Beyond All or Nothing – Rev. Kristin G. Schmidt

When I was 9 months old I was adopted by parents who had experienced great heartache and waited many years to have a child. I have always known I was adopted, and my parents always spoke of my biological parents with respect, with gratitude. And while they didn’t attach any particular religious or spiritual significance to my adoption, the rest of the world certainly did.

Even as a very young child people would see me with my mother and notice that I don’t look a thing like her. They’d take one look at my brown eyed, brunette mom and ask me “Where did you get your strawberry blonde hair and blue eyes?” And because my parents raised me to be nice and tell the truth, I’d say “I don’t know, I was adopted.” And almost every time people would say something like “Oh, it was meant to be.” Or “God put you in your family.” Or “everything happens for a reason.”

And in my early years, this was a comfort. Because while I’d never known any other reality but the one I was living, I was acutely aware that everyone else I knew was not adopted and I was. And it was nice thinking that this wasn’t some mistake, that it was on purpose. 

But as I got older, I began to resent people asking questions about my family. Why did they feel entitled to know where my hair or eye color comes from? Why should I have to answer these kinds of questions, and share information about my mysterious origins when others would never in their entire lives have to feel that kind of discomfort? And if God wanted to put me in my family, why had I been born into a different one? Why did God feel it was necessary for me to have to live with the pain of not knowing where my story began biologically, not knowing what illnesses run in my family. What possible reason could God have had to put my parents through the pain of infertility for so long before I came along? For that matter, what possible justification could there be for a god to require another woman to carry me to term, give birth to me, and experience the pain of signing away her parental rights in order that I would find my way to my adoptive parents? 

The kind of god that has the power to prevent suffering but chooses not, any god that works through force and coercion certainly bore no resemblance to the Spirit of Life, the Heart of Love, that Great Compassion that I knew was at the heart of my Unitarian Universalist heritage, and so many other traditions. And yet, so many people I knew believed in a god that was both of those things. It just never made sense to me.

We each have our own stories, the unique ways we may have felt alone, misunderstood, hurt, or targeted. We have all had to go through our own unique pain and suffering. And though unique to each of us, it is also that pain and suffering that unites all people. Indeed, throughout my thirteen years in congregational ministry the most-asked questions I receive are variations of these: 

“Why did this happen to me?”

“Why must we suffer?” 

“Why do bad things happen to good people?” 

And when we experience pain, when we experience suffering, most people want to know why. Some do find comfort in believing that there is a larger purpose to their pain. I guess if there is a good reason, it can feel a bit empowering to believe our suffering isn’t in vain. But the notions that everything happens for a reason, that some things are just meant to happen, or that all suffering is somehow acceptable because God has willed it, those ideas have caused a lot of people a lot of harm for a long time. It is these kinds of ideas that were used to justify oppression for generations. They were used to justify slavery, to justify telling women to stay in abusive marriages. And yet, for whatever reason, they are still so pervasive. 

This history of oppression and harmful theology is all rooted in the doctrine of divine omnipotence – the idea that God is all-powerful. That a god who is utterly separate from the universe and outside of time can intervene in world events to bring about divine ends. Such a god arranges for terrible things to happen to people, to test them, to send them messages, to shape them. But why would a god who is all-powerful but also good make anyone suffer for any reason? If God could do anything, what possible reason could God have for not coming up with a better plan, one that doesn’t require any suffering? It just doesn’t make sense. 

This omnipotence theology reflects a god who is content with a world of winners and losers, rulers and subjects, main characters and pawns to serve their storylines. This omnipotence theology carries an assumption that ours is a binary world. It reflects a god who works by ordering events like pieces on a chess board, through force and coercion. And because of this, for many people the word god has become synonymous with violence, with suffering, with control, with the counting up of wrongdoings and the vengeance of sins. The word theist has become synonymous with belief in an omnipotent, supernatural god. Likewise, for many, the word atheist has become synonymous with not believing in any of that. 

But as Rev. Takahashi wrote in our reading:

Life tells its truth in many hues but we are taught to think in ‘either/or,’

Life embraces multiple truths, 

speaks of ‘both’ and ‘and.’ 

Let us see the fractions, the spectrum, the margins. 

Let us open our hearts to the complexity of our worlds. 

Let us make our lives sanctuaries to nurture our many identities. 

  • Our liberal, multicultural, pmhq bypluralistic faith has room for many beliefs, including those of both atheists and theists. But I think we must also acknowledge just how unhelpful it is to accept these two terms as a binary, with agnosticism right smack in the middle. There are many religious traditions with theologies about God that don’t include omnipotence, or the supernatural. Belief in one set of theological ideas, the rejection of that narrow set of ideas, and saying we don’t know are just three of a limitless number of perspectives and theologies. There is a lot of space in between the omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, supernatural god of orthodox Christianity and nothing at all. Our liberal faith finds meaning in the space between all and nothing thinking, beyond ideas of coercion and force.

It’s like that old Aesop’s fable. One day a long, long time ago, the North Wind and the Sun had an argument about which one of them was stronger. While they argued, a traveler wrapped in a cloak caught their attention.

“How about this” said the Sun. Whichever of us can get the cloak off that traveler is the strongest?” And the North Wind agreed. 

Right away, the North Wind blew an icy cold blast against the Traveler. The gusts of wind whipped around the Traveler’s body and rippled the cloak. But it didn’t blow off. Instead, the Traveler wrapped the cloak even tighter around himself.  

The North Wind grew angry, and blew even harder, while only led the poor Traveler to clutch even more intently to the cloak.  “Ok” the Sun said, “My turn.” 

And the Sun began to shine. It took a little while for things to warm up after the North Wind’s bitter cold, but soon the birds reappeared and began to sing, and the Traveler unfastened his cloak and folded it over his arm. 

If the North Wind represents the classic Christian omnipotent god, the Sun is a better reflection of different streams of theology, different ways of understanding how that which is greater than we are (that many people call God) works in us and in the world. One school of theology that offers a different way of understanding divinity is called process theology, and the Sun in this story is a good way to begin to understand how process theologians understand the way the holy functions. For process theologians, God isn’t some supernatural entity outside space and time, but the force that drew life out of lifeless elements on primordial planet earth, that draws hope out of hopeless situations, and that can help us make meaning out of even the worst experiences life throws at us. God is a verb rather than a noun; an ever-unfolding process of which we are all a part; interwoven, inseparable, interdependent. 

Theologian Dr. Thomas Jay Oord has coined a term to describe a god that isn’t omnipotent, that doesn’t work through coercion and force. The term he coined is “ami-potent.” “Ami” in Latin means “love” and “potent” means “power.” Omnipotent means all-power, but for Dr. Oord, God isn’t all-powerful; God is “love-power” and as such works in and with and through every single interaction to bring about that which will help all life to flourish. This love-power can’t control the weather, can’t make us do or not do anything. And yet, this love-power can still change everything in deeply important ways. 

Rather than the metaphor of a father, or a gardener, or even a potter, I love the metaphor that one blogger, Jay McDaniel, uses to describe this love-power:

The heart of ami-potence is healing and life-giving, like love itself. 
What does it look like? I think it looks like the healing power of a nurturant nurse. We do not expect nurses to make everything right, but in their human touch we find life’s deepest meaning. That meaning is not that all pain can be relieved. It is that no one suffers alone and that always, even in suffering, there is a healing (a solace, a togetherness, a presence, a companionship, and a hope) that is more, much more, than whatever tears must be shed. For me, the God of whom Thomas Oord speaks is a deep Nurse in whose life the universe unfolds, moment by moment. She is – he is – it is – the Nurturing: an encircling spirit beneath, behind, beyond, and (sometimes) within the happening of all that happens. 

Or, as Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, former President of Starr King School for the Ministry has said in the words of a beloved song:

There is a love holding us

There is a love holding all that we love

There is a love holding us

We rest in this love.

In the midst of lives filled with both joy and sorrow, ecstasy and suffering, may we find the courage to journey beyond all or nothing thinking. May we embrace the fractions, the spectrum, the margins as we search for answers to life’s deepest questions. May we remember that true power comes not through force, but through persuasion. And may we always know that there is a love-power holding us, holding all that we love, and holding all that ever has been and ever shall be, and that this love-power will never forsake us.