Many things would be a lot easier if we lived in the Star Trek universe.
You see, in the Star Trek universe, it is important to be able to communicate with sentient beings from other planets and galaxies – in English, of course – and thus, Gene Roddenberry created a universe where everyone is implanted with a Universal Translator. Rarely does anyone – not Kirk, Picard, or Janeway – encounter another culture without being able to speak their language.
But even so, in the Star Trek universe, there are communication problems – not with the words themselves, but with how those words are used. In my favorite episode, “Darmok,” the Enterprise encounters the Tamarians, whose words are intelligible but whose meaning is baffling. Sentences like “Darmok and Jilad, across the ocean” and “Mirab, his sails unfurled” make up the entirety of their discourse. As you can imagine, the crew is baffled; and Captain Picard is even more so when he is stranded on a planet with their leader. But eventually, they come to realize that the Tamarians speak exclusively in narrative imagery. Their meaning is deeply enmeshed in their narrative; as the crew of the Enterprise discover, it is analogous to our saying something like “Juliet on her balcony” – it portrays an image of youthful romance, but if you don’t know the Shakespearean play or its use in our Western culture, you would not understand.
We run into the same problems when we talk about religion – particularly about God. How handy it would be to have a universal translator, so we could move from church to church, from theologian to theologian, from congregant to congregant, from song to song – and know exactly what the narrative imagery behind the word “God” really is for them.
Well, sadly, despite many great strides in science and technology that are bringing us closer each day to that Star Trek Universe, we don’t have universal translators yet, so we have to rely on more primitive means of understanding for some of these big ideas – like this sermon series, which I feel blessed to be able to share with you.
Now some of you may already be antsy, worried that there was just too much God talk. Yes. I will be using the word “God” a lot over the next three weeks. But here’s the first piece for your universal translator: when people like me talk about God in Unitarian Universalist circles, we are using the word as shorthand for a particular aspect of theology – specifically, about the nature or character of whatever it is that might be beyond us; you may want to translate that word into your own language: creator, spirit of life, the divine, holy one, infinite, the collective unconscious… whatever makes sense to you. But I will use the word “God’ as we look at some of the aspects – the narrative imagery, if you will – of the Divine.
And it’s important, what we’re about to do. Having this universal translator doesn’t just connect us to other religious cultures – like Muslims, pagans, Hindus, and Methodists; it connects us to others who have very different ideas about God, it connects us to the people sitting next to us, with their own beliefs about the Divine; it connects us to our personal, sometimes contradictory, ideas about God; and it connects us to our Unitarian Universalist tradition. It allows us, as Rebecca Parker says, “to enter a theological house that has already been built – a theology of a heritage, of a tradition, of a community.” And because that house contains a plurality of beliefs, we can’t necessarily know even from one hymn to the next exactly what image of God we’re singing about.
But over the next three weeks, we’ll be figuring out exactly that – what the songs and readings in our hymnals say about the ideas Unitarian Universalists have about God. Because you see, for all of the talking we do, our theology lives in the songs and readings we share; this is why the hymnal, in this iteration anyway, is called Singing the Living Tradition.
You’ll note that we’ve put a hymnal on every chair – we’ll be flipping around, looking at readings and singing some verses of songs. This is one instance where looking at the hymnal during the sermon will not be frowned upon.
So let’s begin. We’ve already shared a couple of readings about God, and sung a few verses of Down the Ages We Have Trod – and learned that some think God is “a being throned above, ruling over us in love.” This is what we would call transcendent – the aspect of God’s nature and power which is wholly independent of (and removed from) the material universe. This is an all-powerful, all-knowing, always-present God, whom some turn to for something greater than themselves. We see the transcendent God in Islam – a single and absolute truth that transcends the world; a unique and indivisible being who is independent of the entire creation. We see the transcendent God in Hinduism: “Brahman is supreme; he is self-luminous, he is beyond all thought.” We see the transcendent God in Judaism and Christianity – a parent figure who exists outside the realm of natural occurrence. And it is this aspect that Unitarians and Universalists inherited from our Protestant forbearers, including Martin Luther himself.
We find Luther’s most famous hymn in our hymnal – number 200, A Mighty Fortress. Let’s look at the first verse – please sing along with me, or just listen.
“On earth is not an equal.” We won’t find the transcendent God in the trees and the rocks – this is most assuredly a God above. It is an image of God that is steadfast, unchanging – an image that says no matter what happens here on earth, there’s always a safe haven in this God that is watching over us, protecting us, mightier than us.
Now it might seem that modern Unitarian Universalists wouldn’t be very into that God – yet, given the frequency of references to the transcendent God in our hymnal, we clearly still value this idea within our faith tradition. It is certainly in our history; notable 19th century Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing believed that God was first and foremost beyond humanity and beyond nature. As he said in his famous “Baltimore Sermon – which, by the way, was a sermon preached at an ordination…
We believe, that in no being is the sense of right so strong, so omnipotent, as in God. We believe that his almighty power is entirely submitted to his perceptions of rectitude; and this is the ground of our piety. It is not because he is our Creator merely, but because he created us for good and holy purposes; it is not because his will is irresistible, but because his will is the perfection of virtue, that we pay him allegiance.
Channing also forwarded the popular notion that God is not the natural laws that permeate the natural world. God created the universe and nature, and the laws of nature are subordinate to God. In Channing’s thinking, it is perfectly natural to say that God can suspend the laws of nature without being contradictory. Indeed, for early Unitarians, miracles definitely happened.
Now for some UUs today, this is still true; it is certainly true in other Christian denominations, so it’s important for our universal translators to remember that miracles are, for many, their proof that God exists, and must assuredly be separate from us. Now to them, this is a given – much like Juliet on her balcony means young romantic love. It is their narrative imagery – a God who is beyond humanity and nature – thus, much of the conflict raised by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker, Unitarians who talked about an immanent God, which we’ll discuss next week. This transcendent God isn’t one with us but is simply One, above us. This is the God we see reflected in Immortal Invisible. Flip to 273 and sing verses 1 and 2 with me.
Now you may notice at the bottom of the page that this hymn is based on a biblical verse – 1 Timothy 1:17. That’s not surprising; first, our Unitarian and Universalist roots are Christian, so we can’t long avoid Biblical references when looking at our faith’s heritage. But beyond that, there is a lot of transcendence in the Bible; you will find this transcendent God throughout the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – no more poetically than in the Psalms. Let’s look at responsive reading 535, which is based on Psalm 42.
We see in this reading – and in perhaps the most famous biblical passage of all, Psalm 23, which begins “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” – a transcendent God who is a comforter. It is this aspect of God – the comforter, the parent figure who takes care of us and makes things better – who is the God many people turn to in times of pain and sorrow. We see the comfort the transcendent God brings in hymns like “Nearer My God to Thee, nearer to thee” and “There Is a Balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole” – these and more, found in our hymnals.
The transcendent God we find here is loving; and this is a hallmark of Unitarian and Universalist thought. We have waged a battle against the Calvinists about this for centuries: a key theme of Channing’s Baltimore sermon makes this point:
We cannot bow before a being, however great and powerful, who governs tyrannically. We respect nothing but excellence, whether on earth or in heaven. We venerate not the loftiness of God’s throne, but the equity and goodness in which it is established.
We believe that God is infinitely good, kind, benevolent, in the proper sense of these words; good in disposition, as well as in act; good, not to a few, but to all; good to every individual, as well as to the general system.
Yes, there are many who believe that this transcendent God is a vengeful God – and if you read the bulk of the Old Testament, you might think that’s all this transcendent God is; after all, what kind of God gets testy and floods everyone out except for one family? What kind of God sends a faithful man out to sacrifice his kid? What kind of God takes everything away from a guy just to prove his faithfulness? This is a mean, spiteful, angry, vengeful God – NOT the God of any aspect of Unitarian Universalism, but … one that exists in the world. Again, if I might add a bit to your universal translator, it’s helpful to remember that when some speak to you of God, they are actually afraid of what God will do if they behave badly… and this carries into their ethics and politics. But because we see the transcendent God as a loving figure, we have an opportunity to offer a different view of God above, one that may offer comfort, forgiveness, and healing. This is the God of Hymn 10, Immortal Love. Let’s sing verses 1 & 2.
Now I realize I’ve been pretty cagey with my language, talking in generalities about Unitarian Universalist perspectives on transcendence while keeping my personal perspective out of it. But of course, I have a perspective. The truth is there are times when this transcendent God is the God in whom I believe. This is the God I turn to when I need comfort. This is the God who broke the silence when I refused to reach out. This is the God to whom I pray this song: “Open mine eyes that I may see / Glimpses of truth thou has for me / Open mine eyes, illumine me / Spirit Divine.” And when I pray this song: “Spirit of life / come unto me / Sing in my heart / all the stirrings of compassion.”
I believe this is the God who shines down when “we are marching in the light of God.” I believe this is the God who commands us to “do when the spirit says do.” Yes, I believe many different things about God – sometimes all at the same time. But this transcendent God, who is above us, who loves us unconditionally, who welcomes us into harmony, who, like the universe itself, is greater and bigger than we can possibly imagine – this particular narrative image of God – is part of my universal translator, offering me hope and comfort – and allowing me to offer others the greatest gift of all: Universal, unconditional love.