The Words of the Pople Family

God: The Contemporary Discussion

Joy Pople
April 1982

A major advance in our movement's ecumenical efforts, a New ERA conference on the theme, "God, the Contemporary Discussion," attracted 170 participants from 33 countries and all major religions traditions. The meeting held in December 1981 on the island of Maui, Hawaii, was chaired by Dr. Frederick Sontag, assisted by Dr. M. Darrol Bryant, senior consultant to New ERA. John Maniantis, assisted by other members of the New ERA staff, coordinated the conference.

The annual "God Conferences," of which this was the first, are envisioned as something of the equivalent of an internal ICUS. The idea of the God Conference originated with Drs. Sontag and Richardson, who suggested that since the scientists have their own conference, the religionists should have theirs, too.

The New ERA directors' response was "Oh, no, another conference! Are those professors crazy?" But when Father heard the idea, he approved.

Seventy-five papers were written for this year's conference, touching on an enormous range of ways of conceiving of or experiencing God. Future conferences will probably narrow down the topics of discussion, but many participants seemed to feel that this conference opened up whole new ways of thinking for them. Some public prayers were offered during the conference -- one traditional African prayer, one non-denominational, another very moving prayer for Poland.

Except for the opening and closing plenary sessions and one general address, activities were focused in the five sections, each designed to be as ecumenical as possible. Each participant received beforehand the papers prepared for his/her section. The format of the section meetings was a brief summary of the paper, a prepared response and general discussion -- one hour allotted to each paper. The section moderators made great efforts to keep discussions on the subject and give all different points of view a chance to be expressed.

The following summaries on three sections are by graduates from the Unification Theological Seminary, studying for advanced degrees: Lloyd Eby, Diana Muxworthy and Joe Stein. These interactions are typical of what was occurring during the conference.

Spirited Discussions

Lloyd Eby reported that his section was perhaps more diverse than most others, with quite a few Buddhists and Hindus participating, as well as an Islamic scholar, several Jewish people, one Korean, one Japanese and many Americans. As a result, there was no fundamental agreement on the concept of God. One professor of world religion kept objecting to the use of the word "God." He felt it was more misleading than helpful.

Academic conferences are usually focused on a particular theme, Lloyd noted, but in this conference, the discussions and papers were extremely diverse, and it seemed at times that the participants had almost nothing in common. On the other hand, however, that same diversity meant that people had to confront concepts they had never considered before.

One day, three consecutive discussions focused on technical aspects of Buddhism. Lloyd commented afterwards that he could sympathize with how a Buddhist might feel if he were subjected to three hours of argument between a Methodist and a Calvinist over St. Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians. Contrary to what one might have expected, given the diverse religious backgrounds, the most acrimonious debate of Lloyd's section took place between two Hindus, on the subject of Hinduism.

The most spirited discussions centered around religion and economics and around the role of religion in society. Participants considered how to define the role of religion and how to assess its impact.

The final meeting was devoted to reflections on the conference. There was almost universal praise for the breadth of the conference and almost universal call for more focus next time. "I heard more than one person say they thought it was the best conference they had attended," Lloyd reported. "I felt people thought the content was really meaningful."

God As A Problem In Dialogue

In Diana Muxworthy's section, discussion focused on the nature of religious experience, the world understanding of God, and the basis for engaging in dialogue about God. Issues raised included whether the notion of "mystery" is useful as a basis for dialogue and how God Himself (or Herself) is a problem in the dialogue. Some of the presentations critiqued process philosophy and theology, Latin American liberation theology and European theology.

One provocative challenge to dialogue about God is the African religions. In recent years, Africans have been reflecting about the impact that Christian missionaries have exerted on their continent, and they have concluded that missionaries have often been somewhat imperialistic. "This raised the issue of how a religion should present itself when it is trying to missionize people of another religion and culture.

The format of the discussions in the various sections offered participants a stimulus to broaden their thinking. In one example of cross-cultural fertilization, an Indian Hindu presented a paper and a German scholar was assigned to critique it. This gave the listeners a chance to reflect and think seriously about new concepts.

"The conference presented a wide scenario for dialogue," Diana concluded, "and it showed us how to use the scenario to benefit our understanding of God and our appreciation for each other -- in contrast to using it to voice our differences in order to separate us."

People Didn't Know What To Expect

Joe Stein reported that his section included quite a well-balanced mixture of people from various religious traditions. Topics ranged from "God in a Visual Aesthetic Expression" (given by a Muslim) to "The Yoruba Concept of God" (which contains many parallels with monotheism) and from "The Impersonality of God" (written from a philosophical perspective) to "The Self-Enjoying God" (a fairly Principled point of view).

Joe's section included four fairly well-known persons. "People came not quite knowing what would happen," Joe observed. "In our group, people seemed to show a genuine interest in other people's points of view. There was dialogue, but it was never demeaning to other participants."

The people were interested in how to relate to God and how to make the understanding of God relevant to the world today, although their approaches differed; some favored a mystical attitude while others called for social action.

It was noted that the Western notions of God (especially Christian ones) sometimes leave no space for people of other religions to understand God. Buddhism, for example, lacks a concept of a creator; therefore discussion of God as creator arouses no interest among Buddhists.

Joe noted another area of concern voiced by people whose cultures were Christianized through missionaries. It would seem that a lot of restoration needs to take place in such environments. According to one participant, Westerners tell African scholars they will enter into dialogue with them on the condition that the Africans meet the Westerners on the latter's terms; but as soon as the Africans do so, they are criticized for no longer being African. Since their continent has no single tradition, the African scholars mentioned that they need to engage in more dialogue among themselves, in order to prepare for dialogue with others.

The conference schedule allowed for a trip to the top of Maui's major volcanic peak, Haleakala, meaning the house of the sun. For centuries, Haleakala has been considered a holy ground in the islands, and its rocks and soil may not be removed. People traditionally go to the top of Haleakala to watch the sun rise over the rim of the vast crater.

"Many people agree that we are at the dawn of a Pacific era," Lynn Musgrave, of the New ERA staff, commented. "Hawaii is a meeting place between the East and the West. Spiritually and intellectually, it was very appropriate to hold the conference there. All present enjoyed the gentle surf and warm water, as well as the abundant birds and flowers. Even the rain helped draw people closer together. The inhabitants of Maui are very relaxed, and the spirit was gentle and unobtrusive, but helpful. Thus the conference setting had a subtle but positive effect on the overall atmosphere."

A Book By The Same Name

A book by the same name as the conference, God: The Contemporary Discussion, has been prepared as one of the Unification Theological Seminary Conference Series. Twenty-two selected papers are included, representing the broad spectrum of thinking and experience. Among the selections are Dr. Young Oon Kim's "God Is Closer Now," and Rev. Kwak's "God and Creation in Unification Theology."

One paper from an African scholar addresses the topic, "Total Well Being, Salvation, and God in the Experience of an African People." An Eastern Orthodox writes on "The Holiness of God in Eastern Orthodoxy." From India come several papers, and a Muslim scholar presents "The Attributes of God: An Islamic Point of View," and still another presents "An Asian (Philippine) and Christian Concept of God." Some American scholars who already are acquainted with the Global Congress of the World's Religions are also included, such as the professor of world religions whose interest is in how the East is influencing the West. His paper, "Transcendental Humanism," is included. Another scholar writes on "The Question of God's Historicity."

The purpose of the conference is to get people around the world talking about God. The book will be available soon, to help us serve this purpose. 

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