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The Oasis in the Heart – 3/29/2015

There’s a story attributed to my colleague Rev. Dana Worsnap, which imagines an encounter between five delegates to an international meeting of religions. The five folks found themselves riding in the hotel elevator together, when someone suggested that, in the interest of interreligious engagement and understanding, they would use the length of that elevator ride to explain their respective faiths to each other. This struck the group as such a fun and clever idea that they quickly agreed – even though it would mean quite a few extra trips up and down.

The first of the delegates was a Roman Catholic, and on that first trip from the lobby up to tenth floor of the hotel, he recited the Apostle’s Creed with great reverence and care, taking time with each word. As the elevator began to rise, he began to intone, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only son…” On he went, practiced words passing his lips like polished stones, until he came to the final line, “…the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen.” And that was exactly when the doors opened up onto the top-most floor.

The next turn went to the Universalist in the group, who explained Universalism this way, “We believe in the essential goodness of humanity and the fundamental goodness of God. We believe in God’s universal love and benevolence towards all creatures, in this life and in any life to come. We believe in a God who nurtures, celebrates, confronts, and mourns for every human being, but who would not and cannot disown, castigate, or condemn even one.” And here the Universalist managed to cover every crucial point, even before the party reached the highest floor.

The third person to speak was a Hindu. On her ride she explained the concept of samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth across uncountable lives. She spoke about rta, the order that makes life and the universe possible. She talked about dharma, the unique role of each person within this order. And then she said that, believing in these three things, her faith taught her to try to understand where rta touched her course through samsara, in order to better follow her dharma. Like the Universalist, she found herself satisfied with the completeness of her explanation well before the ride was finished.

Next was the Zen Buddhist. He pressed the button for the 10th floor, folded his hands, and let a calm expression fall over his face. He said nothing. The others thought perhaps they should prompt him, but no one spoke until they’d reached the top of the building. Then they all seemed to ask at once, “Why didn’t you say anything?” The Zen Buddhist replied, “In saying nothing, I said all that there is to say.”

The other delegates were a little perplexed at this, but they had agreed not to argue with each other’s explanations, so they turned to the Unitarian delegate: hers was the last turn. Back down at the first floor, she reached out to the elevator buttons, and pressed “2.” Someone asked her, “Why did you press the button for the second floor? Do you really need that little time to explain your faith?” “Oh no,” she said. “That’s why we’re going to the second floor – there’s a great little coffee shop there where we can really get into it.”[i]

I’m not much of one for Unitarian Universalist jokes – most of the ones I’ve heard are either too unkind to others or too dismissive towards ourselves. But here is one I could not resist: one that speaks with kindness and respect, I think, about a few of our theological neighbors, and which highlights beautifully some real and important things about the twin halves of our heritage as Unitarian Universalists: Our focus on loving kindness as humanity’s natural and fitting response to a benevolent universe, often – but not always – summarized under the label, “God.” And our treasuring of dialog and discourse, deep thought, deeper questions, and good coffee, as well as a certain gift for the creative reinterpretation of the rules we set over ourselves. Those of you who have joined me for one of our newcomer orientation classes know that I can be a bit like the Unitarian in that story: I always want to find more time to discuss, explore, and expound upon what our faith is for and about, but as quick summaries go, you could do a lot worse than this one.

Several months ago, I began a series of sermons on things on which the world depends, according to the Jewish tradition. This led into a companion series on the four immeasurable virtues in Buddhist thought. Today we begin together the last section, examining the first of three great spiritual gifts called out in Christian teaching. In the first letter to the Corinthians, its author, Paul, speaks at length about the spiritual gifts of religious life. But he also emphasizes that much that is precious and treasured is also finite. “…as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.”[ii] A little further on, Paul seems to arrive at the gifts he considers most crucial and enduring – those things that will not pass away. “And now, faith, hope and love abide, these three…”[iii]

So these three shall be our last set to examine in the coming months, and today our topic is faith. It is common to think of faith as being reducible to a formula or creed, as in the case of the Apostles Creed from the story we began with. Or to try to pin it down through the definition of specialized terms – again, like samsara, rta, and dharma. But I submit that a person’s faith is always more disordered and distinctive than the structures of formal theology would have us believe. Faith, in my estimation, is whatever it is that you believe so strongly that there is no means of arguing over, under, around, or through it. In this I am, perhaps, influenced by an aphorism from the poet Khalil Gibran: “Faith is an oasis in the heart which will never be reached by the caravan of thinking.”[iv]

This may sound like a harsh definition of faith, particularly coming from a Unitarian Universalist – we who so deeply value reason, critical thinking, and introspection. Things you can’t be argued out of – or even argue yourself out of – sound like obstacles in the search for the truth. Certainly that’s what Michael Shermer, the historian of science and anti-pseudoscience campaigner, must have had in mind when he said that, “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons. Rarely,” he observed, “do any of us sit down before a table of facts, weigh them pro and con, and choose the most logical and rational explanation, regardless of what we previously believed.”[v] His view of this whole situation is rather dim, and certainly he has in mind some ideas that end up doing a lot of harm – or at least preventing a great deal of good – due to the number of folks who believe in them. In just one sobering example, a survey by Public Policy Poling, taken just two years ago, found that in a national survey, 7% of respondents believe that the moon landing was faked. 14% believe in Bigfoot, 5% are somehow still clinging to the idea that Paul McCartney died in 1966, 37% believe global warming to be a hoax, and a staggering 51% believe a conspiracy was responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

But our beliefs, however weird or not they may be, serve a crucial role in our course through life. To make any choice – from the color of the shirt you wore this morning, to the vote of a juror as to whether another person will live or die – requires us, at some point, to stop debating within ourselves, and to act. It is faith that provides such ending points to our deliberations: the periods at the end of our mental sentences. Such faith can be thoroughly supernatural or utterly mundane – the distinction between them means nothing to the reason behind what thought or idea holds greatest sway in our hearts. Asked about their personal faith, a certain number of people on this planet and perhaps in this room would say, “I believe in God.” And a certain smaller number would say to the same question, “I don’t believe in God.” And both of these statements would be equally free of any meaningful information about the people making them, because what God might or might not be is so thoroughly ambiguous. Sometimes we wield these statements like periods when what they are is prepositions: the opening of a long explanation of what truly matters in your life that cannot have justice done to it by the length of an elevator ride.

Some years ago, we held one of my daughter’s birthday parties in a public park. It was a chance for her and her other preschool-age pals to run and play and generally enjoy themselves in a wide open space. My partner and I organized a number of different activities for the group – red light/green light, red rover, and tag – all games I can remember playing in my own childhood. At one point though, and afterwards for much of the party, the crowd departed from our flexible out-door agenda and became fascinated with the project of building faerie houses. This was a new one to me – something I had missed growing up in a house with only male children. I like to think that in my family of origin, we did our part to interrogate the patriarchy and challenge narrow expectations for boys and girls – but this was one gender norm we had failed to transgress. A faerie house, as I now understand from my daughter, is an ankle-high hut or lean-to made outdoors of sticks and grass and other found objects, in the hopes that tiny woodland faeries will take up residence within. Is a deep and abiding belief in the literal reality of two-inch tall magical creatures with wings a requirement for participation? Not as far as I can tell – it didn’t stop them from letting me join in, at least. But the activity does seem to grow from an understanding that it’s fun to make things together, to work and to imagine and dream together. And just maybe it points to something many of us deeply believe but too rarely express or act upon: that every person, no matter who they might be, rich, poor, mighty, or meek – real, or in this case, even, imaginary – deserves at a place they can call their home. Whatever age we might be, we are constantly developing detailed theologies and complex explanations to justify and elaborate on the very simple things that we actually believe.

Eustace Haydon, a professor of religion at the University of Chicago who shaped an entire generation of Unitarian Universalist Humanist leaders, said, “More needful than faith in God is faith that [hu]man[ity] can give love, justice, peace and all [its] beloved moral values embodiment in human relations.” Wise words, but again there is no need to frame it as a choice between. God is the first word that many of us use to talk about what is true and right in life. The language of belief matters; there’s preciousness and beauty in it, and it shapes the ideas that it points to. But those ideas are ultimately more important still, as the signpost is valuable to the traveler, but no substitute for the destination.

2300 years ago, a temple was dedicated to the god Sarapis, at Alexandria, in Egypt. Reports from nearly as long ago tell us that in the temple stood a metal statue of the deity which was known to do wondrous things. Sometimes a ray of sunlight with no apparent origin seemed to strike its face, as though the sun itself had entered the shrine to show its respects. Other times the statue was seen to rise off the ground, as though reaching toward the heavens. Some of the same sources reveal the secret behind these effects: a small, concealed window that let in sunlight on certain days and times, and a large, natural magnet that was used to move the statue with no obvious cause.

After the temple of Sarapis was destroyed, these “tricks” were held up by early Christian authors as proof of the fraudulence of pagan religions they were in conflict with. Many centuries later, common features of the great Christian cathedrals – stained glass, ornate architecture, realistic statuary – were renounced by certain Christian reformers as vulgar, excessive, and manipulative of worshippers. Very much the same sorts of criticisms lobbed against the priests of Sarapis and their clever use of magnets. Some of those critics ultimately came here – to this continent, and to this town. Our congregational ancestors erected a worship space that was intentionally spare and plain – but with their strict tests of doctrinal fidelity and personal piety, they could hardly be said to have been free of coercion in their churches. So it goes again and again: each generation, each faction criticizes the other, saying: your faith is wrong. When in truth, the only means we have for judging another person’s faith – or our own, for that matter – is by its consequences.

Faith may be an oasis which can never be reached by the caravan of thinking, but all other destinations require of us thought. It is the crucible of reason that allows us to render from ourselves whatever truth lies deepest in us. Faith and reason are not adversaries but compliments: reason the never fully realized question, faith the incomplete answer, which satisfies us long enough to act. The passing of a bill in Indiana this week providing large and fluid exemptions for businesses who might refuse to take on certain categories of people as customers on the basis of religion has drawn a great deal of attention. The use of religion as an instrument for the marginalizing and diminishment of others is nothing new, sadly, and contorting the principle of religious freedom in order to defend reflexive contempt towards gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender folks is also a well-worn theme.

These sorts of laws already exist in a great many states: they are a strategy for resisting the tide of inclusion and acceptance, maintaining and refortifying a heterosexist status quo. But any faith whose highest purpose is only to confirm its believer’s own biases has little to offer that believer in terms of clarity between right and wrong, or comfort in times of trial. This warning applies just as much to those of us who oppose such laws as to them who support them: it is easy enough to think unkind thoughts and say harsh words about one governor, one legislature, and one retrograde impulse manifested into politics. There is no particular challenge or cost in thus reassuring ourselves of our rightness. But a faith worth following demands more than that of its adherents. It expects us not merely to discuss the wrongs of the world, but to act to correct them. For however long of an elevator ride it might take us to explain our beliefs, they always take exactly one lifetime to put into practice.

 

 

[i] Adapted from the version of the story printed here: http://www.firstunitariantoronto.org/what-is-unitarianism/uu-humour

[ii] I Corinthians 13:8-10

[iii] I Corinthians 13:13

[iv] From his collection, Sand and Foam (1926)

[v] http://www.michaelshermer.com/2002/09/smart-people-believe-weird-things/

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