Between services several people stopped me and told me that the beginning of my sermon covered the same material as the most recent episode of Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’ve not been watching this show. So what can I say? Great minds think alike?
One cold, clear winter’s night, when I was eight years old, my dad got us bundled up in our coats and hats and gloves. We went outside into the dark, walked out to the middle of a frozen lake and looked towards the southern horizon. It was the winter of 1986 and Halley’s Comet was visible in the sky. My memory of seeing Halley’s comet is imperfect. My father was a physics teacher and the household expert on all things scientific. He taught us that Halley’s comet would come back in another 75 years. I was in awe of the immense distances it would travel in that time, but even more in awe by trying to imagine living long enough to possibly see it again.
When a comet appeared in 1680 in the night sky over Boston, the city’s leading minister regarded the comet with a different sort of awe. The Puritan preacher, Increase Mather, offered a sermon about the comet entitled “Heaven’s Alarm to the World.” The sermon described this comet as “a sign of God’s displeasure and a herald of some mysterious calamity destined to fall upon the Boston populace.” The next time the comet came around, in 1759, its arrival came as predicted by British astronomer Edmond Halley and was named for him. By this time, a new view of the universe was becoming dominant, a worldview that saw comets in the sky not as acts of God meant to convey a message from the divine, but as a predictable phenomenon occurring within a predictably ordered universe. Increase Mather’s sermon that the comet is a message from God stopped making sense when astronomers discovered that they could accurately predict when comets will pass by in the future.
The title of this morning’s sermon is “Faith for Religious Liberals.” This morning I’m interested in asking if and whether the word “faith” is still relevant for us as members of a liberal religion. And, if so, what do we actually mean when we use the word faith?
The story I just told about Increase Mather and Halley’s Comet implies something about the reasons it may be tempting to reject the idea of faith. It implies that faith is synonymous with a lack of understanding. At worst, faith is superstition. At best, it is a pre-modern understanding of the world. In any event, faith is something that scientific understanding will eventually prove incorrect and unsophisticated.
(When I use the term religious liberals, I am speaking to a particular aspect of religious liberalism. I mean that we, as religious liberals, are open to new wisdom, new insight, and new understanding. New learning is not threatening to us; we freely embrace the findings of science and the discoveries of scholarship. As religious liberals we embrace Galileo and Copernicus, Edmond Halley and Charles Darwin, rather than distrust them, fear them, or feel threatened by them.)
Imagine that you get sick or suffer an injury. And you have a choice of where to go. You can go to a clinic with a sign outside that says, “Faith Healing.” Or you can go to a clinic with a sign outside that says, “Scientific Healing.” As religious liberals, we’re all going the clinic that advertises scientific healing, right? Because what they’ll do is diagnose the issue with a test or X-Ray or scan and then they’ll treatment based on what the most modern scientific evidence has proven to be most effective. As religious liberals, we’re all taking the scientific healing route, right? If we choose to define faith as lack of understanding, then faith is a term that we would certainly not want to claim. But, are there other ways of using the word “faith” that we might positively claim?
As I was first preparing for this sermon a couple of weeks ago, I kind of did a mental scan of the way the word “faith’ is used. The term “faith,” unfortunately, is often used imprecisely. The word faith is often used as a shorthand or substitute for religion. An interfaith gathering is the same thing as an interreligious gathering. A person of faith is the same thing as a religious person. It is just that a lot of people tend to respond more positively to the word faith than they do to the word religion. Though they are often conflated, they don’t mean the same thing.
Faith is also used interchangeably with the word belief. An article of faith or a confession of faith means pretty much the same thing as a statement of belief.
In a piece he wrote for the UU World magazine last summer, Unitarian Universalist President Peter Morales tried to untangle the words religion, belief, and faith. Morales wrote,
We need to think about faith, religion, and spirituality in a new way. When I grew up I was taught that religion was about what we believed. What made my denomination different (and correct, of course) was our sound doctrine. We were right. This made religion too much about being right, about us and them. Too much attention then goes into defending our beliefs.
I am now convinced that “belief,” in the way we usually use the word, is actually the enemy of faith, religion, and spirituality. Let me say that again: belief is the enemy of faith. When we dwell on beliefs we ask all the wrong questions. My faith is much more about what I love than about what I think.
Understanding the etymology of the word “faith” may help us to come to a different way of thinking about the word. Indeed, it may even allow us to reclaim the word in a way that makes sense to us.
If you visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and you’ll encounter a number of European paintings depicting harrowing scenes from the Christian religion. One time when I was there my friend pointed out something about these paintings. A number of them had dogs in them. The artist had painted a dog right into the scene. As it turns out, the dogs had theological significance. Fido, my friend said. It is the word for faith, for faithfulness, for fidelity.
That’s how I remember that faith differs from belief. Dogs are faithful. Dogs are loyal, loving, devoted. Dogs aren’t belief-full. Dogs don’t have beliefs, as far as I can tell. But there is clearly a faithfulness to them. “My faith is much more about what I love than about what I think,” is how Peter Morales puts it.
In her book The Gift of Imperfection, Brené Brown offers a definition of faith. She writes, “Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.” At first glance, this definition of faith is unsatisfying. Faith is equated with a lack of understanding, which is problematic. But then Brené Brown offers a reflection that suggests another level to her understanding of faith. She writes,
I’ve come to realize that faith and reason are not natural enemies. It’s our human need for certainty and our need to ‘be right’ that have pitted faith and reason against each other in an almost reckless way… We love closure, resolution and clarity, while thinking that we are people of “faith”! How strange that the very word “faith” has come to mean its exact opposite… Faith is essential when we decide to live and love with our whole hearts in a world where most of us want assurances before we risk being vulnerable and getting hurt.
Many of the things most worth doing in our lives are done without any assurance, without any certainty, that things will turn out well. It is like the teenager trying to summon up the courage to ask someone out on a date for the first time. But he may say no. But she may say no. There is a leap of faith involved.
When I do weddings, there is faith involved. A statistician is not called for. Imagine if a wedding ceremony included an actuarial table, an assessment based on demographics, family history, and overall societal rates of separation and divorce. What’s called for is faith. Faith, not in the sense of prediction, but faith in the sense of loyalty, devotion, and love.
Brené Brown reflects, “At first I thought that faith meant ‘there’s a reason for everything.’ I personally struggled with that because I’m not comfortable with using God or faith… to explain [things.] It actually feels like substituting certainty for faith when people say, ‘There’s a reason for everything.’”
Out on the ice. Winter. 1986. I’m 8 years old. The comet will come back in 75 years. The old view of faith sees faith as a matter of explanation or prediction. The new view of faith – faith for religious liberals – sees faith as an attitude about how to live in the world in the most loyal, loving, and devoted way possible. There are all sorts of certainties in this world, including that Halley’s Comet will come back around every 75 years or so. But much of life requires moving forward without certainty. Faith doesn’t offer an explanation for or an explanation concerning celestial events. Faith is an attitude for approaching the time you’re given once you come in off the ice.