What is the role of Uncertainty in Faith? (preached on 3/3/19 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington)
I was watching one of the outtakes for the Daily Show the other day, and the host Trevor Noah, was talking about how history was taught in his birth home of South Africa, and how that differed from his time in the U.K. He was talking about how in South Africa, history described the British as invaders – invaders who had guns going up against Afrikaans who didn’t have guns. But when he was in the U.K. he heard about those same British soldiers being described as heroes. The old truism that history is made up by the victors may not go far enough in some cases. There’s a risk in the stories we tell, and the stories we start to believe, when they come from only one perspective.
All this month we’ll be looking at what it would mean to be a people of truth. We’ll try our best to look at truth from several different angles. Next week, I’ll do a deep dive into our Fourth Principle which calls for a responsible searchfor truth and meaning; then Greta will look at the evolving nature of truth, and the last two Sundays will explore our seemingly Post-Fact era, and finally, the risk of living by assumptions. But today, we’ll look at uncertainty.
Often we think of uncertainty in the negative. Confidence is our national hero, and uncertainty is wishy-washy, flip-flopping and indecisive. On the contrary, I think uncertainty is the only way we get to truth. I think it’s safe to say, that uncertainty is central to our faith. Often in Western thought, faith is understood to mean belief, but as Unitarian Universalists, we tend to translate it to mean more of a positive, forward moving, orientation toward life – What moves us; or what calls us.
As Unitarian Universalists, we’re never going to agree on all things theological – especially if we try to think of theology in terms of beliefs to follow. That’s not going to work for us easily or well. Our faith is more focused on our shared commitments and convictions. At its best … at our best … religion helps us to appreciate the times of joy when they come; make sense of the despair that will find its way into our lives from time to time… while knowing we’re never truly left alone to deal with it.
And the beauty of our faith – throughout all our intellectualism, all our critique and challenge, part of it recognizes that there’s no one way to understand the world that’s absolutely correct – on our best days, we thrive on multiplicity of perspective. Our neat rows on Sunday morning are filled with folks who each hold a different view from the next. We seek to reflect the breadth of human experience without placing it in a box, catalogued and pinned. Follow Unitarian Universalism far enough down the road, and eventually it asks us (to paraphrase the late Roger Ebert on a wholly different topic) to surrender more completely to the underlying mystery of the story – of our story. We point to a central awe at the heart of our lives – and we struggle to name it – as best and sometimes as worst as we can. Meditation or Mindfulness can bring us there. A dedication to God can bring us there. Compassion for the simple sake of compassion can bring us there. What we call it, or what discipline we use, matters much less than the openness to a sense of wonder in our lives.
It’s this sense that I try to keep in mind when we talk about some of our principles. Take the fourth for example, where we covenant to affirm and promote the responsible search for truth and meaning. What does a responsible search even mean? Intellectually honest? Kindness in our speech – especially when we disagree? It also means we’re open-minded, we’re paying attention, that we allow ourselves to be amazed by life – a life that we did nothing of our own to be born into. When we move the center of our search, of our quest, …back to a place of wonder and respect….
I feel like this has been a central challenge for our religious faith over the past 60 years; since the merger between Unitarianism and Universalism around 1960. (For those new to UU, here’s a quick primer on our history.) 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. They were looking to live into a faith that respected the truths with lower case T’s and the truths with upper case T’s. 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?!” For the Universalists, the notion of Hell was an insult to a divine compassionate God. Their theologies were about the heart.
So starting about 60 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. I’m going to give my elevator speech again now – because I still hear folks say it’s impossible to describe UU. It 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 our 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 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. Much like the truism that defining love is to miss the point; 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. Uncertainty leaves room for real truth to flourish.
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. … I recall the UU minister, Rev. Dr. Forrest Church would often quip, “tell me about the God you don’t believe in, I probably don’t believe in him either.” Uncertainty makes room for people to encounter one another, their beliefs, their faiths, in all their complexity.
On our worst days, we UU’s can be guilty of idolatry of the mind and the heart; being guilty of a sort of creedalism; the kind that claims that we know best the truths 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.
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