Personal Theology – Brian Hetherington

A friend of mine, I’ll call him John, is now twenty something but as a teenager he had rather a tempestuous relationship with his mother. There was not only the usual generational conflict but a cultural and religious one as well. John’s mother was born abroad and had the traditional values of many immigrants. She also belongs to the Church of the Nazarene, a conservative, fundamentalist Protestant sect. John is an atheist. In an argument with his mother, he came out with the line, “God is nothing more than an imaginary friend for adults”. You can imagine how well that went over: I think she threw something at him, maybe a Bible.

I’ve wondered ever since whether having an imaginary friend is such a bad idea. I mean, is believing in some kindly, Santa-Claus-like, being really all that harmful? Certainly, many children have imaginary friends and seem to come to no harm because of it. Perhaps, God is the religious equivalent of a white lie. Now, of course, this isn’t going to go over with true believers such as my friend’s mother, the Church of the Nazarene or many other people of faith.

In my opinion, ultimately, this metaphor of god as an imaginary friend doesn’t work for anyone: believer, agnostic or atheist alike. It doesn’t work because we all too often forget the word, “imaginary”, and there’s the rub. To many believers, God is not imaginary. If we forget the doubt on the issue or if we forget the personal nature of faith, then we have a problem because our entrenched view of God is not open to other imaginings. This entrenchment leads to the religious triumphalism, persecutions, wars and atrocities with which we are all too familiar.

I think, as a Unitarian, it’s all too easy to become entrenched as well. Unitarians will never have one monolithic, entrenched view of who or what God is, but we can become entrenched in the belief that we are superior to others, that we have some special relationship with truth that others don’t. We have given up the tyranny of creeds, and I for one, rejoice in that. But do we not also lose something when we reject the absolute certainty and faith of believers and dismiss it completely?

I remember a poem by A. M. Klein (1909-1972). Klein was a Canadian poet, Jewish and from Montreal. Klein, in a poem published in 1947, describes the ascent of handicapped penitents climbing the steep steps of the Oratoire de St. Joseph in Montreal. This is the home of Brother André, now a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. His description is politically incorrect and intentionally so: words used of the handicapped penitents like “maim”, “knobs”, and even “cripples”, do not glorify these penitents in the least. But the last lines twist our perspective:

And I who in my own faith once had faith like this,
but have not now, am crippled more than they.

Written as it was in the decade after the Holocaust, the reasonableness of his lack of faith is clear. Acknowledging the value of such faith is an act of faith in itself. It is not hard to acknowledge the value of faith when it seems to be creating prosperity for you, but it is much harder to believe in the midst of such adversity. I wonder, if sometimes, our Unitarian values are too entrenched and we miss out on a broader, deeper understanding of the world because of it. How can we be more open to others and resist the entrenchment that human beings are likely to find comfortable? How do we figure out how to engage and respect and learn from people of faith?

I opened with a short story let me close with one as well. This is a story from the Buddhist tradition:

Ritual Cat

When the spiritual teacher and his disciples began their evening meditation, the cat who lived in the monastery made such noise that it distracted them. So the teacher ordered that the cat be tied up during the evening practice. Years later, when the teacher died, the cat continued to be tied up during the meditation session. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the monastery and tied up. Centuries later, learned descendants of the spiritual teacher wrote scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice.

I hope in our searching for truth we can avoid becoming too entrenched in our positions, too tied up in our tradition. If we resist that temptation, perhaps we can learn from people of creedal faiths and they can, in turn, learn from us.

(A.M. Klein, “The Cripples” can be read in its entirety at: Poetry Magazine.)