being does not exist. But, if God is thought of as BEING, this is still not to believe in A BEING called God (so you are still, conventionally speaking, an atheist) but it IS to understand God as the mysterious "no-thing" which gifts every actual thing with existence and life. Such a move allows the mystery of why there is something not nothing to be given a name (either BEING and/or GOD) and for it to remain creatively at play in our everyday language.

A couple of the parishoners exclaimed enthusiastically, "That's an interesting thought - most helpful." There were smiles all around and then, at the very back of the church the priest entered, we stopped talking, stood up and the service began.

Things proceeded as expected until the sermon. The first part of this brought no surprises and we simply heard a good, very competent, standard encouragement to do good on the basis of Jesus' teaching. Had not something else been said following this I would have been able to add at the sermon's conclusion my own, genuinely felt, "Amen!" However, our priest did not stop with this basic moral point but started to add a problematic, theological addendum. He began by saying:

"But, in order properly to find genuine salvation in doing the good Jesus commands, we must be quite clear what it is that Jesus is telling us we must believe about God."

Hang-on, I thought, Jesus never said anything like that! Jesus' teachings are remarkably free from such metaphysical speculation and he clearly offered his words to help keep us focused on our moral and ethical duties and relationships to each other in THIS world. But, our priest continued - "Firstly, Jesus is saying God is a being and, more than that, he is a he - our Father." The priest went on to intimate that we could only trust that Jesus' words were true and must be obeyed if they could be backed up at some point with an ultimate divine force metered out by an actually existent, male being.

I confess that I was completely taken aback by this exceptionally literalist, theological turn. It was a turn of events that clearly framed me as the worst kind of heretic. All those to whom I had been talking cast quick (anxious or even accusatory?) glances back at me. Had our preacher over-heard our conversation? It seemed highly unlikely for we had been talking very quietly and, anyway, we were a long way from where the priest had robed.

But, whatever the reason for the priest's words, they certainly set up a situation after the service in which theists like him were to be lined up on one side and, across a broad and ugly impassible ditch, there were lined up atheists like me. As far as the priest was concerned ne'er the twain could possibly meet. As you might imagine the conversation we had over coffee was a little bit strained. But good old English social muddle meant that, via reminiscences of the previous week's fine weather, we parted on good enough terms. (This very English way of dealing with religious difference, though it is clearly problematic in certain ways, is certainly not to be be laughed at overmuch - after all it has kept us from engaging in inter-religious conflict since at least the Civil War.)

Now why do I tell you this? Well, it has been my experience that in our own group of liberal churches nearly everyone I have come across thinks that when we talk of God we are most certainly NOT referring to A BEING, the old Father God in the sky with a beard but, instead, something much more akin to BEING. Our religious language is understood to be metaphorical - when we say "Our Father" here I am fairly certain that no one really thinks there is an actual (male) being up in heaven. We just know that's not how religious language works. The initial enthusiastic response to my words about this by the two parishioners mentioned above also indicates that there may be many people who are minded to think likewise in what are, otherwise, orthodox religious settings.

An amusing but insightful example of how we just know that religious language is generally to be understood as metaphorical was given by Wittgenstein in an ad hoc comment recorded by one of his students during the 1930s just over the road in Trinity College (You can find this towards the end of his Lectures on Religious Belief).

Wittgenstein pointed to the use of the phrase "God's eye sees everything". Now I'm sure we can all intuitively understand how we might use this phrase even without a belief in a God who is an actual being. Perhaps the obvious one being its use when we have done something in secret that pricks deeply our conscience. It feels as if we had been seen and it's a feeling that won't go away. In consequence we have to address the fact that we have been "seen" and do something about it even when we know we have not been seen. It's a metaphorical way of speaking. Wittgenstein points out that when the phrase "God's eye sees everything" is used everybody understands that "eyebrows are [not] going to be talked of in connection with the Eye of God." Surely, this is true even for the priest I mention above . . . I hope so!

Anyway, this language point aside, the major point I want to make today is that, whenever in an individual or community there has been a CONSCIOUS theological turn towards BEING (and away from a God who is A BEING), the absolute (and to my mind dangerous and unhealthy) difference between those who want to continue to use God language (and are minded to call themselves theists) and those who don't want to use God language (and are minded to call themselves atheists) immediately collapses. So, too, does the religious/secular dichotomy because BEING is obviously relevant to every thing that exists and whether you call it religious or secular. All of a sudden the simple surpassing wonder and mystery that there is something and not nothing has the power to make everything shine in some way and capable of showing up as divine and/or sacred. In short the possibilities for articulating a new, naturalistic religion begins to show up that just doesn't see a dichotomy between so-called theism and atheism and the sacred and the secular.

Jerome Stone is one Unitarian thinker that has fully understood this and this is why I read a brief section from his paper given at the UUA's General Assembly meetings in 2006. I would also recommend taking a look at his books "Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative" (State University of New York Press, 2008 and "The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence: A Naturalist Philosophy of Religion" (SUNY Press, 1992.)

To my mind a conscious turn towards religious naturalism and to BEING could help us fulfill our historical claim that our tradition is one of rational mysticism - and (when we add to the mix our historic concern for issues of social justice) we would have a better hope of becoming, in Tom Owen Towle's felicitous term, "free-thinking mystics with hands."

But a significant problem is that not only can our wider culture not see this naturalistic religious possibility emerging but that we in the international Unitarian, Universalist and Free Christian churches often don't seem to see it either. We are also all too easily seduced into thinking, like the priest who addressed me in the summer and the Today programme, that somehow its all an either/or matter - you are either a theist or an atheist or a religious person or a secularist; that if you use the word God you are a theist and if you don't you are an atheist. This is all so unhelpful and does not serve us well.

So, if I may, I am going to suggest a collective New year's resolution for us all in Unitarian, Unversalist and Free Christian circles. Let's try and see how consistently and intelligently thinking through God as BEING (and not A BEING) and adopting some kind of religious naturalist viewpoint may help to heal, not only one of the most destructive current divides in our wider culture, but also in our own family of liberal churches.


RevDan said…
Thank you for this Andrew...really well put together
Dear Dan,

Thanks for your thanks. Much appreciated. I hope you gave a very happy and fruitful New Year.

Warmest wishes,

Matt said…
Hello Andrew,
I think you've hit on something with this post - it is a destructive divide and the 'God' you point to isn't too far from the 'God' I have come to see in the world.

Thank you for sharing,

Yewtree said…
A friend of mine has given up Wicca because he has become an atheist. I mentioned this to some other Wiccans, and they were just as surprised about it as I was - it is perfectly possible to be a Wiccan and an atheist / non-theist / agnostic / non-literalist. It is definitely a non-creedal religion (despite what some Wicca 101 books, mostly emanating from the US of A, would have you believe).