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Faith Is Not Belief

Sermon by Michael W. Brown
Sermon delivered on December 28, 2003 at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Peoria, Illinois. Copyright © Michael W. Brown. All rights reserved.

Many of us have been asked at one time or another, "Just what is it that you Unitarian Universalists believe?" And I admit this is a difficult moment, even for ministers like myself. One of the problems with this query is that the question itself makes assumptions that may not be true. In a way it's one of those questions like "When did you stop beating your children?" The hidden assumption here is that knowing what a person believes is the best way to understand and ultimately judge that person's religious life, and I for one find this assumption highly questionable.

Although the Christian faith has held belief to be its most important element, belief does not play nearly so central a role in other major religions. The crucial element in Judaism is obedience to the law, not belief. In Islam, the core of religious life is the observance of the five pillars, most of which are about doing particular things, not believing particular things. And in Zen Buddhism, belief would probably be considered irrelevant at best, and at worst an actual hindrance to the kind of clear consciousness which its spiritual practices seek to develop. So belief is certainly not universally recognized as a crucial element in religion or spirituality.

It is true that questions of belief have been very important in the history of Christianity, especially since the adoption in 325 C.E. of the Nicene Creed, which specified exactly what a Christian would need to believe to remain Christian. It is also true that questions of belief were not nearly so important in the Christian church prior to 325 C.E., when the fledgling and often persecuted religion was far more diverse and tolerant of different beliefs than it is now.

Nevertheless, Christianity ultimately chose to use points of belief as the basis to include people in, as well as to exclude people from, its fold. It used belief to separate the sheep from the goats, to use a Biblical metaphor. I think it's not unfair to suggest that elevating belief to such a high status has sometimes resulted in a rather harsh approach to religion, giving rise to the concept of heresy, and in the worst cases leading to disasters like the Inquisition. That problem certainly merits further exploration, but at this moment I'd prefer to focus attention in a different direction. What I really want to talk about here is the difference between belief and faith.

The difference between faith and belief would be a worthwhile topic for any person to explore, but I suspect it may be particularly important for those of us who are Unitarian Universalists. After all, we call ourselves a creedless religion, meaning that we don't have a specific set of beliefs that everyone must agree with. That's one of the reasons we have so much difficulty with the question about what we believe. Just as an aside, my friend and colleague Tony Larsen claims that we UUs have more beliefs than any religious group, since virtually everyone in any of our churches has his or her own complex set of beliefs. Be that as it may, I think that sometimes we may jump to the conclusion that because we don't have a creed set in stone, then it's also true that we have no faith. That would be an error of grand proportions.

I want to propose, first of all, that faith and belief are not the same thing; and second, that faith is a dimension of life that is very accessible to Unitarian Universalists as well as to folks in other religious traditions or even no tradition at all. I'm not interested in arguing that belief is a bad thing, although personally I find its value limited at best. If I had to choose between faith and belief, it would certainly be an easy choice for me; in fact, I have already made that choice in my life, and the winner is faith by a wide margin. I think that we as Unitarian Universalists have a strong, vibrant faith even though, as a religious movement, we have made a very conscious decision not to limit that faith within the confines of a specific set of beliefs.

This might be a good time to bring a couple of distinguished theologians off the bench to pinch hit, just so you'll know I'm not making all this up. Listen to these words from Wilfred Cantwell Smith, one of the foremost historians of religion of the twentieth century. Belief, he says, is "the holding of certain ideas." But faith is something different:

Faith is deeper, richer, more personal. It is engendered by a religious tradition in some cases and to some degree by its doctrines, but it is a quality of the person and not the system. It is an orientation of the personality to oneself, to one's neighbor, to the universe; a total response, a way of seeing whatever one sees and of handling whatever one handles; a capacity to live at more than a mundane level; to see, to feel, to act in terms of a transcendent dimension...Faith, then, is a quality of human living.

So belief is primarily the adoption of certain ideas or concepts, whereas faith, in Smith's view, is about our immediate response to the joys and concerns of life, day by day. Now listen to the words of James Fowler, who has written one of the modern classics on the subject of faith, entitled Stages of Faith. He characterizes faith as our response to certain questions regarding our hopes and dreams, our commitments, and what we trust in life.

Faith is not always religious in its content or context. To ask these questions seriously of oneself or others does not necessarily mean to elicit answers about religious commitment or belief. Faith is a person's or group's way of moving into the force field of life. It is our way of finding coherence in and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relations that make up our lives. Faith is a person's way of seeing him- or herself in relation to others against a background of shared meaning and purpose.

So from the point of view of these two thinkers, at least, faith is very different from belief, although they certainly may coexist in the same person. But faith is not primarily about adopting a set of beliefs. Faith is about how we respond to the joys and challenges of our lives, day by day, moment by moment. It's about whom and what we love, about where we invest our time, energy, and allegiance. It's about whom or what we trust and about how we respond in the face of difficulty and tragedy. In the words of another great twentieth-century theologian, Paul Tillich, it's about our "ultimate concern." Or as Emerson put it, "A person will worship something." The real question is, what occupies that place in our lives?

My colleague Brooks McDaniel calls faith a kind of "courageous trust." By that I think he means that a person of faith is someone who moves forward in life, moves toward meaningful goals, trusting that his or her effort is worthwhile even in the face of difficulties, sometimes even in the face of serious doubts. These goals or ideals do not have to be concerned with getting to heaven or with any kind of other world, or even with any organized religion. They may be more related to family or community or perhaps to developing a creative skill. They may be focused on the pursuit of justice or providing service to others, or they might be related to a love relationship. They may even be related to a religion, although that relationship is not required for it to be faith.

Faith is a kind of stance that we take in relation to the totality of life: crazy, beautiful, comic, tragic, painful, rewarding, puzzling, inspiring life. To be a person of faith is to affirm that within this amazing kaleidoscope of life experience there is meaning available, meaning discovered or created, personal or universal. Faith is taking the stance that somehow life is good, or at least good enough to be worth the struggle and the pain. Faith does not require that we be able to state precisely and unambiguously why that is. There is no law that says we have to be able to do that. Faith can be open ended; there's nothing wrong with that approach at all. Remember the admonishment of the Tao Te Ching: "The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao."

Carl Sandburg expresses this indefiniteness of faith so well in his words, "I'm an idealist. I don't know where I'm going, but I'm on my way." What a great statement of the sense of idealism that is not tied down to a particular set of beliefs. Faith is a continuously unfolding creative process, whereas belief is all too often the tragic mistake of trying to contain that creative process inside narrow boundaries and not let it change and grow. Of course, that limitation is death to creativity, and in the worst-case scenario leads to oppression.

I'm not saying that religious beliefs can't work well in a life of faith. Clearly they can. But the beliefs need to be of the type affirmed by the great religious educator, Sophia Lyon Fahs: "gateways opening wide vistas for exploration," not "like blinders, shutting off the power to choose one's own direction." Beliefs need to be flexible and open to question, or they can too easily become oppressive.

Faith is not about choosing something to believe in and then hanging on for dear life. Faith lets go. Faith is trusting in the creative process of life. It is moment by moment, unpredictable, creative, open ended, spontaneous, responsive and responsible, yet always directed toward more joy, more beauty, more love, more compassion, more justice. It doesn't need to be written down, and its secret cannot be memorized and recited on demand. The truth is not in the words, not in any formula, but in the experience, in the heart, in the moment-by-moment response to being alive.

So if someone ever asks you, "What do you Unitarian Universalists believe?" you might say, "Ours is an open-ended, living faith," and then trust the creative process of life to let the dialogue grow and unfold as it will.

Copyright © Michael W. Brown. All rights reserved.