It’s poetry. When we talk theology, we’re not talking science. We aren’t giving testimony in a court of law. We aren’t talking history. Rather, we’re speaking poetically. When we say “blanket of snow” we probably don’t really think the snow is a blanket -- blankets are warm, and snow is cold. Poets might tell us, “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas” (Eliot), or that they saw “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” (Ginsberg). When we read a poem, most of us adopt a congenial and charitable willingness to open ourselves to the possibilities of meaning and insight. We don’t fret about whether Eliot really should have been a pair of claws, or whether Ginsberg’s hipsters really burned for connection. Why wouldn’t we approach lines like, “In the beginning God created the heaven and earth,” and, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” with the same openness? Because:
It’s tribal. A lot of people are invested in a tribal identity centered in their religious language. The fans of Whitman’s or Tennyson’s poetry have not formed a powerful coalition justifying objectionable public policy with dubious interpretations of certain lines from their favorite poet. If they did, we might lose our ability to engage those lines with our former open, curious, and generous disposition. Frankly, the language of “God” is a central part of the rationale of people intent to limit women’s reproductive freedom, deny equality to LGBT folk, challenge the teaching of evolution in our schools, and generally make the world over in their own image: mean and intolerant. Many of us have had negative experiences with one or another such tribe, and that experience, understandably, makes it difficult to regard their language as helpful, or even harmless, poetry. Moreover, we Unitarian Universalists have our own tribal identity to support, and sometimes it can seem attractive to distinguish ourselves as the people who won’t use the words “those people” use. I get that.
Still, my hopes lie with the possibilities of employing overlap of meanings in order to build bridges of connection and common cause with people of good will who are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or Hindu. I think we can use the word “God” to reference shared, poetic, and helpful meanings: community-forming power; love; the greatest source of beauty, mystery, or creativity; the widest or deepest inspiration to gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; origin; any ultimate context and basis for meaning, value, ethics, or commitment; the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; the cosmos – and even, possibilities for relating to the flow of coincidences as if it represented the workings of agency.