This is a tale about me, a woman who rejected and then reclaimed her belief in God. My intention is not to try to convert you to a belief in God. Rather, I ask that you share my joy in this journey. I know many of you will not share my belief, my particular perspective of God, but I hope you will at least sense the seeking, the pondering, the discovery and the resulting joy in my reclamation process.
When I was in my early 20s, I rejected God — at least as I knew him. I decided the God I had learned about in Sunday school did not, in fact, exist. I determined the paternalistic, hierarchical, all-powerful, all-seeing God; the vengeful, choosing-sides God; the sexist, racist God, couldn’t be real. The God I grew up with was rule-bound, exclusionary and required some form of perfection. While God was supposedly a loving God, HE placed conditions on his everlasting love. As a result of this decision, I lost all contact with an awareness of the divine until I was in my mid-40s. So, we are talking 25 years of “God-less” living.
Along the way, I had mystical experiences, but discounted them. The birth of my son — as with most of us who have had children — was mystical, but even more so for me, as I had had a near-death experience while bearing my son. There were moments of inspiration; there were even moments of being held — a palpable sense of being held. But, while not completely ignoring those experiences, I moved on. I did not focus or care to focus on them.
Then in the mid-1990s, I found myself walking in Yosemite Valley and became aware of a presence that was followed by a strong personal craving for more of that presence. That day I began my search for the Spirit in earnest, and through that quest, I found Unitarian Universalists. But it was not until I was attending seminary to become a minister did my search for the Spirit lead me to a renewed belief in God.
When I entered seminary in 2001 — Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, Calif. — I entered as what might be described as a “mystical humanist.” I believed in spirit and mystical experiences, but also in the capabilities and possibilities of humanity. Over the course of my first year, I realized I needed to examine my inability to believe in God. It was not that I had to believe in God, rather that in many ways, I had felt the presence of God, but was unable or unwilling to admit to her presence. In not admitting to God’s presence, I realized that I simply needed to do some deep exploration, some soul-searching to see what this really meant. I de-cided one method for that exploration was to seek out a spiritual director.
I found a wonderful Renewal Rabbi who agreed to work with me. Our first meeting was pivotal. During the course of our session, he asked why I could not believe in God. I responded in terms of metaphor — I couldn’t believe that God was this father image of my youth. Then my Rabbi said, “Well, the issue then is the IMAGE you have of God, not the possibility of God.”
I was thunderstruck. Why hadn’t I thought of this myself? It seemed so self-evident. It was because I was stuck in my old metaphor. I was stuck in part because I had not really been aware that my concept of God was so totally based on a metaphor and the metaphor did NOT have to be my image of God.
My spiritual director recommended I read a book written by Sallie McFague titled “Models of God,” and I believe it assisted me in opening my heart and mind so that I could again believe in God.
Before I go further, I want to explain my use of pronouns in relationship to God. God to me has no gender; God is not anthropomorphic, even though I may use the metaphors that imply gender. But given the gender-specific pronouns within our English language, and my refusal to call God it (for that seems to me to deny a spirit), I may at times refer to God as either he or she, or use his or her. It does not, however, mean to imply gender.
The power of language is the most distinctive attribute of human existence. But, despite the power of language, we also have come to recognize it has limitations. There are some things or experiences that cannot be explained in language, yet for the most part, it is the primary tool we have for expressing and explaining our uni-verse and ourselves. Language is symbolic; metaphor is a construct of language even more symbolic. Metaphors sometimes can explain those things we cannot otherwise explain. But, be clear, a metaphor such as God as Father, only explains the attributes, certainly not the totality of God. In part, that is why we use metaphor — God is mystery; God is unknowable. But to relate, to try to comprehend, we create metaphor.
Names matter because what we call something, how we name it, is to a great extent what it is to us. Because we are creatures of language, and because through language we frame our reality, it follows that naming can be hurtful, or healing or helpful. For me, the metaphor of God as father, ruler and lord was hurtful and limiting. And, just as names can be hurtful, names also can open up new possibilities for us. It did for me.
McFague’s approach looked at God in a much broader construct than I had used previously. Because God as Creator ultimately is infused in everything in Creation, it means God is related to everything in the world. Hence we could use our experiences and our relationships to create metaphors for God.
In the fall of my second year in seminary, I did a silent, personal retreat again in the mountains near Yosemite. As I reflected on what I had read, as I opened my heart to the possibility of the presence of God in my life, I was able to dance and sing with joy as I felt the actuality of God that was made possible through the metaphor I chose. This metaphor reflects my experience of God — a loving, caring, forgiving God. My God loves the world, caring passionately, unconditionally.
What this means to me is that I am valuable to God as part of her Creation. I am loved and I am therefore lovable. It means we are all part of God’s love, all worthy of respect. It means God accepts us as who we are and will not be parted from us at death. All will return to God’s creative energy. I chose to use a metaphor that for some represents a physicality that I do not intend, but which best described to me then what God was — lover; lover of us all.
My metaphor now is a distinctly different one from my youth. It is one where no one is condemned for being who they are; it is one where each is equal in his sight, each is held within her compassionate embrace.
Does this mean that my God is different from your God? No, it means that we each know God differently, that we each experience different aspects or traits of God. It is said the more we know of God, we recognize the less we know. The use of metaphor is just one small part of knowing the mystery who is God.
The Rev. Becky Gunn is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.