What do you get when you cross The Three Little Pigs with Forrest Church’s Cathedral of the World?
Three very different theological houses.
That first thrill of Unitarian Universalism lies in discovering your own power … having a church affirm that you have the right to discard whatever doesn’t fit your worldview and you are free to explore that vast cathedral of thought about ultimate reality. I have heard Unitarian Universalism described as a religion where “you take what you like, and leave the rest.” This is freedom, but it is freedom without responsibility.
It is important work that we do, systematically building an examined faith. Because in all of our lives, the Big Bad Wolf is going to come calling.
If you have a house of straw or even sticks – and this is something I can personally confess to – when the big bad wolf comes, your entire theological house can be swept away. And you’re left with nothing.
I think this is something that happened to John Lennon. The Beatles had gone through a hateful breakup, he had numerous personal losses, he was bitter and disillusioned. On his first solo album, he wrote the song God:
God is a concept,
By which we can measure,
I don't believe in magic,
I don't believe in I-ching,
I don't believe in bible,
I don't believe in tarot,
He goes on and on, all the things he no longer believes in, both secular and spiritual. I don’t believe in Jesus … Kennedy … Buddha … yoga … Beatles. He sings, “I just believe in me, Yoko and me. The dream is over.”
It’s a complete stripping away of everything.
Well, some of us have to do that. We have constructed houses of straw, taking the things that sound good, ignoring the things we’re not interested in or don’t like. The Big Bad Wolf comes to the door and everything we believe is all blown away. And we have to start all over again, from scratch.
But there is another way.
Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams said, "An unexamined faith is not worth having, for it can be true only by accident. A faith worth having is a faith worth discussing and testing."
An examined faith does not just mean ignoring the things we don’t like. An examined faith is not only characterized by what we reject, but by what we embrace, and what we put into practice.
To go and feed the hungry is a good thing. To know and understand what is the greater meaning deep in your soul that drives you to feed the hungry or march for the rights of the immigrant will give you the strength to continue when you face setbacks and failures. And unless you’re playing it too safe, you’ll face both of those. But your theology will feed your actions and vice-versa.
Systematically engaging with the deep issues helps you form a fully-examined faith. And you’ll discover not only what you believe, but who you are.
Michael E. Duffy wrote a book called the Skeptical, Practical Christian. Frankly, I don’t recommend it for UUs, not because of the Christianity, but because the majority of the book is spent saying, “It’s okay to be skeptical!”
Already there, guy.
But his 4th chapter is good, because he lays out a process for “being able to claim a personal faith conviction on a given issue.”
You identify your issue, examine why you care about it, what you currently believe, you explore other beliefs about it, and then you discover what happens when you live it.
So, first, identify your issue. This can be something that you’re curious about or something that is affecting you at this point in your life.
If something doesn’t immediately come to mind, try this. When was the last time you responded emotionally to something you heard? If you catch yourself feeling defensive when someone questions something you believe, or you just find yourself instinctively rejecting an idea … this might be an opportunity. I’ve come to see those kneejerks, or intense feelings, as a big neon light lighting up a door, “GO HERE!” If I strongly believe or reject something, going deeper, beyond my surface reaction, always leads me somewhere I needed to go.
Second step: we need to examine why we care about this issue. Why do we have a horse in this race? If our identity might be wrapped up in it – why? What it is about this issue that we need to reflect on it now?
When you are doing a deep search for meaning, it may take you to some scary places. That means you’re doing it right. There may be things in your life that you don’t want to revisit. Things you don’t want to think about. But make no mistake – just because you don’t revisit it, doesn’t mean it’s not shaping how you view the world. It’s kind of like having one of those malware programs running on your computer – you ever have that? It’s a program that you don’t even see, but suddenly, your computer is running slower. Occasionally doing weird things. We can have shadow beliefs running in our background that are affecting us – and we don’t even realize it.
Third step: you articulate your current convictions about the issue. And forming the words to explain what we believe is crucial. We can have fuzzy concepts in our mind, but articulating them – either by writing about them or talking about them to others – helps to process and produce an explanation about what we believe. This is the raw material that you have to work with. The scientific method parallel is to construct a working hypothesis. You’re finding your starting point.
Now it’s time for the real work. 4th step. Take your starting point and enter into conversation about it with ‘conversation partners.’
A conversation partner need not be another person. Conversation partners are religious texts, world religions, the theologians and philosophers, your experiences, reason, ethics. And we need to look at a combination of these.
If we limit our conversation partners to only one religious text and doctrinal writings, we’re headed toward closed fundamentalism. And limiting our conversation partners to only our own experiences and reason leads to theological narcissism. And to leave out ethics means that we will not connect our deeply held beliefs with our part in healing the world.
Let me be blunt about why conversation partners are a necessary, required part of examining our faith. We must have the humility to understand that no human possesses absolute truth. Including us. For a religious fundamentalist, the tendency is to make the Bible the sole authority on truth. God said it, I believe it, that settles it. Not a whole lot of room for growth there.
But we are just as dangerous if we decide that our sole authority on truth is us. “This just feels right to me,” means that we are limiting wisdom to our individual experience. And it means that we have no spiritual accountability.
We have to be willing to consider other ideas and philosophies, not just those that support our starting contention on an issue.
Now along with books and writings, conversation partners can and should be other people. We joke about “what do you get when you cross a Unitarian Universalist with a Jehovah’s Witness?” “Someone who knocks on your door and asks, ‘What do you believe?’”
Well, before we knock on doors, why don’t we start with the people we know – including each other. Rather than just asking, “So, Joe … how’s your job?” try something more meaningful – “So, the anniversary of Sept. 11 has me thinking about the nature of evil – what do you think about it? Do you think it’s a force or a result?”
It’s not necessarily appropriate water cooler talk … unless it’s the water cooler at your church. This is why we are here. To grapple with these big questions.
Then, the last step. Application. “Discover what kind of world is created when you live out your new commitments.”
We have to test our new belief and see if it works. Will we be better persons for having this belief? Will it serve us well, or will it hold us back?
What kind of world will we help create when we live out this new faith conviction?
If you are not currently living by that belief, do you need to change that belief or your life?
We have to test our accountability. Even though these are our own personal beliefs, we have to ask, “Will believing this contribute to a life-well lived for all people?”
If everyone believed this, what would that mean for the world?
We’re not just building a theological house for our own sake. We are building what will house our soul, so that we are spiritually empowered to engage with the world we live in.