Naming the Unnamable

October 20, 2002
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

Reading
"Continuous Creation" (excerpts) Ann Fields

"I have difficulty using [the word] God as a noun, for a noun must point to something: person, place or thing. I was once taught. A noun must denote, define, delimit. It has a static quality, which does not fit my God-consciousness. To me, God is a verb.

To use a metaphor of punctuation, God is not a period but a question mark or an exclamation point.

God is not the answer to the mystery of life but the acknowledgement of the mystery.

Unlike the deity of most traditions, my God is not eternal but emergent: that process of continuous creation, which is the cosmic drama. Each of us is a participant, playing a bit part, improvising, responding to others, inventing the action from moment to moment. God, in my metaphor, is neither the author nor the stage manager, but the energy of the actors in the dialogue.

'Someday after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we will harness for God the energies of love,' writes the philosopher Teilhard de Chardin. 'And then, for the second time in the history of the world, we will have discovered fire.'

Defying entropy, defying probability, God is, in the words of Samuel Longfellow, the 'Life that maketh all things new.' When I recognize the presence of God working through me, I live with a sense of high adventure and eternal significance.

The Sermon

"Gladys and Honkamiller: Naming the Unnamable One"
The Reverend Victoria Weinstein

"Limitless undying love that shines upon me like a million suns and calls me on and on across the universe-" (John Lennon, "Across the Universe")

One summer afternoon I was talking with the supervising chaplain at the Merrimack Valley Hospice where I was working at the time as part of my clinical pastoral training. This kind woman, a Presbyterian minister, had just returned from a visit to one of our patients, a terminally ill woman who had greeted Judy in a delighted mood. "Pastor!" she said. "I'm so glad! I had misplaced my favorite pair of comfy slippers and today I found them! I had prayed to God to help me find my slippers and He answered my prayers! I found my slippers!" And Judy, overtired and irritated by the incredibly hot weather, remarked, "He must be having a slow day."

This kind of response is what we would call in the ministry "empathic failure." Believe me, Judy was wracked with guilt that she had allowed such a callous response to slip past her impatient tongue. For after all, who would begrudge a sick woman the comfort of believing that God takes a personal interest in her missing slippers?

I was reminded of this episode when on September 11 of this year, I watched a marvelous television show called "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero." This "Frontline" special took a comprehensive look at the American religious response to the events of 9/11, interviewing a wide scope of those affected by the terrorist attacks: firemen and policemen, rescue workers, religious leaders who reflected on God's absence or presence in such events, family members of the victims, some who barely survived the day. The interviews that I found the most compelling and upsetting were the men and women who railed at God, who felt their faith had been betrayed; that they had been literally God-forsaken in their loss and suffering.

One interview shows a man walking in a contemplative mood by the ocean's edge. "I'm angry at God," he says. He has reason to be angry. His sons, both firefighters, are dead* and this grieving father feels that God has failed him. They are no longer speaking, he says. My heart aches for this man's sense of personal betrayal. His agony is sobering and reaffirms for me the importance of constructing theologies that make sense for us in times of suffering as well as in times of tranquility and joy. While I grieve for this man's alienation from his God, I also trust that time will provide some measure of healing to him, and that he will discover a wider sense of faith that can contain both his grief and rage and his love of life. People have been known to do this in the aftermath of terrible tragedy, although just as many people do not and never reconstruct a god-centered personal religion. Their easy God is gone, as the poem says, and they may never again find, or trust, another.

The show also featured reflections from some people who escaped the World Trade Center alive, and who feel today a tremendous sense of survivor guilt along with gratitude for their lives. Again, we heard about God. In one case, a man muses in a manner that I have heard many people do who have had the good fortune to escape dangerous situations intact: "God must have a plan for me," he said. This sounds a lot like that other comment we often hear under similar circumstances: "Someone up there was looking out for me."

From the ridiculous to the sublime, or perhaps the other way around. A woman in the last stages of cancer finds her slippers and believes God has put them in her sight to comfort her. Another man credits God for saving his life during a day of terror that left hundreds of his colleagues dead but spared him. What's wrong with this picture, and what is right with it?

And what in the world are we to make of that God?

The day that my colleague Judy confessed to me that she had made such a thoughtless crack to the lady who found her slippers I reassured her that she probably didn't do permanent damage to the woman's optimistic faith, and that I would have found the comment equally frustrating. Because while I have no quarrel with The Slippers Lady in particular, I do think it a serious theological problem to credit God with personal favors, whether they be as tiny as finding my slippers or as great as winning a battle in war. My God doesn't work that way. My sense of God is that it is a name, or a shorthand term, for that I might also refer to as the world's soul, or in the Emersonian term, "the Over-soul." St. Paul referred to God as "that in which we live and move and have our being," and I appreciate the cosmic scope of that description. Much more recently, the Reverend Barbara Pescan provided me another poetic term for the God thing when she spoke of it as "unnamable magnificent intensity."

The unnamable magnificent intensity I refer to as God does not, in my opinion, get me an "A" on my paper or even bring my child home safely from the battlefield. There may be other invisible forces in the universe that do, in fact, work mysteriously on our behalf, but those forces are not what I call God. I would call them lesser spiritual forces; fascinating and worthy of study and exploration but not what I call God.

Let me return for a moment to the man who survived the collapse of the World Trade Center and therefore believes that God has a plan for him. While that might be an inspiring notion to the survivor, should we then say that it was also God's plan that so many others died? One mother interviewed for the "Frontline" special believes just this. "God knows what He is doing," she said about her daughter's death that day. "Maybe my daughter was in more pain in her life than I knew, and now she's in a better place."

I hope this mother is comforted by that trust in God. However, I do not share her sense of God as a distant One, aside from and apart from humanity, who allows the death of certain individuals and handpicks others to live. I do believe, and there is consolation in this, that the daughter has become part of the Eternal and is blessedly beyond the pain of the human experience. I believe the daughter has been fully reunited with that holy source that I name God. But you will never hear me say that a tragedy is somehow the Divine plan. I will say, and have said, that human bodies and fragile and that they break and can't always be fixed, and that's our nature. I have said that we are free creatures and that our free will leads in some cases to disaster. Our inflicting pain on one another is not God's plan, it is our free will in action. With Ann Fields I do not see God as the Stage Manager or the one penning our dialogue in the cosmic play, but the energy between us that impels us toward creativity, wholeness, synergy, harmony, beauty, and love.

A notion of God as being intimately involved in our human lives is an essential aspect of our Judeo-Christian heritage. Four thousand years or so ago with the story of Abraham, we hear first from this God who stays Abraham's hand and says "Don't sacrifice your son, I will provide a ram for such purpose." And lo, an intimate relationship is forged; a relationship between a new God who and His people, based on covenant, law, loyalty and commandment. This God intervenes in history for His people. This God makes personal appearances and is heard by prophets such as Moses and Elijah as a voice in the burning bush or in the still, small voice after the raging storm. This is also the God of Jesus of Nazareth, who addressed him in prayer as "Daddy," (Abba) and who trusted Him completely, even to death. So those who look for God to intervene in their own personal histories come by this desire honestly, children of a long line of human beings who have seen the hand of their Lord acting through the unfolding of time in very personal ways.

Along with this sense of the personal divine, of course, come attempts to create names, images and metaphors for It. God, Lord, Sovereign. Thrones, scepters, rods and staff that comfort me, God as shepherd, maker of peace, mother lioness protecting her cubs, God as a woman groaning with labor pains at the creation of the world. God the housewife searching for her lost coin. God as a mustard seed, as a fruit tree. God as the divine waiter who sets a banquet before me, even in the presence of mine enemies. These are all Biblical images for God, a rich array of metaphors and similes with which we might want to better acquaint ourselves. Even monotheists, believers in one God, have always made a creative effort to express the reality of their Holy One in diverse ways, knowing that the task was inevitably futile but ultimately important. By myself, in my private devotions, there is no real need to describe the Holy Presence I sense beating at the heart of the world. With others, however, I am compelled to use language to share my experience, and therefore to bond with your experience. And so we keep trying.

As I have already shared with you, I originally associated the word "God" too firmly with the old bearded king on the throne and for many years had no desire to use the term. But as the conservative religious movement of the 1980's evolved and strengthened, I saw that fundamentalists were not abandoning the word at all. I saw that they were in fact putting God on their payroll in order to claim moral superiority, and more scary, to gain political power and set national policy! So I battled my way back into the conversation and struggled long and hard to find a way to say God in such a way that it would have meaning and integrity for me. I didn't want to invoke "God" on Pat Robertson's terms. It was hard work. I had to get over a lot of anger and resentment. But it was work well worth doing, and brought me into company with a battalion of creative thinkers who were cracking open the God-egg to see what fresh creature might emerge.

Let us not be so naïve as to claim that God is just "a word." We know that "God" has been a weapon in the hands of the hateful. It has also been a tool in the crafting of works of breathtaking beauty and a prayer intoned by the good and the compassionate and the true. "God" has been a whip used to slash the bodies of innocent men and women, and it has been the fire used to burn heretics and their books, as it was used by Calvin to reduce to cinders our forebear Michael Servetus. "God" has been employed as the cruelest of slave masters and the most sadistic of parents. "God" has both been used to justify atrocities but also invoked to bring these atrocities to light and the perpetrators to justice. "God" has been credited by some as the one who made them rich and kept others poor, but others have found in their God reason to divest from material possessions and give all they have to others. It is not just a word. It is perhaps the ultimate word, a powerful invocation of all that variety of human instinct and experience I have just named.

Whether or not we choose to use the word God ourselves, we ought to know what we mean when we do use it and we ought to have a sense of what it means to us when we hear it; to be accomplished translators of the Name. Because one thing is sure: God doesn't seem to be going away any time soon.

And so after our old easy God is gone, we listen for a God that can speak more truly to our understanding and experience. We listen for phrases that evoke the magnificent intensity and we look for images that lift the veil of illusion and alienation and reveal to us our ultimate unity; a godly thing indeed. We glimpse the godly thing in acts of kindness and extravagant love, we catch intimations of this Presence in the quality of the silence we create when we are together in prayer or quiet contemplation. We see this godly thing in the warm eyes of a friend. Part of staying alive in our hearts as well as in our bodies is to trust that this godly thing is somehow real; this instinct toward the eternal that knows our names whether or not we know what to call It is real, and certainly true. And so as the hymn sings, we "bring many names, beautiful and good… hail and hosanna, we bring many names."

By bringing many names, we circle around this sacred center, regarding it from many angles, and come closer to knowing It intimately as it knows us (and is part of us). There was a time that I privately referred to God as "Pearl Bailey." Why not? The god I felt most keenly at that time was a round, dark, deep-voiced, swinging-hipped, fabulous Goddess. I never told anybody about this name… until today. Whose business was it? A colleague of mine, a woman who is a survivor of incest, told me once that she called God "Gladys" – the kind of approachable, homey name that helped her draw nearer the lap of the magnificent intensity to receive healing and a vision that could make her life more whole. And a 4-year old girl named Katie walked in the woods with her father and informed him that her private name for God was "Honkamiller." To this day he has no idea where she could have possibly come up with that one. "Honk if you love Honkamiller."

Our congregational covenant begins with the phrase "Love is the doctrine of this church and service is its prayer" and ends with the phrase "thus do we covenant with each other and with God." This last phrase feels good to some members of this church and doesn't work at all for others. I am looking forward to having some conversations within the congregation about our covenant to learn more about each other's theologies and see what kind of language we might adopt that could be more meaningful to more of us, even if perfect for probably none of us. My personal sense is that the most important word in the covenant is the first one we say: "Love." If we promise that to each other I think we can afford to be creative and flexible with what else we say, and we may choose together to use God language or not.

I keep looking. My easy God is gone, and I keep looking for Pearl and Gladys and Honkamiller. I leave the door to my being open in case they want to pay a visit and illuminate more of the vastness of the Ultimate for me.

Yesterday I was driving down to our district conference on the Cape and passing by bright red and orange trees as sunlight streamed in through the car windows - feeling the intense joy of someone who has come home to New England autumn after five years away. I was thinking of the ee cummings poem that begins "i thank you god for most this amazing day" but I could not remember past that first line. So I repeated the phrase "I thank you god for most this amazing day" like a gentle mantra and hummed along to some music. Spiritual multi-tasking. The song at the moment was one of those old Beatles tunes that I have known forever but whose lyrics I have never been able to hear clearly enough to understand. But this time, in the midst of my spontaneous driving devotions the lyrics somehow popped out from the song, and I clearly heard this phrase:

"Limitless undying love
that shines around me
like a million suns
And calls me on and on across the universe." ("Across the Universe")

Sounds like God to me. I rewound the song, again and again to that one phrase. Limitless undying love which shines around me like a million suns and calls me on and on across the universe. Breathtaking words by our friend John Lennon, who apparently got up in the middle of the night to pen these lyrics, which he said were almost channeled through him rather than composed by him. A sure sign that a higher consciousness is at play, and I am glad that John got out of bed to bring that lovely image to us.

Unnamable magnificent intensity. Spirit of Life. Maker of Peace. Limitless undying love calling us on and on across the universe.

This holiness that we're trying to name isn't a thing, isn't a noun. And it isn't namable , yet we have given it this meager, so easily misunderstood nickname, "God" - a name so abused it has caused many of us to discard not only the word but the whole idea. But what a timeless and keen source of insight and wisdom a newly-discerned and reclaimed God can be! It is a whispered ghost of an idea, the impression of eternity made on every soul that we're born with and that remains our companion until we die. God, as Abraham Heschel said, is the question put to each of us at our birth to which we live our lives as an answer. It is a process making itself known through us in our acts of love, justice and compassion. Such a small word for such immensity. May we never forget the vast magnificence of what we mean to express when we use that one inadequate but still (I believe) redeemable name.

God. "One."

I will conclude these reflections with the words of Richard Kellaway, "Would that we might pass beyond the word into the experience." And I pray that this be so, in a world without end. Amen.

(*note: some of these descriptions are composites from several interviews. I recommend watching the entire show, which is available through PBS)