Sermon by Nancy Sawyer
The seed for this sermon was planted several years ago during a multilogue here at this Fellowship. During the multilogue I referred to our congregation as “a faith community.” Don Barker responded to my comment with his usual, questioning, curious manor with something to the effect of, “Huh? I’d never really thought of UU as a faith community.”
From that day until this I often times find myself pondering faith. What is faith anyway? Where do people get their faith? (Mandela) Can a humanist/atheist/agnostic have faith? When I see a New York Times article with a headline of, “How Can I Possibly Believe that Faith is Better than Doubt?” I am drawn to find out what the author of the article thinks. I find myself wondering whether faith plays a role in your life?
First let’s ruminate on what exactly faith may or may not mean to you. There are many synonyms for faith depending on your religious perspective and the context in which you use the term faith. There is the faith that we may feel personally but people also use the term faith to refer to a religion or a religious denomination. So when Sam Harris wrote his book “The End of Faith,” he’s not talking about the end of personal faith – he’s talking about the end of organized religion. Even Sam Harris, as he discussed spirituality and mysticism says, “Neither word (spirituality or mysticism) captures the reasonableness and profundity of the possibility that we must now consider: that there is a form of well-being that supersedes all others, indeed, that transcends the vagaries’ of experience itself.”
When we think about personal faith, many writers refer to it as an instinct. So it should come as no surprise when faith is discussed in terms such as:
“a closeness to”,
“a feeling rather than a belief/knowledge”,
“faith involves trust”.
In an article, “What Do Atheists Hope For?” the author highlights the kinship between faith and hope with the former requiring certainty with or without evidence and the latter requiring neither certainty or evidence. The author posits that hope is a better descriptor of what atheists have vs. faith.
From an article in Time magazine about the science of optimism this sentence made me think of faith, “Knowledge of death had to emerge side by side with the persistent ability to picture a bright future.” The author may prefer to call this optimism, but my personal brand of faith depends upon the persistent ability to be ok. This took me down a rabbit hole of whether atheists are generally more optimistic, but that’s another sermon.
What was interesting as I read articles and books about faith is that more often than not it is discussed in comparison to reason, knowledge or doubt.
From the aforementioned NYT article, the author writes:
“Reason purifies faith,” “Faith without reason risks descending into superstition; reason without faith builds a world without windows, doors or skylights.”
You may have wondered why I chose our reading this morning, “Cherish Your Doubts” when the sermon topic is faith. I chose this reading because for me, faith and doubt work together. One is not more important than the other. Furthermore, one without the other is, in my opinion unbalanced. I’ll read the reading again replacing the word truth with the word faith.
My conclusion after my searching so far is that having faith whether you are a Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Muslim or a Humanist is hard work. Yes, those doubts come into our lives on a daily basis, but no matter the source of your faith, we all fight to hang on to those truths that we hold dear. I often times like to joke, “Which is crazier – a theist who puts their faith in something that can’t be seen, measured, or scientifically proven or a humanist who believes in something that has been proven to be not be true.” As a humanist and as a Unitarian Universalist I have faith in human beings. I believe that at our core, each human being wants to be a good person. However, on a daily basis I have to reconcile my faith in humanity with the awful things that humans do to one another. You, no doubt, have the same experience as you grapple with whatever faith you have entrusted your life.
Those are my thoughts and ponderings about the meanings of personal faith. I hope it’s set you to thinking about your own faith.
So let’s move on to considering whether Unitarian Universalism and this congregation is a faith community.
I often have wondered whether Unitarian Universalism and our congregation offers you something in the way of faith? Do the seven principles (printed in your order of service) give you something to hold onto, something that you can trust, something that helps you transcend your everyday existence and restores your faith? Or is it not so much that we give people something to have faith in rather we give them a community and those relationships in turn gives them faith – sort of a chicken and egg thing.
For better or worse I tend to use longevity with our congregation as a measure of how we’re doing as a faith community. It’s a hangover from being on our Member Services Committee – whose mission is to meet the needs of our members.
I’ve been with this congregation for going on 19 years and I’ve seen my share of people come and go. My observation over the years is that many people walk through our doors in a time of crisis – they have lost a loved one, a relationship has ended or they feel alienated in their former religious community and are looking for an alternative. It is not uncommon that these folks will stay with us for a short time and then drift away. I had this experience myself when I was in my mid 20’s and having an existential crisis. I started attending a Methodist church where the minister was familiar to me. I went to five or six Sunday services and a couple of small group sessions until I got what I needed and was able to move on with my life. When I see the same thing happen here, part of me is sad that these people don’t stay (and I worry that they didn’t like it here for whatever reason). The other part of me is hopeful that we were here for them as a waystation in life. A harbor to rest for a while and regroup. If we have offered them enough faith – enough belief in themselves that they can move on with their lives feeling comforted, that’s enough.
Then there have been people who come through our doors, they stay for more than a little while. These folks may stay for a year or more, they may stay for several years. It’s not uncommon for some of these folks to drift away because, “they need something more.” One member has drifted away partly because they are a theist and they need more Jesus in their life vs. Unitarian Universalisms love of doubt and questioning (dare I say arguing). When I think back to why people have drifted away (and these are just my speculations and best guesses) part of why they have drifted away is relational. In our Welcoming words we state that we welcome all no matter your religious perspective, but living in that space of lots of religious perspectives in one room can get tense at times. Us atheists bristle when traditional religious language is used. Theists feel hurt when God is trod upon. I’ve seen atheists leave because we have too much God and I’ve seen theists leave because we don’t have enough. The language we use when we speak to each other about our religious perspectives matters.
For those of us who stay a little longer, Unitarian Universalism is, in my opinion a tough faith to live. Let’s face it, if UUism was easy to explain we wouldn’t have a class on practicing your UU elevator speech – how to explain Unitarian Universalism in the time it takes to ride an elevator from one floor to another (hopefully it’s a slow elevator). UUism doesn’t say, “Here is something you can have faith in.” We say, “Search for your own truth.” UUism loves to ask lots of questions. Hopefully those questions have led you closer to your truth.
People who are unfamiliar with UUism often times say, “Oh that’s that church where you can believe whatever you want to believe.” I usually counter that comment with something to the effect of, “To a degree that’s true. UUism is a faith that recognizes that each person’s faith is shaped by their experiences and their environment. Quite frankly every individual in this world, no matter what their religion ultimately believes whatever they want to believe. UUism just actively encourages self-discovery rather than tells people what to believe.”
It is my hope that UUism and this congregation give you a platform to not only shape your faith, but to also practice it. Maybe it’s helping out at TIS, maybe it’s tending to our grounds, cleaning up a roadway. Maybe it’s caring for our members. Maybe we help you practice your faith by attending a small group where you can share your religious journey with others. The relationships that are built in these “doings” are what keep most people coming back despite the difficult nature of defining UUism. Let’s face it, during the stewardship campaign testimonials, rarely do you hear someone get up and say “the seven principles keep me coming back.” If I were to write a mission for UUism and for this congregation it might be: Our mission is to build trusting relationships that restore our faith in humanity.
Jimmy Carter in his book, “Faith” states, “We need some foundation on which we can build a predictable and dependable existence.” Jimmy Carter would probably say that UUism is a shaky foundation and that may be so. I tend to think that all foundations no matter how secure we think they are, are prone to cracks and fissures. Maybe UUism and this congregation is a crucible that prepares us for periods of shakiness and gives us courage to carry on.
I will end today with a revision of our opening hymn:
Come, come, whoever you are
Wanderers – those of you who need a place for respite before you carry on
Worshipers – those of you who have found this to be your faith community
We do not promise an easy journey but we hope to give you faith in times of despair,
come yet again come.
Faith is not about everything turning out ok.
Faith is about being okay no matter how things turn out.
Go in peace