“If religion as traditionally practiced were merely irrelevant to life in the modern world the god wars and doctrinal disputes would subside. But religion has proven highly destructive in every age, pitting parents against children, neighbors against neighbors and even nations against nations, whatever people mean by being spiritual, it’s clearly understandable that thoughtful people wouldn’t want to be religious.” – Galen Guengerich
In his latest book; God Revised: How Religion Must Change in a Scientific Age, Galen Guengerich, senior minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in NYC not only upsets the apple cart of religious meaning, he constructs a new cart. This book is long overdue, a daring undertaking written by someone who understands both sides of the believer vs. nonbeliever debate and in doing so delivers a middle path.
All Souls Unitarian Church, located in Manhattan is one of the oldest and largest congregations in this small but influential denomination that claims authors Herman Melville and Catherine Sedgwick as past members, along with poet William Cullen Bryant, lithographer Nathaniel Currier, plus Henry Whitney Bellows, the second minister at All Souls and founder of the American Sanitary Commission, which later became the American Red Cross. Guengerich has been minister there since 1993. His sermon “Shaking the Foundations” the Sunday after 9/11 is included in Representative American Speeches for 2001-2002 along with speeches by N.Y. Governor George Pataki, President George Bush and Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
In chapter one, Where We Begin: From Mennonite to Manhattan he describes his upbringing in a fundamentalist religious community and how the experience propelled him to a more knowledge friendly faith, one that embraces the modern world. The disconnect between religious dogma or “religion of the book” and scientific information that improves our lives has given rise to the “nones”, those not affiliated with any religion. Guengerich states he didn’t so much leave the faith of his youth so much as that faith left him. Like other seekers, he found out rejecting a sort of “theological straight jacket didn’t mean he was free of responsibility to live an ethical and moral life.
Rev. Guengerich dismisses revelation as the source of our morals, or how we should live an ethical life. Instead he lays out evidence for an ethical life governed by the natural world. “Like the Amish buggy, the belief in a supernatural god is the lingering vestige of a bygone era. This belief may be quaintly appealing at times, but it’s completely dysfunctional as the means of interpreting our world.”
When it comes to spiritual matters we often mislabel words like god, religion, and faith. The fact that these words have been hijacked by certain religious groups doesn’t mean we can’t use them properly.
Guengerich says a satisfying faith requires a journey. That journey should take into account everything we know about the universe which we are all a part of. Humans are part of the natural world and therefore our happiness and well being will be found in human answers. Fooling ourselves into thinking that worshiping a supernatural force will bring us understanding is unhealthy.
God Revised is well researched and the author draws on pertinent philosophers and men and women of letters from all ages such as Aristotle, Plato, David Hume, Alfred North Whitehead, Thoreau and Emerson along with contemporary philosophers like Richard Taylor and Diana Eck.
Diana Eck, professor of religion at Harvard speaks of Unitarian Universalism as the church of the new millennium. “Unitarian Universalism is not the lowest common denominator, but the highest calling.” A similar sentiment was made by Thomas Jefferson over 200 years ago when the faith still had some Christian roots. Jefferson was a friend of the church and perhaps a member. He believed so much in it’s principals that he called it the church of the enlightenment.
In the future religious people must not fear the word universe and secularists must not fear the word god, when used properly. The melding of faith and reason is a delicate dance that can bring rich rewards to those with a certain awareness.