Does It Matter Who We Praise?

Photo of people with upstretched arms against a sunset

Before I found myself in Divinity School, I was an undergraduate majoring in religion. It was the late seventies. It was a curious time to be studying religion, as I was not only at a state university, where the academic study of religion was encouraged, but it was also in the heyday of the Death of God movement. And as a naïve undergraduate, I was exposed to Richard L. Rubenstein, who wrote After Auschwitz (Bobbs Merrill, 1966). He was the leading Jewish Death of God theologian, and an impressive lecturer.

It was like watching Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof.” 

Photo of Zero Mostel as Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof."

Professor Rubenstein taught how the experience of the Holocaust ought to have caused every thinking/worshipping Jew to no longer believe in the God of the covenant. That God, their God, was dead, no longer worthy of any praise. That God had let the Holocaust happen, had reneged on his side of the covenant.

At the very same time he was declaring God to be dead (for good reason), Rubenstein did most of his talking, especially when he got warmed up, not to us, his students, but to that God who was no longer.

He shook his fist, he bellowed, he paced up and down the dais, (his classes always in a full lecture hall), he moaned and grieved and prayed. I loved it. I loved the drama. I loved listening to the battle between the rabbi and the academic (Rubenstein was both). The battle between the believer in the God who promised to always be on his people’s side and the traumatized/abandoned victims of hate. 

Not unlike Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” where the battle was between a traditional father and a God who allowed his children be modern, my undergraduate religion professor begged God to tell him what was going on… why he was no longer in charge the way he had been. What have we done to deserve such a fate? Are we no longer the chosen people?

There is no other answer, other than that God is dead.

The drama echoed something going on in me. How can history march on so cruelly? …without regard for what we were loyal to and expected would be loyal to us?

We have been considering praise this month. It is a strange thing for our unique collection of secular atheists, middle of the road/have it both ways humanists, and timid/often invisible (though present) theists to consider.  Last Sunday, I did my best to keep it between us, to not involve a god at all.  I located praise as that gratitude and gracefulness that ought to exist in abundance between us. That ought to inform our way to be good, to be gracious and grateful, in this too often hate-filled world.

But this Sunday, I’m going all in. Because, it does matter what God we praise. It matters if we praise God. It matters who the God is we praise. It matters a lot.

The traditionally Jewish understanding of God was the O.T. (the torah and the prophets) God of the Covenant, the “you be my people, I will be your God” tribal God who was primarily understood to be within walking/talking distance of his people. To be a Jew was to be in conversation with this God, to be within the protective custody of this God. This was the God who demanded it all, but in return gave all

In my opinion, that God died, way before the Holocaust, but in so many ways Rubenstein totally convinced me that God was really dead, or at least ought to be. Not because the Jews deserved the Shoah, but because the God they relied on was powerless to stop it. It was not worth it to believe in that God anymore.

I so believed that, that decades later when I finally did decide to go into the professional ministry as a UU, I was SO super judgmental of ANY and ALL members of marginalized (hear HATED) groups of people who still praised any God. How could you be so blind to believe in the God that was powerless? The one who won’t come through when you really need him to?  

I think for so many of us UUs (of a certain age, of a certain UU experience) the God who may have been our God at some distant point in our personal histories died a long time ago. 

That is true for me and so many others—Rubenstein and the women’s movement did it for me, killing off the patriarch, that old white guy with the beard resting on the cloud God. In his place came the goddesses, came the intellectual secularist who loved poetry, came the no-need-for-any-God UU humanist, still fascinated with religious language. 

The man, the rebel against the empire Jesus was still okay with me, but not if he was elevated to a god.

I used to tell my curious/suspicious mother when I first became a UU that “no, we aren’t any longer a Christian denomination, but yes we try to love each other, to do good in the world, to live this life in a way that respects the worth of all beings, the way Jesus taught, although we don’t talk about Jesus much. Even though sometimes we might get angry like Jesus at the hypocrisy of those who praise, who worship the wrong god.

…you get older, history marches on, and a whisper of god comes back from the dead …

Does it matter who “we” praise? It matters very much to me that the God you might praise not be so small and so essentially hateful that the God you praise leaves no room for me. That’s one way to think about it. 

But that is not the message we usually convey, is it? We are often so judgmental about the God some praise, that we don’t allow any God. What we say, in so many ways, is the God you praise better be as small and inefficient as possible, so as not to disturb my conclusion that there is no room for you and your God here.

I’m on first. Your little god is on second.

When I first considered being the Developmental Minister for the Plainfield UUs, I checked out their website. On the home page, the very first thing that a visitor there would read was all about the atheist group; when they met, who their upcoming speaker was, etc. That group met in the church building, and it did include a few members, but the group itself didn’t have any connection to the board or the minister. But I didn’t know that when I found the invitation to the atheist group front and center on the web page, and on their Facebook page. 

Not long after my first visit to the FUSP social media presence, I drove into Plainfield. I don’t know if you have been there lately, or at all, but Plainfield has been and still is a predominantly black and Hispanic/Latino/Latina community. Very few white folk, except those who are very poor, are there.

Very few atheists, I would say, if I had to guess.

I had to wonder what message might that UU congregation’s home page be sending to their neighbors, to those who might visit, who might be curious?

It wasn’t too long afterwards, two and a half years ago now, that an article appeared in the UU World magazine, written by a black UU, DeReau K. Farrar, Director of Music at First Church Portland, Oregon. At the time I remember wondering when someone was going to say what he did.

He cited a Pew Research study that pointed out that only 2% of American black adults say they do not believe in God.  (The same study shows that 6% of Latinx adults say they do not believe in God.)  It is significant, in comparison, that over 10% of white American adults say they do not believe in God. Big difference on racial/cultural lines..

Farrar’s point was this: “Any movement in Unitarian Universalism to make God unwelcome in our sanctuaries is effectively akin to posting “Whites Only” signs on our doors…  If we are serious about being inclusive and racially diverse, we are going to have to stop the sometimes violent God-hating in our places of worship.”

Yep.  Not welcoming, not at all….

When I was new to the UU ministry, 15 or so years ago, one of the larger UU churches nearby called a black woman to be their next minister. She was brilliant. She came to UUism from a first career in mass media. She was already well known and well-respected in the UU world by a lot of leaders, and certainly by many UU ministers. She was by no means a traditional Christian, but she loved gospel music and spirituals, and “God” language made sense to her. I got to know her because I was lucky to be invited into a small group of UU colleagues that she was also in.

Surely, that Florida church knew who they were getting when they called her? She was masterful at community relations and political organizing, quickly held in high esteem in the city that church served. Yet, EVERY single Sunday, someone at church, at her UU church, took offense at her readings, her prayers, her spirituality… her! Every single Sunday. Every single Sunday, someone (and no, not the same person) told her she didn’t fit!

She didn’t serve there very long. She took another offer in a California UU congregation as an assistant, a position where she wouldn’t have to preach very often, wouldn’t have to engage in public worship in a way that required vulnerability, that hurt every Sunday—hearing as she had that she did not belong.

And we wonder why the number of people of color in UUism has been so low for so long, only very recently growing to any reasonable expectation of what the numbers ought to be?

As Farrar says, we don’t have to put a “whites only” sign out. It is obvious when we demand that God language be excised from our worship space, that we don’t allow those who don’t fit. We don’t see or hear who they are, and we don’t care to.

He tries to explain the black theism we white UUs don’t (want to) understand. “As long as society unjustly favors white lives, people of color will need to lean upon their gods for strength, endurance, and peace of heart.” 

People of color may be attracted to our “reasonable” religion. Yet, for some it is quite reasonable that only a super-natural god would be powerful enough to ensure their survival in a world that tries to destroy them at every turn, that leaves no space for their wholeness.

But we don’t consider what may be a reasonable perspective to someone attracted to our reasonable religion whose conclusion might be different from ours, because we don’t ask. We don’t ask, because we banished God a long time ago, and having made that decision we refuse to revisit it.

Want to be here? Then be like-minded, we say, like us, rather than saying come in, we would love to know what makes you you and what your religious/spiritual journey has been and who we will be now that you are here.

Clear, but unwritten “signs” that we highly value atheism, that reliance on a god of strength, of endurance, and one who offers peace of heart is silly, unreasonable, even wrong, denies those who need a space that can praise that God. 

Why would we be so uncaring, so blind regarding what those we say we want here… bring with them? I can only conclude it is because we are focused on us, not them, because we still see them as “the other.”

Or at least we did, but that is changing. People of color are in the room. And they are teaching us when and how to praise. Amen to that!

Farrar said, “It is our duty, if we mean what we say about pluralism, and if we indeed affirm the first, second, third, fourth, and sixth Principles, to provide a warm home …where …[we] can fully express …[our]  spiritual selves without being judged or marginalized.”

We used to talk about safe space a lot. “Safe for whom?” should always be our question.

We ought to be offering a space safe for those who praise God and those who don’t, where all of us praise each other, seek to understand each other, and create not just safe space, but bold space. 

Who do you praise? Does it matter who you praise? Absolutely. 

Does it matter that you praise? YES. 

Will we, who’ve stood side by side with our Jewish brothers and sisters, our spiritual family members when hate brings a gun into the synagogue, stand with those who with good reason praise God and want to be here? 

Will we do that because standing, moving with those who have been harmed by hate is what we do?

Absolutely. We will. We are atheists, humanists, theists together.

Rubenstein didn’t stop believing in God altogether. He no longer believed in the god who made promises. He could not believe that the god he used to believe in would have allowed such a horror. It was an intellectual/theological/relational conundrum that he could not solve. No logic, nor reason, made it make sense. For him, the great covenant meant that you were to keep your side of the bargain no matter what the other side did.    

Yet, for Rubenstein, a god behind the God that died with the Holocaust still existed, but that god was unexplainable and mysterious, empty.  The god that remained was approachable but only with a matching posture of emptiness, with a relinquishment of all pre-conceptions, expectations, demands. It was a god who didn’t bargain, a god who didn’t demand praise, but welcomed all that is and ever will be, because that god was all of that and none of that.

To stand in awe of the mystery of existence, the mystery of the circle of life and death and life again is to behold what is….