“Questions of Faith”

Rev. Julie Kain

Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola

One thing you can say about Unitarian Universalist with confidence is—we do love our questions!

In some ways, I do believe, this quality unites us more than any other.

For example, if you get a group of UU’s together and start talking about our personal histories, it won’t take long to find out that starting out back in our individual childhoods—we were the ones who were daring to ask questions. In Sunday school, at home, or maybe just in the privacy of our own thoughts.

We were the ones who for some reason simply did not blankly accept what was told to us as true.

We were the ones who paused and pondered. We were the ones who felt a tug of resistance within ourselves and found a way to honor this subtle interior signal by giving ourselves permission to question things, even when that permission was withheld outside of us.

Does this sound familiar?

For those of us who resonate deeply with this quality of tenaciously needing to think and decide for ourselves, we cherish the principles of UU that support our natural proclivity with “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and “acceptance of one another and encouragement in spiritual growth in our congregation.” We also love “the right of conscience.”

Our UU principles support the personal practice many of us brought with us to Unitarian Universalism. We love our questions and like the line in the beloved hymn “We laugh, We cry”, we can gratefully sing together that “to question truly is an answer.”

This quality of loving questions has another cousin quality that is often found in UU’s: that is a generally higher than average personal comfort level with complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty.

As natural explorers, we tend to move forward into unknown territories with a greater ease than many people can muster. And this is also why fundamentalism and fanaticism, which is so prevalent in our world today, not only mystifies us but also disturbs us deeply.

Simply said—we see too much to think that there are any easy, clear-cut answers that apply universally.

As UU’s, we are a courageous minority who agree to walk together on the uncertain path of continuing truth seeking, over the comfort of clearly defined beliefs that create a creedal bond with a vast majority.

Now in true UU fashion, I must pause here and ask the question—what is this vast majority?

Well, we know as Americans that we live in a predominantly Christian culture, although within that culture there is a great diversity among Christians.

We also know as Americans that there are millions of people who are not Christian. They may practice other faiths or practice no particular faith at all. So when we locate ourselves as UU’s, either within or outside of this Christian context, either way we are a minority but not really that small of one.

Quite the contrary I propose, the combined minorities who fall outside a hypothetical unified Christian majority represent a substantial amount of people, regular everyday people all around us, who are just like us in that they are trying to find their way in this world the best that they can.

This brings me to the second part of my message title for today which will begin a series of sermons over the coming months—“Questions of Faith.”

Now UU’s may be very comfortable with the word and concept of “questions” but you’re likely to get a much different read of UU’s with the word and concept of “faith.” This word is actually on the list of words that make a lot of UU’s squirm in their chairs and look for the door, almost as if the mere mention of the word was an attempt to sign you up for a New Year’s health club membership.

Faith is one of those words that remind us of the vast Christian majority and in an area like Pensacola can catch us off guard like the question after first meeting someone—“what church do you go to?”

We feel uncomfortable because we feel we’re being held against a generalized presumption that doesn’t fit for us and that the presumption also carries a moral measure with which we will be judged. We simply are not comfortable with the unambiguous question of—“are you in or are you out?”

We want to assert that faith is a personal matter and not one that is easily displayed on our shirt sleeve. Our human identities do not easily fit into the category of “I am a” fill in the blank.

We are so much more as human beings than any one or more of the categories with which we may identify.

Faith is a personal matter that is not like checking blocks with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in a questionnaire but which emerges rather from the personal struggling each of us flounder through in the complexities of our own lives.

Faith, like religion, confronts each person with the most critical options that life presents to us. The death of a loved one, the birth of a child, the choice of a life’s work or a committed relationship, the trials of health crises or financial hardships. The call of faith is to confront reality and discern our way forward. The call of faith is to face the depths within ourselves and to determine all the resources of our being.

A Catholic archbishop in Zaire, Bakole wa Ilunga, tells us “Faith is not a momentary feeling but a struggle against the discouragement that threatens us every time we meet with resistance.”

This is not only the resistance we feel when encountering the difficulty that life presents us but also the resistance we may meet when unexpected good fortune befalls us, as well. We crave for a sense of security, for a safe place in which we can trust.

Questions of faith emerge at each of the critical structures of our lives. Throughout the thrills of falling deeply in love and in the precious moments of impending death.

Matters of faith come down to what each of us feels that we know in the core of our being and simultaneously how we are present with all that we simply do not know.

To paraphrase Alexander Schmemann, a Russian Orthodox priest, “Faith is a touching of a mystery. It is to perceive another dimension to absolutely everything in the world. In faith, the mysterious meaning of life comes through. To speak in the simplest possible terms”, he says, “Faith sees, knows, senses the presence of (something greater) in the world.”

Each of us arrives at what we know and what we don’t know by navigating a complex web of questions, obstacles, doubts and even contradictions and paradox. How do we make sense of it all? Much of the time, we don’t and yet…we still try to.

Jewish theologian Martin Buber writes: “Real faith means holding ourselves open to the unconditional mystery which we encounter in every sphere of our life which cannot be compressed in any formula.”

In the coming months, I will bring before this congregation to explore several big questions of faith. Together we will look at the questions that are involved in what is known as systematic theology: What is the nature of reality, of creation, God and what has saving power? What is the nature of humanity, of evil, of time and human destiny?

I will ask you to consider your own beliefs. We will encourage questions but we will also invite our own personal answers. I think it’s too easy for many of us UU’s to continually hide behind the questions themselves and to shrink from taking a stand of our own, even it is qualified as being temporary and in process.

Great Unitarian religious educator Sophia Fahs reminded us that it matters what we believe. What we believe shapes the course of our lives and the qualities of all our relationships. What we believe about life and ourselves creates the foundation on which we place our personal commitments. These are the priorities that serve as a compass through our daily activities.

“In good times or in tempests, may I not forget that to which my life is committed…Keep fresh before me the moments of my high resolve.”

As we explore together questions of faith, we will look at what the world’s wisdom traditions offer in terms of philosophical perspectives as well. Beloved educator of world religions Huston Smith includes secular and ethical teachings in the world’s wisdom traditions.

He notes that despite distinctive differences that the traditions hold, there are three main common themes to be found, beyond the usual ethical guidelines.

One is that the world and its infinite parts are more integrated than we normally see. Second is that despite the challenges, sufferings, and contradictions, the world offers more possibility for human growth than we normally see. And finally the third theme throughout the world’s wisdom tradition is the presence of mystery. We know there is much that we simply do not know.

We are constantly discovering that there are more dimensions to life than what is often obvious to us. Our struggling with faith helps us to live with the obstacles, doubt and paradox that we find in the world. May we continue to faithfully embrace the deep questions of life and living while as Martin Buber said “holding ourselves open to the unconditional mystery we encounter.”

Amen and Blessed Be.