The Thinker

God gets revised

Yes, it’s pretty cheeky of man thinking we can revise God. It’s cheeky unless you think that God is largely a creation of man anyhow. I happen to be in that boat. So seeing the book God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age by one of my favorite Unitarian Universalist luminaries for sale had me plunking down twenty bucks or so for the hardcover version.

Its author is Galen Guengerich, the senior minister at the All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan. What made this book particularly interesting to me is that I got a preview of it four years ago, when I first attended the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I got introduced to Rev. Guengerich in a large conference room over two days. Yes, there was so much meat in his seminar that one-day would not do it. Clearly that occasion was on his mind. He even alluded to it this year, during another seminar that he gave. You might say I was there in the beginning of this book. This book is the result of four years of thought.

Guengerich himself is something of a contradiction, but that makes his story all the more interesting. He grew up in a Mennonite community near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. As a Mennonite community, it was considered moderate, but Mennonites are very much a cloistered religion where you generally entered the faith with birth, married someone in the faith, lived your life in a Mennonite community and died therein. Guengerich eventually left the faith, but not the ministry. It is in the family blood as his father was a minister. His rambling search for a faith consistent with his rational mind and his calling toward ministry eventually lead him into my Unitarian Universalist denomination and to the very prestigious church in Manhattan as its senior minister.

In Unitarian Universalist (UU) circles, he comes close to being a rock star. UUs are uncomfortable with this designation, but he is clearly one of our leading theologians and luminaries. In this book, Guengerich ponders what God is in the scientific age and if so what it means to be religious. His conclusions will seem radical to those enmeshed in a traditional faith, but not so much to Unitarian Universalists. I was not surprised that he still sees the need for religion. However, religion is clearly in decline, at least in the secular areas of the world. More and more people have ditched religion and prefer to be labeled “spiritual”, a bland word that really describes nothing. As a minister that caters to people who are more spiritual than religious, Guengerich sees this type of person all the time. Mostly they consist of people too rational to believe in most of the clearly wacky and antiquated notions of God, and who often have been spiritually wounded by the faith of their youth. However, try as they might this “spirituality” thing isn’t working for them. There is nothing much to lash onto. Many feel disconnected and flighty, carried by currents they don’t understand.

This book was really written for these people, not people “of the book” who find their revelations in the Bible, the Torah or the Quran. Those in the latter group, if they read the book at all, are going to feel offended. It’s not that Guengerich dismisses them or their beliefs. One of the curious things about this book is how respectfully he writes about all people of faith, and how he qualifies his own faith (such as it is) with uncertainty.

One can accept the mystery of holy books full of contradictions, as billions are glad to do, even though it leads to cognitive dissonance. Or one can look at these holy books, put a yellow highlighter to them and see that much of the advice or beliefs are just wrong, or simply don’t work in our modern age. Guengerich does the latter, and systematically but respectfully goes through many of these beliefs and shows why they not only should not be believed, but also are dangerous to believe. He goes through the consequences of people believing in some of these ideas, the wreckage of which is all around us. The Taliban are an overly extreme but not unique example. They would keep women ignorant, cloistered in their houses and covered in all public spaces (well, at least while they have periods).

His conclusion, unsurprisingly similar to mine, is that there is no personal God, but that our universe is worthy of reverence. He pretty much agrees with my independent thesis some years back that God is not a noun, but a verb. He also believes that religion is necessary. It connects us with a higher purpose and gives us the courage we need in an impersonal world to change it, but also to feel real community. The practice of worship, he argues, connects emotion with reason, for we need both to find the courage to make our dispiriting world a better place. To the extent that God exists, he argues, it is through us. As I mentioned some posts back (and I confess I stole this idea from his lecture), we are very much the hands of God. (He says we are the fulcrum, the change agent that makes change possible.) The world can be made a better, more civilized and loving place only through our actions. In congregation and through the practice of worship, we find the stamina and the courage to turn abstract hopes into concrete actions. We become the change agents for the better world that we need.

This conclusion should not be surprising but is not something we routinely think about. You look at how great positive change occurs in the world, and it arrives by practicing faith that typically gets set in houses of worship. It’s how slaves won freedom and found safe passage north. It’s how Gandhi won independence for his country and how Martin Luther King reoriented our moral compass. It’s how suffrage happened and Catholic abuses of indulgences were ended. Without worship space for like minds to come together as people of faith, positive change is much less likely to happen.

Guengerich writes eloquently but sparsely, packing ideas into short sentences that connect well with his larger themes. His one largest theme is gratitude as the basis of faith. Having the gift of life, in spite of its complexities, is still an amazing experience. We exist only because of our utter dependence on each other. Breaking our bonds of connection is suicidal. He says that we need a reverence for our relationships with one another and the natural world. A positive religion for the 21st century will help get us there.

His book is a great read for open minds but is also straightforward, easily readable, and just the right length to keep you turning the pages and to never feel bored. Put it on your Kindle for just $10.67.


One Response to “God gets revised”

  1. 9:11 am on July 20 2013, james rogers said:

    This was an excellent review and as UU myself and someone who was at that same GA workshop I understood every word. Mr. Guengerich has been an inspiration to me just as people like Christopher Hitchens has been. Therein is the paradox, we must find a middle way and he outlines it perfectly in the book. I am working on a review of my own for

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