Seven Dimensions of Religion

24 July 2011
Jeff Witmer

I had intended to give one sermon in 2011 and to put into it pretty much everything that I have to say. Then those of us on the planning committee saw our hopes dashed as one person after another explained why they could not help us this summer. Reluctantly, and on the theory that something is better than nothing, I agreed to write a second sermon.

When I am out of ideas, I sometimes think back to my youth. I remember the Harry Nilsson album “The Point” (1971) that includes a short narration about “the pointed man” who lives in the Pointless Forest and says “A point is every direction is the same as no point at all.” This is more a statement of philosophy than a declaration of faith, but the concept of having a point of view helps me get started. So here I am, with some thoughts about God, Faith, and Religion in many dimensions.

I want to talk about seven dimensions.

1. Below me is the Earth, the foundation of God’s creation, providing home for me and for all of God’s creatures. [Some would say that below me is Hell: eternal damnation for a life poorly lived. But I’ve always preferred the definition of Hell given by rabbi Harold Kushner: “Hell is the understanding that if I was sarcastic to my daughter when she was a little girl, she will be sarcastic to my grandchildren and it will be my fault.”] Below me is the Earth; certainly we find God here.

2. Above me is the sky, the great expanse of the universe, all of it connected to me and to each of us, and through the Cosmos all of us are connected to one another. [Or is it heaven that is above me? Again from Kushner: ”Heaven is the awareness that if I worked hard for something I believed in and I thought I was wasting my time and energy, I never waste my time and energy. Every good deed leaves its mark on the world. Everything we do, every time we take a stand for what is right, every time we go anonymously to help a neighbor and nobody thanks us and nobody applauds us for it, we have changed the world.”] Above me is the sky; certainly we find God here.

You might dismiss these ideas about heaven and hell because Kushner is a Jew. But then, so was Jesus.

3. Behind me is the history of Christianity and other religions that have shaped the traditions that we have. I think in particular of the gifts and inter-relatedness of the three great “religions of the book”: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity: The wonderful stories of the children of Abraham; the traditions that simultaneously anchor us and guide us. Consider the line from the movie Amistad, spoken by Joseph Cinque at a time of turmoil and trial, in reference to his ancestors: “I will call to the past, far back to the beginning of time, and beg them to come and help me at the judgment. I will reach back and draw them into me, and they must come, for at this moment, I am the whole reason they have existed at all.” Behind me is history; certainly we find God here.

4. To my right are the fundamentalists who know that they know what is right. Not only do they know the truth that is revealed in scripture, but they know that they know the truth. This truth gives steady guidance, security, comfort, and clarity. Think of family and of community. This is not to be dismissed. I am often tempted to ignore those on the religious right, but we find God here.

An aside: Some of us associate the religious right with the Bible belt and the South. For a few years I lived in Florida. On a recent trip to Kentucky I was reminded of the distinctive and wonderful hospitality that one finds in the South, where life moves more slowly, especially in the summer, and the pace nourishes familiarity and community. When I lived in Florida I learned that “y’all” is a very useful word. (It is now used to by some to address a single person, so some in the South say “all y’all” when they want to address a group.) “Y’all” says that I am addressing all of you and so I use it from time to time, here in Ohio; but saying y’all takes me, for a fraction of a second, back to the South, where hospitality means something special. It warms me.

5. To my left are the theologically liberal, who see new truths, who welcome new viewpoints. I like the way this was expressed in John Robinson’s farewell sermon to the Pilgrims, as they were about to set sail for a new life in a new world. Robinson said “The Lord has more Truth and Light yet to break forth out of His holy word.” Certainly we find God here.

6. In front of me is the future of God’s creation, with my responsibility to help shape it. I spoke about this at some length recently, so today I’ll just repeat the adage that Children are God’s way of saying that life should go on. Certainly we find God here.

7. All of these dimensions matter, but then we have the seventh dimension, the one that really matters: Within me. Who am I? What am I to do? Whether we think of ourselves as children of God or as adults of God, certainly we find God here, in this dimension. We must find God here, within ourselves, and within one another as well, and not just on Sunday mornings, but as our daily lives unfold.

Many of you know the Dar Williams song “The Christians and the Pagans” about a pagan visiting her Christian uncle and family. It includes the line (spoken by the pagan) “You find magic from your god and we find magic everywhere.” But why can’t Christians find magic and truth everywhere? Not just in the Bible, nor just in certain parts of the Bible, but elsewhere as well: in other writing. Come next Sunday prepared to share a Bible verse or other writing that inspires you, that reveals to you the magic of life, of creation, that shows you the nature of God.

There is an 8th direction, which is every direction.  You know that if you take lights of various colors and shine them together you get white, which is the union of all colors of light. Likewise, God is the union of all life. With us always, in good times and bad; in the joy of a wedding and in the sorrow of a death. In solitude and in warm company. As Brian Wren said: “Closer yet than breathing.”

Returning to the philosophy of The Pointed Man, if a point in every direction is like no point at all, with no direction being superior to the others, then finding God in every direction means that God is everywhere, for all of us, not with one group or time or place having all of the truth. And maybe that is the point of this sermon.