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Commentary - September/October 2000

Open Up to the Mystery
By Forrest Church

The God I believe in now is different from the God I did not believe in when I was younger. It does not intercede, like a royal eagle swooping down from on high, to save the day for those who, outnumbered and outflanked, fight under God's banner. Neither is the God I believe in opposed to the Religious Right, nor bothered in the least by the lack of prayer in public schools. Pray for rain, and the God I believe in will not answer, whatever the change in the weather. And it makes no difference who is doing the praying, for the God I believe in plays no favorites when it comes to faith or creed. The God I believe in is neither male nor female nor any divine combination of the two. All this I know, or think I know. On the other hand, I do not know, and never will know, just what the God I believe in is. The God I believe in will remain a mystery. Though hard to put in words, let me share with you my own experience of the mystery of God.

My faith is grounded on two principles, humility and openness. As to the first of these--and it may be a truism--the more I know of life, death, and God, the greater my ignorance appears. Beyond every ridge lies another slope. Beyond every promontory looms yet another vast and awesome range. While cursed (or blessed) with the knowledge of our own mortality, however far we trek, we shall never know the answers to questions like "Why?" or "What does life mean?" For this reason, I cannot embrace a rigidly dogmatic faith. I could not do so even should the dogma be fashioned wholly according to my own test of unfolding truth and time.

This is the lesson humility teaches. Alone, such wisdom is insufficient, reminding us only of what we cannot hope to know. On the other hand, openness (the possibility principle) invites us to probe life as deeply as we can, without regard to limits. As the Rev. Wayne Rood, then Stanford dean of the chapel, told me once, "Theology is the art of saying a little more than one knows."

Accepting these limits, while remaining open to explore as fully as possible the unresolvable mystery of our own and our shared being, we grow both intellectually and spiritually. The mystery of life becomes ever deeper and more wondrous, the gift of life more precious and unaccountable. Remaining open to the unknown, we enter further into it. We grow in knowledge, yes, and in ignorance, but also in wonder and, finally, in trust.

My own forays are usually journeys taken in meditation or prayer, but they may also come through music, art, literature, nature, or some magical moment of human interaction. Losing myself, I find myself, and my perspective is changed. I can describe the experience only as one of mystical union in that which is greater than all of its parts and yet present in each, in that which gives meaning to all, beyond explanation, beyond knowing or naming.

Such experiences lead me back, not always but often, to God. God is not God's name. God is our name for the mystery that looms within and looms beyond the limits of our being. Life force, spirit, ground of being, these too are names for the unnameable that I am now, together with so many other seekers, content to call my God.

When I pray to God, the answer comes from within, not to the specifics of my prayer but in response to my hunger for meaning and peace. God's answer is not a what or a how, not a when or a why, but a yes. Choose life and trust life. Grow in service and love. Take nothing for granted. Be thankful for the gift. Suffer well. Dare to risk much. Consecrate your world with laughter and with tears. Know not what I am or who I am or how I am, only that I am with you. This is God's answer to my prayers.

As I plunge deeper, in fits and starts, seeking to penetrate the mystery of life and God, the mystery grows. It grows in wonder, power, moment, and depth. There are times, many times, when God is not with me, times of distraction, fragmentation, alienation, and brokenness. But when I open myself to God, incrementally my wholeness is restored. Perhaps that which I call God is no more than the mystery of life itself. I cannot know, nor do I care, for the power that emanates from deep within the heart of this mystery is redemptive. It is divine. Without hoping or presuming to understand it, opening myself to it, I find peace.

The Rev. Forrest Church is minister of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City. This is excerpted from his new Beacon Press book, Lifecraft: The Art of Meaning in the Everyday. It is available from the UUA Bookstore at (800) 215-9076.

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