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Galen Guengerich.

All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City. (PHOTO: FLICKR)

Talking About ‘God’ With Galen Guengerich

• June 06, 2013 • 6:00 AM

All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City. (PHOTO: FLICKR)

Paul Hiebert speaks to the Unitarian Universalist senior pastor about religion in America.

Study after study after study suggests that more and more Americans are walking away from traditional religion.

Last October, the Pew Research Center found that one-fifth of the U.S. public and one-third of adults under the age of 30 do not identify with any religion. It marked the highest rate of religiously unaffiliated people ever recorded in the polling organization’s history.

Likewise, sociologists from the University of California-Berkeley and Duke University recently found that religious affiliation in the U.S. has dropped to its lowest point since researchers began keeping track back in the 1930s.

According to a CBS segment titled “Religion & Spirituality in a Changing Society” that aired last April, however, two religious groups that continue to show steady growth despite the current trends are the Unitarian Universalists and, perhaps surprisingly, the Amish.

To get a better sense of what’s happening in America’s religious landscape we spoke with the senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, Rev. Galen Guengerich, who just so happens to have been raised in the Mennonite tradition—a close cousin to the Amish. Rev. Guengerich was educated at Princeton Theological Seminary and the University of Chicago, and presently writes a column on the intersection of science and spirituality for Psychology Today. He also has a book that just came out titled God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age, which investigates the crisis of faith felt by many who adhere to old-world doctrines in a modern age, and provides multiple clues as to why traditional religion in America is on the decline.

Galen Guengerich.

Galen Guengerich.

In your view, what’s driving people away from organized religion in America?
Well, I think the overarching reason is that traditional religion is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the challenges people face in the modern world. They go to church seeking solace, or community, or spiritual guidance, but the doctrine and practice they encounter often has very little relationship to the world they live in. So over time people start voting with their feet by increasingly becoming unaffiliated with a religious tradition. That’s not to say that they aren’t spiritually interested or spiritually needy—it’s just that the established forms of organized religion are not addressing the needs they have.

Do you find that traditional religion is somehow antithetical to technological change and social progress?
Yes, I think so, but perhaps not in the way you expect. It’s not that science has proven God doesn’t exist; it’s that traditional forms of religion understand themselves as having the one true revelation from the one true God. Since neither God nor revelation changes, therefore, to a large extent, the church doesn’t have to change. It’s not that I think religion needs to be completely responsive to the whims of the marketplace, but I do think the world traditional religion inhabits is so different now than the world most people live in that many people just find church irrelevant, and therefore stop going.

So what is it about Unitarian Universalism that people find so appealing?
I describe myself as speaking for the majority in the middle: People between the atheists on the one hand and the fundamentalists on the other—people who value individual freedom when it comes to what we believe and how we live, yet reject the traditional views of God, scripture, the creeds, and all that. But I’m not convinced that individuals are the be-all and end-all, either, or that transcendence plays no role in life, as the atheists insist.

I think what we’re trying to do, what I’m trying to do, is speak for that group of people—not just Unitarian Universalists, but people from all points along the religious/non-religious spectrum who are trying to figure out how to balance what is rightly individual in our lives and in our culture with what is necessarily a communal undertaking. I think both ends of the spectrum err in one way or the other: the atheists by being radically individualist and spiritually isolationist; the fundamentalists by being radically collective and leaving no real room for individual belief. It’s a hard balance to find.

My intention with this book was to try to articulate the geography of this majority in the middle by finding a way for us to talk about the life of faith and the experience of God in a manner that avoids the perils of both extremes.

In your book, you write, “I agree with the atheists that God is not supernatural, yet I agree with the advocates of traditional religion that belief in God is necessary.” Can you explain this?
In this passage I’m trying to revise our concept of God by basically saying that just because God isn’t a guy in the sky doesn’t mean the experience of God doesn’t exist. I speak of our experience of being connected to the people around us, to the world, to the universe, to everything that is present, as well as everything that is past and everything that is possible. That experience is what I mean when I use the word “God,” and I think “God” is the right name for it.

There is no full-blown experience of God all at once because the universe is a big place, the past is enormously long, and the future is completely wide open. But I think there are moments when we walk under the night sky or by the beach or mountains, or when we sit in worship, that we get a clear sense of being a part of all this. God’s picture is not painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but God is like beauty in that God is an experience of transcendence.

Those are very big thoughts.
Perhaps, but they are also very personal and, frankly, far less complex than the usual way of thinking. You sort of have to turn your mind around. People usually think of God as a supernatural being who knows everything and does everything, and view this God as simple to conceive, while God-as-our-experience-of-transcendence is more complex. Actually, the opposite is true.

The old way of talking about God is enormously complicated. Take the “Nicene Creed,” for example, which contains strings of words trying to describe who and what God is that just don’t make any sense together, such as God being one in three. It’s hard to know what that even means, whereas what I’m talking about is something pretty simple. It’s vast in scope because it’s the experience of absolutely everything, but it’s not conceptually complicated in the way the old view of God is, which asks us to suspend disbelief and embrace burning bushes and parting seas, along with the virgin birth and the resurrection.

Would you say we’re somehow hardwired for God? Is there something innately spiritual about us?
I think we’re hardwired for transcendence. I think if you look at how we as individuals are related to everything else, you eventually get to a point where you need some way of talking about those relationships, and in my view the best term we have is “God.” I think the instinct of wanting to understand how we are related to everything comes from the same sense of wanting to know who we are and where we fit in. It’s a part of human nature.

Another quote from your book states, “[I]f you take yourself seriously as a spiritual person, you’ll eventually need to become religious.” Again, can you elaborate?
For me, religion both constitutes and symbolizes the ultimate truth about our existence as human beings and all of existence, generally: we are comprised of multiple relationships that form both our identity and our experience. While I think that faith and belief are certainly individual matters, in order for us to become the kind of people we ought to become and live the kind of lives we ought to live, we need a community that supports, helps, and encourages us. And that’s not really an option; it’s necessary.

If community is necessary, why not just start a book club? What’s so special about a religious community?
To me, the hallmark of a religious community, as opposed to other kinds of community, is the experience of worship, which I’d define as a collective practice of focusing our attention on what’s ultimately important. So while I think book clubs are wonderful, to me the meaning of a book club isn’t worship. It may be great company and you might learn things, but for a religious community to fulfill its purpose over time I think it has to be centered on the experience of worship.

Heaven and hell are barely mentioned in your book. What are your thoughts on the afterlife?
The traditional way of thinking about our present life is that it’s largely a testing ground for the next life. There are useful qualities to this construct: obviously, if you believe that there’s going to be a major assessment after this life, you may conduct yourself differently than if you believe nothing ultimately matters. So I think in the punishment/reward sense, something is lost. But to continue applying the reward/punishment approach, you have to continue believing something that in my view isn’t believable, or at least we have no reason to believe it.

But that’s different than asking, “Do we have any new experiences after we die?” Or, “When our heart stops and our body is no longer animated by what we call life, is that the end?” I’m an agnostic on that front, mainly because our ignorance of this particular universe and other possible universes—either parallel or sequential—is so profound that we don’t even know enough to know what we don’t know. I think any pronouncement on how this life and universe relates to other possible universes is the height of hubris. My guess is that when we die that’s it, but there’s no way to know that.

God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age.

God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age.

I’m assuming most religious fundamentalists would disagree with you due to their literal interpretation of sacred text. Is this type of interpretation a modern phenomenon? When fundamentalists read, say, the Book of Genesis and take it as literal truth, do they understand it in the way the original author or authors intended it to be understood?
Today, we distinguish a story that you tell based on observation and measurement from a story that you tell to account for outcome. It’s the difference between science and mythology, and it’s a somewhat recent differentiation. The idea that you explain what’s happening in the world by getting out your microscope, telescope, and caliper is relatively modern.

So I think that while ancient people would have considered the creation story in Genesis an account of how the world came into being, you could still sum it up by saying, “The reason the world is here is because God made it.” Everything else in the story points to that cause. They wouldn’t have asked, “Was it a literal day?”

So for us to look back at the Genesis account and say, “Oh, they meant a 24-hour day and therefore the Earth is 6,000 years old” is twisting an ancient story about origins into something that it was never intended to be.

So why don’t religious fundamentalists believe that? What is it that separates them from you?
Over the course of human history, people have shown a willingness to believe some pretty amazing things because that’s what they needed to believe at the time. While we don’t know everything about the universe, we have a pretty good picture of how it came into being, how long ago the Big Bang occurred, and how things got differentiated. For people to reject this and say it’s not true is a testimony to the need for certainty, which I can understand. Sometimes the need for certainty is so great that you’re willing to shove aside a lot of evidence to embrace it. I just think they’re building their foundation of certainty in the wrong place.

Lots of people remain in very traditional religious communities simply for the community and support—not because they believe all the doctrine and dogma. I understand people who stay because that’s where their friends are. What I hope is that over time people will increasingly be able to see that they don’t have to live in a different world religiously from the world they live in the rest of the time. There doesn’t need to be conflict.

The story I tell is about my journey from a traditional religion to an approach that looks at the world and asks what we need to know and do in order to live a meaningful and fulfilling life. I hope my story will be useful to other people.

Throughout your book you wrestle with the early Christian theologian St. Augustine and his notion that humanity is fallen due to original sin. What do you think Augustine got wrong about human nature?
What Augustine did was equate natural human desire, which he found difficult to control, with fallen-ness. That’s like saying that people who, for whatever reason, find it difficult to control their appetite for chocolate cake or alcohol are therefore evil and depraved. Well, no. These desires are human. Part of the challenge of being human is to channel our desires so that they lead to good outcomes and not bad ones.

Concluding that our desires are a sign of our fallen-ness does two things: (1) It basically locates the problem outside of ourselves, as though it’s somebody else’s fault, and (2) it therefore makes the problem more difficult for us to deal with.

For me, finding the support we need to channel our desires and instincts in a constructive way is a large part of what being in a religious community is about. It provides us with the kind of support we need to live our lives in a way that maximizes what is good about us while mitigating desires and instincts that may turn destructive.

Given that, how would you define your beliefs as opposed to the beliefs of a humanist?
Well, I believe in transcendence. I think the world in which humanism lives is too individualist and atomized, and transcendence is set aside as a relic. I don’t think transcendence is a relic; I think it’s an ongoing part of our human desire to be a part of everything in the grand story.

I also think the only way to capture the big picture about who we are and how the world works is if you have some experience like the experience of God. Humanism doesn’t construct the world that way. So while I don’t disagree with humanists about the traditional way of viewing God, I do disagree that humanity is the zenith of our understanding of evolution.

I think that people who would have called themselves humanists 30 years ago are now calling themselves seekers, or spiritual but not religious. There’s an openness to a different way of thinking about some of the old questions, and it’s that openness that I’m trying to explore, too. Seekers are the majority in the middle who stand between the traditional religions on the one hand and the atheists on the other.

Paul Hiebert
Paul Hiebert is the editor of Ballast, a Canadian-centric Website about culture and politics. Follow him on Twitter @hiebertpaul.

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