What’s in a Name?

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This blog is about religion and theology and ethics. About life, the universe, and everything.

So the word God is bound to get tossed around a fair bit. It’s a word I’ve been extremely uncomfortable with most of my life and one you rarely hear in a UU church. Well, one you rarely hear in my UU church anyway. We did a big congregational survey when we were searching for our new minister and we overwhelming described ourselves as Humanists. I believe earth-centered spirituality came in second. This to say, we’re not big God-talkers.

I lead a covenant group at my church. In many places this is called small group ministry, something used widely in the mega-church movement in order to create intimacy in large congregations. They are essentially groups of about 6-11 that meet monthly to discuss a particular topic like gratitude or forgiveness or service.

In April the topic was “Pray, Meditate, Contemplate.” I’d written the session and it was a conversation I’d been longing to have for some time. Why not just “Prayer”? Well because in a UU church not everyone prays since not everyone believes in something to pray to. During the “prayer time” of our service, our minister invites us to pray or meditate or contemplate ultimate things, as a way to cover all the bases. As might be predicted, there was lively discussion on this topic. But I had thought the lively discussion would center around the various practices people chose to pursue and why. I was wrong. In fact I am almost always wrong when I try to guess what our discussions might focus on, one of the multitude of reasons I love covenant groups so much.

In fact we spent a lot of time talking about names. What we call the divine, if we call it anything at all. God is a word that sent cold shudders through me for decades because it recalled the frustration I felt towards religion as a youth, as well as its present-day use by fundamentalists as a standard around which to rally the “saved” and a judge by which all legislation should be measured. For UUs the word God seems to be utterly co-opted by the conservative right. BME (before my experience), it is not a word I said comfortably, if at all. But over the last year I have begun to reclaim it. Phrases like “the Divine”, “Spirit of Life” or “the Creative Force” suddenly just don’t cut it for me anymore.

But when I used the word God in my covenant group discussion, it immobilized some people. They admitted that just hearing the word put up a big wall that made it difficult to participate in the conversation, even though God wasn’t the stated topic. It wasn’t a road block I had expected, though I absolutely understand these feelings. Just because I’ve been able to free the word from so many associations―the wrathful vengeance of the Old Testament, the judge of Revelations, the voice of Sarah Palin and Pat Robertson and Rick Warren―I understand why it still affects many UUs so profoundly. I want to help reclaim the word God for progressive churches, and for my progressive movement in particular, for those who care to use it. I’m not really sure if this is possible. Or even necessary

What do you call the Divine, if anything? What associations do you have with the word God?Do you think the word God needs reclamation by progressive faiths? If so, is it possible or too late? Does new language need to be created? If you’re visiting here from another faith or denomination, what’s you’re response?

A word about comments

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10 responses »

  1. My perspective is that any congregation where people are deeply uncomfortable about the word God is an unhealthy congregation that is failing in its mission to inculcate a deep Unitarian-Universalist spirituality. The reason I say this is that such attachments lead members to try and suppress the minority who do find value in (non-oppressive, joy-affirming) approaches to God that are perfectly appropriate for UU settings. UUism needs to help people with such deep aversions to move beyond their fears and pains toward a place of healing and flexibility. Otherwise, we’re just leaving them mired in their prisons. I do NOT at all mean that those who don’t prefer to use the language and concept of God need to start doing so. What I mean is that we need to stop allowing the fears of some members from interfering with the spiritual growth and expression of other members. A healthy UU is one who knows her own path but can support those of others without fear or judgment. This goes the other way too–if there are theistic UUs who pressure congregations or individuals not to allow humanist or atheist language, then such people are very much in the wrong.

    • Jeff, welcome!

      I’m glad you mentioned fears and healing. Certainly not all, but I think it’s fair to say that many folks come to UUism as refugees from other faiths. I’m planning a blog on this theory at some point. But in the immediate let me say that I think many come to UUism wounded from other faith traditions — I certainly did — and so the language of those faith traditions is still very painful for them. This probably explains why UUs have so many other wonderful and beautiful ways of describing whatever is that thing out there that got the whole ball rolling (if, of course, you believe that something put the Bang in the Big). So this is why I want to try to help reclaim the word God. Not because I think everyone should use it. I love all the names we have to describe something totally indescribable. But because I’d like to take the sting out of it, to heal it. I’d like it to be used in conversation without bringing up pain or anger, etc. Thanks for your perspective Jeff!

  2. I’m not sure about using “God” or not for my own purpose of defining what I’m thinking about — I do think about the existence of some force that is greater than I am, a mystery, a divinity, something. However, I agree that using the term “God” should not be a moment of discomfort, but rather one of a beginning of a conversation. I don’t know that this is necessarily the mark of an unhealthy congregation, but rather an indication that “God” has become resoundingly too much an echo of religious right conversations that have made the word so loaded. Around where I live, the Midwest, there’s also a conflation of “God” with “Jesus” — and I put these both in quotes because neither term, as it is often used here, reflects anything remotely like my understanding of God or Jesus.

    As a birthright UU — is there such a thing? — I remember, as a child, really wrestling with the notion of God. I distinctly remember many sleepless nights, having these conversations with God, telling him (or her, or it) as nicely as I could that even though I didn’t believe in God, I thought he (or she, etc) was probably really good, and did really good things, and I hoped wouldn’t be sad — or angry (I had some Old Testament friends) — that I was skeptical at best, atheistic at worst. It was a weird place to be in, as a child. And, there was a feeling of not being able to really talk about this with anyone — even then! (This was the 1960s.)

    For those of us who don’t necessarily use the term “God” but do have a strong sense of a divine force, a larger presence, it may be time to let go of the angst surrounding the word, and move on to what’s most important: talking about larger notions of spirituality, faith, and how we express that and understand it and live it.

    For those who *do* use the term “God,” perhaps it would be useful to acknowledge the range of perspectives possible in our spiritual journeys. I sometimes get the feeling that those who do say “God” — and I’m not suggesting this blog is doing that — that those who do feel a certain superiority toward those who use more personal, or questing, terminologies. This sense too comes from being in the Midwest, among evangelicals, whose mission it is to convert. Alas. That mission, unfortunately, most often pushes those like me away — those who are open, are interested, are very much thinking about spirituality, its meanings and expression.

    • Blessed be, sista! Thanks for sharing that great picture of you as a little girl, talking to the divine, concerned for its feelings because you didn’t really believe in it. That is precious and beautiful! And made me feel great because I had so many of those moments myself as a child, talking to Something, all the while telling It I didn’t believe in God. There is a constant paradox in the spiritual life that I am only just now learning to be ok with . . . sometimes . . . ; – )

      These are exactly the kinds of conversations I was hoping for by starting this blog and I hope we can begin to include non-UUs as well, should they be interested.

  3. Pingback: Social justice at GA, suffering, salvation and more « uuworld.org : The Interdependent Web

  4. I’m just fresh into my study of UUism, and came across your blog. Coming from a Catholic background, my idea of the word God is pretty much what is to be expected, after 11 years of Catholic education.

    To me, God is oppressive. I can’t do this and I can’t do that, can’t agree with this, or disagree with that, because God says so.

    I personally get so hung up on what the Catholic church tells me about God (particularly that God is a man, and we are created in “his” image), because how does anyone really know what/who God is, and who are they to assume anything about God? One of my other hang ups is the idea that God is forgiving and merciful, and yet (as far as some Christians are concerned) will condemn everyone to hell if they don’t accept Jesus as the son of God. That doesn’t really connect in my head. So, God is merciful and loving, but only under certain circumstances? That’s kind of hypocritical, isn’t it? We’re supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves, and do unto others, but God has the option of condemning us if “he” feels like it because of what we accept as truth or not? That’s not very fair.

    I don’t really call the Divine anything at this point, because I’m not going to assume I know the nature of it enough to give it a name. If the Divine so chooses to reveal a name to me, I will use it, but I’ll just go with the Divine, or Deep Thought if I’m feeling humorous that day. (I too am a big fan of Douglas Adams.)

    I think that there must be a point when progressive religions reclaim a piece of God the Name. For too long have people heard the word God and made an assumption about him/her/it, and because of this, don’t bother to explore the truth and ideas behind the name. To most people, God is a dude in the clouds, with a big white beard and a robe. If people don’t see past this image that has been created for them by man, then how will they ever have a real connection to whichever image of God they see? How will they ever begin to understand the nature of the Divine? (I use the word begin, because I don’t think it’s really possible for us to ever fully understand it.) For most people, the conversation stops at the word God, because everyone seems to think there is a mutual understand of who/what God is. By reclaiming this word, and changing what it means, conversation can start again.

    • Welcome Manda, both to UUism and to this blog!

      Deep Thought! I had totally forgotten. Thanks for reminding me about Deep Thought ; – )

      I agree with your frustration about definitive statements about what the divine is or isn’t. How can anyone possibly know? As you might have read on the first post on this blog, I had a personal, mystical experience of god. The upshot of it was a feeling of total and complete love and acceptance. Very cool feeling. But recently I had to make a choice about whether or not to put my cat down and I begged and begged for a very clear sign of what the right thing to do was — choices about death are not my purview, I argued. I don’t want to have anything to do with those kinds of choices. But it didn’t give me a sign. It didn’t make things clear. And I just had to go ahead and make the choice myself. I feel furious with god. If it loves me so much, why would it let me walk around with such guilt and wonder if there was something else I could have done. The thing is, I also believe that god doesn’t muck about in our daily lives, doesn’t save some people and not others, or give some people cancer and not others. I don’t believe in that kind of cosmological monkeying around. So all the time I was begging for a sign, I didn’t really believe I’d get one.

      It’s a complicated gig, this god thing. Just because I’ve had an experience of god doesn’t make me feel like I understand anything any better, and quite frankly it seems to produce a lot more ethical dilemmas, as far as I can see. Rats!

  5. Dear cUUrious gUUrl,

    I came across your blog through the “interdependent web” bulletin. First of all, I want to thank you for sharing your mystical experience, as well as your attempt to start a conversation.

    I’m a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and I’ve experienced a tension there over discussion of God and God-related activities such as prayer. I think at the root of the problem is the issue that the word “God” is much more than a word.

    “God is the Supreme Being.”
    OK, now I hear someone saying, “Not necessarily.”
    Fine. Then we have different beliefs about God. Unitarian Universalists have no common belief about or in God. Because of that, bringing up God is a conversation stopper. The conversation cannot continue any more than if someone said,
    “Zeus has been so good to me.”

    sincerely yours,
    saluby

    • Saluby,

      Thanks so much for stopping by. Hope you’ll keep coming back!

      Re: “God” being a conversation stopper, I think this is what UUs have to wrestle with. Because if we do believe the 4th principle, if we do affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and if we do believe the 3rd Principle, the acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations, then we have to figure out a way to sit and listen to someone talk about a very different concept of the divine or source or a disbelief in god on the other end of the spectrum, and after listening to a different opinion, move forward in conversation together. With each other. With other religious traditions.

      I was talking to a friend raised Evangelical the other day and she recently visited her folks and went to their church. It’s so hard for her to sit through that service, and it reminded me of how tough I found it to sit through my childhood Episcopal church. But I think it’s almost my job as a UU to learn how to be able to sit with Evangelicals and Episcopalians now and figure out a way to respect their view of things and not feel that it, in any way, threatens my view of things. To be able to hold both comfortably. I say this blithely. As if it’s so easy. It is not. And I’m not sure how to begin. Accept radically compassionate listening. That’s where I think the road starts. I don’t know. I welcome ideas.

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