Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Sermon: "Beyond Belief" (Delivered 11-4-12)

“It Matters What We Believe” by Sophia Lyon Fahs

Some beliefs are like walled gardens.  They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged.
Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies.

Some beliefs are like shadows, clouding children’s days with fears of unknown calamities.
Other beliefs are like sunshine, blessing children with the warmth of happiness.

Some beliefs are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from enemies.
Other beliefs are bonds in a world community, where sincere differences beautify the pattern.

Some beliefs are like blinders, shutting off the power to choose one’s own direction.
Other beliefs are like gateways opening wide vistas for exploration.

Some beliefs weaken a person’s selfhood.  They blight the growth of resourcefulness.
Other beliefs nurture self-confidence and enrich the feeling of personal worth.

Some beliefs are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world.
Other beliefs are pliable, like the young sapling, ever growing with the upward thrust of life.

This past week, while the last of the contractors were finishing up their work around the building, one of the workers dropped by my office and asked me if I had a minute to talk.  He asked me to help him understand our church.  Could I tell him a bit about our beliefs and doctrines?  It was funny that he should ask, I told him.  This Sunday I plan to talk about not letting doctrine and belief get in the way of religious community.  The point of our church, I told him, was not for us all to believe the same thing and not for us all to agree upon doctrine.  We need not think alike to love alike, and love, we say, is the doctrine of this church.

How does that work, he wondered, being a church where everyone doesn’t believe the same thing?  Well, I can tell you that it does work, I said.  We tend to appreciate our differences and we do not let our beliefs get in the way of us treating each other with love.  We worry that insisting on uniformity in belief would get in the way of people treating each other like they are supposed to be treated.  We’re careful not to let that happen here.

I spoke with him a little more.  It turns out that he was an open-minded guy who had been wounded and badly let down by the faith he used to belong to.  It turns out that what pushed him away was not an issue of doctrine, but of being treated in a hurtful way.  It can be a lot harder to get love right than to get belief right.

When he asked me to explain Unitarian Universalism by talking about what we believe, what the contractor was doing, probably unconsciously and instinctively, was engaging in a particularly modern, western, enlightenment way of thinking and understanding the world around us.  Descartes famously said, “Cogito ergo sum.”  “I think therefore I am.”  When it comes to religion, we have a tendency to attempt to understand who someone is religiously by focusing most intensely on what it is that they think.

Diana Butler Bass writes, “During the last few centuries, to ask ‘What do you believe?’ in the religious realm was to demand intellectual answers about things that cannot be comprehended entirely by the mind.  Thus masked as objective truth, religion increasingly became a matter of opinion, personal taste, individual interpretation, and wishful thinking.  People became quite militant about the answers they liked the best.  The what questions often divided families and neighbors into rival churches, started theological quarrels, initiated inquisitions, fueled political and social conflict, and led, on occasion, to one losing one’s head.”

“It’s time to face up to the truth,” Bass continues.  “An increasingly large number of people are experiencing the what questions [of religion] in profoundly negative ways.  In the minds of many, dogma deserves to die.”  [Christianity After Religion, p. 112]

It is difficult to go beyond this familiar western form of thought.  So, if it isn’t all about belief, what it is about?  It is common for people to lead with the question, “What do you believe?” instead of asking about other characteristics of religious life such as community, spiritual practices, rituals, experience, emotion, or trust.  It turns out that most of religious identity is actually beyond belief.

In our tradition, there is a trend that is very much opposed to reducing religion to a matter of belief.  Deeds not creeds, we say.  Devotion not dogma.  We need not think alike to love alike.  I’m not saying that we Unitarian Universalists always get this right.  From time to time, too often in fact, I hear from one or another of my UU minister friends who speaks with exasperation about some belief battle happening in her or his congregation.  Too much God.  Not enough God.  Too much Jesus.  Too much Bible.  Too much or not enough spirituality.  Too much attempting to silence religious expression.  Each Unitarian Universalist congregation is different, and, fortunately, belief battles are not a part of the culture of this congregation.  When I hear about belief battles, my reaction is to say, “How tragic it is that differences in belief should get in the way of your ability to treat each other with love.”

Now, if you’ve been listening closely, you may say, “I hear what you’re saying, Thom.  You’re saying that too much emphasis is placed on matters of belief at the expense of community, service, and spiritual practice.  You’re saying that we shouldn’t let belief get in the way of how we treat each other.  That sounds reasonable.”

And, I’ll say back, “Thank you, I always think that what I say is reasonable.”

But, you’ll say back, “But Thom, we’ve been listening closely, and we’re a bit confused.  Do you remember that responsive reading you had us read right before the sermon?  It was called, ‘It Matters What We Believe.’  Well, we didn’t just speak those words thoughtlessly.  As we spoke them, they spoke to us.  They seem true.  Some beliefs do encourage exclusiveness.  Some beliefs do perpetuate fear.  Some beliefs are divisive.  Some beliefs are destructive and dangerous.  If it matters what we believe, how can you talk about moving beyond belief?”

This was the part of the sermon where I stepped away from the computer and went to take a walk.  It is true that fighting over beliefs can be destructive.  But it is also true that some beliefs are dangerous and deserve to be opposed.  We’re in trouble.  How do we navigate this tension?  Is it fair to say that sometimes beliefs matter a great deal and sometimes beliefs don’t matter very much at all?

I think about the election that is just two days away.  Now remember, about six weeks ago I preached about this election season, and during the sermon I asked who in the congregation was planning to vote.  Just about 100% of you raised your hands, so if you haven’t voted yet, make sure you go vote on Tuesday.  As educated and informed voters, we know that some beliefs matter, beliefs about economic policy and foreign policy, beliefs about the proper role of the government, beliefs about civil rights, beliefs about climate change, beliefs about so many issues.  I have very strong feelings on these issues.  I try my best to live in that space where I can say that although it matters what we believe, I do not need to agree with you to love you.  But it also is impossible for me to conclude that beliefs don’t matter.

And then there are differences in belief that really do not matter.  A lot of media attention was given this past week to the fact that the website of the evangelist Billy Graham was updated and all mentions of Mormonism being a cult was removed, although a diverse listing of religious movements including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, and Unitarians were still listed as cults on his website.  Stephen Colbert had a funny segment on The Colbert Report in which he talked about the Billy Graham website and joked that for Unitarian Universalists, the three holy scriptures are the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Free to be You and Me.  (I had to go look that up; it was a before my time.)  The Billy Graham website, before and after its inclusion of Mormonism, is essentially contributing to the belief battles in our world, taking a position that is divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved and friends from enemies.

In discussing beliefs, I am reminded of a figure from our Unitarian history, a guy named Michael Servetus.  Servetus was a Spaniard, a physician, and a theologian.  His writings include one book called On the Errors of the Trinity and he traveled Europe trying to promote his ideas about the Godhead.  Servetus was condemned by orthodox religious leaders and was burned at the stake.  Servetus’ murder continues to be a shining example of why we might want to move beyond belief, of why creating lists of which beliefs are acceptable and which are unacceptable, correct or incorrect, is dangerous.

The Billy Graham website is evidence that there are all sorts of beliefs that some people treat as divisive that really are not.  The responsive reading talked about beliefs that are exclusive and beliefs that are expansive, beliefs that create fear and beliefs that engender hope, beliefs that are blinders and beliefs that are gateways, but there are other beliefs that don’t really fit on that map.  The responsive reading says nothing about beliefs about God’s existence or non-existence, singularity or plurality, maleness or femaleness.  The responsive reading says nothing about the divinity or humanity of Jesus or whether God is a trinity or a unity.  The responsive reading says nothing about praying the rosary or praying in the direction of Mecca.

Interestingly, some who have written about belief have talked about how belief itself is actually misunderstood.  Two different words in Latin with two different meanings are both translated into the verb “to believe” in English.  One of those words is “opinor,” which means to opine, to have an opinion.  It is a thinking word.  There is another word in Latin that also means to believe.  That word is “credo,” the word from which we get the English word “creed.”  Credo actually means, “I set my heart upon” or “I give my loyalty to.”  It is more of a feeling word.  In fact, the word “believe” may not have originally meant what we understand it to mean.  The word comes from the German root “liebe” meaning “love.”  To believe literally is to “belove.”  It is to prize, to treasure, and to hold dear. [Christianity After Religion, p. 117]

Diana Butler Bass points out that Buddhism offers a different formulation for how we understand belief.  “The Three Jewels of Buddhism, the vows that shape a Buddhist way of life, are as follows:  I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the Dharma (Teaching); and I take refuge in the Sangha (Community).”  Belief, as it turns out, can have more to do with what you give your heart to and where you take refuge than it has to do with what you assent to intellectually.  Believing may be less about thinking the correct thoughts than it is about feeling love for those things that are worthy of our love. [Christianity After Religion, p. 134-135]

It is true that we need not think alike to love alike.  It is also true that we need not think alike to believe alike.  We need not opine alike to be-liebe alike.  “What do you think?” is a different question than “What is worthy of your love and loyalty?” and “Where do you take refuge?”

When belief gets in the way, it is worth asking yourself, “Are my beliefs truly worthy of my love and loyalty?  Are my beliefs truly a worthwhile refuge?”  Sometimes your answer will be yes, in which case you should stay loyal until the ends of the earth.  Sometimes your answer will be no, which will call for you to step out beyond belief.  The hard part is being able to tell the difference.

You may be interested to know that UUA President Peter Morales has a sermon on this exact topic.  I held off on reading his sermon until after I had delivered mine.  There are some similarities and some differences between our two approaches to belief.