The Courage of Faith, and Doubt

belief-and-doubt-1Reading – from “Faith and Doubt” in Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith
An act of faith is an act of a finite being who is grasped by and turned to the infinite. It is a finite act with all the limitations of a finite act, and it is an act in which the infinite participates beyond the limitations of a finite act. Faith is certain in so far as it is an experience of the holy.

But faith is uncertain in so far as the infinite to which it is related is received by a finite being. This element of uncertainty in faith cannot be removed, it must be accepted. And the element in faith which accepts this is courage.

Faith includes an element of immediate awareness which gives certainty and an element of uncertainty. To accept this is courage. In the courageous standing of uncertainty, faith shows most visibly its dynamic character.

Sermon – The Courage of Faith, and Doubt 

The first time I met the man that many had told me could fund a full time minister in the church I was then serving – if he liked the minister enough, he hadn’t even asked my name, or told me his, when he leaned in to ask: Are you a believer?

It was a trick question, I knew – or rather, it wasn’t – and that was the trick.

He was looking for a specific answer, obviously an acceptable orthodoxy you might say, and then I’d pass the test, I suppose. I knew what he wanted me to say, knew he wanted me to put myself in one category or another, affirm my fitness for the congregation in doing so– maybe for UU ministry entirely…

Are you a believer?

I paused for a small moment, contemplating how much easier it would be,
if I just gave him that simple no that he was clearly looking for.

But….it turns out I’m not often lured in by something being easy….so, I instead responded….What do you mean?

Believer. He said – Are you a believer?

I’m not sure I know what you mean. I do believe in many things.

He became obviously impatient with me at this point: I mean, are you a deist?

Showing some restraint, I did not ask if he meant that I was a time traveler from the 18th century who believed in a cold and distant supreme being.

Instead I shrugged. Hm. I’m not sure why that matters.

And I walked away.

Obviously, I did not pass his test, and they did not end up with a full time ministry position funded that year.  And thus ends the story of what brought me to Foothills…just kidding. Mostly.

Asking about belief is not, regardless of what this man, and many others might think –
the same as asking about one’s faith.

Belief indicates a sense of certainty – like he was asking me to say, for sure, where I came down – did I believe?

Lately, I have been longing for this sort of certainty, something to hang on to would be solid, clear, concrete.  To have a list of answers, and know what’s right, what’s wrong–
to have clear black and white definitives for what to do, what part to play, how to react, and why.

And as long as we’re at it, I wouldn’t mind a feeling of confidence that God – still not the deist version mind you, but one that would be watching over us, and would never give us more than we can handle, and is also is totally taking care of climate change in ways we don’t yet see or understand.

Heck, these days I’d even take being in the 77% of adults who believe in angels – or as the studies put it, believe that “ethereal beings are real.” Because, clearly, we can use all the help we can get.

But, to answer the question that man asked me a number of years ago in the direct way he was looking for, No – I am not so good at belief like that. More often, I’m not a believer.
I’m a doubter, constantly navigating waves of uncertainty, confusion, and complexity.
Like Fox Mulder, I may want to believe. But, more often than not, I’m much more like Scully, skeptically squinting, “I’m not convinced.”

Luckily, I find myself in good company. We Unitarian Universalists are not – historically – known for our belief. Many of us have – as the Rev. Christine Robinson calls it, a “wintry faith,” where we live much more in the realm of doubt than in clarity. This is somewhat ironic given that our denominational designation – that 10-syllable sometimes-source of confusion to newcomers and media alike – Unitarian. Universalist –indicates a belief statement.

As in: Unitarian – an affirmation of the oneness of God, originally specifically, anti-Trinitarian. Universalist. Describing our theological conviction that ultimately, all people are saved, or healed, and loved, no exceptions.

Despite our name, however, our tradition has had a pretty complicated relationship with belief – I’d say for two main reasons -first, because both of our founding theological claims were in reaction to the orthodoxy of the time, which meant that the seeds of our religion were sown in the context of stating what we didn’t believe, rather than what we did – so that here we are hundreds of years later, and still sometimes we struggle to articulate a positive affirmation and construction of our individual beliefs, let alone those things “commonly believed among us.”

But secondly, and more importantly, our relationship with the idea of belief is clouded by the fact that all along, even in times when our churches have had creeds – which sometimes they did –there was always a clause in the church by-laws that said that ultimately all members were encouraged to follow their conscience, that “we need not think alike to love alike,” and that there was no helpful way to require someone to believe what their heart could not believe.

And therefore, membership in one of our churches could not be predicated on assent to a list of beliefs. This clause was what was known as the “liberty clause.”

In our covenantal tradition, belief has never been understood as our critically binding element. Instead, religious practice has been oriented towards faith as something much riskier, less controllable, and more dynamic than belief and its static, fixed, certainty –
something grounded in our actual experiences of being human, and what we discover as we come together in relationship with others.

Writer Sharon Salzberg – who was raised Jewish and is now a Buddhist – captures our idea of faith so well when she says – “Faith – in contrast to belief, is not a definition of reality, not a received answer, but an active, open state, that makes us willing to explore. While beliefs come to us from outside – from another person or tradition or heritage – faith comes from within, from our alive participation in the process of discovery.”

As the 19th century German theologian Friederich Schleiermacher would have it –faith is a feeling we each have, an experience of absolute dependence – an experience of life, of be-ing, an awareness of – everything – and the way we fit into all of thisand a surrender into this experience.

This feeling of absolute dependence is what Tillich means by the certainty of faith- (rereading the text)

This feeling is, however, pre-lingual; which is to say, words to describe it come later –
as are any attempts to attach meaning or ascribe beliefs to these experiences – and all of these are inevitably inadequate approximations attempting to capture what is unexplainable. And here is where we come to an uncertainty (read it).

My colleague the Rev. Jan Christian – who serves as staff for our Unitarian Universalist Pacific Western Region – tells a story about when she was about 10 years old. She was out on Lake Mead with her family, when her dad stopped their boat and asked Jan if she’d like to swim. She looked out at the water, unsure.

“How deep is it here?”, she asked.

“Oh, about 500 feet, I think.” her father responded.

She was alarmed. “I can’t swim in water than deep!”

“You swim in the deep end of the pool. Your feet don’t touch there and they don’t touch here.”

Her dad responded, quite reasonably.

“But, here I can’t see the bottom.”

Faith is the leap into the deep waters, where we cannot see the bottom – the willingness to trust, to relax, and to swim in the same ways we would have if we could see, if we did know exactly what is there, and to live with the unknowing.

Unlike belief, faith does not try to resolve the unresolvable tensions of existence, or attempt to make solid what is always dynamic and mysterious, changing and sometimes scary, or terrible.

Instead, it incorporates into itself our inevitable doubt, acknowledging all that we cannot see, all that we don’t know – all the ways we could be wrong, and how little control we have over how most anything will turn out. It takes all of this in and says, ok. Yep. That’s how it is. Let’s get on with the living anyway.

This understanding helps differentiate faith from hope, as hope is not so detached as this – hope is often oriented towards specific outcomes. In the quote on the front of the order of service, Vaclav Havel offers a definition of hope, but it seems to me, that instead this definition gives us a vision for what it means to release hope, to move into a steadfastness of living and loving, a loyalty to values and vision, regardless of how it will turn out. I’d call this not hope, but faith. And as Tillich asserts, its practice requires courage, particularly as the waters and the waves around us grow more active.

I’ve never been to Lake Mead. But I’ve been to other lakes that seem similar. And in most cases, the water is relatively calm. Even if it’s especially windy, or if the lake is particularly crowded – there’s no undertow, and even if the waves are especially big, if you have a life jacket on, and you know how to swim, you should be fine. You can trust that the water will hold you.

But this is not when faith is most needed, or tested. Faith is not only about leaping into the calm waters where you can’t see the bottom, but just as often, it is the practice of as diving into the open sea – where surrender to the waves might just take you under – take us all under. What does faith mean, in times such as this – which is to say, times like these.

The temptation in these moments of life’s greatest uncertainty, as I shared earlier about my own longings, is to lean into our own versions of faith as belief –to strengthen these beliefs into certainty, squelching all doubt within, or around us, hoping our sense of the truth might offer us a source of stability in the turmoil.

So that we are drawn to assert – not the existence of angels, necessarily – but to harden into whatever our own beliefs really are – even if they are unbeliefs. To lock into a story about what is happening – to us, around us, in our world – and who’s to blame. To harden the categories between those of us who believe as we do, and those who do not. To turn to our neighbors and ask, Are you a believer? And to use the answer as an indicator if they are the sort of person we can know, or that we can love.

Sharon Salzberg acknowledges that “Beliefs can provide a thread of continuity and perspective as we undergo the tumultuous changes and storms of everyday life. It’s not the existence of beliefs that’s the problem, but” – she says, “what happens to us when we hold them rigidly, when we presume the absolute centrality of our views and those who don’t share our views remain the ‘other,’ and we don’t really need to listen to them. Our story becomes the story.”

Even we who – at least in theory – appreciate a diversity of views – and who honor the many and sometimes-contradictory pieces of truth we all hold as valid – can be drawn into what philosopher Richard Bernstein called “Cartesian anxiety,” wherein – ever since Descartes – humans have been longing to claim a degree of ontological certainty – a singular and unchanging narrative that explains our lives, and life itself – mostly through the use of science, but also, through scripture, or even politics, or maybe today, political parties, and their rhetoric.

Unfortunately, or fortunately – ontological certainty, would be what some might call an alternative fact, or more simply, a lie. Because there is no way to know for certain – what it all means, what’s going to happen, how to make things better, as there is no way to reconcile our finite understanding with an infinite reality.

So instead of growing our orientation to belief, times like these invite us to take that courageous leap into faith – a faith that as Paul Tillich says – understands doubt not as its opposite, but as its elemental partner.

Last week I spoke about the practice of courage in our courageous love as taking action out of a sense of duty, regardless of fear – duty specifically connected to the value and vision of agape love. Tillich defines courage as “the daring self-affirmation of one’s own being in spite of the powers of ‘nonbeing’ which are the heritage of everything finite.” To translate a bit – he’s saying courage is the act of continuing to live, as if your life matters, as if it has a purpose – in a truly ultimate sense – even in the face of fear, and risk, and the realities of this ocean and its mad waves – even in the presence of doubt. Courage, he says, is an essential aspect of faith, because it is always a risk to live with such a willing awareness of all that we can’t know, to take doubt into one’s self, and yet persist in love, nonetheless.

Faith is the capacity to remain unresolved – to love the questions – as Rilke would have it – yet still remain confident – to acknowledge the mystery, the confusion, the pain at the center of life– and to love courageously anyway.

Margaret Wheatley reminds us, both Moses and Abraham were charged with great tasks, yet “had to abandon hope that they would complete these tasks in their lifetime.” Still, they persisted….Leading not from certainty, or even optimism, but from faith, and “from a relationship to” a vision “beyond their full comprehension.”

Courageous love calls to us with this vision, though so much remains out of our view –
beyond our knowing –  and calls us to have the faith that we might allow it to lead us on.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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