Taking the leap or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the word faith -
A sermon by Stephen Meister delivered at First Unitarian Church of Omaha on 27 January 2013
Last week Rev. Frank made the case that we should re-engage with the sacred texts that are a part of our Unitarian Universalist heritage. In that spirit I would like to open with a verse from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, Chapter 13, Verse 13: And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. I would hazard to say that this is one of the best known verses of the Christian bible. I mean, we’ve all been to weddings, right? As Unitarian Universalists we are pretty comfortable talking about hope and love. We stand on the side of love and hold out hope for a brighter future of equality and justice for all. Talking about faith, on the other hand, can be a bit more problematic. It’s a word that makes some folks uncomfortable. In fact, I really would not be surprised if the title of my sermon were enough to keep some folks away today. But why? We are a congregation that values conversation – in fact I would argue that conversation might be that which we hold most sacred. So why do we let certain words get in the way of that sacred conversation? Along with William Ellery Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson our tradition values experience and reason in our search for meaning and truth. Some would say faith is antithetical to this. Can you imagine opening a conversation at coffee hour by asking “Are you a person of faith?” I suspect it may as likely end the discussion as start it. Many of us have encountered this question in other contexts and taken it to be a challenge. I know, for me, it’s only quite recent that I found the word faith can be comforting rather than confrontational, something to aspire to rather than something I could never live up to. Frankly, I used to cringe at the word, but I have come to understand the idea of faith in a new light, and my hope today is to share that idea with you and perhaps help you consider making your own leap of faith. Lest you get the wrong idea, I’ll say right up front that I am an Unbeliever – I do not subscribe to the idea of an intelligent creator, an all-knowing and all-powerful deity whether benevolent or otherwise, nor do I feel a need for supernatural intervention or salvation. But I do consider myself a man of faith. I’ll explain that seeming paradox in a moment, but perhaps I should start by describing what I used to think faith was – indeed, what many and perhaps most people still mean by the word faith today. Faith, as the word is commonly used today, is understood to mean 1) belief and trust in and loyalty to God; 2) as a particular system of religious beliefs (as in the Protestant
faith or the Islamic faith); or 3) a firm belief in something for which there is no proof. Along with Merriam-Webster, this is what I used to think faith was. I was born and baptized into the Roman Catholic faith, attended a Catholic grade school, accepted my first communion and made my first confession. (For those of you counting, that’s three of the seven sacraments.) I could recite the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be and the Apostle’s Creed from rote (though admittedly I’d be hard pressed to remember how to say a rosary today). I was taught that Jesus died and rose from the dead so I could get to heaven and that Satan was set on making sure I didn’t. I was taught all this, but I can’t say that I ever really believed it. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not one who bears scars from the tradition I grew up in. I loved growing up in the church. There were pancake feeds, penny carnivals and Christmas pageants. Parents looked out for one another’s kids. The nuns I had as teachers were wonderful, caring, strong women. The parish made a real difference in the community being very active in fighting poverty and injustice. Being a part of the ritual of the mass as an altar boy was a beautiful experience. I especially loved Saturday evening mass with guitars and a quick homily so Father O’Brien could get back to the rectory to watch the Notre Dame game on TV. All kidding aside, the church’s commitment to community and strong example of generosity played a large role in making me the man I am today. But, as I said, I don’t think I ever really believed the dogma. And because I was told that this kind of faith was required for the sake of my soul’s redemption, I felt like I could never measure up to God’s expectation of me. I liked the idea of a really good dude sacrificing himself for me, and the idea of a Holy Spirit that breathed life into everything, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of a three-in-one God. I loved the idea of a caring mother figure willing to intercede on my behalf, but once I figured out what a virgin was and how sexual reproduction happens I couldn’t make that work either. When many people speak of faith they are talking about believing without proof, as if that is more virtuous than relying on observation and reason. I guess that works for a lot of people, but I just don’t get it. So how can I call myself a man of faith? By understanding that faith does not require us to ignore observable facts and set aside reason. Indeed, as I see it, facts and reason make real faith possible. It’s an oversimplified example, but I have faith that tomorrow the sun will come out– that this big blue marble will continue spinning and traveling around that burning ball of gas and life will go on. Why? Because I have witnessed the pattern myself for 43-plus years and have heard from reputable sources that it’s been doing so for millions more. But is that enough to call
myself a man of faith? No, I don’t think so. Faith is much more than just observing phenomena and assuming it as a given. If it were that easy the word wouldn’t be so divisive. These days we hear a lot about a conflict between science and religion… between reason and faith. The self-appointed spokesmen (and yes, they tend to all be men) in this great debate include the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens on the one side and James Dobson, John Hagee and Jerry Falwell on the other. You know, most people don’t really have trouble reconciling the ideas of science and religion in their own system of belief, but they are told by these kinds of guys that it can’t be done. Those in the atheist camp say the words faith and religion in a way that oozes condescension and alleges that they are simply means of controlling the weakminded. The fundamentalists use the word atheist as synonymous with evil, untrustworthy, immoral. But neither of them is right. They can’t be because they aren’t really even speaking the same language. They can’t even come to agreement on what a particular word means so in reality they don’t even understand what it is they disagree about. So let’s see if we can bridge that gap. Let’s look at that word – faith. I think everyone with an English degree fancies themselves a bit of an etymologist, and I guess I’m no exception. The word ‘faith’ dates from the mid-13th century and comes from the Old French ‘feid’ meaning “belief, trust, confidence, pledge.” Feid in turn has its roots in the Latin, ‘fides’ or the verb form ‘fidere’, “to trust.” It wasn’t until the late fourteenth century that it took on a theological sense. In the mid thirteenth century faith meant the “duty of fulfilling one’s trust.” This, to me, is the real focus – indeed the real beauty – of faith, particularly of my own Humanist faith. It is about our promises to one another – and more importantly it’s about living up to them. Many of you know that in my life outside these walls I am an Air Force officer. Specifically, I am a nuclear weapons officer – a planner on the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Strike Team at USSTRATCOM, hence the title of my sermon as homage to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, “Dr. Strangelove”. And while I do have faith in nuclear deterrence, this isn’t why I bring up my military profession. As military members we take an oath to ‘support and defend the Constitution of the United States.’ More than that, we swear to ‘bear true faith and allegiance to the same.’ As officers, we also promise to ‘well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office.’ So that mid-13th century definition of ‘the duty of fulfilling one’s trust’ is still very much in use today. I suppose it was coming to understand this sense of the word faith that started me on the path to accepting and embracing it once again. I was able to intellectualize an idea of faith that didn’t require me to compromise what I believe and just as importantly, what I don’t believe.
But faith is so much more than this – so much deeper. Yes, intellect is part of it, but it doesn’t reside just in the mind. Gandhi told us that “Faith is a function of the heart. It must be enforced by reason. The two are not antagonistic as some think. The more intense one’s faith is, the more it whets one’s reason. When faith becomes blind it dies.” I think Gandhi is right – faith is less about what I believe and more about what I feel. But without the function of reason, calls for blind faith become an impediment to our development and our relationships. As brothers and sisters in arms, my fellow warriors know that we can count on one another when the chips are down because we see it happen every day. We have each other’s back. We watch each other’s six. When someone deploys downrange those of us still at home make sure their family is cared for while they’re gone. We hold each other as family. We have confidence and trust in one another. We keep faith with each other. Now I don’t claim that this is peculiar to the military. To one degree or another, the whole of society keeps faith with one another, though you might not know it from watching cable news these days. From genocide to terror attacks to the recent events at Sandy Hook Elementary we see so much horror and pain that it is difficult to believe in anything anymore – especially our fellow human beings. Indeed, at one time I used to wallow in the pain of man’s inhumanity to man, wondering if we really could rise above what separates us. If not, what was the point? Before joining the Air Force I worked with resettled refugees from around the world. I heard firsthand accounts from those who escaped the regimes of Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic. One man was an officer in Saddam’s army, but because he was married to a Kurdish woman he was “convicted” of treason. There were many similar stories, but one that sticks in my mind is of an Iraqi family who told me of their son, a doctor, who was executed for treating Kurds in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm. Here was a healer doing what healers do, and because someone else had named others as ‘the enemy’ he forfeited his life. You might think that this took me to the depths of despair over our human predicament. Actually, this is what started to renew my faith in humanity. These families who had lost husbands, brothers, sons, daughters because they had dared to render aid to “the enemy”, …dared to stand up to tyranny… they had not given up. Instead, they sought a way to keep living. They worked to forge a new path. They reminded me of the story Lawrence Thornton told of the Dirty War in 1970s Buenos Aires in his novel “Imagining Argentina.” The tale is woven through the real life story of the military junta that waged an internal war by ‘disappearing’ its opposition. The novel tells the story of Carlos Rueda, a children’s theatre director whose wife, a journalist, is among the disappeared. On the face of it the book can be a difficult read as the violent brutality of the regime is recounted in graphic detail. But the real story is one of human triumph as Carlos begins having
visions of many people that the government has either killed or still has in custody. He shares these visions with people. For some it provides some sense of closure, for others hope. Eventually, it is this hope among the people – particularly the hope shown by the real-life Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who consistently marched outside the government headquarters demanding a reckoning of their loved ones – that brings down the dictatorship. Just like those refugee families I worked with, the people of Argentina did not give up in the face of what seemed a hopeless situation. They used the power of imagination to find a way to keep living. They were able to forge a new path. This is the essence of faith. It is the love that is fostered from that sense of trust and allegiance to one another. It is the hope that is carried in the creative capacity of the human mind for empathy and compassion. It is the force of the human heart that brings people together to forge a path toward peace and justice for all. Screenwriter/director Joss Whedon hit it on the head when he accepted Harvard University’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism. He said: "The enemy of humanism is not faith. The enemy of humanism is hate, is fear, is ignorance... it is the darker part of man. It is in every humanist, every person in the world. That is the thing we have to fight. Faith is something we have to embrace. Faith in God means believing absolutely in something with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof to the contrary. We are the true believers." So back to the question - how can I, as a self-described Unbeliever call myself a man of faith? It is because these three remain – faith, hope, and love. Faith is hope. Faith is love. Faith is that which keeps us moving forward. It allows us to know that there is a much better possibility and creates a willingness to do the work even though we will not be here to reap the fruits of our labor. When we take that leap, it is faith that enables us to sow the seeds for those who come after and to dig the wells from which we will not drink.