Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Sermon: "A Word for Certainty" (Delivered 11-5-06)

This sermon is part one in the series "The Future of the Liberal Church: Its Crisis and Its Opportunities."

The reading this morning comes from the book Faith Without Certainty by liberal theologian Paul Rasor:

“Religious liberalism often involves a willingness to affirm faith without certainty. This is not the same thing as faith without conviction. It does mean that religious liberals tend to hold faith claims with a certain tentativeness. This is partly a result of a liberal mindset that is always testing and second-guessing itself. It also reflects the liberal commitment to open-ended inquiry and the realization that truth is not given once for all time. This same tendency can produce personal belief systems or theologies articulated in generalized ideals, perhaps sincerely felt, but often without a deep grounding or much specific content.…

“In the post-modern world, there is no such thing as certain knowledge or absolute truth. Things we once thought gave us firm foundations, such as universal human reason or common experience, turn out to be bounded by language and culture and gender. Everything is relativized. What we used to think of as truth is now seen as interpretation. Because of our cultural limitations, all our interpretations are only partial. And it’s not just that each of us has only a partial view of some larger truth. The metaphors we commonly use, such as looking at the same light through different windows or going up the same mountain on different paths, are challenged in postmodernity. In the postmodern way of thinking, there is no larger truth. We are all wandering around on different paths (or lost in the brush) on different mountains. We each have our own truths and our own knowledge, according to our circumstances.”

The centuries old project of liberal theology has succeeded in tearing down, in deconstructing (to use its own language), all the old certainties. Paul Rasor describes this as leading us to a place of aimless wandering. There is a joke that goes that you can tell you are driving by a Unitarian Universalist church because the title of the sermon on roadside billboard ends with a question mark.

I want to begin this sermon by cataloging several of the many instances of what I call the Unitarian Universalist “cult of uncertainty.”

For Exhibit A, I direct you to hymn #1003 in the new Singing the Journey hymnal. The lyrics: “Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? / Mystery, mystery, life is a riddle and mystery.”

For Exhibit B, I bring up Forrest Church’s concept of “sixty percent convictions”, a term he introduced after September 11th. “Sixty percent convictions” empower us to take moral stands on complex issues even if we can’t claim absolute certainty about the infallible rightness of those positions. Forrest Church explains that 100% convictions are arrogant and dangerous.

And for exhibit C, I direct your attention to a sermon given by current UUA President, Rev. Bill Sinkford, in which he offered these words on articulating your faith, “I urge each of you to work on your elevator speech. Put a name to what calls you, and ask yourself what it is to which you find yourself called. Do it often; you won’t always necessarily come up with the same answer.” He then goes on to admit that his own elevator speech is “a work in progress… where I am right now.”

Finally, I give you exhibit D. Unitarian Universalist thinker Doug Muder writes about what he sees as the difference between conservative and liberal religion. Religious conservatives, he writes, believe that religion is created by God and therefore is perfect and eternal. Religious liberals, however, believe that religion is created by human beings and therefore reflects their imperfect, changing, and evolving intuitions of the Divine.

These contemporary articulations of uncertainty are the products of the project of liberal theology which, over the course of several centuries, has challenged the authority of the church, the authority of scripture, the authority of the government, the authority of the foundations of Western thought, and, indeed, the authority of foundationalism itself.

So, what are we to make from all these articulations of uncertainty – Church’s sixty percent convictions and Rasor’s postmodern uncertainty and Muder’s idea of religion as evolving human interpretation?

I want to suggest that we can think of certainty as having two opposites. We might think that one of the opposites of certainty is a kind of doubt that is oppositional, even antagonistic. The other opposite of certainty is humility. The practice of declared agnosticism, of declared uncertainty, can produce some good fruits. The most notable of these is the humility that results when agnosticism is done well. On the other hand, uncertainty has its limitations. It can stifle inquiry. If we deny that any conclusion can be reached, then why bother to search at all?

Last week I went to go hear theologian and Emergent Christianity leader Brian McClaren deliver an address. Allow me to paraphrase what he had to say about certainty: The terrorists who flew planes into the towers had a lot of certainty. They were certain what they were doing was not only morally defensible, but righteous. They were certain that they go to heaven and God would give them a big high-five and say, “Great job,” and reward them with a multitude of virgins. McClaren then went on to say that there is also such a thing as too much doubt. There are people who wake up, in the middle of the night, and think, “Do I exist? Am I real? How do I know I am not the dream of the person sleeping in the house next door to me?”

Too little certainty doesn’t crash planes into buildings. Too little certainty doesn’t kill directly. But too much doubt can paralyze.

What I found most intriguing about McClaren’s talk was his assertion that the truly transformative and creative and meaningful religious life will be characterized by extraordinarily high levels of humility and extraordinarily high levels of commitment.

World-class political philosopher Isaiah Berlin said same thing in much more complex language in the concluding paragraph of his essay on “Two Concepts of Liberty”:
“It may be that the ideal of freedom to choose ends without claiming eternal validity for them, and the pluralism of values connected with this, is only the late fruit of our declining capitalist civilisation: an ideal which remote ages and primitive societies have not recognised, and one which posterity will regard with curiosity, even sympathy, but little comprehension. This may be so; but no sceptical conclusions seem to me to follow. Principles are not less sacred because their duration cannot be guaranteed. Indeed, the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood or the absolute values of our primitive past. ‘To realize the relative validity of one’s convictions’, said an admirable writer of our time, ‘and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.’ To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow it to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.”

To realize the relative validity of one’s convictions, and yet stand for them unflinchingly. The religion that is worth having will be known by the demonstration of abundant humility and abundant commitment.

When the opposite of certainty is humility, we can’t have too much of that. But, when the opposite of certainty is doubt, doubt can be overdone. I want you to imagine organized religion as a large, complex structure – and that doubt is a project of deconstruction (if not demolition) of that structure. This piece of the structure is supported by, let’s say, scriptural authority, so when we call scriptural authority into doubt, that section collapses. This practice is held up by ecclesiastical law, so when we call ecclesiastical law into doubt, we’ve torn that down. And so on, you get the point. But at a certain point in the disassembling there is nothing left to call into doubt. And then it is possible to self-reflexively turn the doubt back onto itself, to doubt the very project of doubt, which, if you are intellectually honest, you will have to do at some point. And when doubt itself becomes doubted, that gives permission to build again.

Let me come around to what I am trying to get at here. My colleague in St. Paul, Reverend Rob Eller-Isaacs believes and has written that, in our country, a consciousness pendulum is beginning to swing – a shift is already taking place – that will lead, not thousands, but millions of people to the types of progressive religious communities that we could be. He writes that if we are prepared, we could transform our presence from an elite vanguard of religious thought to a widespread movement, from the yeast to the bread. He writes, however, that we will miss the revolution if we do not prepare ourselves in important ways. The progressive church is in crisis, but there are opportunities for us. I’ll be saying more about this next week.

But, let me say today, that one of the opportunities we have is that the project of doubt, of deconstruction, of leveling the edifices of theology that we have found unfit for human habitation – one of the opportunities we have is that project of doubt has left us with the room to build.

We have the opportunity to build, to build into and become something worthy of all the longing, thirsty souls who will scour the religious landscape looking for a faith that is a habitable home for the human spirit. For a faith that isn’t preoccupied with some other life, but is worthy of this life. For a faith whose hallmarks are excessively high levels of both humility and commitment, a faith willing to realize the relative validity of convictions, but stand unflinchingly for them nonetheless.

So, I want to sketch out a little bit of this building. When I talk about building from scratch, I do not mean to say that we will do away with our history and our roots, with religious language, with our sources of inspiration. I do mean that we will piece things together in different ways. Traditionally, the glue, the infrastructure, the stuff holding together the structure of religion has been authority. The new glue will be commitment.

This new future expression of progressive religion will be girded by commitments. For its foundations, it will not worry whether religion was created by God or created by human beings, because its purposes will take priority over its authors. The purposes of such a religion will be to sow unity and understanding, to act as a creative and transformative influence on culture, and to engender social transformation.

There is, in fact, too much for me to say this morning. The next three sermons is this series will explore these ideas in greater depth and variation.

But, let me conclude by saying that most that many in our pews left their prior religious community because of their doubts. Well, because of their doubts and because their previous religious tradition did not provide a context for the exploration of those doubts. But doubt is not an end. Doubt and uncertainty eventually give over into the chance to build. Things can be disassembled only so far. Continuing to perform autopsies on dead gods has diminishing returns. Let us post a sign which says, “Under Construction.”