My Religious Faith

I have always struggled with faith.  What do I have faith in?  What is solid and real and worth valuing?  What gives me hope when all seems hopeless?

One of the joys of being a Unitarian Universalist minister has been the opportunity to grapple with these questions through the study of theology.  Theology is one of those words that can send alarm bells ringing in the heads of UUs since it seems to be all about specific definitions of God.  And, it is true that at one time, theology meant the “study of God.”

However, over the years liberal religion redefined theology to mean the study of what is most meaningful and valuable.  It is an incredibly interdisciplinary area of study.  The best theologians try to take what we know from all sorts of fields: biology, physics, psychology, history, art, and literature; and then try to figure out the nature of human beings and the universe; and determine what that means –  spiritually, religiously and ethically.

Albert Einstein said, “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree…”  Most academic disciplines study a branch of the tree.  The theologians try to figure out the nature of the tree itself and then consider just what that means for how we live our lives.

In theology classes, I read a dense text on the evolutionary biology of human emotional responses, a fairly incomprehensible legal treatise on human rights, classical philosophers, some who were also pretty incomprehensible, and an economics book.

Probably the most profound influence on my theology has been A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, which is a delightful overview for the humanistically inclined of what we know scientifically about the earth and universe.  The book is over 600 pages and can be summarized in one word: Wow!

The word “faith” and its cousin “belief” can be challenging words for many Unitarian Universalists.  Often UUs associate “religious belief” with a person’s intellectual confidence that God exists or that Jesus Christ died for humanity’s sins or that there is a hell.   We then associate “faith” with “believing” in these ideas even when no logical evidence exists for their truth.

For example, if I “believe” in a personal God who cares for me, then I have “faith” God is looking out for me.  The most rational among us sometimes reject such ideas and feel there is little point to discussing religious faith and religious belief.

However, the word “faith” with no religious context refers to what any person trusts to be true about the world and life. What a person has faith in guides the decisions he or she makes about how to live.  People have faith in all sorts of things.  Faith can be based on reason, experience, external evidence, or cultural expectation and tradition.

People in our culture often have in faith in ideas such as:

  • Somebody ensured the airplane we just got on has no mechanical problems.
  • The water in our town is safe.
  • Children and youth will have better, richer lives if they are involved in sports or other structured activities.
  • The scientific method is the best way to understand the world.
  • Going to college, getting a good job, buying a house, and investing in retirement will ensure financial security and, thus, a good life.

Since most of us are 21st century Americans, we probably have faith, or have had faith, in many of these propositions and have made decisions about how to conduct our lives based on them.  We drink water from the city faucet without fear. We read scientific discoveries as truth. We buy houses and invest in retirement. However, none of these propositions is true all of the time as so many American discovered a few years ago when the worth of their housing and retirement dropped dramatically.

The Hebrew word that is translated in modern Bibles as “faith” does not mean “belief in something without evidence” but means “steadfastness.”  All of us steadfastly direct our lives by certain ideas.  Even if we know that going to college and buying a house doesn’t always, every time, mean a good life and that the water in the tap might not always be safe, we choose to live our lives by those ideas.

We have faith.

 

But what of religious faith?

Religious faith, like secular faith, guides the decisions we make about how to live.  Only religious faith is typically based on beliefs about what helps us live value-filled lives and what helps sustains us during times of despair.  Religious faith is about what we believe directs our lives toward love and justice and hope. It guides how we act to make our lives and the world better.

For Christians, Jews, Muslims, and some Unitarian Universalists their religious faith is in God, however they understand God.  God is the one who has the power to help steer lives toward love and justice and hope.  This faith provides direction to people. It helps one focus on what is most valuable.  When life is hard, a person can pray to and trust God.  One can follow religious traditions that have developed methods for aligning oneself with God and love, justice and hope.

Modern secular culture and much of Unitarian Universalism teach that what we can have faith in is ourselves.  Both teach that it is our actions and our will to influence our actions that direct us toward what we value we most and toward love, justice and hope.

This was what I was taught growing up – that I was ultimately responsible for my own fate and for improving the world.   The saving of the earth and ourselves, this implies, is achieved by what each of us is able to do.  We have faith in ourselves and our ability to make and act on good choices.

I think this is partly true.  Often I have faith in myself to do the right thing to make a difference and I do it.

But not always.

I can’t always do it.

I cannot do all that has to be done, and often what I can do, I cannot do perfectly.

If what I can will myself to do is responsible for creating a good life and world, than what I do does matters tremendously, and it matters much more than I can deliver.

Many times I do not do what I know I should do. We all have these experiences.  We decide to lose weight, but eat cake the very day we make the decision.

We decide to live in gratitude, but find ourselves wishing for a different car or a more satisfying job.

We decide to treat every person with love and respect, but almost immediately judge someone.

We want change the world, but do little of significance.

Other times I don’t know what to do.

Does anyone really know the correct way to raise a child or deal with a challenging family member?  Or the best way to spend time and money to end the pain of a suffering world?

I’m also certain that sometimes I act in ways that hurt myself and the world that I’m not even conscious of.

I know in my past I behaved in ways that seemed right and appropriate, but now I realize were damaging, because I have seen their results.

I had a friend who grew up in a racist home and community and had no idea her attitudes were damaging until she was an adult and lived in other communities and met people of color and heard their stories.

What do I do at these moments?  Where do I turn?  What guides my actions?  Faith in myself provides no guidance.  I simply feel guilty, hopeless and paralyzed. To respond effectively to the world and live with hope, I need something more.

I know a wonderful man who has a deep faith in God.  He works very hard to make the world better for people who struggle against oppression.  But at the end of the day, he says, “I have done my part; the rest is up to God.” I envy the man’s commitment and ability to do his part and then remain confident that his God continues to work while he rests.  He is not guilty, hopeless or paralyzed. I want that sort of faith.

 

I was raised by academics and am myself highly educated.  What I was trained to do, and what seems as natural as breathing, is to think rationally.  I mull the evidence.  What I have faith in and what guides my moral choices cannot contradict the scientific evidence, cannot contradict what we know of history and of psychology, anthropology and sociology, and cannot contradict my experience.  It is not part of my experience or tradition to find faith in a personal God who is beyond history and nature and can influence the world.

Still my experience demonstrates that this world is more mysterious than we can rationally understand:  there is synchronicity, moments of grace, falling in love, call to vocation, and the awe of birth and death.  My mind, experience, and heart tell me that there is something beyond myself that can guide me toward what is most valuable and toward love, justice and hope.

 

Henry Nelson Wieman helped me find what I’d been looking for. Wieman was an influential liberal theologian in the middle part of the last century. Wieman based his theology on experience.  He said, “nothing can happen if it does not happen.”

For Wieman the question of the religious journey was, “What can transform people in such a way to save them from the depths of evil and bring them to the greatest good which human life can ever attain?”  He had two answers.  The first is what we can will ourselves to do – the emphasis of secular and Unitarian Universalist culture.  He called that ethics.

His second answer addressed the question, what “transforms us when we cannot transform ourselves?

What, in other words, can we have faith in to help us when we don’t behave as we want, don’t know what to do, or don’t realize our limitations?

His answer was the “creative event.”

A creative event, according to Wieman, changes a person so the person is able to experience new, deeper meanings in relationship with others and the world.

After experiencing a “creative event” a person appreciates life in new and richer ways.  The creative event is transformation.

 

Wieman uses the word Creativity as short hand for the creative event.

He does not mean Creativity in the narrow way we often mean it – to do with art.  He does, however, refer to the same process – where newness comes into the world in a mysterious alchemy.  That newness is not a painting or a piece of music, but ourselves, our way of being, seeing and understanding the world.

One important element of this creativity is that we do not control it. We cannot make the creative event happen by willing it to happen.

It works with who we are and what has happened in our lives in its own mysterious way.

It is beyond us.

We also cannot decide how it will change us.  Wieman says, “The creative event cannot be used to shape the world closer to the heart’s desire because it transforms the heart’s desire so that one wants something very different from what one desired in the beginning.

 

However, we can lead our lives to make the creative event more likely to happen.  To do this we must engage with the world.  We must engage difference.

We must reach out beyond our own daily understanding to listen and appreciate the Other – whether that is a pine cone, our friend, someone with the opposite political views, or our own mysterious breath.  We must reach out with our time, attention, and heart.

 

Wieman has specific strategies that make the creative event more likely to happen.

  • Have an attitude that is open to the experience of transformation;
  • spend time in solitude;
  • actively worship;
  • pray or meditate;
  • increase sensitivity to the world; and
  • have long-standing relationships small groups.

These activities open us in such a way to a Creativity that “transforms us when we cannot transform ourselves.

 

For me, Wieman’s idea makes sense.

The operating principle of the universe appears to be to be creativity – the combining of diverse elements to make something new.  That is how we got atoms, molecules, flowers, blueberries and us.  The operating principle of human culture also appears to be creativity.  That is how we got democracy, the English language, and Unitarian Universalism.

So it makes sense that creativity would be what makes human change possible, helps us live more by our values and align our lives toward love, justice and hope.

 

I have also experienced the transforming power of creativity, many times, but I have one story that clearly demonstrates the change.  Many years ago, I took Spokane Alliance Leadership training.  The Spokane Alliance brings together churches of wide theological differences, unions, educational institutions and non-profit agencies to work for meaningful, non-partisan political change.  The organization’s philosophy is that people work together better across differences if they know each other; and they do this through relational meetings, where each person shares their thoughts and feelings on a specific question and the other listens.

While practicing relational meetings, I was paired with a woman very different from me in age, class, political affiliation and religious belief.  For some reason, I don’t now remember, she began discussing Wal-Mart.  I boycott Wal-Mart because of their labor practices.  She did all her shopping there and was bitterly angry with people who criticized Wal-Mart.  At first, I was surprised at her bitterness.  Most people I know who shop at Wal-Mart at least feel guilty about it.  Then I felt superior.  I understood the issues. I was ethical.  I stood up for what I believed.  But because the assignment was to listen, I listened.  And because I listened, I experienced her fear of living on a fixed income, prices rising and her standard of living slipping, until she saw herself homeless.  Wal-Mart prices allowed her to live with a standard of living that she was used to, at least for the moment. I understood then how Wal-Mart is the result of a society that values consumerism above all else and where the poor are getting poorer.  It’s fine for me, financially secure, to be superior in my Wal-Mart boycott, but Wal-Mart is not going anywhere with its labor practices and philosophy of closing down local retail economies until the root issues of poverty and consumerism are addressed.

I had listened and I had changed.  I no longer felt superior.  I knew I needed this woman to work for justice and to end poverty.  We needed each other.  Love, justice and hope increased in the world at that moment.

 

My faith in creativity has changed my approach to life.  When I don’t do what I think I should or when I don’t know what to do, I remember my commitment to creativity.  And I always remember I cannot will creativity to happen.  It is like my friend with his faith in God.  He does his part and lets God do the rest. I do my part and let the creative power work in me and in others and in my communities.  All I must do is be steadfast as I live my faith.

So I do what I can.  I do those things I know I can do to make my life and the lives of others better.   Then I open myself to creativity.   I appreciate the world. I listen. I meditate.  I pray.  I worship.   I stay in relationship with people.

 

I find as I practice my faith in creativity that my faith deepens.

Sometimes I am exhausted and overwhelmed: work and family life are demanding, poverty and income inequality are prevalent in my country, the richest country on earth; across the world people starve, die in wars, and are tortured; and the weather gets more dangerous.  All I can remember in those moments about the practice of my faith is that I should appreciate and be attentive to the Other.

So I look at trees.  I examine the chunky, puzzle-piece bark of ponderosa pine and the new bright green growth at the tips of fir branches. A squirrel darts out, its bushy tail high, and a magpie sweeps down from the sky.

In trees, squirrels, and birds I see how amazing Life is.  How it is strong, tenacious and creative in its expression of itself.  Life can be a tree, a squirrel, a piece grass, an ant, or flower.  Life is undaunted by change.  When the atmosphere could no longer support Life in the form of dinosaurs, Life morphed and made other things – mammals and different of sorts of birds and reptiles.  Mass extinctions has wiped out 98% of species that have ever lived, but Life is still abundant.

Then I remember I am a bit of Life.  I am strong.  I am tenacious.  I am creative.  I can be alive in new ways. I am only one bit of Life – just a small part and thus both significant and insignificant, both powerful and not powerful.

My exhaustion evaporates.  I walk slowly back into the day – where I find my family, work, and a world both suffering and flourishing. I join, bringing the vibrant piece of Life that I am into the webs I live in, realizing that I can act or, if needed, just be, and I can trust the creativity and strength of Life itself.  Everywhere is the promise of love, justice and hope.

 

 

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