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Liberal Views of God - Unitarian Sermon by Rev. Dr. Morris Hudgins

One of the traditional religious concepts often avoided in Unitarian Universalism is talk about God. A belief in God is for almost all religions a given. What about liberal religion? We may not accept the traditional view of God, but I hope we have redefined what God means to us. I believe my personal religious journey is similar to many of yours. That journey includes many different views of God.
In a nutshell my journey has taken me from the existentialist "God is Dead" days of the 60's to the liberal Christian views of Paul Tillich, humanism and Liberation Theology of the early 70's, then to the Feminist theology of the 80's and finally to a naturalistic mysticism in the 90's. Expressed in another way this journey includes:
a pronouncement of the death of God in 1965
to a God who sets people free in 1966,
to God as the source of my being or the Ground of all being in 1968,
to God as found in the human search for goodness in 1973,
to God as found in the divinity of all people in 1980,
and finally to God as the transcendent in the midst of nature in the 1990s.

A summary of my journey in theology is best expressed in the argumentative style of the 60's when I denied the existence of God, to a poetic and mystical style of the 90's, when I no longer care to argue if God exists. Today, I desire to be aware of the presence of the holy around me.

For this sermon I would like to use the poetry of May Sarton to show my journey of belief. As I studied May Sarton's poetry, I began to realize that her poetry and my theology followed a similar path. In her collected poems we find her poems grouped by decades. Through her poetry we can see how she changed over the years.

1. Existentialism and the Death of God
The first poem I will read this morning is from 1960's, the years I was in college and being filled with that important event: the death of God. You will see how May Sarton viewed the death of God in this poem titled, "The Concentration Camps":

Have we managed to fade them out like God?
Simple eclipse the unpurged images?
Eclipse the children with a mountain of shoes?
Let the bones fester like animal bones,
False teeth, bits of hair, spilled liquid eyes,
Disgusting—not to be looked at, like a blight?

Ages ago we closed our hearts to blight.
Who believes now? Who cries, "merciful God"?
We gassed God in the ovens, great piteous eyes,
Burned God in a trash heap of images,
Refused to make a compact with dead bones,
And threw away the children with their shoes?—

Millions of sandals, sneakers, small worn shoes—
Thrust them aside as a disgusting blight.
Not ours, like death, to take into our bones,
Not ours a dying mutilated God.
We freed our minds from gruesome images,
Pretended we had closed their open eyes

That never could be closed, dark puzzled eyes,
The ghosts of children who went without shoes
Naked toward the ovens' bestial images.
Strangling for breath, clawing the blight,
Piled up like pigs beyond the help of God....
With food in our stomachs, flesh on our bones,

We turned away from the stench of bones,
Slept with the living, drank in sexy eyes,
Hurried for shelter from a murdered God.
New factories turned out millions of shoes.
We hardly noticed the faith small of blight,
Stuffed with new cars, ice cream, rich images.

But no grass grew on the raw images.
Corruption mushroomed from decaying bones.
Joy disappeared. The creature of the blight
Rose in the cities, dark smothered eyes.
Our children danced with rage in their shoes,
Grew up to question who had murdered God.

While we evaded their too attentive eyes,
Walked the pavane of death in our new shoes,
Sweated with anguish and remembered God.

Do you remember those days? We questioned the existence of God in the midst of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights marches? Do you remember asking how God could exist when people were being murdered in Mississippi and Alabama, and Saigon and Mai Lai? How could God allow such things to happen in life? "God must be dead," we said. For me, personally, the existentialist philosophy filled the void of God's death. With Sartre and Camus I cried that life had no purpose except in suffering. Existence—all that we go through in life—precedes essence and purpose and meaning.

2. Paul Tillich
During those 60's I was planning to go into the ministry. I needed to have a faith that would fill the void of meaningless and anarchy. How was I going to preach to all of those Methodists if I didn't believe anything? I found my answers in two movements of the time. First, was the theology of Paul Tillich, who was also influenced by the existentialist philosophers. Tillich fed the starving spirits of most divinity students in the 60's and 70's.

What Paul Tillich did for me was give new expression to the old Christian terminology. God for me was not father in control of the universe, but rather the ground of my being. God was the source of my goodness. I believed that in 1972 when I was ordained and I believe it now. God is goodness. God is love. God is our ability to forgive, to forget.

3. Humanism
Another way to say this is that I was filling the void of existentialism with humanism. After I graduated from seminary I learned about the Unitarian Universalist Association. One of my young adults in the Methodist Church went to a Unitarian Church in Richmond, Virginia and came back and told me how their theology was very close to mine. I checked into it and found that he was right. My first sermon preached in a Unitarian Church was in Hampton Beach, Virginia. Of course, I talked about the theology of Paul Tillich. I found the response of the congregation interesting. Some said "God is dead" and they buried him years ago, and others said they were looking for a positive view of God that could fill the void. I was confortable with that dilemma. Tillich worked and I became a UU that year.

May Sarton wrote a poem that expressed how I felt. God was not dead. God was just sleeping—because people had lost the fight for goodness. The poem is titled, "The Sleeping God":

High in Nepal, the lock sprang at last:
There Vishnu lies entranced upon his pool,
And there I was touched deeply and held fast,

Was dreamed and delved, each nerve put to school,
Dreamed by his fertilizing power at rest
While anguish flowed away under his rule.

God, flower-fragile, open to the least,
Naked to every pulse of air and light,
More vulnerable in fact than any beast,

Young man relaxed in beauty, and so slight
He seems to float upon his dangerous sleep,
Daring to dream, exposed to the daylight.

He lies there on the coil, massive loop
Of the eternal snake, a sovereign
Disarmed, without a wall, without a keep,

And renews all within his fertile reign,
And so, become the master of all space,
Is pure creation that can know no pain.

I saw him, naked, as a holy place,
A human Heaven which had learned to float
The universe upon a sleeping face.

And I, the Western one, was lost in thought,
Felt the lock spring, demons fly out,
And, all cracked open as the image caught,

Knew I was dreamed back to some ancient school
Where we are field within a single rule:
True power is given to the vulnerable.

It was during this period that I continued to disbelieve in the all-powerful, all-knowing god. But I began to believe that there was this source that wanted humans to do good. This faith was affirmed in Unitarian Universalism as a humanistic faith. We are the measure of right and wrong, good and bad. If we are not going to do it, it will not get done. Our faith was human centered. We taught our children that they can be all they want to be.

4. Liberation Theology and Feminist Theology
It was this humanistic faith that told me that I must not be merely concerned about my own future, but the future of all people. Freedom does not exist for me if one individual is not free. If I am going to have justice, all people must have justice. Liberal religion must be compassionate toward others. This belief caused me to support the Civil Rights movement in the 60's, and then the Feminist movement of the 70's and Gay Rights in the 80's and 90's. God, if God exists, must be male and female.

I took to the pulpit in a Congregational Church in the 70's and prayed to God the Father and Mother of us all. They didn't invite me back, but I had found a theological home. I supported the move to ordain Religious Educators and welcome women in our ministry. I saw Unitarian Universalism as a leader in the fight for equality for all and I still do.

I am comfortable with the label of liberationist theology. God is in the trenches helping the oppressed, fighting for the underdog. This poem by May Sarton again expressed how I felt. It is titled "The Cage Bird":

He was there is my room,
A wild bird in a cage,
But I was a guest and not for me
To open the gate and set him free
However great my gloom
And unrepenting rage.

But not to see and not to hear
Was difficult to try:
The small red bird burst into song
And sang so sweetly all day long
I knew his presence near
And his inquiring eye—

So we exchanged some words;
And then I scattered seed
And put fresh water in his pan
And cleaned the litter from the pen,
Wondering about caged birds,
What more this one might need.

But oh, when night came then
I started up in fear
At the fierce wing-beat of despair
Hurled at the bars, hurting the air,
And the heart wild within
As if a hawk were near.

The room was sealed and dark
And that war all within
Where on the small cramped stage
The bird fought with his cage
And then lay beaten down,
Almost extinguished spark.

And when I went back to bed,
Trembling, who nothing could,
As if this scene had grown so huge
It ripped apart all subterfuge,
And naked now as God,
I wept hot tears like blood.

God was becoming for me, like May Sarton, the compassionate one that wanted to liberate all—even the caged bird who would probably die if he were set free.

5. Naturalistic mystic
The summer that May Sarton died I began to realize I no longer was interested in providing arguments for the existence of God. I was more interested in looking for the holy or transcendent around me. These two Sarton readings resonated with my present theology. The first is from a poem titled, "Gestalt at 60." This is my favorite Sarton poem. It is a tribute to her life. As you listen to this poem think about the struggles she had with depression and how she nourished her soul with nature, her home, rnusic, poetry, and friendships. As I thought more about this poem, I began to see that this poem expresses what a UU Fellowship is all about. We come here to nourish each other, to help each other though the good times and the bad, to feed our souls and lift our spirits.

Gestalt at Sixty
For ten years I have been rooted in these hills,
The changing light on landlocked lakes,
For ten years have called a mountain, friend,
Have been nourished by plants, still waters,
Trees in their seasons,
Have fought in this quiet place
For my self.

I can tell you that first winter
I heard the trees groan.
I heard the fierce lament
As if they were on the rack under the wind.
I too have groaned here,
Wept the wild winter tears.
I can tell you that solitude
Is not all exaltation, inner peace
Where the soul breathes and work can be done.
Solitude exposes the nerve,
Raises the ghosts.
The past, never at rest, flows through it.

Who wakes in a house alone
Wakes to moments of panic.
(Will the roof fall in?
Shall I died today?)
Who wakes in a house alone
Wakes to inertia sometimes,
To fits of weeping for no reason.
Solitude swells the inner space
Like a balloon.
We are wafted hither and thither
On the air currents.
How to land it?

I worked out anguish in a garden.
Without the flowers,
The shadow of trees on snow, their punctuation,
I might not have survived.
I came here to create a world
As strong, renewable, fertile. As the world of nature all around me—
Learned to clear myself as I have cleared the pasture,
Learned to wait,
Learned that change is always in the making
(Inner and outer) if one can be patient,
Learned to trust myself.

The house is receptacle of a hundred currents
Letters pour in,
Rumor of the human ocean, never at rest,
Never still....
Sometimes it deafens and numbs me.

I did not come here for society
In these years
When every meeting is collision,
The impact huge,
The reverberations slow to die down.
Yet what I have done here
I have not done alone,
Inhabited by a rich past of lives,
Inhabited also by the great dead,
By music, poetry—
Yeats, Valery stalk through this house.
No day passes without a visitation—
Rilke, Mozart.
I am always a lover here,
Seized and shaken by love.

Lovers and friends
I come to you starved
For all you have to give,
Nourished by the food of solitude,
A good instrument for all you have to tell me,
For all I have to tell you.
We talk of first and last things,
Listen to music together,
Climb the long hill to the cemetery
In autumn,
Take another road in spring
Toward newborn lambs,

No one comes to this house
Who is not changed.
I meet no one here who does not change me.

How rich and long the hours become,
How brief the years,
In this house of gathering,
This life about to enter its seventh decade.

I live like a baby
Who bursts into laughter
As a sunbeam on the wall,
Or like a very old woman
Entranced by the prick of starts
Through the leaves.

And now, as the fruit gathers
All the riches of summer
Into its compact world,
I feel richer than ever before,
And breathe a larger air,

I am not ready to die,
But I am learning to trust death
As 1 have trusted life.
I am moving
Toward a new freedom
Born of detachment,
And a sweeter grace—
Learning to let go.

I am not ready to die,
But as I approach sixty
I turn my face toward the sea.
I shall go where tides replace time,
Where my world will open to a far horizon.

Over the floating, never-still flux and change.
I shall go with the changes,
I shall look far out over golden grasses
And blue waters....

There are no farewells.

Praise God for His mercies,
For His austere demands,
For His light
And for His darkness.

And, secondly, from her book, "May Sarton's Well":

... if one looks long enough at almost anything, looks with absolute attention at a flower, a stone, the bark of a tree, grass, snow, a cloud, something like revelation takes place. Something is "given," and perhaps that something is always a reality outside the self. We are aware of God only when we cease to be aware of ourselves, not in the negative sense of denying the self, but in the sense of losing self in admiration and joy.

Whatever peace I know rests in the natural world, in feeling myself a part of it, even in a small way.

For us who have no religion in the old-fashioned sense, who can say no prayers to a listening God, nature itself—nature and human love—polarize, and we pray by being fully aware of them both.

One thing is certain, and I have always known it—the joys of my life have nothing to do with age. They do not change. Flowers, the morning and evening light, music, poetry, silence, the goldfinches darting about. . .(pp. 43-46)

The transformation that has occurred within me, happened because I was able to add another dimension to my faith. I still believe in reason, but I have added something spiritual to my faith. You can call it heart or soul if you wish. It has to do with being aware of the world around me and my place in the world. This poem titled "March-Mad" expresses at least a part of what I am saying. It speaks to me of winter and especially of the holidays:

The strangely radiant skies have come
To lift us out of winter's gloom,
A paler more transparent blue,
A softer gold light on fresh snow
It is a naked time that bares
Our slightly worn-down hopes and cares,
And sets us listening for frogs,
And sends us to seed catalogues
To bury our starved eyes and noses
In an extravagance of roses,
And order madly at this season
When we have had enough of reason.

Yes this says it all:

To bury our starved eyes and noses
In an extravagance of roses,
And order madly at this season
When we have had enough of reason.


Unitarian Universalist Northern Hills Fellowship, December 12, 1999