Is Faith Still a Wounded Word? (Audio Available)

Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 1 May 2016


Today marks almost exactly ten years that this congregation voted to call me to become its 11th settled minister. (The date was April 30, 2006, to be precise.) It was an act of faith on your part to call me as your minister, just as it was an act of faith on my part to come here as a new minister to a new community and new country. I wouldn’t call it act of trust, because to trust someone is to get to know them over time and to learn just how far they are able to support you or be honest with you. I call this an act of faith, because we were walking out onto a tightrope together, taking risks to be in relationship without any preparation or practice. We hardly knew each other. We simply had to hope that with time we’d learn how to balance and support each other. 

I was a foreigner who barely knew Quebec or Canada and I came speaking this strange language, with a US accent. It took me years to learn how to say process (“pr-oh-cess”) instead of process (“pr-ah-cess”). Not only that, I hardly spoke a word of French, and I had foolishly agreed to learn it, as if it would be an easy task.

 Apprendre une autre langue--pas de soucis, je pensais quand j’y suis devenue votre pasteure. Quelle surprise quand j’ai rencontré la grammaire exigeante du français. Voyons donc ! La tête explose ! 

At any rate, what a surprise for many here, as they heard me call my Sunday reflections “sermons” and refer to the art of “preaching”. I said “amen” at the end of “prayers”, and during my first year, I even signed my newsletter column, “In faith.” 

Those words were enough to send some members who were here in those days around the bend. But they were important words to me. In seminary, my fellow ministerial students and I spent a lot of time reflecting on the language of reverence, of words that can speak to us in times of trial, pain and loss, and in times of joy and transition. As ministers-in-training, we found that the words of our Principles and Purposes were not enough to carry us through hospital visits, births, deaths or memorials. We recognized the importance of knowledge and reason in our tradition, but we also craved something more. We wanted to reclaim certain words that we found meaningful and beautiful. 

I came into the ministry with a love and great respect for the wisdom of a tradition that does not demand adherence to one set of beliefs. I came with gratitude for the right to always question and struggle with my faith, to know that I could never have all the answers. I came thirsting for the opportunity to share my faith journey with others who did not necessarily see or experience the world the same way I did. Why else were we here, but to show the world how people with very different perspectives could create loving community? 

So it was a bit of a shock to encounter resistance. I stepped into a place where there were many taboos, especially when it came to language. It seemed that almost every word I cherished was a wounded word. “Faith”, “God”, “spirituality”, “worship”, “holy”, “sacred”: all these words seemed to be triggers that many did not want to address.

One day, a newcomer arrived asking if this was where “the mass” was held. The anxiety in the foyer was palpable. Someone came and nearly grabbed me by the arm, “There’s a man here who is looking for the mass. What do we do?”

“Why is everyone so upset?” I asked myself. “Maybe the poor guy doesn’t know another word for Sunday service or worship service.” It seemed like a very sad way to welcome someone into your home, by saying, “Sorry, you don’t know our sanitized vocabulary, so you aren’t welcome here.” I worried about all the people who had come here seeking a spiritual home, a sanctuary of tolerance and acceptance, and found themselves shut out in their hour of need.

A few months later, I introduced the concept of “wounded words,” a phrase borrowed from fellow Unitarian Universalist minister, Barbara ten Hove. Wounded words are the words of religion that may have been used to wound us — or they can be words we love whose definitions have been co-opted by others.  I asked the congregation to name the wounded words in their lives.  “Faith” was number one on the list, followed by “God”. We spent a lot of the next year exploring all those words during Sunday (cough) worship services.

In 2008, I received 18 reflections or comments about the word “faith”. Approximately 20% of the contributors felt strongly — very strongly — that the word “faith” needed to be dropped from our vocabulary. This time around, of the nearly 25 responses I received, I’d say that less than 15%   reacted negatively to use of the word “faith”. In 2008, it seemed we were more focused on semantics. This time, in 2016, people seemed to be really grappling with the meaning of faith in their lives — even several of those who said they had no faith.

 I really like the questions that Hélène just shared from Resa Aslan, the religious scholar and progressive Muslim. He asks:

 Do you believe that there is nothing beyond the material world? If you do, then you are an atheist, and that’s fine. Do you believe there is something else, but you are not interested in experiencing it? Then you are an agnostic, and that’s fine, too. But if you do believe there is something else and you want to experience it, the question is, how do you want to experience it? Through religion? Through human relationships? Through the experience of nature and awe? The how, he says, is a personal choice that is up to each individual: It’s not about needing proof of anything. It’s about how you choose to live your life, with or without faith.

 I think of all the rational, reasonable people I know, who feel very sure that there is nothing beyond what we experience in the material world as we know it.  As one person wrote: 

“I still regard ‘faith’ as the negation of reason. Unitarian Universalism stands for a questioning mind, while ‘faith’ stands at the opposite end of the spectrum. Questioning is the answer.  It is only through questioning that new insights are acquired and we grow as individuals.” 

I agree that questioning is at the heart of who we are and it is definitely how we grow. For this person and for others, questioning focused on the material world is the answer, and that’s good. You are the people who can keep us grounded when we fly too far off the rails. 

But for some of us here, there are things that knowledge and reason cannot fully answer. We seek the freedom to question beyond the material and to wonder, to have faith or to believe, that there is something more — and we still consider ourselves Unitarian Universalists. We share the desire to never stop questioning, but we also make room for many perspectives on faith, because that’s a kind of questioning too. This is very different from fundamentalism that defines “Faith” with a capital “F” as a set of beliefs that can never be questioned. 

From my perspective, faith is not the same thing as belief. Belief is often a set of principles that are handed to us or that we build for ourselves, while faith addresses the unknown. Faith does not have to be opposed to reason. It can be what fills the gaps in reason. 

As one member writes:

“There are obviously situations where faith is destructive, where it excludes knowledge or reason, as when someone says ‘I have faith that global warming isn’t real.’ At its best, faith is like ‘hope’. There are situations where reason does not provide a way forward. Hope or faith may lead one to act in ‘irrational’ ways that actually lead to better outcomes. About 70% of Star Trek plots are based on this premise. (‘Captain, I calculate our odds of success at 3.4 million to 1.’)” 

Some people wrote to me about their faith in humanity, their faith in love as a powerful healing force or their faith in nature. Some wrote of their loss of faith, about the cruelty and selfishness of humanity, and the injustices of life. As one person writes: 

“I know that nobody is one dimensional and even normal people can show cruelty and aggression in some situations… I do not believe in any form of a personal god focused on helping me out of my troubles and taking care of me. There are forces that I do not understand, but they are not interested in the details of human life. I do not have faith that life is fair or that it has any higher purpose… I do not believe in an afterlife… But we are here, now. And I value my existence. So, we should make our presence valuable for ourselves and those close to us.” 

Someone else writes: 

“To have faith would imply two things; 1) a trust and confidence that the suffering to come will be bearable, and that there will be deep rewards even if there is suffering. We fully accept to go for that ride. And 2) to see human life as good. It is not reducible to evolution or the transfer of genes. It — life — the life we know as we construct it in society — has at least a potential value for a person of faith. That person can hold a baby and know of the potential downfalls and heartbreaks, but can feel that life is truly worth living — and that life can be left in gratitude when we die.” 

Others write of their faith in a creator or God who is present in their lives. 

“Faith can mean that when I look at the world of natural beauty I can see that there has been a creator who has made all of this, and that it is delightful. …Faith also means that I try to believe that the world will escape destruction of all kinds, and that the nations, with the help of a Divine Spirit, will seek and find peace here on earth.” 

Someone else writes:  

“For me faith is a friendly breeze, a presence of God… A benevolent jest on God’s part, a pleasant solitude because I share it with God.  It is an anchored certainty that I have chosen to believe without anyone influencing me… I give myself the right to find God in the lines of the Bible, the Gospel and the Qur’an, but I choose the lines. I don’t believe in a judging, severe God or creator of our misery and happiness, but in a Friend that has given a role to humans and has tried to guide us for millennia… An all-powerful God that has no need to be loved in order to love. The Unitarian church must please God when God has need to be reassured about the future of humanity.” 

Do we have to be atheists, agnostics or believers to be here? In the end I think labels really fail us. As another person wrote to me: 

“People sometimes think that as an atheist I must not be a very faithful or spiritual person. Actually I feel very spiritual and faith plays a large role in my life. I feel there is not a god of any kind watching over us or guiding us. What I do feel is the presence of a beautiful and benevolent life force that creates, nourishes, and encourages life at all times.

“I envision a dark forest landscape after a massive fire where, after just a short time, all living matter begins to slowly grow again and, before long, to flourish. It is the same force that can turn a seed into a magnificent towering tree and an embryo into a human or other mammal. 

“What my faith does not make room for is the notion that this life force ‘roots for’ or distinguishes human life above that of any other species. And ironically that is what gives me the greatest comfort because this life force knows better than any living mammal or creature exactly what to do and how to proceed in order to maintain a perfect natural balance on this earth. Even as earth struggles with an imbalance brought about by human activity, I know that in the end, earth and life will prevail, albeit with humans in a more modified and humble role, and that is all right with me. I have faith in my life force.” 

Every week we say that you are welcome here as you are, that you do not have to fit into one box of faith. Are we good at this? I think we are always a work in progress. My vision for this congregation for the past ten years (and for the next ten years, whether I am here or not), is simply this: That we will listen to each other deeply. We may not always like what we hear, but we will let go of our assumptions and judgments and ask each other, with respect, “what do you hold dearest and deepest in your heart?” And then we will roll up our sleeves and work side-by-side to care for each other and the world around us. 

So please, when you leave this sanctuary this morning, be mindful of the people around you. I have not shared the names of each contributor for a reason. If there was something that was said that troubled you, admit to someone else that you are wrestling with a new idea about faith.  But please do not say those ideas don’t belong here — because they do, and I’ve got your back. 

For me, Unitarian Universalism is about a constant returning to faith in humanity despite all the evidence to the contrary, a faith in the beauty of the unfolding mysteries, whether in science or in the unknown, a faith that tomorrow will come and it will be a brighter day than today. Is that foolish? Maybe. But if I consider the alternative of living with cynicism or emptiness, I would rather be a fool. 

Ten years ago, on my first-ever Sunday here, I shared these words from Rainer Marie Rilke: 

My eyes already touch the sunny hill
Going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp.
It has its inner light, even from a distance… 

The inner light of this community called me then and continues to call me now. I have faith in the road that lies ahead. Thank you for being companions on the journey.

 Amen. Blessed Be. Namasté.

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