A Theology of Doubt

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/4/18 reflecting on the balance of doubt in faith.

“There once was a farm in a valley that was practically perfect in every way, except that it had no rooster to crow at the crack of dawn, and so everyone was always late getting out of bed.”[1] If only all our problems seemed so simple! But I imagine it didn’t seem like such a small deal to the folks on the farm. From missing newspapers to late-milked cows, to plain cranky attitudes, life in this otherwise perfect valley was marred by its one lack, a missing rooster.

What’s your missing farmyard animal? What’s the one thing in your life, that if only it were present, would make everything seem to work out all right? Go with the first thing that comes to you, it’ll do. Or if you’re like me on a bad day, start making lists. What does it give you that you don’t already have? How would it make things turn out just fine? What need does it fill?
I love stories like this. They really can draw out the essence of our daily challenges and struggles and they use humor to do so. It’s probably true that each one of us in this room could think of something pretty quickly that would help them to feel more whole, or more at ease, or at least full of gratitude.

I love this story. I try to tell it annually at one of our services. It’s an excellent lesson on our third principle – where we covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. For the rooster in the story, the one thing missing, was their confidence in themselves. Doubt was the story they had to overcome. And for all the well-intentioned helpers in the story (the pig and duck and cats), the one thing missing for them, was a healthy dose of doubt. They had to overcome their own stories of expertise and confidence, to leave room for the rooster to find their own voice. Doubt is not always helpful, and over-confidence in all things, can lead down the road of mainsplaining – or in this story’s case – pigsplaining and ducksplaining and catsplaining. (For some of us in the room, that’s just funny, and for others it’s funny because it hits so close to home.)

All this month we are asking ourselves, what would it be like to be a people of balance. Doubt and confidence – in the case of our rooster, and doubt balanced with faith, as a religious community. For most of us, our knee-jerk reaction to these questions is to go straight to our heads. In the everyday push and pull of the world, for the small daily acts of what next, we can 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 58 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, (and there was certainly mainsplaining going on between theologians back then as well) 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 a truly 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 58 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. (And the youth conferences merged first, bringing the rest of us along a year later.)

The big questions: 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 spirituality 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.

Depending on where we came from, the word doubt will be heard differently – at least religiously speaking. If you were raised UU, it’s probably an honest word, that reflects the uncertainty of faith. If you were unchurched growing up, and are coming to a service for the first time, you might have a curious approach to the word. And if you’re a convert from a creedal tradition, it might be shocking to hear from the pulpit that doubt isn’t a four-letter word for us (so to speak.) Striving to be a people of balance, doubt is part of that balance – so long as we allow it to inform, and not to limit.

It may turn out to be the case that 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 can’t define justice – we can simply live it or we risk speaking a hollow echo. We can’t 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. …

We heard earlier in our service an excerpt from an essay by Parker Palmer. “To live in this world, we must learn how to stand in the tragic gap with faith and hope. By “the tragic gap” I mean the gap between what is and what could and should be, the gap between the reality of a given situation and an alternative reality we know to be possible because we have experienced it.” Palmer is helping us to realize that seeing new ways, being open to new perspectives, can both paralyze us into inaction through corrosive cynicism as he calls it, or make us useless through ineffectual idealism. But we need to still have the room to find new ways, if we are ever to build the beloved community. Ultimately, even “Heartbreak can become a source of compassion.”

Palmer’s tragic gap is largely built upon the balancing act of heart and mind; of doubt and faith. 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. And some of us craft our idols very diligently – yes even us. (Maybe especially us.)

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.

[1] “A Lamp in Every Corner” by Janeen K. Groshmeyer p. 88

 

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