The Ontological, The Semantic, and the Tribal

Stephen Colbert Interview with Paul Simon, The Late Show, Thu Mar 14, 2024:
SC: Are you yourself a man of faith?
PS: I would say, yes. Well, let me put it another way. I think we’re in an unbelievable paradise on Earth and life is so mysterious a mystery. In the rest of our galaxy there’s really no other life. We don’t know what’s going on. So, life is incredible. So, I think, what a great job you did, God, with this planet. Excellent. And the universe. Paul Simon, hat’s off to you, God. Fantastic universe!
SC: So your faith is an act of gratitude.
PS: An act of gratitude. But then I think, if the explanation for our creation is not “there was a creator,” but there is another explanation, I am no less grateful, and I’m no less in awe of everything. It’s not going to change my morality. I’m not going to think bad is good now, and good is bad, because I feel when it’s good and I feel when I do bad. So, in the two choices between: Is there a creator, or is there another explanation, I like the creator story. That’s where I am with that. You?
SC: I was convicted of my atheism for many years, and then I was overwhelmed by an enormous sense of gratitude for the world. [What you said] resonates for me because this enormous heartbreaking gratitude – even for heartbreaking things -- because the world is beautiful but the beauty isn’t always happy things. Joy is greater than happiness, and happiness is not the ultimate goal. Sublime is the goal. So that feeling that even comes in grief – grief with you is an act of love, so we can both be sad and yet there is joy there because of our ability to share our love in that moment and heal and care for each other – that feeling, that even in that there can be something beautiful, led me to an enormous, overwhelming, uncontainable sense of gratitude, and it had to go someplace, and that led me back to my relationship with what I now call my God.
PS: Yeah. I understand completely
This is a sermon about the Unitarian Universalist fourth source. The living tradition we share draws on many sources, of which we enumerate six, and the fourth one is:
“Jewish and Christian teachings that call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbor as ourselves.” (see all six HERE)
This is also a Muslim teaching. So in the midst of Ramadan, with Easter and Passover approaching, I wanted to look at this.

God is a bit of a contentious topic among Unitarian Universalists. Some of us resist any use of the word or concept. For others of us, some conception of God is a touchstone for making sense of life – for discerning meaning and hope amidst this confused mix of beauty and tragedy we call life.

Last week I told you about a tussle in Unitarian History that started in 1865 and lasted about 30 years. We have always rejected having a creed. And then some Unitarians were like: “I love being creedless. By the way, I’m not a Christian.”

And other Unitarians were like: “When we said we were creedless, we kinda meant that everyone was free to work out for themselves the specific details of their relationship to Jesus. We never imagined anyone would go so far as to not be Christian at all.”

Then the first group, called the radicals, was like: “Well, we’re going that far.”

And the other group, called the conservatives, was like: “OK, but you’re not a Unitarian.”

And the radicals were like: “But I am a Unitarian. Unitarians are my peeps. I love our churches – the sermons, the hymns, the choir, the classes and study groups, and those dinners that we are just now beginning to call ‘Pot Luck.’”

Finally, after about 30 years, the conservatives were like: “yeah, all right, fine.”

That was round 1 – which sets us up this week to hear about round 2. About 20 years went by and in the middle of the 19-teens, we started up the whole cycle again – only this time, instead of being about nonChristians, it was about nontheists. Some Unitarians were like: “Still love being creedless. By the way, I don’t believe in God.”

And other Unitarians were like: "When we agreed that Unitarians didn’t have to be Christians, we never imagined anyone would go so far as to not be theist at all.”

Then the first group, called the humanists, was like: “Well, we’re going that far.”

Again, it was our more Western congregations at the forefront, but “Western” by now was a bit further west than Pittsburgh. The Unitarian Humanist movement got its start right here in Des Moines, when this congregation hosted the 1917 annual meeting of the Western Unitarian Conference. That’s where this congregation’s minister, Rev. Curtis Reese, met the Minneapolis minister, Rev. John Dietrich. Reese and Dietrich got to talking and discovered that each had been working on the idea of religion without God – which they would decide to call humanism.

Just as a couple generations before, there were attempts to adopt a statement that would rule out these nontraditionalists. The controversy was heated, but no statement was ever passed, and the furor eventually petered out. What was ultimately persuasive was not any argument in a Unitarian periodical or from a Unitarian pulpit, but the simple fact that humanists and theists really could sit side by side in our pews and committee meetings, stand side by side in social action projects. And at our potluck dinners, the green jello salad, wobbled the same and tasted the same whether brought by a humanist or a theist.

We are a people that have learned – yet must periodically re-learn – that "We need not think alike to love alike." And: "people with different beliefs can come together in one faith."

With that background, I want today to look at the ongoing status of the difference between our "theists" and our "atheists." What sort of difference is it? The disagreement sometimes seems to be ontological: that is, the parties advance competing claims about the nature of reality and what reality does and does not include. Sometimes the disagreement seems to be semantic: that is, the parties advance competing claims about what words do, or may, mean. Mostly, though, it seems to me that this issue is neither ontological nor even semantic. It’s tribal. The parties affirm the existence or nonexistence of God in order to signal their identity and group loyalty. I think it’s important for us to notice that.

When tribal identity is at stake we become rigid, inflexible, dogmatic about "speaking correctly" -- and this is just as true for those who call themselves "atheists" as for those who call themselves "theists." When our tribal loyalty is not at stake, almost all of us, are flexible, creative, open, and charitable in the ways we use and respond to nonstandard language. The question then arises: What's more important, defending our tribal identity or connecting with other people where they are?

Let me illustrate. Some years ago, I was well into adulthood and my own children were teenagers, and we were all gathered with my parents for Thanksgiving. My Mom regaled the table with a story from my childhood, of which I had no recollection of either the events in the story or of ever having heard the story before. Mom said that once, when I was about five years old, we visited some fair or carnival where I saw helium balloons for the first time. I pondered this amazing thing, and asked: “Mom, why do they go up?”

Mom, rational scientist physics professor that she was, answered me, “Why wouldn’t they go up?”

“Things go down,” I said.

“Uh-huh,” said Mom. “Why do they go down?”

“Because of gravity,” I said.

“Ah,” she said. “Well, the balloons go up because of levity.”

And this satisfied me.

When, years later, I heard this story at the Thanksgiving table I did NOT think, “Egad, my mother lied to me!” After all, why not call it levity? She might have tried explaining that helium is less dense than air, which means helium has less mass for a given volume, and that gravitational attraction is proportional to mass, so gravity’s pull on the air is stronger than on helium, pulling the air down, which pushes the less-dense helium upward, and, according to Archimedes' principle of buoyancy, the weight of the displaced air is equal to the buoyant force, so, with the weight of the helium within the area of the balloon being less than the weight of the displaced air, the buoyant force pushing up on the balloon is greater than the gravitational force pulling down. Mom knew I wasn’t ready to follow such an explanation – so she gave me this word, “levity” as a sort of placeholder. With wisdom and quick wit, she used language to connect with me where I was, rather than to leave me behind. I delight in this family story -- not because Mom’s answer was false, but because it is, really, true. I love knowing again what apparently I was first taught at age five but forgot: There is a force called levity that makes things rise.*

People have different stories to make sense of our world. Some stories about reality feature a creative force that is person-like in that it knows and it wants. Other stories tell of a creative force that kind of has knowledge and desires – in a rather metaphorical sense. Still other stories depict the forces of the universe creating and destroying utterly without anything that could be compared to knowledge, intentionality, or purpose, even metaphorically speaking. Besides different opinions of what does or does not exist out there (the ontological questions), we have different viewpoints for how words may reasonably be used (the semantic questions).

In my experience and study, the core uses of the word ‘God,’ I would argue, are to point to any or all of the following:
  • 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.
My semantic argument is that these are the most important meanings -- the essence, if you will -- to which people, regardless of their religious persuasion, have pretty-much-always been referring when they said ‘God.’ Many who speak that word would also include "person-like creator." But many would not, so I regard "person-like creator" as nonessential.

That’s my semantic claim. Others disagree with me about that. They counter-claim that the word ‘God’ unavoidably implies a person-like creator.

Four weeks ago, if you remember, in a sermon about Blessing, I said that theology is a kind of poetry. It’s not a kind of science or natural history. As poetry-making and poetry-hearing beings, we need to use words creatively, to sometimes treat a peripheral association as a central meaning and ignore the meaning that had often previously been central. I hope that we can get increasingly good at honoring each other’s different experiences of what’s real (different ontological positions) – and that we can also get increasingly good at honoring different semantic positions and different styles of poetry and metaphor.

That has sometimes been hard for us. Why? Here’s why: tribalism. There is an awful lot of religion that is neither about a sense of what’s out there, nor is about a sense of the proper use of words. It’s just about: "Whose team are you on?" Tribal loyalties get in the way of honoring and respecting different experiences about what is real, and different poetic inclinations for choosing words. We have a hard time simply accepting our differences when those differences symbolize what team one is on – and when team membership requires being opposed to certain other teams.

We do need our tribes. After all, another word for “tribe” is “community” – and we need community. And loyalty to our group is, by and large, a virtue. A healthy community, though, will affirm and support some ethics and values beyond tribe loyalty, and will facilitate and help integrate one's transcendent experiences of interconnection and peace. An unhealthy community gives most of its energy to nursing a shared sense of who the enemy is.

Where there are no tribal loyalties at play, we humans are generally pretty flexible about adjusting our understandings of words. For example, one of my former in-laws referred to her refrigerator as "the Frigidaire." She would say, for example, “There’s cake in the Frigidaire.” A glance at the manufacturer’s label revealed that her refrigerator was actually made by Amana. But even at my most churlish, teen-aged self, I was not inclined to say, “No, it’s not in the Frigidaire, it’s in the refrigerator, which happens to be an Amana.” Would you say that? Me neither. (Especially not when there's cake being offered!)

We simply adjust to different ways of using words. If Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha” wants to call Lake Superior “Gitche Gumee,” we let it. Or consider Lewis Carroll's poem, “Jabberwocky.”
"‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves
did gyre and gimble in the wabe,
all mimsy were the borogoves,
and ye mome raths outgrabe.”
Many of the words are made-up. You can call the poem “nonsense,” but it isn't meaningless. The sound and rhythm and context they create for each other invite us into a world of imagination, and most of us can go with that. Tribalism, however, makes it difficult to extend the same flexibility and charity to language about God.

To illustrate how attitudes about “God” work, consider the ways that some of us find our genial adaptability stiffening dogmatically when it comes to grammar. I, for example, occasionally find myself wrestling with my own grammar dogmatism. I am sensitive to the differences between “lie” and “lay” and between "disinterested" and "uninterested," and I am capable of wishing that other people were, too. Where does this come from? It’s about my own tribal -- and class -- loyalties. It has seemed a betrayal of my grandmothers, parents, and beloved English teachers to allow myself to relax the guard against the barbarians at the gate dangling modifiers and saying “less” when they mean “fewer.”

Those adults we admire were the upholders of our class identity. The adults who sought to instill in me good grammar were teaching me to be faithful to my socio-economic class. The hidden message of prescriptive grammar instruction is: Don’t sound like those people – the lower classes. Grammar will be emotionally important to me precisely to the degree that my class identification is emotionally important to me.

So there’s the question: Do I want to go for separation, or for connection? We face linguistic choices – whether to say “ain’t,” or to call a rising balloon “levity,” or use the word “God.” As you make those choices, do you want to go for separation, or for connection?

For me, I don’t want to be a Grammar Nazi. I’m trying – though sometimes not succeeding – to not be. Connection is more important than separation. If I truly don’t know what you mean, I can ask. It’s not like speakers of upper-class English are really, on average, any clearer.

Neither am I going to be a Nazi about the word “God.” If that word allows for connecting with other people around the shared meanings of 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 -- then I’ve decided that connecting with others is more important than separating from them based on the fact that I conceive of God’s knowing or desiring more metaphorically than they do. Connecting is more important than separating.

When loyalty isn’t at play, as when reading Lewis Carroll’s "Jabberwocky," it’s relatively easy to practice the gentle arts of flexibility and charity. I’ve come to understand that whether or not I want to insist that “God” necessarily must imply an entity with awareness and intentions is mostly about my tribal loyalty, just as my grammar pet peeves are.

Can we Unitarian Universalists engage in a process we identify as discerning what God is calling us to do? Can we have conversations about the question, "How do we serve God?" Yes, we can. In talking about serving God, we would be talking about serving life, and good, and the flourishing of all beings, while also reminding ourselves of the finitude and corrigibility of our own conceptions of life, good, and flourishing – which is just what I think Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus are talking about when they speak of serving God.

When we say, as we do in the fourth source of the living tradition we share, that we are called "to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbor as our selves," we are saying that the moments when we have felt the greatest belonging and connection inspire us to want to help our neighbors also feel connected and know they belong – which is what I think it truly means to respond to God’s love, whether or not God is conceived of as a person-like entity, and regardless of how metaphorical that conception is.

If I have a chance to connect with you, whoever you are, then connecting with you is usually more important than separating myself from you. If you and I have each felt mystery, wonder, and beauty come together with peace, compassion, and the softening of ego defenses -- if we have opened our hearts to love -- then we have a shared commonality that transcends both your dogmatic opinions about God and my dogmatic opinions about how wrong your dogmatic opinions are. That shared commonality in the moment matters more than my urge to insist on asserting my tribal identity.

It turns out that I can still oppose mandatory school prayer, support mandatory inclusion of evolution, favor reproductive rights, legal recognition of same-sex marriage, abolition of the death penalty, and public programs to take care of all our people -- and talk about God. I can talk about the impetus of the universe as God’s call for us to improve our understanding, respect our differences, serve life and freedom, and share God’s “preferential option for the poor.” Willing to employ "God talk" judiciously, I can be more effective than I ever could by a fastidious refusal to invoke the one word that, more clearly than any other, conveys a sense of spacious mystery tugging us toward the better angels of our nature.

Moreover, I find my wholeness and healing growing the more I perform the imaginative exercise of pretending that the world might be whispering to me, calling, inviting me to love if I but listen. Listen: it is God’s love calling me to respond by loving myself and my neighbor as my self. It is God’s love lifting me up -- as levity lifts a child's balloon.

May it be so for all of us.

- - -

*Actually, if Mom had said, "because of buoyancy," instead of "because of levity," she'd have been telling the straight-up truth, but I'm guessing that she intuited that "buoyancy" would prompt me to ask more questions whereas something about the parallel sounds of gravity and levity would feel more satisfying to me. After all, I was a Unitarian five-year-old with a lot of questions, and when I was five, my sister would have been one, so I imagine Mom, with two small kids and an academic career, sometimes felt beleaguered.

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