A Sufficient Quantity of Faith

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Faith


In an interview with Krista Tippett for the American Public Media show “On Being,” Nadia Bolz-Weber, founding pastor of Denver’s House for All Sinners and Saints, said, “I don’t think faith is given in sufficient quantity to individuals…. I think it’s given in sufficient quantity to communities.”[1] She offers this thought as part of a broader, ongoing, playful yet pointed critique of American Protestantism, which she describes both as “Western individualism run amok in religion” and the “personal me-and-Jesus, how-I-feel, what-my-piety-is, [what]-my-personal-prayer-life-[is]—all of that stuff.”[2] As Unitarian Universalists it is easy to assume this critique doesn’t apply to us because, well, she’s not talking to us; she’s talking to Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians, etc. We don’t get all the jokes about high church Christian theology, but that’s OK. Her message isn’t really for us.

Nadia Bolz-Weber

Nadia Bolz-Weber

Except maybe it is. I actually think Bolz-Weber’s critique applies more to us than any other tradition, mainly because something at the heart of mid-19th-century Unitarianism—160, 170 years ago—something in its liberal world-view, its revolutionary spirit—something in its encounter with the artistry and theology of European Romanticism, something in it led many of our 19th-century Unitarian forebears to prioritize the individual spiritual search over and above the authority of the church. Something led the Unitarian-minister-turned-Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 1841 to pen those enduring words, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”[3] Something led Emerson’s poetic descendent, Walt Whitman, in 1871 to contend “that only in the perfect uncontamination and solitariness of individuality may the spirituality of religion come forth at all.”[4] Something led the author and Unitarian minister, John Weiss, also in 1871, to declare that “America is an opportunity to make a Religion out of the sacredness of the individual.”[5]

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

While there were certainly Unitarians who prioritized the centrality of the church in this era, the emphasis on the sacredness of the individual began with us and still lives and breathes in Unitarian Universalism today. It may appear different than today’s American Protestant ‘me-and-Jesus’ individualism, but they share the same historical roots. This isn’t commonly understood, but current-day American Christianity has adapted its forms of individualistic spirituality from the Unitarians, Universalists, Transcendentalists and other liberal religionists of the mid-19th century.[6] So, what if faith isn’t given in sufficient quantity to individuals? What if faith is only given in sufficient quantity to communities? What might that mean for us?

Our November ministry theme is faith. The last time we used faith as a monthly theme was November, 2010. I recently re-read a sermon I preached on faith at that time, wondering how my thinking has evolved.[7] That sermon was helpful (I hope) in offering to UUs a more relevant definition of faith than the one the larger culture tends to use. If someone knocks at your door and wants to have a conversation about religion, you kinda know what they mean by faith. It likely has something to do with accepting Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior, plus the good news that such acceptance is the path to eternal life. Beneath that good news is almost always a set of doctrines about who Jesus is, who God is, and why their church understands these things correctly. This kind of faith requires us to accept propositions for which we have no evidence other than that “the Bible says it.” It requires us to believe the unbelievable. That’s the common definition of faith in our larger culture. It’s certainly a valid definition—not everything we believe must have a rational explanation.[8] But as inheritors of the 19th-century Unitarian appeal to the sacredness of the individual, we need a different definition.

door knocking

In that November, 2010 sermon I quoted Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg, who says that the essence of faith, whetherconnected to a deity or not … lies in trusting ourselves to discover the deepest truths on which we can rely.”[9] Similarly, the 20th century Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams, suggested that faith is the act of placing our confidence in something. He held no expectation that that something be unbelievable or other-worldly. He said “faith should take into account the realm of fact…. Every person is concerned with a basic fact, something in which one has confidence.”[10] This is a definition of faith that can work for people who don’t or can’t believe the unbelievable, for people who need their religious and spiritual lives to be grounded in a reality they can experience through their senses: through touching, tasting, seeing, hearing, smelling; through raising children, caring for others, working for a just society, or digging in dirt. This is a definition of faith that arises not from religious doctrines, but from the concrete experience of our daily lives, the realm of fact.

James Luther Adams

James Luther Adams

There is much in which we place our confidence. We are deeply faithful people. As I wrote in my November newsletter column, “we have faith in humanity, creativity, nature, love. We have faith in science, democracy, community, fairness, humility. We have faith in gratitude, children, education, diversity, the earth. We have faith in the seasons, the tides, the warmth of the sun, the darkness of night. We have faith in our neighbors, our principles, our interfaith partners, the words and deeds of prophetic people of all eras. We have faith in modern medicine, ancient healing arts, the comforting assurance of family and friends, the kindness of strangers. We have faith in reason, the power of speaking truth, compassion, honesty. Some have faith in God—a deep and sustaining faith. Some have faith in the ancestors—a deep and sustaining faith. And did I mention love? We put our faith in love.

When I invite you, at the beginning of worship, to find that place inside of you, that place where you may go when you long for comfort and solace, that place where you may go when you yearn for peace, that place where you may go to commune with whatever is holy in your life, that place where you know your truth, where your voice is strong, I am asking you to remember what is most reliable to you. I am asking you to remember those things in which you place your highest confidence. I am asserting that we are people of faith just as much as those who come knocking on doors, or who stand on city street corners yelling, Repent! or who experience a personal, intimate relationship with their lord and savior. By locating that place inside of you, I am keeping continuity with our spiritual forebears. That mid-19th century tradition of honoring the sacredness of the individual remains vibrant among us. For me, our UU identity is so deeply embedded in this tradition that, were we to give it up, we would cease being who we are.

It’s also important to name that not just our UU identity, but a big part of the American identity is rooted in this individualistic tradition, so much so that, without it, we wouldn’t quite recognize America. It would take a series of sermons to unpack this claim, but if in recent years you’ve felt a shift in the American character, it may have to do not with the loss of this tradition but, as the historian Leigh Eric Schmidt contends, with its cooptation by market forces, with its commercialization, with what some call the “‘Oprahfication’ of American religion and culture…the spread of the feel-good spirituality that [Oprah] Winfrey urges upon her fans,”[11] and with what we might describe as the hyper-expressions of this tradition—narcissism and self-absorption that have eviscerated religious and civic connections[12] and, in my view, have spurred the rise of various religious fundamentalisms in the United States.

As far as I can tell, Nadia Bolz-Weber isn’t criticizing the individualistic spiritual tradition in American religion. In fact, she’s a shining example of it. But she is criticizing shallow, surface expressions of this tradition—“me and Jesus and all that stuff.” She’s criticizing the shadow side—the fact that we pay lip service to the sacredness of each individual but often don’t live as if it matters. She’s rightly wary about what individualism in religion can and has become. She understands how hyper-individualism in spiritual and secular settings has taken a toll on community cohesiveness. So, she asks all people of faith to take a TIME OUT! “I don’t think faith is given in sufficient quantity to individuals…. I think it’s given in sufficient quantity to communities.”

faith

You could hear this as a re-assertion of the authority of the church over the individual, a call to doctrinal conformity, but she has too many tattoos for that to be true. She’s offering a course correction to Western individualism run amok in religion. She’s calling for balance. She’s reminding us that individualism can only take us so far. No matter how sacred, precious, worthy, and profoundly beautiful each individual soul is, none of us can make it alone. She uses the example of the Apostles Creed, saying “nobody believes every line of the Creed…. But in a room [full] of people … for each line of the Creed, somebody believes it. So we’re covered, right?”[13] It’s funny, not because it’s a joke, but because it’s true. As a Lutheran minister, she knows that were she to demand that every Lutheran believe every line of the Creed all the time, she would make Lutheranism inaccessible to people who need church in their lives but can’t believe in that “perfect” way. If I were to demand that each UU embody our principles perfectly all the time, I would similarly make Unitarian Universalism inaccessible to many.

The truth is we don’t bring our best selves to each new day. We don’t always live the ideals we aspire to live, let alone those our church calls us to live. We may come to church in profound pain, feeling wounded, broken, lost, empty, anxious or in despair from a difficult diagnosis, a lost job, lost memory, the death of a loved-one, a struggling child, a raging virus, an endless war, catastrophic climate change. Sometimes our faith fails. Whatever we place our confidence in can let us down, can go missing, can forsake us. Faith isn’t given in sufficient quantity to individuals. Sometimes we simply don’t have enough.

angst

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t enough. This is my evolution since 2010: Together we have enough. Faith is given to communities in sufficient quantities. Bolz-Weber says there are times she can’t adhere to the Biblical admonition to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. But, “if I’m at the point where I cannot pray for someone,” she says, “I will say ‘I cannot pray for this person, I really need you to do it for me.’”[14] That’s the power of community: if I can’t get there, there is someone else who can get there for me. There is someone else who can carry my faith until I’m able to carry it again.

This led me to reflect on the ways we’ve responded in worship to mass shootings. I’m remembering in particular the Hartford Distributors shooting in August, 2010 and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December, 2012—both so close to us here in Manchester. These were worst-nightmares-come-true—the human potential for evil becoming real before our eyes. Many of us, myself included, felt our faith in humanity faltering in a very specific way. We questioned the validity of our first UU principle—the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In the aftermath of such shootings our hearts go out to the victims and their families. We say their names in worship. But what of the shooters? They have crossed a moral line, have launched themselves beyond the pale, have made themselves enemies in the Biblical sense. Our hearts don’t naturally go out to them. Instead we recoil at the thought of them. Yes, we are admonished to love the enemy. Yes, we UUs affirm the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person—but surely that doesn’t apply to these shooters? For so many of us it is enormously difficult to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of the perpetrator in the aftermath of horrendous evil. Even the act of just saying their name in worship feels like too much.  And yet there were people in our community in both instances who felt strongly that the names of the perpetrators needed to be said, that in addition to their crimes their deaths also needed acknowledgement. To name them in this way does not condone their crimes. It is simply to remember that they were human too. Though something went horribly wrong, they came into this world surrounded by hope and promise too, and their deaths—though different—are tragic too. These shootings were profoundly difficult moments for me, and I was so grateful to know others were keeping my faith for me.

hands

Someone will remember. Even when we can’t, someone will carry our faith for us. And there will be times when we maintain faith for others who can’t—after the difficult diagnosis, the lost job, the loss of memory, the death of a loved-one, as a child struggles, a virus rages, a war continues and climate changes. That compelling tradition of affirming the sacredness of the individual continues to live and breathe in our congregations. But there are times when it isn’t enough. When we come to those times, may we always remember: faith is given in sufficient quantity to communities. And in the midst of community, may we have faith.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] The text to this interview is posted at http://www.onbeing.org/program/transcript/nadia-bolz-weber-seeing-the-underside-and-seeing-god-tattoos-tradition-and-grace. Or watch the interview at http://vimeo.com/73913123. The segment I refer to in this sermon begins at 1:08:53.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Self Reliance,” in Whicher, Stephen E., ed., Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960) p. 149.

[4] Whitman, Walt, Democratic Vistas, quoted in Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Restless Souls (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005) p. 4.

[5] Ibid., vi.

[6] My primary resource for making this claim is Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Restless Souls (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).

[7] Pawelek, Josh, “I Know This Rose Will Open: On Being a Person of Faith,” Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT,  November 14th, 2010:  http://uuse.org/i-know-this-rose-will-open-reflections-on-being-a-person-of-faith/#.VFOMF_nF-Sp.

[8] Ibid., third paragraph.

[9] Salzberg, Sharon, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience (New York: Riverhead Books, 2002) p. xiii.

[10] Adams, James Luther in Beach, George K., ed, An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991) p. 21.

[11] Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Restless Souls (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005) p. 285.

[12] Schmidt names this phenomenon in the final chapter of Restless Souls. Another take on what I call the “shadow side” of the American tradition of spiritual individualism is Claude Fischer’s blog-post “Self-Absorbed” at http://madeinamericathebook.wordpress.com/2011/12/07/self-absorbed/.

[13] The text to this interview is posted at http://www.onbeing.org/program/transcript/nadia-bolz-weber-seeing-the-underside-and-seeing-god-tattoos-tradition-and-grace. Or watch the interview at http://vimeo.com/73913123. The segment I refer to in this sermon begins at 1:08:53.

[14] Ibid.