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Tonight I went to a discussion group at the church, the first in a once-a-month series of theology talks. This one was centered on the belief of 18th-Century Universalist minister Hosea Ballou that all humans have a “God-given right to be happy.”

The discussion was lively, and touched on whether we have a right to be happy or to pursue happiness, on whether anyone ever does anything that’s not ultimately motivated by the desire to be happy (Ballou believed we do not), and whether happiness is a state of frequent euphoria or more a pervasive feeling of contentment.

A few people objected to the phrase “God-given,” and that got me to thinking. A good number of UUs are atheists or agnostics, I know, but I’m not. Not anymore.

On the other hand, I don’t conceive of God in the way that most traditional religious systems posit God either.

Some people believe in a God who manipulates everything about the world, and they tend to try to scry the will of God out of every event. Something as momentous as an earthquake or as trivial as their finding a good parking space, they’ll chalk up to God’s will. I don’t agree with that.

On the other hand, some people believe God is an entirely human imagining, made up and not real in any objective or important way. I don’t agree with that either.

Some people believe God created heaven and hell and sujects us to a final judgment. Various religions have various schemes for staying out of hell, but I don’t believe in hell. Others believe God wound up the universe and then went away somewhere, perhaps to a summer home. I don’t buy that either.

The most useful way I’ve found to think of God in my recent years is, as Paul Tillich and then John Shelby Spong more recently put it, as the Ground of Being. This is not the personalized, anthropomorhic God of the Bible, with his giant-sized emotional reactions and sometimes schizophrenic tendencies. It’s a less personal fundamental essence undergirding all of existence. The Source of Love in Spong’s formulation, but not a cosmic puppetmaster. This is, at this point, where I am. Which means I am comfortable with Ballou’s God-language, and don’t need to reformulate “God-given right” into “human right” as some of the group tonight suggested, but also means I do not have an especially concrete idea of God that I feel a need to talk others into sharing.

There is one philosophical point that I considered mentioning tonight but ultimately didn’t. The presence of “God-given” in Ballou’s phrase (and more broadly) establishes an objectivity for the existence of rights, and a foundation for considering things to be inherently right or wrong. The Founding Fathers attributed our “inalienable rights” to our Creator, the specific identity of which they left amorphous, but which they did deliberately invoke. I think they were wise to do so.

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