“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Thursday, 10 March 2011

The God I believe in

I was talking to my friend Graham, who is training for the Baptist ministry, and the discussion turned to the nature of God. Graham knows I'm a Unitarian, and hence do not believe in a triune God, and he was curious to know what sort of God I believe in.

My first response is that I'm a Unitarian, so I believe in one God. Then I went on to explain that (with the Quakers) I believe that there is "that of God in everyone". Graham's response was interesting; he said "You're not a Unitarian, you believe in a multiplicity of Gods inside everyone." Well, no. I believe that the nature of God is both transcendent - the Ultimate, Other, Divine Presence "out there", but also the "still, small voice" inside each one of us; the divine spark that makes us who we are. Some people might designate that part of us as "the soul". I believe that our job as human beings is to listen to "that of God" within us, and to respond to its promptings to be the best people we can be. Perhaps this makes me a Multiplitarian - I don't know.

Unitarianism grew out of Christianity. It was only during the 19th century that we started to explore different aspects of how and why we believe what we believe. I'm talking here about the nature of authority. In traditional Christianity, the teachings of the Church, tradition and the word of the Bible are the accepted sources of authority. Unitarians believe otherwise. In the words of Alfred Hall, author of Beliefs of a Unitarian:

"But above all it must be known and understood that Unitarianism is not a system of creeds or beliefs. It is more than anything else an attitude of mind. It is a fresh way of looking at life and religion ... It lays stress on the reliability of the human mind to judge for itself ... Its method is that of appeal to reason, conscience and experience generally, and above all to elemental principles of truth and right which are implanted in the human heart at its noblest and embedded in the universe."

Unitarians today "do not presume to define God for others. We believe that everyone should be free to encounter the Great Mystery for themselves 'without mediator or veil'." [Cliff Reed] This respect for the individual's right to work out their own beliefs has resulted in a wide spectrum of perceptions of God within our denomination. Some are what I would call 'Liberal Christians', who would define God in broadly Christian terms as a "loving personal power - father-lie, as Jesus experienced" [Reed]; others would say that they "experience God as a unifying force and life-giving spirit; the source of all being, the universal process that comes to consciousness as love in its creatures." [Reed] Yet others, whom we might describe as religious humanists, would use the word 'God' to signify "the human ideal, the noblest visions and aspirations of humanity, against which we measure ourselves." [Reed] And then there are some whose chief perception of God is that of the 'still, small voice' within us, rather than any external power. It should also be realised that these beliefs are not mutually exclusive. Most of us would say that belief in a combination of them is where we would find God. And finally, some of us reject the idea of any sort of divinity, and would describe themselves as 'atheists', preferring rather to place their faith in their fellow human beings.

It is also a vital tenet of Unitarian belief that all are free to work out their own positions, in the light of their own ongoing experience. This openness to new thoughts and ideas is a key concept in Unitarianism: indeed it is what has kept us green and growing down the centuries. Our movement has been underpinned by a process of continuous and continuing revelation. At different times, and in different countries, different ideas have been considered to be most important. The important thing is that we respect and accept each other's beliefs, so long as they do not harm anyone else.

Personally speaking, I find inspiration and truth from many sources - I happen to believe in a personal God, who is both immanent and transcendent, but also believe that the teachings of other faiths hold great truths for humankind. I count myself lucky in belonging to a religious tradition in which I can hold both these strands of belief together, and forge from them my own truth, and worship God - Father and Mother, Spirit of Life and Love - in my own way.

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