The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.

[Chalice] This Week in God [Chalice]

This service was also recorded live.
33:42 min. - 13.5 MB file - This Week in God .mp3.

Presented April 22, 2007, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

On Monday Am around 10:00 I was doing just what I am supposed to be doing: I was in my study reading Whitehead, preparing for my noon class. An announcement came over the radio that there had been a shooting at Virginia Tech and one person was dead. I thought: probably a male student killed his girlfriend. I thought: I hope this doesn't get worse. And I thought about Mark Fulcher of course.

Who is Mark Fulcher? He is a friend of mine from high school days. Almost 30 years ago he went off to Virginia Tech to become an engineer. Mark Fulcher had one of those cars no one else in high school wants to ride in or be associated with. Not only did he have a Ford Pinto, but he had a pink one. Growing up near Pittsburgh in the 70s as we did, our dads tended to be either steel workers or engineers. Mark's dad was an engineer and I am sure Mark is now one too. My best friend Jim from back home is an engineer; my sister was an engineer; my dad too was an engineer.

My dad was a very brilliant and successful engineer with 5 kids and a great career. His life changed forever when he very unexpectedly became victim of mental illness. Because of my dad's illness, my family became familiar with violence. Perhaps this is partly why I have always hated violence. My long hatred of violence is certainly one of the reasons why I teach at a Franciscan college, with its history of preaching peace and nonviolence. Even when I was a kid I would always throw myself in the middle of playground fights and get the kids to stop fighting. My first year as a professor here I was at a party and two students started fighting so I jumped in the middle and pushed them away from each other. One of the students started to throw a punch at me, but the other one said to him: "Hey, you can't hit him. He's Dr. Manning." Then we all had a laugh about the situation. Such a nice dream, to end violence just by people recognizing who you are. I don't think the professors who were killed this week had the same dream of peace as they tried to block the killer from killing their students, tried in vain to keep him out with classroom doors that do not lock. Every professor, every teacher is always in danger of being in the same situation with the wrong student who can, in our crazy and destructive culture, easily equip himself with a variety of assault weapons.

By the time I biked over to my Noon class with my students, the news had gotten significantly more horrible. Now the news said 20 people were killed at Virginia Tech. I had to speak about Whitehead, and it was so heavy and difficult to do that. It was more a day for Nietzsche than for Whitehead.

The great British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) had a philosophy which is exceedingly optimistic. Whitehead is rare among 20th century philosophers is that he not only takes the idea of God seriously but actually believes in the existence and the life of God. Of course Whitehead is famous for his perhaps novel, revolutionary view of God. Whitehead famously argues that God is not an exception to the universe but exists in accordance with the universe. For Whitehead, the nature of the universe unlocks the mystery of God's nature. The nature of the universe is process, evolution, change, so Whitehead believes this is the nature of God's life as well. God's life unfolds along with the life of the world, and an event in the world is an event in God's unfolding life. For Whitehead, both God and the world are in process and have a future. The future of God is affected by what happens in the world. God, according to Whitehead, is creatively opening up the future and future possibilities for all living organisms. My dog JJ, to use a familiar example, doesn't have the same future as you or I do. He's not going to read Freud for tomorrow's class or go for a drive with Michelle well, at least he is not going to drive! JJ doesn't have our human future, but he does have a future and is living creatively toward a future where there are more times to play ball or relax in the sun. For Whitehead, JJ has that future through God's continual creative advance, and JJ's ball playing and everything else to come for JJ and for all of us is part of God's future too.

This means, of course, that God's life radically changed this week. God's future was changed because the human futures of the Quincy kids and the 32 victims at Virginia Tech were tragically cut off by senseless violence. Their future was part of God's future, and God was looking forward to it as much as they were.

You probably remember that weekly feature Stephen Colbert used to do when he was on John Stewart's show called This Week in God. Well, at least according to Whitehead, this was a horrible week in God. God mourns the loss of the victims' futures and he mourns the loss of his own future lived along with them, that future that was supposed to be and now will never be. This is what Whitehead means when he describes God in his famous statement as "the fellow sufferer who understands."

Now God showed up a lot this week, as He always does during tragedies, but I don't think it was Whitehead's God. God was there to take the blame. Why did God let this happen? God was there as commander in chief of time. This must be God's plan, God's will. God was there as comforting security blanket: don't worry, it will be all right. God will take care of it everyone is in heaven now. God always shows up so humans don't have to think about humans, about how tragic human life is, about what we humans could have done or not done to prevent tragedies. Like the levees bursting and wiping out New Orleans acts of God, we call it while George Bush and the other incompetents around him form a chorus of clowns and say: "Who could have imagined such a thing?"

Perhaps if we could take seriously this beautiful image and concept of God Whitehead gives to us. Perhaps if we could take seriously the idea that God loves life, living, unfolding, process, reality, so much that God said: to heck with this commander in chief stuff, this omniscience stuff, this omnipotent, all controlling stuff! I want to live alongside the world. My divine life will unfold with this life and this world and so I will allow myself to be affected by whatever happens, and the joys of this world will by my joys and the tragedies of this world will by my tragedies. Perhaps if we could really believe that it might help us value the world, value living, life, reality in its creatively unfolding character, the future, JJ's future, my future, your future, the future of the world, the future of God. Perhaps if we could do this we could become a culture of life.

Rather than a culture of death, which is what we are, which is what this contemporary American society is; if you didn't want to admit that to yourself before this week, I would argue that you have to admit it now, at the end of this week of horrors. Pope John Paul II opposed communist societies as we know, but he wasn't always a fan of capitalist societies, either. He frequently spoke of a culture of death. A culture where possessions mattered more than people, a culture where violence was prevalent, a culture that practiced the death penalty, a culture that valued anything above life itself John Paul would call a culture of death.

By noon, when I walked into my classroom with my students to talk with them about how much Whitehead's God loved the world, the count was 20 dead and I was feeling that familiar and distinct anger I have at violence. I told the students it was another Columbine day and that we all needed to pay attention to the news. Another Columbine day. The whole world wonders why we put up with these massacres and this level of violence, why we have so many guns. We lead the world not just in the number of guns but in the number of guns per capita, almost a gun a person. And the problem of course is not just the number of guns, but the type of guns that are so readily available in our culture of death. After Columbine the whole world looked at us to see if now we would do something about our gun problem. And we did. We did pass legislation that restricted the types of assault weapons we could purchase. Of course we had to make exceptions for gun trade shows, and the ban had to be temporary, not permanent, because we just might find that we really missed all those assault weapons you know.

Now in the 2000 presidential election it was pretty clear that Gore would renew the assault weapons ban and Bush would allow it to expire, except that Gore couldn't make this absolutely vital distinction clear to everyone. He couldn't just stand up there and proclaim that after Columbine I have got the message and I am going to make sure we do what we can to protect our kids, and the other guy won't, because to do that would cost him votes in this culture, because this culture, our culture, is a culture of death. A society such as ours that has lived through Columbine and how many other mass shootings and killings and still does not have serious and effective gun laws and still leads the world in terms of the number of guns and is still awash with assault weapons is a culture of death. The man who came to Virginia Tech as commander in chief and became mourner in chief and led our nation in prayer to God is the same man who allowed the assault weapons ban to expire, and if we were really a culture of life we would have said to him: you of all people stay away from here, instead of wanting him to be there and reassure us about God and what God will do to make things right. When that can happen and the whole country not condemn his visit to that site of mass killing by assault weapon as morally obscene is a culture that just will not value human life, is a culture of death. A culture which makes it possible for a young man who has serious mental problems and has been considered by a judge officially as a serious danger to himself and to others and still allows that man to purchase not just guns but assault weapons is a culture of death. One of the guns he used could shoot 22 bullets in 11 seconds. Why does anyone need a weapon that can shoot 22 deadly bullets in 11 seconds? Why would a culture that values life, why would even a sane culture, allow anyone, let alone a young, mentally disturbed and potentially violent man, to walk around with such a weapon?

We all mourn for what happened this week in Virginia. We feel horrible for all the families of the 33 people killed this week and that feeling could help us better understand the never-ending horror show our culture of death has brought upon the people of Iraq. We feel horrible about what happened in Virginia a thousand miles away, and we are a country of 300 million people. Imagine how horrible it must be to be an Iraqi. Iraq is not even a thousand miles wide, and there are only 23 million people in all of Iraq, and a day in Iraq when only 33 people are killed would be considered a good day, that would be considered a good day for four years now. On one day in Iraq this week, 187 people lost their lives in this continuing carnage that our culture of death brought to their culture. Sure, the Bush administration didn't think this would happen. Yes, our American people didn't think this would happen, but it was always a real possibility, which is why we had to be so much more cautious and prudent if we really wanted to be a culture that really safeguards and values human life, but we don't and on some level and for some reason we simply will not be.

And did you hear the one about John McCain? He was in South Carolina campaigning. Someone asks him about Iran and the havoc they are wreaking in Iraq and the man asks of Senator McCain: "when do we send em an air mail message to Tehran?" The question and the applause that came with it are horrible enough. But McCain's response speaks eloquently for our culture of death. "That old Beach Boy song, Bomb Iran," he jokes, and then goes on to sing a few bars, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, Iran "

McCain's little joke was greeted with great laughter. Given the incredible violence we as a country are responsible for bringing upon Iraq, how can we possibly joke and laugh about bombing another country and another people even at the very moment when we all feel so horrible about what happened to our country and our people? What kind of people are we? What kind of culture are we?

I don't know how you feel about Whitehead and his God whose future has been so changed by this horrible week in the world, this horrible week in God. I toss it out there for your reflection; this is what a philosopher does after all. I'm not doing it to console us. Christian ministers always have to arrive on the scene with consolation, have to talk about God and how God will take care of things. Christian ministers have to do this whether they really believe it or not. But I'm not a Christian minister. I'm a Unitarian minister. I'm not in the consoling business. I'm in the truth telling business.

"Tell us the truth, Dr. Manning," Father Bill intoned at my ordination here ten years ago. The truth is the events of this week, from the deaths of the five kids right here in Quincy to Virginia Tech to Iraq have to force us to look at how strong and persistent is the death drive in our culture. We have to admit to ourselves what we do not want to admit, that our American culture is a culture of death.

©2007 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Robert J. S. 2007. This Week in God, http://www.uuquincy.org /talks/20070422.shtml (accessed December 10, 2018).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.