“Faith, Actually”

Unitarian Universalist Church in Meriden
President’s Column, December 2015
Bob Reutenauer

  Like many in our congregation I get most from those Sunday services that provoke me to examine my own thinking and assumptions about our complicated world and our place in it.  For some time I have wondered what it really means to understand the Unitarian Universalist Church in Meriden as a “faith community.”  Mostly I just considered it a semantic handle— just a vocabulary— “worship” is another — that go along with the territory.

The saving grace of an Almighty God and the literal truth of the Bible are elemental examples of faith, right?  A swift and easy rejection of these religious “truths” is held in common by most if not all in our congregation. Maybe we are really a community of doubt? So, what are we talking about when we say we are a community of faith?

Think about our  UU Principles.  Are they so obviously true, so beyond doubt, so self evident, and certain that faith need not be a factor in our adherence to them?

Do you really believe in the “inherent worth and dignity of every person”? Every person? Make a list. A rogues gallery is pretty easy to assemble. Or as Dylan sings “dignity is the first to leave.”

Does the “use of the democratic process” reliably yield the virtuous result? How unsettling have the choices in some elections made you?  Do unchecked majorities become tyrannical?

The interdependent web of all existence is manifestly certain to us as we enjoy sensuous nature and study ecology or when we experience the pain of our bodies fight with disease and study the cell. Reduce our experiences and studies to the quantum level of reality and the language of certainty becomes positively poetic as we endeavor to understand “indeterminacy” of matter.  We label particles not only with “angle” and “spin” but from observed displays of “sympathy” we suggest they may have “moods.” All is connected? Yes, I believe, Schrodinger’s cat, and all that— somehow.

Dignity, democracy, interdependence— why do we try to live by these principles?  Because they are true?  Or because we have faith that they are true?  How many of our deepest convictions are held so tightly because the evidence for them runs even deeper— is unseen? The   philosopher Richard Rorty defined a faith moment as the point when “non-circular argumentative recourse” is no longer available as justification.  “I believe Christ is my savior because I believe Christ is my savior” or “I believe in equality for all because I believe in equality all” won’t win debate points but believers will hold firm.

UMass Professor of Literature Nicholas Bromell writing recently in the humanities journal Raritan on “faith based politics” challenged secular progressives/religious liberals not to confuse the  separation of church and state with the separation of religion and politics. The narrow faith and exclusive politics of fundamentalist conservatives have come to dominate “where liberals fear to tread,” he observed.

This was not always so. Bromell’s essay explores how African American leaders like Frederick Douglass, the Rev. Pauli Murray, and Malcolm X held and promoted their faiths on terms not even close to certainty. Their faith, born out of suffering— unjust suffering— was “shot through with doubt”  as they endeavored to both find meaning in and an end to enslavement and racism.

With religious faith as an anchor in struggle these heroic figures came to understand and to change the world. Bromell offers that we may not be as far from this kind of faith experience as we presume.  Is our casual approach to faith “rooted in the illusion … that we are more or less in control of our daily lives.”? He thinks so. Then asks hard questions: What is wrong with our public schools? What do banks actually do and why don’t we trust them to do it?  Where will our children find employment? Will there be war? We don’t know do we? His fine essay concludes by wondering if this “fantasy of control is the veil that rises between us and the realization that what we actually have is faith?”

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