Shopping for God

Shopping for God

However people first come to a Unitarian Universalist church, their questions often include something about god.
Jane Ranney Rzepka


Here it is September, that traditional "church shopping" time of the year. Of course, we're always delighted when questions lead newcomers to Unitarian Universalism.

Whether you come to a Unitarian Universalist church by means of the Web, a podcast, a copy of a sermon, an online quiz, the front door of a congregation, or at the kind invitation of a friend, your questions about Unitarian Universalism often include something about god.

What is god in the context of the Unitarian Universalist religion? Of course, many don't find the word god, or even the concept, helpful at all, but many do. And many more are intrigued by what one might call "the changing face of god," where god becomes a goddess, or a cosmos that's generally friendly, or a free-floating inclination toward the good, or an omnipresence that helps us to behave. Some look for an image of god that promotes healing, or wholeness, or inner calm, or acceptance, or guidance. Others are drawn to images or conceptions from traditional religions—Jewish, maybe, or Pagan, Muslim, or Christian. Unitarian Universalists have Sunday school curricula that encourage our children to explore all kinds of ideas of god, including no god at all.

Some questioners step back and wonder why so many images of god appear in human form. The short answer seems to be that that's what people do. Peter Berger's Sacred Canopy tells us that human beings externalize, that it's an anthropological necessity. In The History of God, Karen Armstrong claims that throughout the ages, people have conceptualized the gods that worked for them in their own time and in their own place: that each generation creates its own god.

We look back and remember that the Romans held Caesar to be a god, and the Egyptian pharaohs became gods, as did the Greek Dionysus, and Jesus. Western history in particular has a habit of apotheosizing people, turning them into gods. They become not just superheroes, but supernatural heroes. Or at least that's how the history appears to many of us living in the twenty-first century.

A colleague, Laura Cavicchio, once did some research about the goddess Anath, popular about the time that the god of the Hebrew Scriptures was developing. Anath is an anthropomorphic goddess—she looks like us—but she's a super-powerful warrior goddess: "She killed the people of the coast/she annihilated the men of the east. . . . / She plunged knee-deep into the soldiers' blood, up to her thighs in the warriors' gore." Different people, different cultures, need different concepts of the divine at different times and places, depending on their circumstances.

So of course there are thousands and thousands of gods out there. All of us sit in our own cultures looking out at the gods, and we see what we see, not what believers see. Some gods seem completely abstract to me, but their manifestations look concrete. The Hindu supreme being Ishvara, for example, manifests as the physical Vishnu and Shiva. Buddhism seems to have the same sort of arrangement to this outsider. Buddhism is not based on a god at all, but still you wind up with a panoply of popular gods and demons derived and assimilated from indigenous folk religions.

Meanwhile, the Jewish god looks to me to be a personal god, yet is never described or given a visual image, nor, in the strict sense, is god's name ever to be spoken. Somehow, though this god has no physicality, we imagine this god to be male. This male image was inherited by both Christianity and Islam.

We can look back and forth through time and over and around the world, and Karen Armstrong's observation seems to be true: if we do need gods, we create the gods we need.

What gods, if any, does a religious liberal look for?

Of course that question is yours to answer. Although atheism, agnosticism, and humanism are welcome and particularly popular, among Unitarian Universalists some gods are common.

God may be a spirit that offers a feeling of safety and advocacy close at hand, a feeling of belonging wherever you are. A warmth, a confidence, an acceptance.

Others experience a god that provides strength and encouragement, especially in the face of life's challenges. A god that understands how difficult their situation is and how hard they are trying, as only a god can.

Still others experience a cosmic kind of god that inclines some things to happen and others not to, or balances the good in the universe with the not-so-good, or tips the balance toward the positive.

Some among us feel a life-force in the world, an energy, a liveliness, a connection that is not so much personal but universal.

No two Unitarian Universalist theists conceptualize their gods in exactly the same way—at least that's my guess. But when people in our fold want a god in their lives, they are inclined to welcome a face of god that gives them strength for the good, with meaning and love.

Informed by religions of the world and our own unique needs and experiences, a number of options are out there for those who are interested. That, in my view, is what a church shopper needs to know about Unitarian Universalism and god.

This essay appears in From Zip Lines to Hosaphones: Dispatches from the Search for Truth and Meaning, ©2011 by Jane Ranney Rzepka (Skinner House Books), and is reprinted with permission.

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