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Making God Very Liberal in Seven Unitarian-Friendly Aspects

Rev. George David Exoo

Beckley, WV

 

From a sermon delivered at The 2002 Annual Meeting of the AUC under the title, "The Seven Aspects of God."

Within our liberal congregations, discussion, nay, even mention, of God has become taboo, especially from the pulpit. This surely leaves many congregants, perhaps most, confused and bereft of clarification about the very force that impels their search into our pews. I myself would have never joined Boston’s First Church in 1962 had it not been for the exciting alternatives to standard Protestant God talk I heard from the pulpit of Rhys Williams and others.

During my third week in the Unitarian Church in Charleston, after a few weak hits on the “G” word, a congregant, the biggest giver, approached me after church and told me she expected never again to hear that word from the pulpit. Ultimately not she, but her ilk, ran me out a decade later. During those ten years, I did avoid the naughty “G” word, but I also reinstituted communion and healing services, long redundant.

Yet during those years, when I visited people’s homes for dinner, every one of them asked me to say grace before dinner. They expected prayers, real prayers, at weddings and funerals. In Beckley, WV, the humanists have been far more tolerant of religious pluralism. This spring, borrowing wisdom from a little pamphlet, Seven Main Aspects of God (1942) by Emmet Fox [1], I made the bold step to devote sermons from Advent to Easter exploring these seven attributes. My congregants and I have had wonderful discussions, as we always do, exploring them.

       We religious liberals want God, as we understand Him/Her/It, to support our ongoing, free, and open search to understand the world about us. We seek a God that works universally through the progress of history, one that demands extension of principles of civil liberties to all, and one that nurtures harmony and peace between all groups and stewardship of the planet. Whether understood as personal or impersonal, we want a God that works through all religious symbol systems and political philosophies. We expect guidance and hope more than salvation and rescue. We know we share this planet with people who see God as avenger, punisher, savior, dictator, jealous despot, yet we believe in the potential for human goodness over evil, and we believe that this goodness will ultimately triumph over evil, if we plan for it and work for it.

So here, with guidance from Emmet Fox, I shall advance seven aspects of divinity. We might call these aspects percepts. I would prefer to think of each in a Platonic perspective. There is the great realm of the Absolute, known to us through many emanations, each of which is a part of, but not equal to the whole, yet inseparable from the whole. The Christian church reduces these emanations to three: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer). I am looking at the same Absolute using a different grid: Intelligence, Truth, Life, Love, Soul, Spirit, and Principle. Mine is, I think, more useful for contemporary religious liberals than is the fourth century Trinity.

I like to think of the first four attributes as especially human, and most humanists will entertain them more than the last three. The last three are decidedly metaphysical and may require more of a leap of faith than some of today’s spiritually-challenged Unitarians are willing to take. Yet even these three have their analogies (analogiae entis) in science. Soul may be likened to the atom, spirit to invisible forces like magnetism, and principle to theorems and laws of science.

Really, I didn’t care what the humanists thought. Right or wrong, 2001-2002—thirty-five years after graduating from Harvard Divinity School—I was finally talking about God in my Unitarian pulpit, not someone else’s gods and goddesses or what the deluded Pentecostals down the street think of God, but God as I perceive God to be! I find this a remarkable commentary on the myth of freedom of the pulpit, imposed largely by fundamentalists of the Left (humanists) in our once, but now sadly only, so-called “liberal” denomination.

First, let me observe that God is spirit-impersonal and infinite. God is a force and does not have genitalia. God does not live “up there” somewhere in some celestial hall. God is not generous like your grandfather or vindictive like your mother, though many people, humanists and fundamentalists especially, have a hard time separating God and people, who were, for them, authority figures in their own families when they were young. “He-ing” and “she-ing” are never appropriate terms to reference God.

Second, good God talk should, in my view, aspire to be universal—not in the old Universalist sense that all are “saved,” but universal in the sense that what I say should be able to cut across, or be compatible with, as many spiritual traditions as possible.

Third, these seven aspects are but principal aspects, not all aspects, of divinity. I might have added peace, harmony, understanding, change, and symbols as attributes, but will be content to subsume these great natural laws of good living under the basic seven.

TRUTH. When we say God is Truth, we do not mean God is truthful, but that God is Truth itself; the God is absolute truth and does not change. Certain things are relatively true, depending on time or place, but God is Absolute Truth. When we truly make contact with the divine, all uncertainty disappears.

Making that contact is difficult and tricky. We, all of us, are truth-challenged, and most often deluded. For this reason scientists, Karl Popper tells us, work to disprove their theories and are humble about the paradigms in which they work. The great New Testament scholar, Dominic Crossan, admitted on Terry Gross’ Fresh Air that, as an historian of the New Testament, he does the best he can, bracketing the biases of dogma and intentional deception within his Roman Catholic Church, with the evidence at hand to reconstruct the truth of Jesus’ life. This he called his “best guess.” One hundred years from now, new evidence may present itself, and the best guesses of future scholars will then have to change.

Still Emmet Fox urges that meditating on God as Truth can guard us from intentional deceptions and fraud. Realizing God as Truth opens us to the intuitive, to finding the right book or person without waste of time.

INTELLIGENCE. God is not merely intelligent, God is Intelligence itself. The universe is intelligent, running according to laws of harmony. Physicists apprehend this intelligent design. Though humans may act cruelly and wastefully, in an intelligent universe, there can be neither cruelty nor waste. In harmony and stupidity are illusions, the result of what the Bible calls the carnal mind.

Does intelligence make God a person? No, but God has every quality of personality, except its limitations. Though human minds cannot imagine intelligence without limitation, this does not affect God. In the Bible, God says, in effect, whatever you think I am, that I will be to you (Exod 3:14; Heb 11:6). This means that if we attribute to God attributes of truth and intelligence (all the more so loving personality and infinite power), God will be just that to us. The same is true for spiritually-challenged humanists who attribute to God only superstitions they learned in childhood. In acquiring better notions of God, humanists do not have to feel they have left the God of their childhood, but that they are simply getting a better notion of the God they have come to discredit and disclaim.

Meditating on divine Intelligence can help us overcome blockages. See people you view as stupid as intelligent, and you will be surprised how brilliant they become. Children are especially subject to the views imposed on them by teachers. See a pupil as bright, and she will perform with brilliance. Look at a pupil as stupid, put him in the “lowest” reading group, never give him a grade higher than a “C,” no matter how well he performs, and you will make him into a dummy.

LIFE. God is Life. God is not living or even good living. God is Life, and where God is, there is Life. God is your life. God is existence or being.

When you are sick, you are only partially alive. To be truly alive is to be full of energy and interested in the day’s work, curious and caring about the things around you. Physical and/or psychological debility may rob people of this technicolor gusto as they get older.

Whether this is a function of mere false belief (the carnal mind believes we will grow old and feeble) or truth we can depend on, I am not here to say. Emmet Fox held aging to be delusion, yet in 1951 he died. Mrs. Eddy thought death to be an error of mind. Her followers placed a telephone in her sarcophagus at the Mount Auburn Cemetery, feeling surely her death must be a delusion. Yet she has never phoned.

The Bible tells us that “the Sons of God shout for joy” (Job 38:7) and that “shouts of joy and victory resound through the tents of the righteous of the Lord” (Ps 118:15). When we realize that we too are emanations of God, we experience joy, while the thought that we are cut off from God, because, for example, of a life of unrelenting physical illnesses, brings fear.

You know how a little child, when meeting someone she loves, goes out, arms outstretched, in joy, to greet that person, where an abused child shrinks in fear. And you know the energy generated by a person who says “I can” contrasts with that of the constant “I can’t” naysayer.

The thought of Life heals and inspires. Those who truly have claimed the gift of love of Life embrace death with anticipation and joy. I know. As the Compassionate Chaplain, I see many of them. As Chaplain to the dying, my job is to affirm Life as life ebbs.

How is God as Life manifest? Experiment yourself. Take two plants. Give each equal care in terms of watering, sunlight, and feeding. To one offer prayers and affirmations of Life; to the other no prayers, no affirmations. Love one; ignore the other. The results after several weeks will shock you.

Here is yet another experiment to affirm the infectiousness of Life. Travel a train or subway after work. People will be tired, irritable, and grumpy. Now silently start to affirm the presence of God as Life. You will see first one person brighten up and smile, another relax.

LOVE. God is Love—not merely loving, but Love itself. Of all the seven aspects, this is the most important one to practice, for there is no condition Love cannot heal. “By this,” said Jesus, “will people know you are my disciples: that you love one another” (John 13:35). If you love God more than your microbe, you will be healed. If you spread Impersonal Divine Love to all you meet, no harm will come to you. Those who come to rob or kill you (against your will) will not harm you. Those with the gift of spiritual healing emanate Divine Love. They have no sense of vengeance: “It serves him right.” We may love the criminal, but not her action. Thus with Love, we may want her incarcerated, but only to protect others and to reform her, never to avenge her. Likewise we want to protect ourselves from being robbed or taken advantage of. To do so would be to help the criminal encriminalize herself. We must protect ourselves, but only in a spirit of Divine Love.

Emmet Fox tells us that, if our prayers are not being answered, 99% of the time it is because we have not demonstrated Divine Love. He urges us to treat ourselves for Love everyday: to watch our thoughts, our tongue, and our deeds that nothing contrary to Love finds expression there. Scientific Prayer consists in visioning God—or aspects of God—in places of trouble, damage, or illness. Affirm the correction, just as you might affirm 2+2=4. Give thanks aloud for the correction. Then keep the intentions of your prayers secret.

Because God is Love, God never threatens or harms or punishes anyone. The nearer we get to realizing our connection with God, the happier, healthier, and more peaceful we are. When we make mistakes, the punishment we receive is the natural consequence of the law we have broken. This is a true mercy, for in no other way can we learn of our mistakes. Put your hand in the fire, and you will be burned.

SPIRIT. Just as magnetism is invisible (though its nature is not yet understood by physicists), it does force metal shavings around a charged piece of metal to collect in a specific pattern, so does Spirit move to change the world, even though its nature, too, is not yet understood by either physicists or theologians.

Spirit does not change, while matter does. Spirit is substance “that which underlies all outward manifestations of the real unchanging essence of things,” according to Mr. Webster.

      You are Spirit. Since Spirit can not be born or die, your true self never has been born and never will die. You know how beveled or fluted glass can distort the way objects passing by will appear? So it is that we can easily assume that the decaying matter we see in bodies is the same as the Spirit. It is not. The ultimate Reality behind you and me is Spiritual and does not change. It is “the unity inherent in all things,” to quote a UU principle, oft spoken these days. The beauty we see in Nature, the ecstasy we feel in love, the awe we experience listening to great music-these are but points where the veil between the spiritual and the material has thinned, and we can apprehend the Spirit more directly. Those with a keen apprehension we call “mystics.” All beauty, all joy, all good is but the Spirit of God apprehended through the appearance of matter.

A time to meditate on God as Spirit is when something is damaged or broken, soiled or in decay. Doing this will improve, if not completely heal the condition.

All things in the material world start as spiritual ideas (mental thoughts). We humans, in contrast, are individualizations of God, not mere spiritual ideas.

SOUL is that aspect by which God is individualized. The individualized entity, the Soul, is called the Christ Within, the I Am, or the divine spark. You are the presence of God at the point where you are. In meditation we become self-conscious of this Presence. Loss of this consciousness may produce depression, discouragement, sickness, loneliness.

Having this consciousness should not make you vain, but give you a sense of humility, yet a self-confidence that will enable you to overcome fear. Thus, a good place to practice meditation of God as Soul comes when we are asked to undertake some project that seems daunting. Getting a clear image of yourself as Soul will enable you to advance through difficult challenges by drawing in God as your partner.

PRINCIPLE. This is the least understood of all seven aspects. It comes down on the impersonalist side of the old (Hindu) argument between personalists and impersonalists. Personalists see the divine as male or female or genderless demon, but always as animate. Hindu personalists, moreover, believe that the deities before them in temples are the same as the gods, not mere representations of them. Not only do they worship them, they dress them and feed them.

Impersonalists understand God as abstract principles or laws. “Does the mathematical principle know of the error the mathematician makes?,” asked the commentator on an edit of The Truth that Heals, the Christian Science radio program, some forty years ago. The answer is simply “no.” We might just as easily ask, “Does the HIV virus know of its spread through unsafe sex?” The answer again is “no.” Principle applies whether we wish it so or not, just as there are principles in natural science (water seeks its own level, matter expands when heated, the angles of any triangle add up to 180 degrees.) These principles were as true a billion years ago as they are today and will be a billion years from now. They do not work on Tuesdays and take off on Thursdays.

Here are two examples: God is the principle of perfect harmony, and Harmony is the nature of God’s being. When we pray rightly, we ask to be brought into harmony with this principle. We do not beg for exceptions and exemptions. We do not ask God to change the law just for us. We tune into the Divine Principle and then find things coming around right. Rise high enough in consciousness, and there is no problem that cannot be worked through, no injustice that cannot be corrected, no prejudice that can stand.

The greatest, most powerful Spiritual Principle is that of causation: that Mind is Cause. Whatever comes manifest in the physical world must first appear metaphysically—in the mind. Think about it. The planning that resulted in “9/11” had first to present itself spiritually in the mind of men of Islam. This spiritual principle, an aspect of God, is just as true for Muslims, as for Christians, as for Hindus and Buddhists, as for Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, as for contemporary Gardnerian Wiccans and their magicians.

     Many have played with these Seven Aspects and refined them over the centuries: the proto-mythical Hermes Trismegistus, Socrates, Jesus and Buddha, Channing, Emerson, Mary Baker Eddy, and Ernest Holmes, in addition to Emmet Fox. I find that Emmet Fox makes the clearest exposition of this metaphysic. Some have labeled the collection of these principles the “Perennial Philosophy.” For the most part all these metaphysicians have all been classic unitarians, and all have added richly to the theological treasure trove we, as classic unitarian theists, can share with parishioners Sunday mornings. Isn’t it about time we do so?

Footnote:

[1] Emmet Fox, though rarely, if ever, found on “mainline” seminary bibliographies, remains one of the most influential popular theologians of the twentieth century. His books, pushed by Harper, stay perennial best-sellers. One of them, The Sermon on the Mount, a series of essays first published in 1931, inspired Bill Wilson to form Alcoholic’s Anonymous in 1934. A recent check of Amazon Books revealed sales the previous week ranked Sermon at 234 of the approximately 40,000,000 titles Amazon sells. Fox was born Roman Catholic, but early on began reading metaphysical writers, especially Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1931 a New York teacher, Florence Scovel Shinn, invited him to come from England and substitute for her while she went on a six month holiday. Fox became so popular with Shinn’s audiences that he quickly displaced her. Until his death in 1951 he spoke on Sundays in Carnegie Hall and during the week in packed hotel ballrooms. Certainly many a New York Unitarian and liberal Jew listened to him in rapt attention, but his primary carriers became the Church of Religious Science and Unity. The American preacher who most copied his thought and method was Norman Vincent Peale. Peale’s rise to pulpit stardom came through his 1952 best-seller, The Power of Positive Thinking, which closely followed Mrs. Shinn’s The Game of Life and How to Play It (1928). A dozen years or so later Robert Schuller launched his national television ministry with the aid of the book, Move Ahead with Possibility Thinking, he lifted from Peale. Behind both these immensely popular Reform Church preachers stands the fundamental principles articulated from ancient sources by Emerson, then, more clearly to twentieth century readers, (Ernest Troeltsch called these largely solitary spiritual seekers “mystics,”) by Emmet Fox.


© 2003 American Unitarian Conference