Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Along with many UUs, for years I struggled over how and even whether to use the word “faith” to describe my religious orientation. And then I had my own awakening concerning just what I think that word points to.
Faith. For most of my life it wasn’t anything that I thought much about. Yes, from an early age I was a pretty regular church attender. I’ve told you about growing up in the Unitarian Church of Princeton, New Jersey, a booming, young church in the 1950s and 60s. I felt safe and welcome there, and even more, young as I was, I felt like I mattered. But, faith wasn’t really a word that was used to describe what bound us together. We might have used words like “share values” or “a sense of community.”
In fact, I think that if you had asked them, many of the people attending that congregation would have told you that “faith” was something that they had come to that church to get away from.
“Faith,” in their eyes, was something that they associated with the churches of their childhoods where catechisms and Bible stories laid out a belief structure that pretty much was beyond question. Good doubters that they were, though, they did ask questions and probed seeming contradictions and at some point by some person were admonished that they simply need to “have faith.” That reply, they would have told you, prompted a cascade of thoughts and feelings, but the net effect was that in time they drifted away from that community, and often from religion entirely.
Still, something tugged at them. Perhaps it came with the birth of children, or a restlessness sitting with the Sunday paper, or the query of a friend, or a particular book, or movie. Somehow the “big” questions of life started pestering them or perhaps that dark night of the soul arrived, and they thought, “Well, maybe there’s something else out there.” And so they made the rounds and ended up eventually at a Unitarian congregation: nice people, interesting services, and no talk about “having faith.”
Perhaps this story is something like your own. If so, you may be feeling a little nervous now: “Oh, no, what are we doing talking about faith?” So, let’s begin by clearing the decks here. In my understanding of faith, I am informed by one of the great liberal theologians of the 20th century: Paul Tillich. In a book published in the 1950s he lamented how use of the word “faith” had been misconstrued.
“Almost all the struggles between faith and knowledge,” he said, “are rooted in the wrong understanding of faith as a type of knowledge which has a low degree of evidence but is supported by religious authority.” We are left with the idea that faith is something that we get from someone else and that we adopt by a kind of act of will. If you don’t have it, you haven’t tried hard enough.
This sets up the traditional conflict of faith and reason. In fact, Tillich said, there is no contradiction between reason and faith, as it rightly understood. Faith, he said, is not about what we know, but how we feel about what we know: not about how our mind engages with the world, but how our heart does.
It is highly personal, something that arises in each individual in response to her or his own experience. It is that felt sense that connects us to the world around us in the deepest way. In Tillich’s words, it is the state of being ultimately concerned.
“Ultimately concerned.” That’s a pretty abstract idea, but it points to an intimate experience. Essentially, faith is what underlies our sense of wellbeing. It is what we hold to because we cannot possibly not hold to it. It is what gets us out of bed in the morning and lets us settle into sleep at night. It is what centers us when our lives have been knocked off kilter.
All of us have our moments of feeling alienated or disconnected. It is the kind of existential despair that makes our lives seem absent of meaning. It does no good at those times to say, “Buddy, you’ve just got to have faith.” What we need instead is a way of connecting with that original sense of wholeness that we were born with. Ultimacy, to my way of thinking, is that intimation, that felt sense that we are bound up in it all – the vast, mysterious beauty of all things – that we are now and ever will be home.
I remember an incident many years ago when I was a senior in high school. I had applied to five liberal arts colleges, all of them competitive, but within my grasp, I was assured. Then the day came when five thin envelopes arrived in the mail, and I learned that I had been rejected by all five.
Neither of my parents was home. All I could think of to do was to launch out to a tree nursery across the street and walk and walk, brooding. For some time in recalling that episode, I told myself that with that walk in the woods I was just getting some air to take my mind off that crushing news. Yes, it did help in that way, and of course I did find a way to college and all the rest. But I realize now that something else was going on out there on those paths of the nursery. I was, in fact, getting in touch with the ground of my faith.
I found something that day that I have come back to time and time again. Amid my despair something in the world called me back to wholeness. It is said that in the fraction of a second before we process our perceptions into discrete elements – sights, sounds, and so on – we are first flooded with an ineffable sense of being alive in the world.
It isn’t something we articulate; it’s pre-verbal. And yet it gives us a grounding, a place to begin. Amid raging emotions and conflicting thoughts, it is a place of peace, a floor from which to build the foundations of a living faith.
I find it at the center of our first principle, affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We are, each of us, enough, and we have the capacity to discover how to realize our best selves and live into the promise that we are.
Sharon Salzberg in her book Faith comes to a similar conclusion. Faith, she says, “is not a commodity we either have or don’t have – it is an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our own deepest experience.”
The passage you heard from Annie Dillard comes after she describes watching a full solar eclipse. She writes that she was surprised by how disturbing she found the experience, as if the sun itself were being obliterated. And yet, beneath her fear what she calls the substrate, the matrix that buoys the rest, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here.
Some decades ago, James Fowler made a study of what he called “the stages of faith,” that is how faith is born within us and how it grows over the course of our lives. He noted that people commonly identify faith with a code of beliefs, say the credo of the Latin mass or the creeds of Protestant reformers. But, he says, that’s an error. Belief may be a way that faith expresses itself, but a person does not have faith in a proposition or concept.
Instead, he said, “faith involves an alignment of the heart.” Curiously, this notion stretches across cultures. In Hindu, the term is Sraddha, which translates as “to set one’s heart on.” The religious life, they say, begins with finding in one’s life something to which one gives one’s heart.
Credo from Latin has a similar root, a compound from the word for heart and the world for place or put. So, its most accurate translation is not, “I believe,” an intellectual affirmation, but “I set my heart on,” or “I give my heart to.”
The writer Diana Butler Bass argues that people often misunderstand some of the most famous words attributed to Jesus: “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”
With those words he was not speaking of a philosophical idea or a set of doctrines. The truth, she said, “was that the disposition of the heart was the ground of truth. Spiritual freedom results from a rightly directed heart. The self as it moves away from fear, hatred, isolation, and greed toward love.”
Buddhism offers a similar view. As Sharon Salzberg puts it, “faith is the capacity of the heart that allows us to draw close to the present and find there the underlying thread connection the moment’s experience to the fabric of all life.”
Giving one’s heart, of course, can be a risky proposition. Our hearts are tender and easily broken. And so we have good reason to be wary. At the same time, of course, being made of muscle, they also get stronger the more they are used.
And so here is the conundrum of faith. It is possible to drift through life taking the safe route, trusting in few things, exposing little of ourselves. It offers no assurance of safe passage, but at least we reduce the risk of injury. And yet, what a pallid existence, what a dull life.
The life of faith, though, offers a different path: risky, to be sure, because we can’t know if what we put our trust in will merit that gift. Likely, we’ll overextend ourselves at some point and need to regroup, perhaps nurse our wounds. But we learn, and our heart grows stronger, wiser. And moments will come when our risk pays off with the most glorious awakening, the most amazing meeting of kindred souls, and we are filled as we never thought possible.
Yesterday in our Connection Points class we invited people who are thinking about joining this congregation to reflect in small groups on our worship theme this month: what does it mean to be a person of faith. Some said there was something a little scary in that task. Shaming scripts from their past emerged in their minds, and they weren’t really sure how to reply.
Others helped open the conversation, though, sharing their own experiences and their own sense of deep convictions that kept them centered and grounded. It was a microcosm of one of the key things this congregation exists to do: to listen each other into spiritual growth, to give each other courage to open and explore.
We all know the experience of having been smacked down emotionally, having our hearts wounded and feeling that we need protect ourselves. We shelter ourselves, but, sadly, in sheltering ourselves we turn from our hearts, become stoic, impassive. It’s a place we can live for a surprisingly long time, but not happily.
A way I have seen this present itself in our churches is that we process the work of religion as the wrangling of words. Words are good, but without bringing our hearts into the equation they can be empty. Sometimes you can see the heart pushing to make itself known in the heat of the conversation. How would it be if we let the words be for a moment, and paid attention to the heat? What is that? Can you name it? Can you own it?
May Sarton’s poem that I read for our meditation has been a favorite of mine for some time precisely because it speaks to me of that moment in our lives when the heart makes itself known. It is the moment when we fully know ourselves, when all, as she says, “fuses, falls into place: from wish to action, from word to silence.
“My work, my love, my time, my face gathered into on intense gesture of growing like a plant.”
What does that look like for you, and how might we invite you to explore it? For, there is the vitality of your life. There is where, as Sarton says, all we can give grows in us to become song, made so and rooted so by love.
Let us here affirm, as Sharon Salzberg puts it, that “We all have [the] absolute right to reach out, without holding back, toward what we care about more than anything. Whether we describe the recipient as God, or a profound sense of indestructible love, or the dream of a kinder world, it is in the act of offering our hearts in faith” that something changes within us, something that gives us the courage to act from the center of our lives and fully live our truth.
It is the journey of faith, a journey whose destination is an ever deepening awareness of how entangled we and all things are and how dear we are to each other.
Rev. Mark Ward
I am learning that I need to be careful of the topics I choose for worship, lest I be given lessons I’d just as soon not have. This week is a good example. As I began mulling over how I would address the topic of class this Sunday, I promptly lost my wallet. Actually, it turned out it wasn’t lost – thanks to a reminder from my wife, Debbie, I discovered it eventually in a coat pocket. But for a good hour or so Monday morning I was tearing around frantically, convinced that it was gone. What would I do now?
I am learning that I need to be careful of the topics I choose for worship, lest I be given lessons I’d just as soon not have. This week is a good example.
As I began mulling over how I would address the topic of class this Sunday, I promptly lost my wallet. Actually, it turned out it wasn’t lost – thanks to a reminder from my wife, Debbie, I discovered it eventually in a coat pocket. But for a good hour or so Monday morning I was tearing around frantically, convinced that it was gone. What would I do now?
It took a while to calm down after I found it, but when I did, I reflected on the experience and how I had reacted to it. Why was this such a big deal to me? I don’t carry much cash in my wallet, so I wouldn’t have lost much money, and just about everything in it of any importance can be replaced, even if it is a pain to do so. No, there was something more than that, and the more I thought about it, I realized that it has something to do with class.
Open my wallet and you can learn a good bit about my class status. Prominently displayed is a driver’s license: no big deal, right? A matter of course for most of us here, but a credential that already puts me in an echelon above many other people in Asheville, and as accepted identification gives me access to everything from an airline seat to a bottle of wine.
Then, you’ll find a credit card and debit card, evidence that I have sufficient income and assets to persuade at least a couple of banks to take a chance on giving me credit. Again, not especially uncommon, but a credential that puts me in even more exclusive company.
And then, ah, a health insurance card, evidence that either I or my spouse are employed – probably full-time or nearly – at a company large and bountiful enough to provide this coverage.
And then you’ll find a random collection of cards that round out the picture – from a library card, not especially exclusive, to a triple A membership, a little less common – and then cards for things like Ingles, the Biltmore, the North Carolina Arboretum, 12 Bones, Ultimate Ice Cream, and more.
OK, all this may be interesting at some level. But it doesn’t really address what had been the source of my distress. When I thought about it, I realized that all those things in my wallet speak not only to whatever my class status may be; they also remind me of my privilege. They give me access and entrée that make my way in the world easier, more enjoyable and less stressful. And they command some level of respect among other people.
What’s tricky, of course, is that the respect is tied to the credential, not to me. Without the credential, where would I be, who would I be? If I couldn’t get someone to vouch for me, if I didn’t have some record that I was who I said I was and was deserving of that privilege, what would I do? That’s part of what I found myself thinking about as I mulled over having to replace the contents of my wallet.
These were not the sorts of things I spent must time thinking about when I was growing up. I was raised the oldest son of a psychiatrist, lived in a nice house, took vacations, had my way paid to college, and lived with the expectation that my adult life would follow suit.
And, why not? That was the script that my social circle followed, and an important part of that circle was the Unitarian Universalist church my family attended. This was Princeton, New Jersey, in the 1960s and early ‘70s and the baby boom was booming. The church was growing quickly with many families like ours – young professionals or people associated with the university. It appealed to people looking for alternatives to their childhood churches, and the UU dedication to freedom of belief and religion responsive to reason felt right to them.
This trend was repeated across the association. Indeed, it was the heart of its growth strategy. As early the 1950s Unitarians had made a point of targeting growing suburbs near universities as the most promising sites for new congregations. Princeton was one of a number of the places where that strategy proved right.
Yet as Mark Harris, one of our eminent historians and minister of the UU congregation in Watertown, Massachusetts, points out, as suburban churches grew, urban and rural churches declined and with them the hope of cultivating the kind of diversity in our movement that we said we sought. Congregations still insisted they wanted to appeal to people of all races, classes and ethnicities, but as a rule it was white, middle- to upper-middle-class whites who found a home there.
In his book, Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History, Mark notes that the two strains of our movement followed different paths to this place. Our Unitarian forebears succeeded in the theological debates in early 19th century Boston, and for years they occupied many of the high pulpits there that drew the elite. While there were reformers among them, as a rule, Mark says, “Unitarians tended to sacrifice social justice for the need for harmony.”
Leading families of Boston joined Unitarian congregations as did the educated elite. In the 1850s, he says, two-thirds of the wealthiest Bostonians were Unitarian, as were 80% of the faculty at Harvard University and three-quarters of its student body.
After the Civil War, though, their numbers began to decline, so the Unitarians began a campaign to expand. Once again, they targeted the educated elite, seeking to found churches in college towns. They had some success before the program ended at the turn of the century.
Universalism followed a different path. It first took root among farmers and tradespeople in the hill country of northern New England in the early 19th century and then spread mostly to small towns in the Northeast and Midwest. Intellectual rigor mattered, but educational achievement didn’t as much. And this had its roots as much in theology as the social situation of its people. Unlike the Unitarians, who saw religion as a matter of self-culture, Universalists had the goal, as Mark Harris puts it, of drawing the entire human family in “one moral community.”
Both denominations struggled in the early 20th century, and many churches closed. In the post-war boom, it was the Unitarians who put a priority on starting new congregations, and like their forebears a century before they targeted college or university towns. The “fellowship movement,” as it was called, was a huge success, resulting in the founding of dozens of congregations, including this one.
But unlike their predecessors a century before who sought to cultivate congregations of the elite, planners of the fellowship movement projected a vision of their new starts as egalitarian centers, drawing people from many backgrounds and making a religious home for all. In an early report, Lon Ray Call, who led the Unitarian extension work, argued that the faith was “now growing most rapidly among those without college training or any religious background.”
And yet, it is hardly surprising that these congregations started in college towns, led by college faculty or other professionals, attracted people of similar backgrounds. And, again, hardly surprising: they were less welcoming to and generally rarely recruited into membership people of other educational or cultural backgrounds. And so it remains in many of our congregations. A national survey of religious identification 20 years ago found that of all religious identifiers Unitarian Universalists had the highest level of what was called “socioeconomic attainment,” essentially education, employment, income, and property ownership.
Now, on one level this is hardly anything to complain about. That people of means and educational achievement find a home in our congregations is a good thing. But another aspect of that survey is worth taking note of. Of all the religions asked about in the survey, ours was by far the smallest in size. And not only that, but since then our numbers have continued to dwindle. So, the question arises, are we just a boutique religion, a convenient gathering place for some progressive folks of privilege? Is that our vision of ourselves? Are we, as Mark Harris puts it, a faith of the few?
Well, clearly not if we take seriously how we describe ourselves and our aspirations, not if we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; and acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth – to quote just the first three of our seven principles.
We know that the appeal of this religious movement is broader than those demographics would suggest because many people who don’t fit them are coming to us now and have been for many years. The problem is that some have a hard time finding a home here, and we lose when they leave.
Successes in life – wealth, education, professional achievement – are to be celebrated – Ph.D.’s and Priuses are grand things – but they only get us so far. The famous passage in the Book of Mark in the Bible where Jesus declares, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” speaks to this.
The point I take from it is not that there is anything wrong with riches. It is that riches get you only so much, and a couple of things they won’t give you is peace of mind and heart.
My experience losing my wallet was a good reminder of this. As I was scrambling to find it, I was suddenly aware in an almost existential way of how vulnerable I was. I depend on the privileges represented by the cards stuffed in my wallet to ease my way through the world, to expand my options when opportunity presents itself and to shelter me when the storms come. Without it, the world was suddenly a scarier place. And it reminded me of how for so many people, that scarier place is where they live. By dint of luck or circumstance they lack the privileges I carry in my back pocket.
For those of us who carry such privileges, it’s easy to make them a lens through which we view the world. But they give us a distorted picture, one that overlooks how fragile our hold on such things is.
There are those among you, I know, who have first-hand experience of this. Job loss, illness, divorce – you name it – can unhinge your life and with it all the assumptions you held about how you would make your way in the world. But more important, they separate us from each other.
This takes us back to an important gift from our Universalist forebears – the understanding that our hopes, our values, our very identities are realized in relationship, and all that we do to divide the world into sheep and goats only serves to estrange us from ourselves.
Our congregations, then, if they are to be successful, must become places where we are invited to imagine a different way of being, a way of being that begins with our ultimate commonality, the truth of our unity. It can be a hard place to get to, and sometimes we run up against each other’s sharp edges along the way. But we are called from that deep source within us that we name in many ways – hope, love, God – to return and reengage.
The work that this religious movement, this faith calls us to needs all of us – as I say each Sunday, whatever our heritage, whatever our history, whomever we love – if we have our hope of making an impact on the world. And none of us brings a privileged perspective to that work because we are all of us, however we make our way in the world, fragile and fallible beings with our own struggles and our own fears.
In the end, as Annie Dillard reminds us, that will have to do. There is no one of purer heart or cleaner hand who can do this for us, no one who won’t stumble or get their tongues tied with awkward faux pas. We have only the simple balm of humility and gratitude to offer each other in the hope that in our fitful ways we can find healing and a way forward toward the promise of peace.