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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on November 16, 2008

Reflecting on the Nature of the Divine

The Tao is called the Great Mother: empty yet inexhaustible, it gives birth to infinite worlds. It is always present within you. You can use it any way you want.
—Tao Te Ching, Chapter Six; Translated by Stephen Mitchell

As many here know I was raised a fundamentalist Baptist. The God of my childhood was a stern father, not very likable, quite distant, and mainly someone to fear. At first the only alternative I was aware of was my father’s bare bones atheism, which for a while I embraced. But neither position seemed particularly fulfilling, either emotionally or intellectually. That word God seemed to stand for so many things, and just because some meanings didn’t work, it still didn’t feel like the word should or could be set aside without significant loss. There was just too much about it that needed, that needs investigation. And so I continued on, following a pretty fervent but engaged agnosticism, occasionally tipping toward belief, more usually not.

I do believe the questions of God are something big, something very important. And, right from the start one can see the difficulties. For instance I’ve been teased of late by a few friends about the fact when I refer to the divine in this pulpit it seems obvious I’m rather more inclined to the metaphor “mother” than “father.” To some who know my family history that settles the why of it. I’m sure there is some truth in the observation. But as with most of life I suggest this is a rather more complicated affair, not so easily reducible to a single cause.

Still, there is that projection thing, no doubt. Back in the fifth century before the Common Era Xenophanes dryly observed that if horses or cattle had hands, the gods they would draw certainly would look like horses or cattle. When we move into the realm of the divine we tread onto very unsteady ground. Pretty early on I decided that the God with a human-like mind was pretty obviously a projection of human minds, and almost certainly didn’t exist. Still feel that way.

And. There are so many “ands” in this. And, I’m challenged on this by some friends who look at the beauty of nature and see in it compelling evidence of a creative mind, much like a human mind. I don’t. But increasingly I try to let go of my judgment about this. And as we go forward I hope can I show why.

I think my first intimation that I need to keep a wide perspective happened in my late teens when I stumbled upon the story of Ramakrishna, a nineteenth century Hindu saint. He was a Bengali and a priest of the goddess Kali. I very much identified with his fervent desire to know his goddess. He pursued her with all his energy. And in this short version of the telling, eventually he was gifted with a vision.

I read about it and was dumbfounded. In his vision the goddess emerged from a river, swelled out in pregnancy, gave birth to a child, and then ate it. I read this and it took my breath away. I was repulsed and at the very same time felt somewhere deep inside me this was a pointing to something more profound than I had ever before dreamt.

Ramakrishna, himself, when commenting on this vision taught. “My Mother is the principle of consciousness. She is indivisible Reality, Awareness, and Bliss. The night sky between the stars is perfectly black. The waters of the ocean depths are the same; the infinite is always mysteriously dark. This inebriating darkness is my beloved Kali.”

Kali means black. I’ll return to this before we’re done. But first, this was my initial encounter with an idea of the divine that pushed the conventional spiritual boundaries that separated the world from God, at least the boundaries I knew up until then. And at that boundary I found a door. It was about something much bigger, not entirely pleasant, not at all; but enormously compelling. For me, deeply compelling. And I rushed on through that door. I’ve never regretted it.

Later I would stumble upon the writings of the seventeenth century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza. And I began to find words for what I was experiencing. In my heart Spinoza is one of the greatest of Western teachers. He noticed the unity of all things, starting with a reconciliation of mind and matter. He saw that nature and God are two different names for the same thing. And he raised troubling questions, at least for me, about free will and determinism; he challenged our ideas of what is. And pushed me ever further on my quest.

I’m collapsing the chronology a bit, but all of this led me into a Buddhist monastery, and years of watching my mind and its intimate workings. Probably the most important technique I found for this investigation was koan study. Koan is a Japanese pronunciation of a Chinese word gongan, which is usually translated as “public case,” as in a legal document.

In our popular Western usage, a koan is a riddle. And it has that sense about it. However a better definition is that it is an assertion about reality and an invitation to a deepest personal encounter. I suggest we can best use the word God as a koan. The word holds everything we intuit about the world and any thought of what might be beyond. I’ve come to think of that word God as a hole in the language into which we throw all our fears and hopes. A friend heard me say that and asked if I meant a whole in the language? The answer is yes. That very much is what I’m trying to point to should we try to engage God as a spiritual practice.

In the discipline that is koan work one usually encounters the matter in at least three ways, what are classically called literal, essential and compassionate.

First literal. This is the God revealed. Each religion presents something a bit differently. I know Christianity a tad better than most, and I know an investigation of its scriptures shows what looks like an evolutionary arc of understanding the divine. Certainly it reveals different faces, from what seems to be a storm god to the father of a people to some universal loving parent. If we take this as a koan we need to encounter all the contradictions. And there is always that terrible question sitting at the heart of it. How can a loving God be involved in the evil we see around us?

I believe in some ways Spinoza is also an example of this literal engagement. When Albert Einstein was asked whether he believed in God, he replied, "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings." Of course the world isn’t completely orderly, and what happens among human beings is for us as human beings the ultimate matter.

The literal has enormous value. It is the realm where we divide the universe, weigh, consider, and make choices. And in considering ultimacy, there certainly are questions, certainly are challenges. What about the reality of evil? What about the fact the world isn’t completely orderly? Rich subjects, worth considering, worth following right down to the bottom.

But, if we leave the idea of God to this realm alone, I believe we miss something very important. For me Spinoza is best when he is pointing toward something beyond the analysis. And in fact he did call each of us to our own intimate, what he called “intuitive” insight. This spirit is found in just about every traditional religion, as well. It is the call of the mystics.

Of course this is the call for all of us, to find ways to look fiercely into our own hearts and minds, to see through to the heart of the matter. That is, I believe, a deep responsibility we are all charged with at our birth. This takes me to that second thing, after literal, to what might be the “essential” of God.

And this brings us back to Kali, back to black. I speak frequently of embracing humility in spiritual practice, of only not knowing. There is a powerful method in this. But it isn’t just a method; it is also a destination. This destination is the essential of God.

We find it when we really, really let go of our knowing, of our analysis, of our grasping after this and fearing that. Words fail here, because words are part of the literal. Still people who have walked the way have found words that point. Black is one. Cloud of unknowing is another. Only don’t know can also be heard as pointing to this place. And many, many have found it.

However, we don’t appear to be meant to live there in that place beyond words. Those who have walked this way mostly have fleeting insights into this realm. A few live more commonly there, but they, I notice often don’t function all that well here in the world of choices. This place, I think, is meant to be visited, but not to be lived in.

Or, rather, it takes us to the realm of the compassionate, where the literal and the essential reconcile. And that is usually the third point in any koan, and it certainly seems so very true for our encounter with the koan God.

In Zen there is a map of the spiritual way called the “Ten Oxherding Pictures.” There are several versions. The one I find most helpful shows a boy chasing after an ox, catching it, taming it and riding it home. The first steps are all about our literal encounter. Near the end both boy and ox disappear, first into an empty circle and then to a simple nature scene without a boy or an ox. These pictures are about the essential.

The last picture, there’s only one, shows a fat man walking into a village carrying a bag. There are various traditional captions, my favorite is “returning to the world with bliss bestowing hands.” That is the third encounter, the compassionate. And the unraveling of what that “returning to the world with bliss bestowing hands” means can take up an entire lifetime.

And, I suggest, should.

Here we discover ourselves walking the divine way. Here we find our actions informed by choices which themselves are grounded in a realization of our true commonality, our true reconciliation, yours and mine, in something vastly larger than our grandest dreams.

Here we find God is our father, is our mother, is our brother, sister, son and daughter. Here we find how truly we really are all one family, how we really are all one, and what is done to the least is done to all.

That’s the world we’re called to.

That’s the divine we need to find.

I believe with all my heart.