“What does spiritual freedom mean?” This sermon was preached on 8/11/19.
“The function of freedom is to free someone else.” — Barnard College commencement speech, 1979. Toni Morrison
“Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.” (Toni Morrison’s Nobel lecture, 1993)
“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” (Nobel lecture, 1993)
We lost a vital presence this week with the death of Toni Morrison; we lost part of our national conscience – though her conscience lives on in her writing and in the lives of those she influenced, mentored and impacted. Today’s sermon will not be about her, but I have altered what I planned to say based on some of her wisdom, particularly about her sense of freedom and language.
August is a month where many people begin looking for new religious homes – either due to move for work or school, or our babies are getting old enough for religious school, and now is the time to find a good religious home. If you’re new to here, today will be a good day to learn more about how we understand faith, belief and living our values. All this month we will be reflecting on what it means to be a people of freedom. Today, I’m thinking a lot about how looking at what still constricts us, what still binds us, teaches us what still holds power over us.
For those of us who have come out of another faith tradition, I’m not sure that when we rail against a belief we have actually let go of it. It might still hold dominion over us as we run through our lives doing most things as an act of defiance. We’ve not really gained freedom; we’ve just learned a new way to stay trapped.
It’s a big part of why I advise our parents to tell their kids what they believe or don’t believe. I’m sometimes asked by UU parents, “My 8 year old came asking me what I believed, and I told them, that some people believe X and others believe Y. What else can I say? I don’t want to tellthem what to believe.” I typically advise, to go back and tell them straight up what you believe. They’ll come to their own conclusions eventually, but if they’re asking you, there’s a reason they want to know what you think. Don’t leave the big questions unanswered. Our kids will grow into understanding deeper nuances later, but when they’re 8, they need a foundation to start from. And I’ll add for our folks with kids who are now grown adults, it’s still not too late to talk with them about what you believe. If you never have, it might be a good question to wonder why you never had.
I came into Unitarian Universalism in my late teens, after the Catholic faith left me behind with the changing social politics of the church in the early 90’s (at least in the US.) Back then, Unitarian Universalism more routinely used the phrase this sermon is titled after – the Faith of the Free. There was a self-righteous air to it that we were the ones who were free and everyone else were not. It was the progressive intellectual unexamined response to fundamentalism that traded one yoke for another.
The faith of the freemindset would play off our fourth principle where we covenant to affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Often, many of us would simply skip over the word responsibleand celebrate the word free; forgetting, or never knowing, Toni Morrison’s wisdom that “The function of freedom is to free someone else.” You would see echoes of it in congregational life when the learned clergy’s theological expertise or ethical expertise would be seen as just one more opinion among many opinions. It would be the progressive forerunner of today’s national proclivity to look down upon experts and expertise – or to ignore data and science for opinion and feelings.
But how does this all change when we run it through the lens of some of Toni Morrison’s thinking and words we heard earlier? “The function of freedom is to free someone else.” Freedom may be a state, but it’s not solely a state – it has a function too – and that’s to do something with it. In our search for truth and meaning, is knowledge about building structures or outcomes, or is it about connections of support we form in community? What do we carry with us, and where is our focus?
I believe the connection we often make between the use of the word faith and the use of the world belief effects how we engage with religious life. (As Toni Morrison taught, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” (Nobel lecture, 1993)) Our language, our words, and our understanding of how we use our words matters. If religion is constructed merely in the negative – say about hollow views we no longer espouse then we’re less likely to allow our hearts to stir before the sublime. Our heads take over, and we get trapped up here (pointing to my head) rather than responding from a place of warmth (hand over heart.) We’re reading a few words ahead in our hymns making sure that whatever we’re saying matches exactly our opinions, rather than being present for the connection of the spiritual communal act.
This cuts both ways. If one’s faith is entirely dedicated to adherence to right beliefs, when those beliefs are challenged or insulted, so too is one’s religious life. Such an affront to the mind’s assessment of right and wrong can result in extreme emotional responses. It doesn’t take a long search in the news to learn the range of those tragedies. Hate crimes are on the rise. When right belief gets confused with right ideology and then right ideology gets connected with race, sexuality or religion, we have a real threat to our democracy and our basic American identity.
In Unitarian Universalism, we’re asked to embody our faith through our relationships. It’s an act of faith to assume the worth and dignity of one another, and to live in a way that matches this given. It means sometimes tamping down our egos so that compassion and equity can take precedence. Even harder, it means that when another is not acting with grace, that it doesn’t prevent us from continuing to act with grace – ourselves. In this way, faith can almost be the opposite of belief. Belief keeps us from living our faith – or rather I should say that strict adherence to our beliefs have a cost to them. What’s foundational to our religious tradition is a sense that there is an awe at the center of life, and we should live as if it were always obvious.
Long timers have heard me say this before, but I still need the reminder so I’ll say this gain – Since the rise of Christian Fundamentalism in the past 40 or 50 years, we’ve tended to conflate the words faithand belief in the United States. For example, “You’re only a true Christian if you adhere to these strict set of beliefs.” But that’s a modern sense of religious life. It’s also a Western sense of religious life. This is not in line with central Christian teachings. And sorting through this difference may become increasingly more important for our democracy as our nation becomes more and more polarized over beliefs – we need to find our way back to our central values.
How has faith shifted to its modern understanding? Historically, the word faith, as it appeared in the Bible, tended to be translated more with the sense of trust than belief. When the Jewish people were delivered from Pharaoh, and the importance of faith in God came up, the prophets weren’t trying to make the people believe that God existed, they were trying to convince the people that they could trust God to deliver them. In the biblical world, God was a given. The lesson to be learned was one of hope. Hope in a future, hope in a way forward, hope that the way of cruelty and tyranny was a thing of the past. …Faith demanded a new worldview, a new orientation to life, a letting go of baggage and an unclenching of our hands for a future of possibility.
The conflation of faith and belief is also a Western notion. In the East, millions of religious people can be categorized as having a “dual-belonging.” They hold to the religious values of two or more traditions simultaneously without intellectual conflict. In some countries, it is common for babies to be dedicated with Shinto practices and the dead to be honored with Buddhist practices. It’s both/and without the stigma of hypocrisy. Why is that? In many Eastern traditions, beliefs are seen to be ephemeral, secondary, or nuanced. Practice, actions and personal dedication take precedence. The way a person lives their life matters more than views on any particular thing.
From a Christian perspective, linking the adherence of belief to the practice of faith was not originally a core Christian value. In one of the most well known passages of Christian Scripture, Jesus tells a parable about the end times, of a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. The values that were critical to Judgment Day were not about belief. They were about acts of compassion. “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…..” “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” In other words, we can find the face of God in every person we meet, and how we treat each person becomes an encounter with the Holy. That becomes the utmost priority. Central to the Christian story is an opening of our sight to find the sacred around every corner.
When I left Catholicism almost 30 years ago over my Universalist heart – not able to believe that an all-loving God could condemn anyone to ever lasting pain and misery – I didn’t really know if I was right. I just had my reading of the bible that told me that
I’ve come to rely on this fourth principle here. I also have this covenant now, with our religious community – we all have it – to help me sort that out. It calls for a responsible search; and it reminds me that I need to be free to make it. How does a thing make sense? It needs to match what we encounter in the world; and we need to make sure we’re leaving space for a spiritual openness in our hearts. And most importantly, as is all of our principles, it is written as an action statement for the community. We covenant to affirm and promote… we don’t do this alone; even if it says it’s a free search.
I find that the search has to be a useful one. I don’t mean that all our searches have to be materially productive, or come out at the other end with a new way of looking at the world though.
There’s a poem in our hymnal by Marge Piercy that’s helpful here. I’ll just quote a part from it. She wrote, “The work of the world is common as mud. Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust. But the thing worth doing, well done, has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.”
Not all our searches, and some might argue none of them, will return permanent results or outcomes; but the ones that are really important or truly relevant, have a way of sustaining that is untied to the thing itself. Our mud worker’s dirty hands are clean at the end of her line, despite the dirt obvious to the eye.
That is the promise of this fourth principle. The quest, despite it’s rigors, leaves us clean at the end of the thing worth doing. When we submerge ourselves in the task at hand, or the quest for meaning in a world that too often we find it so difficult to find any meaning whatsoever, a transformation occurs. Mud becomes pottery, becomes empty vessel ready for content. Ideally, things, like beliefs and opinions, are held onto so long as they serve the role they need to for the time at hand.
Sometimes the responsible search is just about looking up from our work desk, or away from the television – about seeing the night stars for the first time after a long time of looking down. Coming close to the mystery and awe that is this ever-expanding universe. It’s where our fourth principle and our first source connect. Our living tradition we share draws from many sources, and the first among them is the direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and openness to the forces that create and uphold life. In some ways the free and responsible search for truth and meaning helps us to encounter this sense of wonder in new ways. Unsettled with where we are, we set off to some distant shores to better learn our place in the universe. Every quest has the possibility to help us to find our way home.