Reverence of Doubt

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on March 1st, 2015. It looks at the role of “doubt” in our life of faith.

Have you ever been in a spot where you’ve got to make a decision about two or three difficult choices? You run all the options through your head over and over and over trying to make some sense of where you are with the choice. You weigh the pros and cons and find yourself unable to commit one way or the other. You then drag in as many friends as possible – if it’s a decision that’s a big deal. They all have opinions of their own; and to your great frustration they may even have opinions that agree with one another, but you still can’t be swayed by their advice. You keep seeing the other side of the issue, and the solidarity between your trusted advisors simply confirms your concerns for the opposite take. Or is that just me?

The problem is partly one of indecisiveness. Fearful of mistakes, or lost opportunities we shirk away from committing to a course of action. We paralyze ourselves before the great “what if.” I wonder if the problem isn’t just that though; if it isn’t just about cautiousness and due diligence gone wild. I wonder if it’s more about the problem resting solely in our minds and not also our hearts. I wonder if we sometimes have a tendency to overly value our intellectual rigors over our emotional awareness. Do we ask more of the practical questions; more of the detail-orientated concerns, than we seek to be comfortable with the choice in our center, the choice in our spirit?

I feel like this has been a central challenge for our religious faith over the past 55 years; since the merger between Unitarianism and Universalism around 1960. We as a religious people wrestled with the mind and the heart. We combined the cool rigors of our Unitarian forbears with the passion and verve of our Universalist predecessors. For sure, both traditions had members with more of the traits of the other as well, but the religions had a tendency toward one or the other. Painting a broad swath, one could say they both had a style to them; mind and heart.

Over 400 years ago Unitarianism came about in Eastern Europe where it first gained a foothold (while also developing in parts of Western Europe where it wouldn’t solidify, however, for a while). Impassioned preachers these Unitarians certainly were, but their arguments and concerns were rooted in the rise of scientific honesty and intellectual cohesion at the expense of valuing adherence to doctrine. Simply put, they made sense, and they got most worked up when things didn’t make sense. Not that they weren’t very heart-felt in their convictions, but their ultimate concerns theologically wrestled with the realm of the consistent mind. It first had to be right up here (pointing to head.)

Universalism on the other hand was an American creation at around 1800. It was an emotional reaction to the fire and brimstone preaching of the times. Their great critique was rooted in the heart even if it also made intellectual sense. “How can an all-loving God condemn anyone to ever-lasting pain and suffering?” Their answer was – “God wouldn’t.” For sure, theologians coached their arguments in logic and scripture. But at their root, their concerns were less about doctrinal consistencies and more about how our theologies reflect the God we know in our lives. It’s as if they were saying, “The God I know loves us. How could you say anything to the contrary?!” Their theologies were about the heart.

So starting about 55 years ago, we began our great struggle of sorting through these conflicting theological impulses. The two denominations had their own conversations prior to that as well, particularly among the respective youth groups, but up till that point it was always discussions between denominations – not within the same. Are we going to focus more on making sure we can all agree? Or is that beside the point now that we’re in a truly non-creedal tradition? Or are we going to focus more on where our hearts and spirits meet? How can we make our deeds match our thoughts while living true to our hearts? What do we do when each of us have differing concerns we put to the forefront? Our histories and backgrounds are often very far apart, yet we struggle to find a common language.

Our minds and hearts are in conflict with one another theologically and it sometimes causes us unease and pain from the disconnect. (Remember that when I use the word “theological”, I simply mean “how we find or make meaning in the world.”) We get frustrated for the lack of a common language or we lament the loss of the ease of creedal certitudes even while never wanting to return to them; we came here or we stayed here in part for this reason. But wouldn’t it just be so much easier if we could simply state how we wrap up the complexity of the universe in one neat little “elevator speech” for our friends, family and co-workers! (An “elevator speech” is what we can spew out, in between the time it takes to get from one floor to our destination. I get asked with frequency what Unitarian Universalism is as one of our ministers. My elevator speech goes something like: “We’re a covenantal faith which means we place a greater concern on our shared commitments with the people and world around us – our shared relations – than we do on the beliefs we hold at any given moment. Ideally, our pews reflect the diversity of experience and views in our community. In other words, we seek to reflect living experience. We will never all agree on everything, and our spiritually needs to match this reality. When folks ask how can we have a religion when we don’t all agree, I remind people that we have a planet where this is the case. We don’t all agree, and yet we need to learn to live together through the difference. This challenge and this vocation is my faith.”) OK – maybe we can describe what we’re about… but even so, it’s going to take a few sentences. It’s not simple and it’s not quite rote.

I’m starting to feel Unitarian Universalists are called to bear the burden of not having an easy answer. We keep the space in human conversations around meaning – for incertitude, for complexity, for nuance and for doubt. On our better days, we also keep the space for relations, networks, justice-building and integrity. We could likely come up with neat definitions for all these latter virtues, but no definition in the world would ever truly explain what we meant. We cant define justice we can simply live it or we risk speaking a hollow echo. We cant define relations they are only realized in action, in living them. The mind can take us pretty far, but the mind can’t live the reality, it can only describe it. That’s where the heart comes in. That’s also where the pain comes in.

One frequent theological challenge is the idea of God. We have many books we draw wisdom from, but we have no source that tells us what to think, what to feel exactly about this concept or experience. I say concept or experience because some of us in this room view God as an idea and some of us view God as an experience. And this is likely true whether or not we believe in God. There will be atheists who encounter God through heart-felt experience, and there will be theists who only see God as a concept in their minds. …

When I first converted to Unitarian Universalism 21 years ago, I was a former Catholic who in some ways was still harboring anger with the Catholic Church. I joined a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Morristown, NJ. The congregation was overwhelmingly Humanist at the time, and although I no longer identified as Catholic, I still identified as Theist even while I was wrestling with Christianity. I joined that congregation, not because our theologies were the same, but because the community was strong and warm and faithful. They were faithful to their sense of caring for the world they lived in. They never did it perfectly, thankfully not perfectly, but they did it as best they could. Their best rubbed off on me and helped to make the place feel like home for me.

Lest one think I’m painting my first home as a paragon of the heart – no. We were largely centered in our heads, not our hearts. There were frequent arguments around theologies and there was little room in Morristown for the G word, or the J word; and H forgive us if the C word was used. We cared for one another and sought to make the world a better more just place; but the mind ran rampant and trod all over any difference of religious belief. I was in the minority as a theist, but gratefully they still carved out some space for me. The cycles of fear around talking forthrightly about how we make and understand meaning in the world though, really broke my heart. The 1990’s were a very difficult time in our religious tradition because of this. We didn’t always do so good a job in educating converts to Unitarian Universalism. We certainly didn’t always do such a good job in ministering to the pains and hurts converts were carrying with them into our pews. We also lost the vast majority of our children and youth upon adulthood. As a tradition, we still lose the vast majority of our children and youth upon adulthood.

All of these issues are complex and difficult, but I feel that part of the reason for these challenges is our aversion to dealing with the heart/mind challenge. We are hesitant to stake a mind-centered claim on our faith lest we become guilty of creeping creedalism; while ironically succumbing to the staunch certitude of not believing or stating anything. We are hesitant to speak the heart-centered truth of our faith because we may not yet have resolved all our issues relating to where we came from (even if that place we came from is Unitarian Universalism); while ironically not meeting the needs of our covenantal call to deeper relationships with one another. In combination, we risk forming a mind made up and a heart that is closed.

These two maladies have a fair bit in common, even though we often talk about the mind and the heart in very differing ways. A mind made up knows how things are, what’s true in the world, who’s correct and who’s wrong. Take a moment to think of someone in your life that relates to you in this way… (or consider who in your life do you relate to in this way) … and be present with the feelings that arise in your stomach… or the tension that rises in your shoulders and neck.. or the pressure in your head or throat. That’s what a mind made up does to the world and the people around it. It doesn’t mean that indecision is better than decision, rather it clarifies that extreme certitude is often felt as toxic to those around it. What is the thing that you are absolutely convinced of to such a degree that no amount of conversation could sway you? … What changes for the better in the world by holding onto that view?… Is there any way in which it causes harm? For the fundamentalism of the mind-made-up, a healthy reverence for doubt in our lives can be life saving – or maybe just character-saving.

A heart that is closed is a real loss. Like the mind made up, there’s little room for changing the person. Emotional and loving connections are hard to forge for the closed heart. It’s convinced that it’s too dangerous, or not worth trusting, undeserving of love from another. It carries with it a similar certitude to the mind made up. The world is a certain way, I know it, and that’s that. There’s little room once more for complexity or nuance. Either/or perspectives kill genuine relationships between family, between friends and between loved ones.

Both of these idolatries of the mind and the heart are guilty of a sort of creedalism; the kind that claims that we know best the verities of life and no one else has any capacity to better inform us. We raise up our egos, or our pain, up as little gods and thereby close ourselves off to the world. We limit our ability to encounter and play in the same reality as the rest of humanity when we lift up our own worldview. Our faith tradition teaches us not to do this; fundamentalisms of the mind, and hearts-shut-tight, are against our religious values. Or they are at least challenges Unitarian Universalism hopes to help us grow through, or for some of us, to heal from.

Let me explain this a different way. Just this week, some of you may have seen the social media controversy surrounding “the dress.” (queue slide.) What colors do you see? Who here sees White and Gold? Who here sees some shade of Blue and Black (or purple and brown?) In my own household, I clearly see White and Gold, and Brian staunchly sees Blue and Black. There is a bit of an optical illusion going on, in that the lighting in the picture plays off different genetic adaptions humans have going on in their eyes. In a later sermon in April, I’ll go into more detail about optical illusions, but this viral image was too timely to not include this week. Apparently, some of us see daylight colors slightly differently. I’ve heard this explained in a few ways, but apparently, how we biologically have adapted to day vision and night vision influences how the white light in the picture affects our interpretation of the image. Yes, two humans can see the exact same thing and see it completely differently. Households across the nation have been arguing for days over what color it actually is. (Apparently, the answer is Blue and Black when the dress is not shown with this background lighting.) But in this image, here, right now, half of us see one thing and about half see the other. And there are many people out there this week that are very worked about it; some taking one side or the other, others equally worked up about not caring about it. This quirk of human sight reveals so much about how invested we get in our opinions and beliefs.

I feel that Unitarian Universalism offers a saving message here. Whatever our well-informed opinion helps us to understand about whatever facet of the world we currently are considering with our minds or hearts, Unitarian Universalism calls us to tread upon that facet lightly. We ought to engage, or wrestle, or dream, but we ought not to come to understand our opinions as facts. We ought not to confuse perception with universal truth. We ought not to demand those around us obey our take on a given issue or concern. Whether this be about the nature of the Holy, or which political parties offer the best solution to a given problem, or the best way to run this congregation, or which exact track we must take to liberate this world from injustice. Unitarian Universalism challenges us to break apart the idols we craft our opinions into; whether those opinions are about thoughts or feelings.

Our faith may not offer us easy answers, but it does try to save us from the hard, unwavering rules we so often create for ourselves. It does free us to question and to wonder; never fully knowing. It does free us to be nimble with life. Faith is a religious word describing how we orient ourselves toward living. I feel that Unitarian Universalism calls us to orient our living with a certain amount of wanderlust, a certain amount of being comfortable with uncertainty, and a deep sense of caring for the life around us. In short, the questions matter. The answers are never better than just good enough for now though. May we ever seek to have our minds a little bit untidy and our hearts left as wide open as we can dare to this moment.

And that may be the only healthy way to build community. Community is hard to form when our minds or our hearts are rigid, closed and set. When we fixate on our sense of how things are, or must be, to the exclusion of another’s sense of things – our world becomes more about our own ego than about the needs, hopes and dreams of those around us. I think our faith teaches us to grow past that. We may need to face the anger or strident sounds with compassion, but we must not long tarry in the pain. A healthy reverence for doubt allows us to live into community. It keeps us from becoming our rigid selves. Life is sometimes less full in the face of such certitude.

Following this service will be a special Stewardship luncheon where we talk about our community. Money is certainly part of the discussion, but stewardship is also another word for community. Many of us get incredibly awkward when we speak about money. We can feel stressed about how to manage it, earn it, save it, spend it. We can feel guilty or grateful, generous or strapped. We’re all in different places, and our Fellowship respects that. But at the core of this community stewardship ministry, is the desire to get a sense of what’s on our hearts and minds; what stirs us; moves us; sustains us. How does our purpose, and our dreams, fit here and in the larger world?

Our Fellowship is really entering a time of reflection; a time of community building. Everyone should expect to be contacted by a Steward who will schedule a face-to-face visit with you. This conversation is an essential part of our community building efforts. It’s an opportunity to hear from one another and practice community. When you get that call, please be nice; be open. Remember, our Stewards are fellow members. They will be asking for your financial commitment to this Fellowship that you chose to join and support. But just as importantly, they have questions to ask you about how we are doing as a congregation – what we are good at; what we have to improve. Everyone’s input matters.  All of it will be collected, analyzed, and heard for future planning. And we want you to be part of that feedback and visioning work. Your time, your skills and your financial donations are important, necessary and appreciated.

And be open. This is not about a zero sum game. We are not competing with other worthy charities to balance a line item. We’re exploring what meaning our community has to us, and asking each other – how do we support the place that we value so that it is here for each other and future generations. We’re making commitments so that our small, quirky, vital, progressive faith movement continues to keep its doors open to our children and their children, as well as future seekers who are coming for a message that allows room for our hearts and minds to be connected with integrity and purpose. We all know the injury and trauma in the world caused by a lack of a healthy reverence for doubt. Strident calls to arms – emotionally or physically – pervade our world where ideologies are allowed to rule for the sake of certitude of belief. We may not have the only answer to this, but we are fooling ourselves if we make ourselves mistakingly believe that our message is anything but life saving and life affirming in light of the world’s crises. We need to be here. The world needs our message, our muscle and our hopes. How will you be part of that hope?

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