A God Who Cannot Love

Once, God was a Being. Now God is a concept. UU and other liberal churches have not come to grips with that change

Excerpted by permission from the Journal of Liberal Religion.

When I look at UU congregations today, and hear the stories others are telling of their internal struggles, I see the signs of chaos.

Our tiny, hard-to-find churches are filled (if "filled" isn't too presumptuous) with well-intentioned people who gather under one roof but who lack a common religious language. We house many enclaves--theists, humanists, Wiccans, liberal political activists--but they are variations without a shared theme, at least a shared religious theme.

We have a lot of company. Across the religious spectrum, churches are splitting through the narcissism of small differences. I recently heard that a new denomination is formed each week.

Mainline and liberal churches, including ours, continue to attract a smaller and smaller percentage of the population. Here, I'm only interested in the theological reason, which may initially strike UUs as strange, even irrelevant: We have not adequately filled the hole left by the death of God. Neither have other mainline and liberal churches, but I'm most interested in our churches here.

The theological problem of Western religion can be put another way: During the last few centuries, God ceased to be a being, and became a concept. The "being" God needed a place to be, and that vanished when people stopped believing there could be anything "up there." Since then, "God" has "dwelled" in the minds and hearts of believers, as a concept, an idea, or a feeling. While the language has stayed the same, this "category change" for the word "God" has changed the game of theology almost completely.

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In Western religion, this change of referent for the word "God" from a being to a concept creates a vacuum which can be put very simply: Concepts don't have attributes. Philosophers describe this problem as the confusion of essence with existence, the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, or the concept of reification. More simply, the "Guy-in-the-sky" could perform the whole array of anthropomorphic activities. He saw, heard, spoke, walked in the garden, created, planned, thought and loved us. But God-as-a-concept can't "do" a thing. The idea of "God" (or "Goddess") can't see, hear, plan, or--most distressingly--love anybody. This robs religious beliefs of integrity and relevance, a strain felt throughout our culture.

Most dictionaries define "religion" as involving a belief in a god, and nearly everyone still takes that to mean a supernatural Being who lives somewhere "up there." And "salvation," religion's other key concept, is widely understood as getting to go "up there" after you die, so you can live forever.

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