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About once a year I do a Question Box service, when in lieu of the sermon I answer as many questions as I can from among those people have written down earlier in the service. It being impossible to get to all of them in the space of 20 minutes, I promised this year to take them up gradually in such forums as newsletter columns and blogs. This one is in reference to the benediction our choir sings most weeks,

May the road rise to meet you

May the wind be always at your back

May the sun shine warm upon your face

May the rain fall soft upon your fields

And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his/her hand. (The choir alternates, one week singing “her,” the next singing “his.”)

The questioner asked: “Does God have a gender?” Here’s my response, which I also published in the forthcoming edition of our newsletter.

I love this question! In fact, I’ve given this a lot of thought for years. In a Feminist Theology class at Syracuse, we read pieces arguing that in imagining God as male, men—who had shaped most of Jewish and Christian tradition—were creating God in their own image and then worshiping themselves. In other words, committing idolatry.

I agreed with these theo/alogians (if God might be female, then the area of study might better be called thealogy) but thought they needed to go further. I didn’t believe in an anthropomorphic god at all (as you’ll hear in today’s sermon), and I wrote a paper called something like “Anthropomorphism and Idolatry” arguing that describing the divine exclusively in human images was as idolatrous as describing it exclusively in male images. After all, if God created everything, surely it would be a wild coincidence for us to be the one and only creature who resembles the Creator. It’s self-serving and arrogant to assume that’s true.

So, no, God does not have a gender. As feminist theology points out, does God have genitals? Chromosomes? A beard? Of course the answer must be no. It’s a metaphor, and when we start to take it literally, we end up worshiping maleness, and we’ve seen where that leads: misogyny.

And no, God is not a human being. As I pointed out in my long-ago essay, does God have blood? a brain? two arms, two legs? Of course the answer must be no. When we take this metaphor literally, we end up worshiping humanness, and that leads to our despising the rest of nature and destroying the environment.

This doesn’t mean that these images should be tossed aside. The fact is, we humans think in images and metaphors, especially when it comes to great abstractions such as love, peace, and God. Whatever the holy is—power, goodness, creativity—it is beyond simple understanding and beyond anything to which it might be likened. And yet, metaphors help us express what we mean. When people imagine the holy as something that creates life, they may imagine a sculptor working in clay (as in one of the Genesis stories, and many other religions’ creation stories) or a woman giving birth (as in Babylonian religion and others). Neither makes sense literally, but they’re good metaphors for the power of creation. When the choir sings, “May God hold you in the palm of her [or his] hand,” what they are saying doesn’t make sense literally, but it is a good metaphor for this wish: as you move through a life that is often hazardous, we hope that some of the great forces of the universe will carry you safely through.

Because I think metaphors are a necessary aspect of human thought (if I wasn’t convinced already, one of George Lakoff’s early books, Metaphors We Live By, with Mark Johnson,sealed it), I think the remedy to their limitations is not to shun them but to use a wide variety of them. This helps prevent us from taking any of them literally, or limiting our understanding to just a couple of characteristics of, in this case, God, or as I prefer to say, the holy. Maybe the holy is like water; this is a frequent image for the Tao, flexible and ever-changing and powerful. And/or, maybe it’s like a crucible, in which the unimportant aspects of our lives are burned away. And/or, maybe it’s like a healer, curing the illnesses of the soul, the body, even the planet. And/or, maybe it’s like a flower, growing where we tend it and needing our care to flourish. If we have enough of these different metaphors in the mix, then we can safely throw in some human ones too: male, female, and neither.

What metaphors express what you believe is holy?





A brief prayer from The Left Hand of Darkness comes to me often. On the planet Gethen, in the book, it’s from the Handdara; here on Earth, it sounds like something from process theology. I was moved to say it by today’s photo on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day:

“Praise Creation unfinished!”



In preparation for our class on theological unity within Unitarian Universalism scheduled for January 31 at UUCPA, Dan Harper and I are blogging about the topic online. With this post, I am less responding to Dan’s post than tossing my own thoughts into the mix, so I’ll use a new post instead of the comments.

The second question we posed to ourselves is “Do we need more theological unity in Unitarian Universalism?” and to that my answer is “No, we need less.”

What I mean by that is that our fear of diversity and difference among us keeps us from talking about our theology/ies.* And that dialogue is something we need more of. In fact, when I am afraid that Unitarian Universalism is withering and dying, it’s the lack of this dialogue that I suspect is the cause.

People sometimes address our decline in numbers with a call for increased theological unity, asserting that if we are to attract people, we need to know what we all believe and declare it. They usually seem to mean that everyone should rally behind their particular theology. While I agree that what we have to offer sometimes feels weak and half-hearted, what gives us such a tentative air isn’t the lack of a simple, unified statement. It is that we are dancing around the topic instead of digging in. We don’t have to agree about what we believe, but we do have to talk about it. And as long as we are afraid of disagreement, we won’t open our mouths.

Here I am getting into very personal territory. When I think about my own preaching and how it has changed–in my view, improved–over the past few years, I know that the weakness at the core was my fear of voicing my own theology. Too often, I was hedging. And hedging attracts no one. When I speak from my own theological center, not trying to speak for every UU but just for myself, I contribute to the conversation. The conversation, to me, is where we come alive.

By the way, our first question to ourselves was “Is theological unity necessary?” That word, “necessary,” always suggests another question, “necessary for what?” What is our purpose? When we know that, we may know the answer to whether we need unity. I have a lot of different ways of stating our purpose: “To transform ourselves, each other, and the world”; the benediction we say at the end of each service; the vision I once set out here. None of them, in my opinion, requires that we have a unified theology.

*”Unitarian Universalist Theologies” was the name of the core liberal theology course I took in seminary, taught at Andover-Newton Theological School by then-doctoral-student Paul Rasor. His book Faith Without Certainty would probably be very interesting to anyone who wanted to explore these questions beyond next week.

Cross-posted here at UUCPA’s blog. (I have turned off comments on this Sermons in Stones entry so that the conversation will take place there.)

The Rev. Dr. William R. Jones, one of that rare breed known as Unitarian Universalist theologians, and the even rarer breed of African-American Unitarian Universalist theologians, died on Friday at age 79 (obituary here). From the time I encountered his work when I was in seminary, it gave me that mix of headiness and humility that we get when someone articulates our own most cherished ideas far better than we can.

For example, this passage from his 1975 article in The Christian Century, “Theism and Religious Humanism: The Chasm Narrows”:

Abraham’s situation, when he is commanded to slay Isaac, represents the human situation. Forced to decide whether he is addressed by God or Moloch and given the impossibility of demonstrating whose voice he hears, Abraham must assume the mantle of ultimate valuator. He must decide the source of the command, and in the final analysis his judgment of the source determines the value of the command. If he concludes that the decree is from God, it is morally imperative. If, however, he decides that it is Moloch’s voice that he hears, the order must be rejected. But clearly, only Abraham can make this crucial decision.

Likewise with humankind: forced by virtue of our freedom and the existential situation of objective uncertainty, we cannot escape the necessity to be the measure of even that higher reality that created us. There is no way to escape this responsibility short of denaturing humanity, for it is a factor of the freedom that is our essence.

The same sense of uncertainty informs the humanist concept of history. The humanist acts “as if” history were open-ended and multivalued, as if human choices and actions were determinative for human destiny. But once history is afforded this character, it becomes problematical that the good is guaranteed. There does not appear to be an inevitable historical development, sponsored by ultimate reality, that ensures the liberation of the oppressed or a more humane society. Rather, oppression and liberation are equally probable. Nor is there a cosmic lifeguard to save humanity from its self-destructive choices. This is the meaning of the tragic sense of history in humanism — not that human efforts are doomed to defeat, but that the best-laid plans of one generation may be sabotaged by the actions of the next.

Thus, rather than fanatical advocates of absolute human freedom, religious humanists view themselves as faithful stewards of human finitude and creatureliness.

Amen, amen, and amen. Not to suggest that his work only recapitulated what I already believed; he has also challenged me, as good scholars and ministers do. I believe even this decades-old piece challenges humanists today, who sometimes act as if human beings are the pinnacle of creation (or, for that matter, gods) instead of finite and creaturely.

I wrote a few months ago about the promise and potential of black humanism, and what humanists and Unitarian Universalists of all backgrounds can learn from it. Bill Jones has done his part; the next steps will have to be taken by those of us he has inspired. Rest in peace and go with our gratitude.

Reading Gary Dorrien’s The Making of American Liberal Theology has sent me back to the Divinity School Address, in particular to confirm Dorrien’s interpretation that Emerson claimed, “To Jesus, all of life was a miracle.” “Did he really say that?” I wondered. Yes, here’s the passage:

“[Jesus] spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends.”

That’s a lovely sentiment, but what justifies attributing it to Jesus, RWE doesn’t say. I would like to think that Jesus was a Transcendentalist, but the evidence in the canonical gospels doesn’t support it.

Almost everyone, even those as iconoclastic as Emerson, wants to claim Jesus as one of their own. A revolutionary, a feminist, an upholder of law and order, a Taoist or Buddhist master, a prophet, a communist, a capitalist. We have just a few texts to judge by, and they support only a few of these interpretations. I would love to embrace the image of Jesus as a saint, the best humanity can be, but I don’t see him as having an exemplary character; he’s impatient and hot-tempered at times. And I would love to see him as a Transcendentalist, perceiving and proclaiming the miracle in the ordinary, but I think that’s Emerson, not Jesus.

Not long after I became a Unitarian Universalist, I was lurking on a UU chat list when a conversation began about the Trinity. Someone argued that a great deal of Trinitarian Christianity, in the United States, was largely binitarian: lots of emphasis on Jesus and God the Father, almost nothing about the Holy Spirit. This was not only the kind of interesting conversation that made me very happy to have found UUism, and “binitarianism” an accurate description of most of what I heard on Christian radio, but it made something click for me, because I thought, “Geez. The Holy Spirit is the only aspect of God I actually believe in.”

So I am troubled by The Onion’s news brief headlined God Quietly Phasing Holy Ghost Out of Trinity. It was just called to my attention today, but it’s dated 2003, and apparently the Holy Spirit has been out of the picture since Easter of that year.

Oh well. It can be in exile. I still like it, love it in fact, and it’s still the only part of the traditional Trinity that I consider divine. God the Father, if He exists, is not someone to whom I would sing praise. Annie Dillard wrote, “We have not yet encountered any god who is as merciful as a man who flicks a beetle over on its feet,” and while I think that is overly sweeping (there are kind gods out there), it does apply to the God described in the Bible, who frequently neither demonstrates compassion nor asks it of us. Jesus, in contrast, begged us to be loving, and I aspire to follow many of his teachings, but his presence in the Trinity is problematic on account of his being purely human. But the Holy Spirit? A force, invisible but palpable, that moves us to create beauty and goodness? That’s what moves me to deep reverence.

One strand of historical Unitarianism rejected the Trinity because the Biblical evidence of a Holy Spirit was thin. But if, as the old joke has it, Unitarians are those who believe in “at most one god,” then for me the Holy Spirit–elsewhere known as the Ruach HaKodesh, which translates “the Breath/Spirit of the Holy,” or the Shekhinah–is a good candidate.

Black History Month, day 18

Some of the theological issues that engage me most are theodicy, the interplay between our lived experiences and our theologies, humanism, and naturalistic theism. As I prepared a talk last fall on humanism, theism, and naturalism, it became clear to me that I should be reading much more from black humanists. From the little I’ve read so far from such theologians as Anthony Pinn and William R. Jones, humanism as a whole (and the variety I know best, Unitarian Universalist humanism) could learn a few things from African-American humanists:

  1. An emphasis on the evil done by human beings. Banjamin Mays is critical of humanism but makes an illuminating point that among African-Americans, it may be that humanist perspectives “do not develop as the results of the findings of modern science, nor from the observations that nature is cruel and indifferent”–here I would interject, “as they frequently have done among more privileged people”–“but primarily because in the social situation, the [black American] finds himself [or herself] hampered and restricted . . . Heretical ideas of God develop because in the social situation, the ‘breaks’ seem to be against the Negro and the black thinkers are unable to harmonize this fact with the God pictured by Christianity.” I am white and privileged in many other ways, yet this echoes my experience growing up Jewish and, from hearing the accounts of survivors of the Holocaust from a very early age, being fully aware of the almost unimaginable depths of human evil. As a result of its clearsightedness about human evil, black humanism offers…
  2. …a liberationist perspective that, in contrast, has tended to be weak in the (mostly white) humanism I have encountered within Unitarian Universalism.
  3. A positive declaration of what it means to be humanist.Like Unitarian Universalism as a whole, humanism within UUism can get stuck defining itself by what it is not. I haven’t read Pinn’s Why Lord?, but according to the author(s) of the Wikipedia article on Pinn, in it he “notes that Black humanism has no interest in disproving the existence of God”; it is “not overly concerned with God as a negative myth, but rather God as a liberating myth that is nonetheless unsubstantiated.” Thus “African-Americans need not waste their time disproving God’s existence, but are simply better off seeking their liberation with the human tools of ‘desire for transformation, human creativity, physical strength, and untapped collective potential.’”
  4. And the final, perhaps most obvious lesson of black humanism is: There are a lot of black humanists out there. Why aren’t more of them finding a home within Unitarian Universalism?

Jane Rzepka, one of my preaching teachers from seminary, had the enviable/unenviable job of leading the opening worship for close to 400 Unitarian Universalist ministers at the CENTER Institute last week.  We worship with great enthusiasm and appreciate great preaching, but it also must have been a little like preaching to a congregation every member of which has their arms folded across their chest and a “let’s see what you’ve got” look on their face. Jane sailed right in, throwing down a gauntlet before all the promises of transformation (the slogan for the Institute was “be changed!”). She claimed that Transformation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Naturally this caught my attention, since my congregation’s mission is “to transform ourselves, each other, and the world,” and I am what you might call Big on Transformation. She said–I’ll have to paraphrase here–that we tell people they come to church to be changed, and we tell them that they are welcome just as they are, and we can’t have both.

I doubted this, but I kept my metaphorical arms unfolded and filed it away to think about afterwards, and just listened to the sermon. The turn she took was to urge us to let go of our wish for Transformation with a capital T and let ourselves experience the “small-t transformations” that the week could bring. That the small transformations matter.

That’s one way to bridge the paradoxical wishes to welcome people as they are and to change them. But what came to my mind was a purer one, which, though no less paradoxical than the problem as Jane posed it, seems somehow to offer a solution. After all, the Buddhists have been grappling with exactly this problem since the Buddha stood up from the place he’d been sitting under that tree.  If samsara is nirvana, why are we striving for nirvana? If we must give up striving, what are we doing meditating? Are we enlightened as we are or must we change?

And the Ch’an/Zen variety, of course, developed paradox to a high art.  What I thought of when Jane said “you can’t have it both ways” was this story from the Ch’an master Qingyuan:

Thirty years ago, before I practiced Ch’an, I saw that mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. However, after having achieved intimate knowledge and having gotten a way in, I saw that mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have found rest, as before I see mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.

If I could grasp that paradox, I’d be a Zen master too. Instead, it slips away and won’t be spotted except in the corner of my mind’s eye. But it seems intuitively right to me.  We are enlightened as we are and we are not yet enlightened. We need to be changed and we need to see that mountains are mountains.

In contrast, Jane’s advice to stick with small-t transformation sounded like a halfway measure. But I don’t think it was. I think that, like a skillful Zen master, she was guiding us away from the preoccupation with Transformation that itself can stand in the way. Stop trying to be changed! Just visit the ocean, talk with colleagues, sing a few songs. Chop wood and carry water. Let go of the desire for nirvana and live in samsara, and then (she didn’t say, because it would have spoiled it) you might find that samsara is the nirvana you’ve stopped looking for.

–joining the UU Salon, with thanks to Lizard Eater for a great idea–

I’m sure I’ll return to this theme, because so many different threads of Universalism weave through my life and beliefs. The first one that came to mind when I saw the UU Salon question, the one that tells me I was a Universalist before I knew there was any such thing, was redemption: stories of conversion of the heart, which have captivated me from an early age.

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