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.
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.
I suggest instead a "radical" definition of these words, getting down to their root meanings.
o Religion comes from the Latin religare, and means reconnection. (Re- means "to do again"; -lig is the root found in words like "ligament" and "ligature," and refers to a connective.)
o Salvation comes from the same Latin root as the word salve; it refers to a healthy kind of wholeness.
Putting them together (I think they must go together): Religion is the search for a feeling of reconnection to a healthy kind of wholeness.
Not all religious paths require intellectual integrity. In fact, most don't. When I was in graduate school, I had a classmate who was a brilliant student, took his Ph.D. with honors--and was a Moonie. My cognitive dissonance finally got so loud, I asked him over lunch one day how he could possibly keep the things he learned in his Ph.D. program in the same head with the things the Moonies taught him without splitting in half. "Oh, that," he replied without missing a beat. "That's easy. You just have to keep what you know and what you believe separated." As I gagged on my calamari, he added, "There's a lot of that going on, you know."
There is indeed. That's a key difference between the broader conservative religious paths and the narrower liberal paths. The kind of "peace" religious liberals seek may surpass understanding, but it can't bypass it. By keeping what he knew and what he believed separated, my classmate lost any possibility for achieving the kind of integrity that is a non-negotiable component of liberal religion. If we're going to check our brains at the church door, almost any faith will do. Ours is, and has always been, a much harder and more demanding route. The quality of integrity it offers can lead us to a personal authenticity forever beyond the reach of those who keep what they know and what they believe separated.
Today, we need to unload, re-examine, and rethink the religious symbols we use to express our deepest hopes and yearnings--especially the symbol "God." This task falls, by definition and tradition, to religious liberals. It is one of the most sacred responsibilities we owe to ourselves and to the future of religion.
Once "God"--the quotation marks have been necessary since at least the Enlightenment--is merely a concept, new questions arise:
o Why, for example, should we frame our religious questions in God-language at all? More politely, we might ask: "To what extent, and within what limits, is God-language (or Goddess-language) really helpful any longer? Aren't there clearer ways of framing our important questions and provisional answers?"
o And if we decide to use the symbols and metaphors of God-talk, why should we talk in terms of monotheism? As some Jungians have made clear, in real life we have competing demands on us, not a single booming voice. Our task is not obedience (as in the Abraham and Isaac story in Genesis 22), but discernment. We must balance equally valid demands of parenting, career, personal fulfillment, adventure, lust, responsibility, and a dozen more. Even if we're to use the symbols of deities to express the seriousness of our desired allegiances, real life seems clearly to be polyvalent, not monotheistic.
Why remain within the biases of Western religions? The most we can hope for through most Western salvation stories is a relationship with "God," mediated through "correct" beliefs, rituals, or behaviors. In Eastern religions, the goal is to realize our identity with the sacred powers of life--or, in Buddhist thought, to outgrow the need for all illusions, including the comforting ones. Isn't this a preferable and more advanced level of spiritual aspiration?
Goethe said the person who doesn't know two languages doesn't truly know even one, meaning that when we can only say things one way, we will confuse our way of thinking with "the way things really are." If we have no religious language, we're left mute. If we know only one religious language, we will confuse the map with the territory and defend that one map long after it has gone out of date. This is the area within which our problem lies.
This article is excerpted from Salvation by Character: How UUs Can Find the Religious Center,' which appeared in the April 2000 issue of the Journal of Liberal Religion.