It’s tough to say we need to take Newt Gingrich seriously as a theologian to whom we respond, but he is barnstorming the Republican primary with a message about God that feel-good liberalism cannot answer.
People who respond favorably to his God have known something that never touches most liberals, and that is the incredibly powerful sensation of being born again: recognizing one’s errors, acknowledging one’s likelihood of repeating them, and then asked God for a combination of help and forgiveness that sets up a sense that you might be able to avoid this trap the next time.
It does not mean you feel no temptation, it doesn’t mean you promise never to do it again. It means you have sought out, grasped and learned to use some tools you believe will help you avoid the same mistake. And the tools don’t work just because you hold them, or because you repeat the directions to yourself at key moments: they work because you work them, constantly, faithfully, even when you don’t feel the need.
Liberals, let’s face it: we are what William James called “the once born.” We listen to these stories the same way a tone deaf person listens to subtle shifts in Gregorian chant (sorry, tone deaf folks, if that’s not the right one, it’s my best guess). The fact that we do not hear this music does not mean no one else does, either. It means we are not in this choir, and we have to find a common language of beauty.
In the current case, we need to find a common language of God: a God who instructs and leads. One to whom we bow down, not by bending our knees, but to whom we turn with equivalent time and energy not as prophets or evangelists, but as students who keep needing the same tutorial, over and over again, not because we didn’t get it last week, but because we have just forgot quite how we did it at the time.
And here’s the trick that liberals keep missing: this is not going to be the God of that whole Monica Lewinsky hypocrisy. That “condemning you for doing what I’m doing” resonates with me as a problem, but for born-agains, God has forgiven this and Gingrich is ready not to do it again. Frankly, liberals, this is an area where we need to take an example from the Newster. Quite a few of us have made the same desperate attempt Gingrich made, to balance a new lover and a useful spouse. There are stories (often hushed up) among our clergy, there are stories among those who worship next to us, and there are plenty of stories of doing exactly this amongst our political allies, both straight and gay. So get over the hypocrisy issue — there is no one here that qualifies to cast the first stone and the less we bring it up, the better off we’re all going to be.
So if it’s not about hypocrisy, maybe we can just boil it down to dollars and sense. How much money did the country waste on that whole impeachment thing? How much money and time did we squander avoiding some significant issues, because arguing about sex — who’s having it, who ought to have it, who’s doing it which whom — is just so much more fun and manageable than looking at the kind of societal transitions we now know were going on. Maybe, but again, a lot of people believe in a fundamental character: an intrinsic self which cannot be changed or eradicated, only guided, corrected, and occasionally, repented. And frankly, that’s pretty much the experience most of us have with ourselves, so it’s not far-fetched to believe that private decisions and public ones have a common interior fountain.
So if it’s not about hypocrisy and it’s not about the private-public dichotomy, what is it?
It’s about the method of self-correction and long-term guidance our God wants us to employ. And Unitarianism — whether theistic or atheistic — take a back seat to no one in beautiful articulations of a God who calls on us to use the powers of research, reason and double-checking BEFORE we commit to a major course of action.
Let’s look again at all that post-Puritan theology. It boils down to this, a God who says, “Now show me your homework about this area of impact. Show me your homework in projecting this particular process that’s already underway. Show me who you’re leaving out when you make such-and-such a proposal, because remember, I created everyone. No exceptions. And I love them.”
Newt is doing a great job selling what I call “The God of Oops.” The God who pats your bowed head when you say, “Gee that didn’t work out the way I expected, but gosh, my intentions were good” and says, “Don’t worry, I know your heart.”
Nevermind that I doubt that God’s definition of a good heart in Newt Gingrich lives up to what I want in a President: good heart is just not an adequate method for making leadership decisions. Not for a family, not for a household, not for a neighborhood association, not for a country. The God of Oops –the one who thinks a good heart is enough — only makes one claim for what God’s honor for that good heart will do: to save each sinner in the hour of repentance. That is an hour when everyone has to walk the lonesome valley and stand alone, unaided, or kneel and pray. And when you’re done, the God of Oops requests that you apologize to those you have wronged, even ask forgiveness. Then the God of Oops wants you to study how you made such a bad decision, and keep stripping away your self-justifications until you identify the improper joy you were trying to achieve, from a really short list.
The God of Oops does not hand out free passes. You have to do a lot of work to stay in this God’s good graces. It only ends when you die, and even then, who really knows?
So perhaps when Newt’s fans hoot against folks bringing up the Monica Lewinsky hypocrisy, their real issue is anger that their God is being so totally misunderstood, misrepresented and then dismissed.
When folks are talking about God, they have significantly raised the bar. The only proper answer to one person’s God is another person’s God. Not the sacred kernel in each of our mortal selves, but some statement of what that is part of. If there is a bit of the sacred which is in us but not of us, that entered to be carried for awhile and then dissolves back into some larger whole, we have to quit talking about our little selves and name that sacred substance, at least if we want to be in this conversation.
I don’t care what you call it in worship, when we’re all being UUs together. YOu might not call it God, but as Theodore Parker said, does it meet that test of Permanence, rise beyond and then outlast the transient? Because for purposes of political effectiveness that is what we are going to have to answer with.
Here is a good example from our faith tradition, not using Godtalk but struggling to define an equal essence:
“The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance. Thus; in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted. He who puts off impurity, thereby puts on purity. If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God; the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty of God do enter into that man with justice. If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being. A man in the view of absolute goodness, adores, with total humility. Every step so downward, is a step upward. The man who renounces himself, comes to himself.
See how this rapid intrinsic energy worketh everywhere, righting wrongs, correcting appearances, and bringing up facts to a harmony with thoughts. Its operation in life, though slow to the senses, is, at last, as sure as in the soul. By it, a man is made the Providence to himself, dispensing good to his goodness, and evil to his sin. Character is always known. Thefts never enrich; alms never impoverish; murder will speak out of stone walls. The least admixture of a lie, — for example, the taint of vanity, the least attempt to make a good impression, a favorable appearance, — will instantly vitiate the effect. But speak the truth, and all nature and all spirits help you with unexpected furtherance. Speak the truth, and all things alive or brute are vouchers, and the very roots of the grass underground there, do seem to stir and move to bear you witness. See again the perfection of the Law as it applies itself to the affections, and becomes the law of society. As we are, so we associate. The good, by affinity, seek the good; the vile, by affinity, the vile. Thus of their own volition, souls proceed into heaven, into hell.
These facts have always suggested to man the sublime creed, that the world is not the product of manifold power, but of one will, of one mind; and that one mind is everywhere active, in each ray of the star, in each wavelet of the pool; and whatever opposes that will, is everywhere balked and baffled, because things are made so, and not otherwise.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson. “An Address.” Harvard Divinity School, 15 July 1838