Rev. Tess Baumberger: God is one: The implications of Unitarianism
This year I am building the case that Unitarian Universalism was and is a religion of relevance in the larger issues of the world, as well as in our personal lives. For one thing, it can speak against the intolerance and hatred illustrated in the recent news story about an ultra-conservative preacher planning to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11. Whether the hatred and intolerance center on religion, ethnicity, race, nationality, or sexual orientation and identity, we can raise our religious voice on the side of love and of tolerance.
Our ancestors did. Religious tolerance has been part of the Unitarian side of our faith since its beginnings in Eastern Europe in the mid 1500s. This tolerance was based on the belief that, as 16th-century Unitarian Francis David put it, “God is One.” We can discern what difference this belief can make today by exploring how it has mattered in the past.
Monotheism “one-god-ism” is central to three faiths that trace their religious ancestry to Abraham — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Judaism came first, and some scholars think that monotheism developed gradually in that tradition. The motivation could have been partly political. Each tribe may have had its own deity, and as they joined into a nation, they chose one deity to be the focus of their worship.
The spiritual motivation is clear. Monotheism captures the religious insight that deep down, the Ground of All Being is one entity. It resolves the opposite insight, that there are many facets to the divine, by having one god with a complex personality – like humans, actually. This deity can sometimes feel near and sometimes far away, sometimes kind and sometimes wrathful. In the bible God is described as a shepherd, as a warrior, as a hen with baby chicks, as the wisdom of the ages — a many-splendored God.
Later, when early Christians started teaching that Jesus was divine, this looked like something other than monotheism. It took a couple hundred years and some theological work to develop the doctrine of the trinity – one God in three persons – which preserves Christians’ identity as monotheistic.
Now let’s skip to the seventh century, to a prophet named Muhammad and the third Abrahamic faith, Islam. Observing the endless warring between the Arabian tribes, that prophet saw a possible solution in monotheism. At the time, each tribe had its own gods. Muhammad thought that if the tribes gathered under the banner of one god, the fighting might cease and the people might prosper.
A series of revelations convinced that amazing prophet (and through him others) that there was just one deity. In a remarkably short period of time, the fractious Arabian tribes united in worship of that deity, who the prophet saw as the God of Abraham, and of the Christians. One God. This belief in the unity of the Divine led to the religious tolerance that characterized mainstream Islam for centuries. They gave religious freedom to “people of the book,” Jewish people and Christians.
Given that we only hear about the fundamentalist face of Islam these days, their history of religious tolerance may be a surprise. It is for the most part true. There were exceptions, but they do not disprove the rule any more than one fundamentalist preacher who wants to burn the Quran disproves the gospel of love most Christians hold as central.
Throughout the history of monotheism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam there have been both interplay and tension between politics and belief. It seems to me that when the belief in one God is of primary importance it can draw people together, but when politics comes first it drives them apart. Belief in the unity of the Divine can lead to religious tolerance when it is a first and foundational belief, but when power and politics dress up as religion it leads to hatred, intolerance, genocide, war and destruction, all of which are not of God, not of that Ground of All Being.
If today we can hold as foundational the idea that religious experience is essentially unitary or one, this belief can do the holy work of uniting people across boundaries and borders. This historic Unitarian belief can be a basis for us to speak against politics dressed up as religion and for religion as its best self – loving, inclusive, and tolerant. This belief can be a source of relevance as we proclaim a different religious truth, “Our world is one world. We are many and we are one.”
The Rev. Tess Baumberger, PhD, is minister at Unity Church of North Easton, Mass. For more information about Unitarian Universalism, please visit www.uua.org.There you will find links to all our churches. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.