You're definitely in good company when it comes to God-turning and God-thinking.
Sure, some Unitarian Universalists don’t believe in God. But some UUs do. They are what I call “Got-God” UUs.
Got-God UUs turn to God when life stomps them to the ground, or when they’re so happy they can’t stop grinning. They turn to God like it’s the most natural thing in the world—and some might say that it is the most natural thing in the world, since an eye-popping percentage of the human race turns with them.
Are you a Got-God UU? If so, you probably step back from time to time and reflect on what kind of God you’ve got. God-thinking is definitely a UU kind of thing. The length and breadth of UU history bear witness to the length and breadth of our God-thinking.
Want examples? Take the “father” of Unitarianism, the Rev. William Ellery Channing (1780–1842). His God was a Unitarian, one-in-one God—a radical idea among Christians of that day. For Channing, the perfect life of Jesus (who was less than God but more than a man) was intended as a billboard ad for the way God wants us to live. The Bible’s contradictions weren’t lost on Channing; even so, he gave Scripture top ratings as a fruitful place to encounter God.
Then there’s the Rev. Hosea Ballou (1771–1852), a VIP among Universalist theologians. Although early Universalists confessed a Trinitarian, three-in-one, God, Ballou was Unitarian when it came to God. Largely self-taught, he had a surprising interpretation of the Biblical story of the Fall. On Ballou’s reading, human beings were angry because God evicted Adam and Eve from paradise, and we—their descendants—have struggled out in the cold ever since. To patch things up, God sent Jesus, whose life was one nonstop tweet testifying to God’s love for us.
And what about the alive-and-well Professor Sharon Welch, provost at Meadville Lombard Theological School? Early in her academic career, she ditched the word God in favor of “the divine.” Given how often evil wins the day, Welch reasoned, claims about God’s goodness are “untenable.” In her view, the traditional God is “irrational and unworthy of worship.”
Instead, Welch locates the divine in human compassion. The divine, for her, is “in simple acts of acknowledging each others’ fear and pain, standing with a baby with colic, caring for a friend dying of aids.” The divine is when we feel “the pain that others feel.” The divine is when we say, “Your pain is real, your cries are heard, your anger is just.’”
The Rev. Dr. Forrest Church (1948–2009) took yet another tack. Unlike Welch’s God, his God is not bound to our everyday reality. Whereas Welch located “the divine” in the experience of compassion, Church’s God has a life beyond us.
For Church, God is a name for “that which is greater than all and yet present in each.” His God is the ultimate liberal—the most generous, bounteous, munificent being imaginable. Taking a cue from Channing and Ballou, Church believed that only one Reality or Truth (God) exists. Like the sun, God lights up the windows of the “cathedral of the world.” Since every window has a unique design and play of colored glass, it refracts the light into a unique pattern or understanding of Reality or Truth.
Are you a Got-God UU? Maybe the God(s) of these fellow Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists strike a chord. Maybe they don’t. But now you know you’re not alone. Far from it. You’re definitely in good company when it comes to God-turning and God-thinking. And that’s no joke.
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Dr. Myriam Renaud (Ph.D. ’18, University of Chicago) is a UU academic theologian and an analyst of religion in public life.
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