Last week, we started cobbling together our own universal translators. Unlike the Star Trek universe that Gene Roddenberry created, we aren’t equipped to automatically understand the many different languages of many cultures, and even if we were, we wouldn’t always know what people really meant. What we know is that real communication relies not just on vocabulary and syntax, but also on the metaphors and idioms we use. We rely more heavily on narrative imagery than we realize – the example I used last week was that of Juliet on her balcony; to those of us immersed in western culture, we understand this phrase to indicate young romantic (and, rather complexly, doomed) love. And every culture – whether a local culture or a corporate culture or a religious culture – uses different and sometimes confusing narrative imagery to communicate. Thus, we have to build our own universal translators – especially when it comes to talking about God.
What we know is that we struggle when we talk about religious ideas with others, because our ideas vary greatly, even when we use the same word. Now of course as Unitarian Universalists, we try to mitigate that problem, with many words to substitute for “God” – spirit of life, creator, infinite all, the divine – we have such a litany of names to whom we pray it’s a wonder we ever get to the prayer itself. But the word “God” – as laden as it is, is a kind of shorthand that lets us get into the real questions, about the nature of the Divine.
It’s this nature that we’ve been exploring, not just in general, but in how we Unitarian Universalists understand it; last week, we looked at the transcendent God – the God that is above and separate from us, and who – for UUs anyway – is loving, forgiving, and comforting. I am sure it amazed some people that this God even exists in our hymnal, but we found many songs and readings expressing this very idea of God.
But of course, being a pluralistic faith, this isn’t the ONLY idea of God we find in our hymnal – so this week, let’s look at a different idea, one that may seem a bit more familiar to many of you – particularly those who are big fans of Emerson. This is the immanent God.
Now to be clear, this is not eminent – notable, or imminent – foreboding. Spelled with an A, immanence is the divine presence seen in the material world – the god that permeates the mundane. It is also the God that inhabits the material in visceral ways. It is the god we saw in the verses we sang in Down the Ages – “the present God-head own where creation’s laws are known.” It is the God that sometimes makes the choice to come to church difficult, as nature beckons for its own communion.
The spiritual practices of the Hindus perhaps most explicitly explain this narrative image of God; they begin with the concept of sacred perception, where the devotee enters into a state where they can truly receive the image of the deity as given by the deity.
It is a visceral, real, tangible experience. For Hindus, the deity isn’t just represented in the statue or image; the deity is in the statue or image. The Divine is immanent, present, touchable, seeable, knowable. And this isn’t a one-way experience; the deity is present with, knows, communicates, and touches the devotee as well. The devotee begins by bathing, dressing, adoring, and anointing the statue; once properly clothed and honored, the deity is fully present, and allowed to be seen by others. And… they understand the deity to be fully present and fully whole everywhere at once.
The Hindu understanding of the immanent God was especially attractive to the early Transcendentalists; encountering Hindu texts meant that for the first time, Americans were exposed to a view of the divine that wasn’t transcendent; that is, separate and above us. Henry David Thoreau was one of the earliest American readers of the Bhagavad Gita, and the ideas of the immanent Divine spoke deeply to Thoreau, as well as other transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker. They began to see the same fully present and fully whole divine presence in nature. The idea that God might be in the trees and rocks and the very water they sat by was remarkable and expansive in a time when Unitarian theologians sought to limit God to being, as William Ellery Channing described, the creator of nature, not within it.
We don’t see much of the immanent God in the Abrahamic traditions; occasionally, the immanent God appears in the rocks, or in the air, or in a burning bush. We do, however, see it in the words of the mystics. Let us look at responsive reading 607, by the Islamic mystic Hafiz.
By and large, with some notable exceptions like the burning bush and the rocks singing Hosanna, the immanent God is not represented in Judaism, Islam, or Christianity. Thus, it was quite a remarkable shift for Unitarians in the 19th century to embrace the immanent God in nature; to us in the 21st century, it feels, well, natural. We resonate with the words William Wordsworth uses to describe God in his poem “Tintern Abbey”:
A sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
And we find this immanent God in nature quite vibrantly in hymns such as number 25, God of Earth. Let’s turn to this and sing verses 1 and 2.
I have encountered this god several times – perhaps the most memorable was during a trip to England about 15 years ago. A friend and I went to Avebury, the less commercial and more interactive version of Stonehenge.
We began at a collection of stones at the center of the village, the center of the concentric circles of monoliths placed there by a long-ago people. And we touched the stones; they were warm, and they gave off an almost imperceptible vibration. We went to the next stone…and the next…and touched every stone in the inner circle. Something clicked for us, that we needed to commune as our ancestors might have.
Soon, we were going over streams, through corn fields, and over rocky cow paths to touch every stone in Avebury… because for reasons we could not explain, we had to connect. We knew we weren’t just connecting to the stones themselves – although we imagined the many stories they could tell of the many events through the many millennia they’d born witness to. We were connecting to the people who first set the monoliths into these wide circles… and to both the earth that they rested on and the earthiness of each stone itself. At the end, I felt as one with the world as I have ever felt.
It was a remarkable day; it is a now part of my universal translator that helps me better understand those who would rather hike to the top of a mountain than read in an air conditioned coffee shop. And it helps when we are confronted with less-than-hospitable attitudes toward the earth. We need to add to our universal translators the note that some believe we are simply visitors on this planet, and stewardship of the earth isn’t part of our call. But as eco-theologian Sallie MacFague points out, we are earthlings; we belong to the earth. Because Unitarian Universalists understand the idea of an immanent God who inhabits the very earth itself, we see ourselves as part of – not separate from – the interconnected web. And we sing about it quite emphatically in hymn 317, We Are Not Our Own. Let’s sing the first verse.
We find this connection to the earth and this immanent God in some of our favorite hymns: “for the earth forever turning” and “the wide universe is the ocean I travel, and the earth is my blue boat home.” Even more, we find that the immanent God leads us to broader connections. In her book Fluent in Faith, Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar suggests that the immanence of God in nature actually directs us to “move beyond material realities to the meaning of life and love, to the truth that there is more beauty and care in this world than we can comprehend or capture in our scientific explorations.”
Thoreau got it when he realized that ice cut from Walden Pond was sent to India and thus likely mingled into the Ganges, which is a holy river for Hindus. As he wrote in Walden,
Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well … In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta [sic]…I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.
It is this connection that we see in Emerson’s words: “that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart.” Emerson’s essay “The Over-Soul” is beautifully interpreted in both “The Oneness of Everything”, which I sang earlier and is in the teal hymnal… and in 77, Seek not afar for beauty. Sing with me on the first verse.
But the call of the immanent God is not just one of appreciation. The call of the immanent God is one of action. Yes, we can commune with nature and we can connect with one another, but, as UU minister Kathy Huff notes, “being part of a conscious universe means that each moment profoundly matters; everything I do, say, think, or feel relates to everything else and may have consequence and meaning beyond my comprehension.” The immanent God calls us to protect our mountaintops from strip mining, to protect wildlife endangered by climate change, to stand for any person whose inherent worth and dignity is compromised. The immanent God expands on Frederick Buechner’s comment that “there can be no peace for me unless there is peace for you also”; the immanent God expands this beyond humanity, to all who inhabit the earth and the very earth itself.
As I said last week, I find myself at times thinking many different things about God, sometimes all at the same time. And yes, the immanent God is one in whom I believe. I turn to the immanent God when I am too much in my head or too lost in the news and need grounding. I turn to the immanent God when I lose faith in humanity’s goodness. It is the immanent God who compels me to a life of compassionate service. This is the God to whom I pray “we would be one, as now we join in singing” and to whom I pray “for the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies” and to whom I pray “listen more often to things than to beings…tis the ancestor’s breath, when the fire’s voice is heard…tis the ancestor’s breath in the voice of the waters…. aaahh.”
The immanent God is present – here, now, among us and in us and with us. It is the divine in you, connecting to the divine in me, which we honor in this simple gesture from the Hindu religion: Namaste.