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.