Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The UU-FAQ V: God, Miracles, and Prayer

Do UU’s believe in God?
The best short answer to almost every question about what UU’s believe is: “Some do, some don’t.” While accurate, that answer isn’t very useful without further commentary.

The question “Do you believe in God?” means different things to different people. Some religions use the word God to denote a very specific being with a character, history, and known attributes. The point of such a religion is to establish a personal relationship with this being. As one old Christian hymn puts it: “He walks with me and He talks with me.” In such a context, the question “Do you believe in God?” means “Do you know the same Being I know?”

Other religious people regard God as beyond human conception, and so believe that any specific human vision of God is necessarily wrong. As C. S. Lewis’ poem A Footnote to All Prayers laments “taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme.” In this more mystical context, the word God points to an ineffable mystery rather than naming a specific being. “Do you believe in God?” is now more difficult to translate, but might mean something like “Do you believe that the ultimate source of meaning and wonder is too big for our words and symbols, but is worth trying to talk about anyway?”

There is also a God-of-the-philosophers, the Divine Providence who set the Universe in motion. Now “Do you believe in God?” might mean “Do you think the Universe is orderly rather than chaotic?” or “Do you believe that humanity was conceived in benevolence, so that an optimistic approach to life is appropriate?”

The “Higher Power” of 12-Step programs is yet another version of God. After accepting that the conscious Ego’s intention to change is ineffective, the addict needs to postulate another location for true saving power to reside.

God can also be a way of talking about an ultimate point-of-view, a truth that is beyond any relativism. “Do you believe in God?” might mean “Do you believe in Truth?”

Complicating matters further, many people use the word God poetically or metaphorically, similar to the way that others talk about Mother Nature or Lady Luck. Belief is irrelevant in this context.

Unbelief has as many shades as belief. Some atheists merely reject the idea of a super-powered “Guy in the Sky” who discards physical laws to meddle in human affairs. Others are rationalists who reject the mystical notion that anything is forever beyond human understanding. Some picture the Universe as indifferent to human happiness or survival. Others imagine a nihilistic Universe, in which everything is random or arbitrary.

If you hang around a UU community long enough, you will probably run into all of these viewpoints, plus several others. For this reason, the word God is seldom used casually in large groups where misunderstandings are likely to result. If you want to talk to other UU’s about God, you should provide enough context that people will know what the word God means to you.

If you don’t share a vision of God, what is at the center of your religion?
The human experience. Each of us is living a human life, trying to make sense of it, and trying to experience it in a way that is meaningful, satisfying, and (in some primal way that we will always fail to capture adequately with words) right. We all face death, pain, the loss of loved ones, and our own inability to make the world come out the way we want. We all have hopes, fears, regrets, longings, and a desire to make things better. That commonality provides plenty of material to center a religion.

Do UU’s believe in miracles?
The word miracle has almost as many connotations as God. Perhaps the least controversial meaning is this: We are never aware of all the forces at work, so situations that seem hopeless may yet come out well. Patients apparently moments from death sometimes survive, rickety vessels make it through storms, lost travelers find uncharted oases, small armies defeat large ones, lifelong villains have sudden changes of heart, unexpected help arrives in the nick of time, and so on. The decision to give up should not be made lightly.

But miracle sometimes refers to events that are not simply unexpected, but actually impossible inside any naturalistic worldview. (It’s hard to give specific examples, because one generation’s miracle may be the next generation’s science.) Some UU’s believe in such miracles and others don’t. The ones who don’t tend to be louder than the ones who do, but which side is in the majority is hard to say.

In some religions, miracle refers to regularly occurring events that stand outside science and are not subject to rational analysis, such as the transubstantiation of the host in the Catholic mass. Calling something a miracle in this sense often means “Stop asking questions about it.” You will probably not run into this usage in a UU congregation.

Do UU’s pray?
Obviously, those UU’s who don’t believe in God or supernatural miracles do not pray to God for supernatural miracles. But this hardly exhausts the meaning of prayer.

The more loosely you define prayer, the more likely you are to find UU’s who practice it. Many UU’s meditate. Many have some practice in which they try to commune or identify with forces and currents beyond their ken. Many seek out experiences of awe and wonder, and cultivate those emotions in private moments. Some use a traditional prayer practice to express their deepest needs and wants, whether they believe a God is listening or not. And some UU’s have a personal relationship with a higher power, just as a Baptist or Catholic might.

It is controversial whether UU ministers should lead prayers during church services. Some do and some don’t. Some members value the practice while others – particularly those who are escaping from a fundamentalist upbringing – find it too coercive. A prayer in a UU Sunday service will probably not be very specific about who or what is being addressed, and will ask for psychological gifts like comfort or strength rather than for changes in the material world. Prayers at funeral services are more varied, as a minister will usually defer to the beliefs and practices of the family.


bohemiantroubadour said...

man should be free to think for himself and not have some quasi-liberal group tell him what is right. God is what God is. It is beyond any humans ability to truly comprehend.

The Emerson Avenger said...

Does this answer your questions?

Revelation Is Not Sealed. . .

Revelation is ridiculed. . .

TRUTH459 said...

*** (Matthew 16:4) A Wicked and Adulterous generation seeks after a SIGN. And there shall NO sign be given to it, Except the sign of the prophet Jonah. And He left them and went away.
*** (John 20:29) Jesus said to him, Thomas, because you have seen Me you have believed. Blessed are they who have NOT seen and have believed.
… “Miracles & Signs & Wonders – 101” …Blog.