Thursday, November 19, 2009

Living Beyond All We Know

“In its essential nature religion is not an intellectual speculation about the constitution of the universe or an elaborate ritual by which the priests hypnotize us into the belief that their services are indispensible to our salvation here and hereafter but rather a moral act of confidence in the meaning and purpose of life, a faith that the universe, whose children we are, contains the elements that can satisfy in some way our deepest aspirations.” (Robert J. Hutcheon, Frankness in Religion, 1929)

Unitarian Universalists seem hesitant—even a little uncomfortable—to admit that we are people of faith, perhaps because we are anxious to distinguish ourselves from the excesses that are so often associated with the expression of faith. Or perhaps it’s that we like to imagine ourselves to be on more solid ground than simply standing on faith, which we have been taught to think of as ephemeral and groundless belief. Indeed, there was recently some controversy among us, out on the prairies, because some of our members objected to the theme of the regional fall conference, which was, “Unitarianism: An Evolution of Faith.” Now if you were a Universalist, you might have objected to the omission of that part of our name. Or if you were a fundamentalist, you might have raised your eyebrows at the inclusion of the word “evolution.” But the quarrel was over the presence of the word “faith,” and some, equating faith with uncritical and unfounded belief, argued that whatever else it might be, Unitarian Universalism ought not to be described as a faith. Is that so? I don’t just beg to differ—I insist upon differing!

When we affirm “the worth and dignity of every person,” that is an affirmation of faith, for each of us can surely name many individuals who feel unworthy, perhaps even worthless, or who live in ways that invite the criticism and scorn of others. But we know that even in the worst among us there flickers the spark of the divine and that within each of us, somewhere deep inside, is the faint glimmer of a dignity of purpose.

When we seek to promote “justice, equity and compassion in human relations,” that is an act of faith, for the society in which we live is so filled with injustice, inequity and hard-heartedness that we might forgiven for believing that this is necessarily the way of the world. But we somehow feel, in the part of us called conscience, that we are called to live beyond the world’s imperfections and work toward these magnificent objectives which are so precious precisely because they are too rarely achieved.

When we proclaim “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations,” we stand on faith, because in practice, human societies are too often unaccepting of large numbers of people, and too often discouraging of the nurture of the soul that leads to happier, healthier individuals. Yet somewhere in our hearts, we know we must accept others as we long to be accepted and we understand that spiritual growth is sometimes the only thing that makes life worth living.

When we insist upon “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” we do so in faith—faith that a capricious deity doesn’t play tricks on our understanding, but that the laws of nature are reliable even if they’re not always to our liking; faith that we can discover, bit by bit, a little more about the world in which we live and even turn that knowledge to good purposes; faith that the truth will set us free, if we will only open our minds to receive it; and faith that our lives somehow have meaning, not only in joyous times but also in the times that try the human soul.

When we advocate for “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process,” that is a two-fold act of faith, for we know that the conscience is sometimes mistaken and that conscientious people are oftentimes pains in far more than the posterior regions. It is an act of faith because, while we know there are more clowns on Parliament Hill than there are in the average circus, there are many more dedicated and conscientious public servants there who struggle daily to represent the people’s will and create some reflection of the kingdom of heaven through the most unlikely of means—public policy.

When we espouse “the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all,” that is a declaration of faith, for in a world in which whole nations greedily seek after their self-interest, it compels us to walk upon the same ground as the prophets of old, and the seers of every age, who knew we must live beyond the narrow bounds of tribe and nation to embrace all people as our neighbours, if not as our kin, and extend to them the same liberties and living conditions which we would claim for ourselves.

And when we pledge our “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” we kneel before the entire world as the altar of our faith, for this dear and pleasant earth is our only certain home and the web of relationships we call life is our only certain immortality.

We cannot prove a single one of these affirmations but we hold them to be true. Not faith? By who’s definition? Call it whatever you want: I call it faith!

More than that—it is a faith worth risking everything we have for the hope it inspires. “We all live beyond our objective knowledge,” wrote Robert J. Hutcheon. “Business, especially in its early stages, is a venture. Radio was at first a venture. So was aeronautics. So is every marriage. We live toward and plan for a future which we never really know until it becomes the present and the past. The element of belief, hope and trust is very large in every forward-moving life and to eliminate this element would bring complete stagnation. We must strive to eliminate risk and to act on objective knowledge as far as possible but to refuse to venture beyond that is to limit the possibilities of life.”

Unitarian Universalists have been too timid for too long. We are reticent to offend, we are reluctant to express our faith to others, and we are so allergic to proselytizing that we find it difficult, at times, even to be proactively welcoming. In that reticence, ours seems almost to be the quintessential Canadian religion. In other aspects of our lives, we’re not nearly so modest—we offend people politically all the time, without giving it a second thought, and we are scarcely reluctant to express our social views. As for welcoming others, I wonder if we simply fear being rejected. At the heart of it all, I suspect that we’re actually risk averse.

This is where we need real leadership—and we need it to come from our strongest, most vital congregations and their ministers. Our faith needs its congregations and adherents to ring out the glad tidings of liberal religion as crisply and clearly as the carillon in the Peace Tower.

In the closing chapter of Frankness in Religion, Robert J. Hutcheon reflected on the hope of immortality, which he came to understand as a quality of living rather than a duration of existence. In the end, any intimations of immortality, any glimpses of eternity, any hints of transcendence that may come to us, will be found in “whether we have the courage and the venturesomeness to live ourselves as though it were true and to treat our neighbors, not as hewers of wood and drawers of water, but as though they were immortal spirits in the earthly stage of an unpredictable evolution.” An evolution of faith, perhaps?

We are called to live beyond all we know. We are called to embody in our very lives the best of this liberal religious tradition we hold dear—its teachings and its truths, its principles and its practices, its faith and its fortitude. We are called to strive to achieve its highest aspirations—of a world more fair, a society more just, and a nation more compassionate and kind. We are immortal spirits on an earthly journey—brimming with faith, motivated by hope, and inspired by love. And through this, we can surely live beyond all we know.

Excerpted and adapted from a sermon delivered at the installation of Rev. John N. Marsh as minister of the First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa on Monday, November 16, 2009.

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