Part I: The Scylla of Scientism and the Charybdis of Creed
In our First Message today, we heard how in Homer’s second great epic poem, Ulysses had to face two monsters, the voracious, six-headed Scylla and the whirlpool-causing, ship-sinking Charybdis. He had to contend with one or the other, his only choice being which one.
The spiritual history of the modern age is very much like that. On one side is the Scylla of scientism, the idea that everything can ultimately be explained by the fundamental laws of physics. A corollary is that there is no room for spirituality or meaning. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, “We can regard our life as a uselessly disturbing episode in the blissful repose of nothingness.” The American physicist Alvin Weinberg famously said, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”
On the other side of the strait is the Charybdis of creed. Traditional religion demands unswerving loyalty, whether to the Bible, a church hierarchy, or a defined set of beliefs. This comes in many forms, some perhaps not too corrosive, but others downright lethal. Whether it’s a fundamentalist preacher shouting, “God hates fags,” or Pope Benedict XVI asserting that “Hell is real, and it is eternal,” the result is the same, a dimming of the human spirit.
Even Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose bright words, “Glory be to God for dappled things,” you heard this morning, was haunted in his last years by severe melancholy. Perhaps this was simply a chemical imbalance that today would be cured by drugs, but it wasn’t helped by the fact that his religion (he was a Jesuit) had a dark side, a vale of suffering with the bottomless pit of hell at its center. His late poems display his anguish exquisitely.
So it would seem that we must choose between materialism, with its message of emptiness and meaninglessness, and traditional religion, with its emphasis on guilt and condemnation.
The point I wish to make here is that the choice is a false one. Both of these ways of seeing the world are fatally flawed. The good news is that there are other ways of being.
So what, actually, is wrong with creed?
I might be tempted to answer that question with objections to this or that religion. Many of us came to Unitarian Universalism after rejecting the belief system in which we were raised. We tend to give reasons why we left our family’s church. In my case, for example, it was the decision of Pope Paul VI in 1968 to reaffirm the Catholic Church’s objection to contraception.
I could, of course, have gone over to one of the mainline Protestant churches where birth control was allowed, but I had a strong feeling that my uneasiness with religion was far deeper than just that one issue. The harder I looked, the harder it became to find a religious creed I could even think about believing.
It gradually be came clear to me that it wasn’t just finding the right belief system that was the problem; it was the idea of creed itself. A set of metaphysical doctrines, none of which can be checked against reality, is the ideal nursery for developing an exclusive group identity, one that too often erupts into violence. It is all too easy to go from “You are different, and therefore you are wrong” to “You are wrong, and therefore you must die.” This may not occur in our neighborhood this week, but over wider spaces and deeper times, it happens a lot. Faith based on belief may give some individuals comfort, but for humanity as a whole, it is a disaster.
I once saw a young man with a T-shirt that said, “A man has to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another beer.” After enjoying the joke, my second reaction was to note the shallowness of our culture, which the joke was intended to lampoon. Now, though, I sense a hidden depth to it. Whatever evil that young man may have done in his life, it was probably less than that perpetrated by many a true believer.
What then about scientism? What’s wrong with that? Hasn’t science explained just about everything that scientists have put their minds to? Aren’t we on the verge of a Theory of Everything?
My answer to that comes in one word: Consciousness. It’s true that neuroscience has made startling advances in the last few decades. We now know much about what goes on in the brain when we have conscious experience. But why is it that shifts in chemical potentials and the ebb and flow of ions in nerve cells give rise to inner experience: the greenness of grass, the tinkle of bells, the smell of a rose, the pleasure of sex, the pain of torture, the joy of human bonding, the anguish of loss, the “aha” experience when we solve a difficult puzzle? About that we are as much in the dark as were the ancient Greeks, or indeed as were the even more ancient people who painted the walls of caves with images of sacred beasts.
Materialist philosophers dance around this. Some even argue that consciousness doesn’t really exist. If you find them convincing, then, fine, you should be a materialist. But to me, conscious experience is the only sure thing there is.
It’s important here to point out a confusion of language. One can be a scientist without believing in scientism. On the other hand, many people who are not scientists are devotees of scientism. It is curious that the militant atheists and the Intelligent Design folks both think that science can tell us whether God exists. They just come to opposite conclusions about what science says. To my mind, they’re both asking more of science than science can deliver. That, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with scientism.
If you are with me so far, then the two competing metaphysical world pictures contending for the minds and hearts of Western civilization are both off the track. So what?
Here’s so what. It gives Unitarian Universalism an opportunity to help save Western civilization from spiritual collapse.
I’ve thought this for some time, and in some of the letters I wrote to our congregation while I was your president, I tried to articulate aspects of this vision. But always I have been held back by the thought that this was only the opinion of a self-taught person. I may have read widely on these matters, but I have no formal education in theology or philosophy.
Then, a couple of months ago the Fall issue of UU World appeared. There, the Rev. Peter Morales, president of our Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, published an editorial that struck deep chords within me. Its title immediately arrested my attention: “Belief is the Enemy of Faith.”
What could that possibly mean?
Part II. Belief Is the Enemy of Faith
Let us listen now to our association president. These are his words.
I believe the future of religion is a spirituality that is interfaith at its core. I am convinced we Unitarian Universalists have a historic opportunity to help create that future.
For the last several years I have spoken about the momentous changes in the American religious landscape. Young people are rejecting all religion in numbers we have never seen before.
While this is troubling at one level, at another level I find cause for great optimism. The good news is that people, at least in the developed world, are rejecting cultural and religious exceptionalism. By religious exceptionalism I mean the conviction that my religion possesses the truth and, by extension, yours is false. As people mix more and more, they come to appreciate the contributions of all the great religions. All across the country we see students at college campuses engaging others from different religious backgrounds in interfaith settings. . .
So far, nothing you wouldn’t expect from a Unitarian Universalist minister, right? But later in his essay he says:
Many current UUs came to our faith out of a rejection of the faith into which they were born. The search of many young people today is fundamentally different. They are not in flight from oppressive orthodoxy. Instead I see them searching for something much deeper than an absence of dogma. Something new is struggling to be born.
What is holding back a new spiritual awakening? How can we help it emerge? How can we play a role in this great cultural movement?
I think we can help change the conversation. 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.
And now, please listen carefully to what he says next. This is his central message:
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.
Again, these are Peter Morales’ words, not mine. Now, if you happened to read my final president’s message in the June 2013 UUCSF Newsletter, you may understand why I was so taken with this. Here’s what I said then about faith:
We tend to think of faith as equivalent to belief and consider doubt to be the opposite of faith. However, the great 20th century theologian Paul Tillich, in The Courage to Be, emphasized that doubt is not opposed to faith. Instead, faith takes doubt into itself and lives with it as an essential part of the human condition. It’s only when doubt expands into total doubt, or nihilism, that it becomes a threat to spiritual life. As Tillich says, “faith is the state of being grasped by being-itself.” This is no more an intellectual exercise than being grasped by a thirty-foot anaconda.
I sent Rev. Morales an email applauding his editorial, and attached a copy of what I’d written to this congregation. This is how he replied:
Thank you for your comments about my column. Interestingly, I gave a sermon a few years ago entitled “Religion Beyond Belief,” in which I explore these themes. I used it as one of my “traveling sermons” several times. Each time the response is quite strong.
Thank you, too, for the copy of your letter to the congregation. It is thoughtful and wise. Along that line, I think of “faith” as a relationship, as in being faithful. This is what the original Hebrew meant. It was about being faithful to the covenant and had nothing to do with “belief.” For us today I think faith is about being faithful to what we hold sacred, to what we value most deeply.
I wish you and your congregation well.
In Peter Morales’ statement, “Belief is the enemy of faith,” we have a striking answer to the perennial question, “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?”
Unlike traditional religion, and equally unlike materialist philosophies, we do not begin with concepts poured into our heads, whether from the Bible, the Koran, or scientific textbooks. We begin with the still, small voice within, the voice that tells us to stand on the side of love.
This is the central message of Peter Morales’ essay. As he so neatly put it, for us, our faith is much more about what we love than about what we think.
Now, I don’t think he’s saying we shouldn’t have any beliefs at all. He did, after all, begin his essay with the words, “I believe.” Instead, it seems to me that he’s making the case that beliefs are, at the very most, secondary in importance to a more fundamental wellspring of faith. The genius of Unitarian Universalism is that we can share that faith even though we have different beliefs. Some of us in this room believe in God. Others believe in no God. Yet we all share a faith that transcends both theism and atheism.
Let us listen to the concluding paragraphs of Rev. Morales’ essay:
When the conversation shifts away from our beliefs to what we hold most dear, to what moves us at the depths of our being and what calls us, wondrous new possibilities emerge. We share and explore our deepest experiences. We discover what we have in common. Our attention naturally turns to how we want to live our lives and to the commitments we are willing to make. Our concern at the personal level becomes one of developing our awareness, of spiritual disciplines, of growth. At the interpersonal level, our attention turns to loving relationships. Finally our attention turns to issues of compassion, justice, and interdependence. Faith becomes a relationship. Faith is about being faithful to what we hold sacred.
A new interfaith, multifaith spirituality is struggling to be born. Ours has always been a faith beyond belief. We have a historic role to play.
That is a clear call to action. What can I possibly add? Only this personal note.
The image of UUlysses and his sister UUlyssa piloting the ship of faith between the Scylla of scientism and the Charybdis of creed into the open sea of hope beyond is one that has stuck in my mind ever since I joined this congregation.
I’ve felt a call to sail with them. That’s why I became a UU. I’ve also felt a desire to invite others onto our boat. What I’ve lacked, and what I think many of us here have lacked, is a concise explanation of why anyone else should get on board, when at first glance it might seem that we’re not going anywhere.
We have plenty of long explanations, but attention spans tend to be short. What we’ve needed is a darn good sound bite, one that makes people do a double take. Peter Morales has given us one: “Belief is the enemy of faith.” If that doesn’t invite questions, nothing will.