Personal Gods

The best explanation that I have ever heard for why we humans continue to turn to religion is that religion helps us to be more human. We come to religion with questions about ourselves. Am I alone in this world? What is the meaning of my life? The paradox is that the answer to these questions that begin with the self, lies in reaching outwards, away from ourselves, towards "the Other." We reach outwards toward the Other, and some of us choose to call this other "god."

There is the God at the beginning of Genesis, who made all of creation with the utterance of a few words, "Let there be light." The God that Hindus call Brahman, whom we can only understand by trisecting into parts. That Chinese call the Tao. The Ultimate Reality. Eternal, infinite, and defying description, this is the God of Jefferson and Einstein, a transcendent God who began and sustains the Universe. The God we catch in glimpses when we gaze in wonder at Nature - moments when we make a connection with all of Creation, and are awed and humbled, buoyed and made euphoric by Its vast grandeur. This is God with a big "G."

And for some of us, this is the only God that makes any sense. How can anything less be called "God"? But this is not a god that we can pray to when our day has gone badly. This god is busy making sure that the stars stay in place and that water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius. We cannot envision that this god cares about us on a personal level any more than we care about a single skin cell on our left big toe.

A god who would care would be a "personal god." Someone who took an interest in our daily lives, someone that we can talk to, question, blame, forgive and be forgiven. This is the god of Abraham, who chose to favor him above all others. This is the god of Jesus, with whom he pleaded in the Garden of Gethsemane. This is the god that Jesus eventually became for millions of his followers, including Martin Luther King Jr. - the god to whom Dr King would pray for strength and courage when in doubt and need. This is Krishna. This is Kali Ma, Kwan Yin, or the Virgin Mary. A patron saint, a bodhisattva, a totem, a guardian angel, god with a little "g."

I've been grappling with this idea of a personal god for some time. For me, it was not a concept that I could easily accept, and I imagine this to be true for many UUs. Spirit of Life?, sure, no problem. But people actually praying to a god by name, to someone, whom they think is listening, having a conversation, a personal relationship. It's downright anthropomorphic. Perhaps occasionally I've even been arrogant enough to imagine that personal gods were for people who weren't sophisticated enough to grasp the concept of God with a big "G." But what I couldn't dismiss so easily was the spiritual strength that people seemed to be getting from this relationship. These people were better people as a result, more human. What were that getting that I wasn't? Then last week, it suddenly came to me. They are making a connection with "the Other."

We become more human by reaching away from ourselves, towards the Other... Instead of thinking about our own wants and needs, we learn to think about someone else. And any time we reach outward towards one other, it helps us to reach out to all others. All that helps us to make a connection with the other makes us better humans, including our personal gods.

So what does this mean for us as UUs? Whether we are Christians or Pagans or Atheists, one thing that ties all UUs together is that we are all humanists. Whether you believe in God or not, big G or little g, the standard by which we measure ourselves is the effect we have on other human beings in this world. For Unitarian-Universalists, whether or not we have other gods with whom we commune, humans are our personal gods. They are the other, with a little "o" - a small bit of Other with a big "O," but on a scale with which we can relate. Humanity is grand, awesome, humbling, and impersonal. Individual humans are the ones whom we can talk to, question, blame, forgive and be forgiven. We all need personal gods with whom to connect.

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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative