Many a year ago I interned at People’s Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. People’s Church had been a fierce bastion of Unitarian Universalist Humanism through much of the 20th century. A series of strictly Humanist Ministers eschewed pulpit robes or any kind of “God-talk.” They had not preached “sermons,” they had delivered “discourses.” Even while I was there, hymns were still called “songs.” The Sanctuary was still referred to as the “Commons.” On and on.
Through the 1990’s, things had changed uncomfortably for the old guard as more “religious” newcomers with more “religious” thought and language had joined People’s Church. By the late ’90’s, the Congregation embodied that Unitarian Universalist bugaboo: the “Humanist/Spiritualist divide.”
My supervisor, Rev. Jill McAllister, had arrived at the height of that change. She–and the Interim Minister before her–had both worked extensively to reconcile the tensions. Even when I interned there, though, I was still struck regularly by what a bone of contention “religious” words could be.
One Sunday Jill referred to herself in a sermon as a “God-centered atheist.”
The church Men’s Group was a shrinking reservoir of the old Humanist fierceness: a dozen crusty, old timers who would get together once a month to argue and debate. They were fond of their assertive female Minister in a grandfatherly, patriarchal sort of way. At the same time, in many ways, they didn’t “get” her. They had lived through a string of male ministers and had a hard time understanding Jill’s strong–but strongly feminine–leadership style, for one thing. The inroads of “spiritualist” members–and Jill’s sympathy for them–was another.
The phrase, “God-centered atheist,” was yet another.
At their next meeting, the fellows were still scratching their heads over Jill’s sermon. Consternation reigned: “God-centered atheist” didn’t make any sense. What the hell was she talking about?
For my part, I really liked the term. Religious aspiration itself is a paradox in a material universe. We human beings are, ourselves, paradoxical to the core. What can you say about a species that built the Sistine Chapel, the Hagia Sophia, and Auchwitz; produced Shakespeare, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Heinrich Himmler; lands people on the moon and blasts children with drone-fired missiles?
What does the word, “God,” even mean? In our day, only the most doctrinaire fundamentalists think of God as some large, bearded, European man with magical powers and a bad temper. Pope Francis doesn’t think of God that way. Neither do a lot of Catholic and Protestant theologians, other clergy, or my Episcopal Chaplain Supervisor. One of the chief difficulties of religious “God” conversations–is that there are so many ways to look at (and feel) that concept.
Was Einstein being dishonest when he talked about God, basically, as the sum total of the physical laws of the universe? That term had meaning for him even as he insisted it did not mean to him what it meant to most people.
What about the pagan women’s group at my old church when they held a special healing ritual to support a member having a stem cell transplant? Whoever/whatever they were invoking, it sure wasn’t Yahweh. To this day I don’t know, exactly, and I don’t think they could tell you, either. But I found the ritual immensely moving.
To put it a different way: my mind knows perfectly well I am most likely no more than the bone, blood, muscle, and neurological circuitry that make up my body. There’s no scientifically testable reason to think otherwise.
But it way doesn’t feel that way to me!
There is no scientifically testable reason for me to even exist, other than as a more-or-less accidental product of billions of years of the physical behavior of matter itself. Yet the very core of my psyche cries out that I have meaning. I love. I aspire. I look at my fellow human beings and feel compassion. I will be gone in a few decades. After that, the fate of all the world’s billions should not matter a whit to me. But it does.
I, too, am an atheist. I am also an artist: a constant wordsmith, a songwriter, a sometime poet. To me, religion is an art: singing to a cosmos beyond what I can ever know. Religion is the poetry of my existence. It’s the way my heart serenades the world–and hears that melody reflected back to me.
To capture that tension I, too, find myself reaching for–something–beyond calculable numbers.
Poetry is an inexact thing. It’s not about: one word means one thing and that’s it. Rather, words and life’s melodies resonate chords in our tens of billions of brain synapses in ways we can’t expect till they happen. A few words in combination mean more than the sum of their parts. An aspiration means more than the sum of its parts. A hope means more than the sum of its parts.
To me, religious language is a way to take the deepest reaches of my mind to places I never knew I could go until I found myself there. Sometimes those can be comforting places. Sometimes they’re scary. I need both that comfort and that discomfort to reach the limits of my small existence.
To live fully is not about what we don’t want to say or hear. It’s not about coloring within the lines we can understand. It’s about reaching beyond: embracing the awe and mind-boggling paradox of our existence. It’s not about comfort zones and not always even about predictability. Sometimes it requires us to take a flying leap right into middle of the roiling gumbo of life and language.
So, yes. I’m a “God-centered atheist,” too.