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Presented February 5, 2006, by Sharon Buzzard
Faith is, I think, best understood by its absence. Is there a sentence or feeling less bleak than to say or know that you or someone you know has "lost faith." These words are particularly interesting ones from a Unitarian perspective because, of course, our sense of faith is not much like that of others. I have puzzled about how to talk about this for over a year, and during that year have asked many of you how you conceive of faith or define it for yourselves, but to tell the truth, none of you talk of faith clearly or with certainty.
As you know, I am not a Catholic and have never been one, but I have attended my share of Catholic masses in the last few years because I teach at QU where mass is a pretty regular part of various ceremonies there. I attend voluntarily because this is what Unitarians do-honor the religions of others - and in doing so I honor my friendship with many whose Catholic faith is a central part of who they are. One part of the mass has particularly intrigued me - the priest says, "Let us proclaim the mystery of faith." To which the audience responds," Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." Well, the Unitarian side of me puzzles over this in two ways - not just the mystery that someone died, came back to life, and will again, but that that's all there is to say about it - no talkback, no nothing. The mystery of faith is proclaimed and accepted as just that, a mystery.
So faith is a mystery and to some it comes and stays easier than to others. Despite what seems a general kind of UU aversion to Christianity, we all know that what we're averse to is not that quiet sustenance that lives within some best of that breed. It is an attitude about their religion that is well-described in a phrase by St. Francis some of my Catholic colleagues have on plaques on their office walls - one I've always liked - "Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words." There are those kind of faithful whose works are their testimony, whose words, if they do come, are sincere and nothing like the strident self-promoting claptrap we hear on television. Mysteriously, when what must be the ultimate Christian moment comes - the time to die - their faith in the promise they've believed in all their lives gives them peace.
You can probably guess that part of what launched my investigation into faith is that I want to be like that, to have a belief in something that abides and sustains and comforts, but I wonder how a Unitarian sustains the "mystery" of faith when we are so fundamentally rational. Most of us are, for example, more that willing to follow the Christian line of thought so long as Christ remains a man who brought some great ideas into the world, but when dead people begin to arise well things get a little too weird and that's what has led many of us here to our Unitarian Church where our "faith" is in our affirmation - love, service, values, truth, especially truth. The Whitman poem I began with is one that to me illustrates this division perfectly. A spider, instinctively, trustingly, flings itself out with complete faith that its web will connect to something. The speaker, likely Whitman himself, asks the question, ". . . and you, oh my soul, always seeking, musing, in oceans of space." To what does it connect? No answers are given. How do Unitarians partake of the mystery of faith?
A couple of weeks ago, after we heard a talk on Harry Potter, you heard me during talkback mention a quote from Philip Pullman, in paraphrase, he said words like "thou shalt not" reach the head, while words like "once upon a time" begin a story that reaches the heart. Being a teacher of literature and film, I of course completely agree with that idea because it is through the beauty and magic of story telling that people visit places and get to know people that they otherwise would not, some of them are amazing in themselves, some become our best guides and frequent references, some don't really exist and never could, but for the time of that story, they are real and believed nonetheless; their love becomes ours, their pain becomes ours, their lessons becomes ours. We don't really care if they are spiders named Charlotte, or existential travelers named Marlow. One of my favorite narrative theorists has a line that I am fond of quoting, and I'll paraphrase here--once a story is perceived as a story, then anything can happen - the separation of the narrative from real life puts it in a place of its own in our minds where Cinderella's fairy godmother is just as real as Jay Gatsby. It occurs to me then that what lots of religions have are really good stories that support their faith, all of them have some magic in them, and in them the believers find ways to understand what is hard to understand.
Some of you may know of fairly recent book called The Life of Pi wherein the main character is a young boy who is both Hindu, Moslem, and Christian all at once. His story starts in India and so his Hinduism is a foundational part of who he is, not just spiritually but culturally and ethnically, somewhat like Christianity is to us - so woven into the fabric of American life that you can't help but partake of it, believe it or not. Pi embraces his Hinduism, its mystery was part of him even before he knew what it meant. But one day he meets a priest who introduces him to Christianity. Pi follows the story, doubts it, wondering what kind of god it is who suffers, who is anxious, sad, unrespected. A human one is what he ultimately comes to understand; he sees that this god suffers, worries, is betrayed-all recognizable human troubles, and he embraces the story too as another path to God. Next he sees a group of Islamic people praying and becomes intrigued with what the Imam tells him. He is drawn also into that religion, and so on his 16th birthday asks both to be baptised and for a prayer rug. His search for meaning involves him in three different religious stories, all of which end at the same resolution. Many paths, one spirit, as they say.
Pi's parents are not religious, they are a contemporary Indian family. His dad runs a zoo and his main worry is secular, about the money to keep it going. He has no "spiritual worry." So while Pi's practice of all three religions is peculiar - he attracts them, as his father says "like a dog does fleas," his parents tolerate it with some bemusement, hoping, as all parents do with some oddities during the teen years, that it's "just a phase." His brother teases Pi in brotherly fashion: "So, Swami Jesus, will you go on the hajj this year Or does Mecca beckon Or will it be to Rome for your coronation as the next Pope Pius. Have you found time to get your pecker cut off and become a Jew? At the rate you're going, if you go to temple on Thursday, mosque on Friday, synagogue on Saturday and church on Sunday, you only need to convert to three more religions to be on holiday for the rest of your life."
The three faiths are a special challenge to the priest, the imam, and the pandit, too but Pi explains that "all religions are true." "I just want to love God," he says. And to end the argument his father says "you can't reprimand a boy for wanting to love god." Priest, Imam and Pandit cannot disagree. And if you believe the stories to be true, in one way they are. Is this faith?
There's another part of this novel that helps me talk about the power of stories and our need to believe them, to have faith in their truth, you might say. I have to say I am about ready to reveal the end of this novel and so if you're planning to read it in the next few weeks, you might want to bolt for the door now, but in doing so I can illustrate what I'm trying to explain.
Pi's family boards ship with several of the zoo animals on a journey to Canada where his father hopes to make a better life. The ship sinks mid-ocean and Pi manages to board a life raft with a tiger, an orangutan, a hyena, and a badly wounded zebra. Fully two-thirds of the novel involves Pi's story of his survival. He tells it in first person to two Japanese investigators from the ship's company who want to know what caused the ship to sink. What we read is the "transcript" of what Pi told them, and we read an interview between them after they have recorded his story, a series of follow-up questions. The author of the novel, Yann Martel, seems himself to appear in the beginning when he tells us that he too read the transcript and has sought out Pi in his life some 20 years later and can bring us up to date. We know he not only survived his ordeal, but that life moved on - that he married, has a lovely little daughter, and yes, is still Hindu, Moslem, and Christian.
The story of how Pi comes to manage life on a raft with a large siberian tiger named Richard Parker is of course clearly an incredible one. It is told realistically, however, with much emphasis on the details of living at sea with the materials provided in the life raft. Pi's experience growing up at a zoo, needless to say, helps him considerably as he knows a lot about the psychology of animals. In the end it is only he and Richard Parker who manage to survive the 7 months at sea. When they ultimately arrive on the coast of Mexico, Richard Parker bounds off into the jungle, never to be seen again. Even after a 3 hour story of his sea journey - or what amounts to about 200 pages of the novel - the investigators are not satisfied - nothing in what he has said explains why the ship sank. They cannot believe his story, especially since Richard Parker is nowhere to be seen. Under pressure, Pi tells them a new story, this one more logical, one that involves desperation, killing, cannibalism, one that has some echoes of the other story but one less picturesque, one less redemptive, but one that still does not explain why the boat sank.
Thus, in Pi's case, neither story satisfies the investigators because neither can be proven true. The "dry, yeastless facuality" of "straight facts " tells one thing, but Pi and the Japanese investigators all agree that the story with the animals is the best story. It is the one Pi believes because it is the one that sustained him for 227 days at sea and continues to sustain him now that the incident is long past. It is the one we have believed for 200 pages or more.
Pi's story is a whopper, to be sure. Many of those connected to the major religions are. I believe there is more to say here than that life is just a matter of interpretation - a half full or half empty glass, you call it. Unless of course you want to build on this metaphor and see God as some sort of water faucet and realize that there are some people who don't even have a glass. What I wonder about is a sustaining myth - a story - that provides Unitarians ways to understand. In the beginning I said I wished for a faith, an interpretation that would give me ways to interpret life when bad things happen to good people, when the meanings are harder to get ahold of, when the ship wrecks. Unitarianism came about during a time in history when 18th century rationalism was supreme -- but are we more than rationalists? My guess is, my hope is, that, yes, we are. We tend towards privacy. We tend towards individualism. But I imagine that we do have stories that help us frame life, even if they are personal ones. It would be interesting to begin to discuss some of the mysteries of our faith, so that we can partake of its miracles when we need them.
Here's a story: Once upon a time a person named Truth was born. She is both male and female - not in the contemporary version of "transgendered," but in the way that just is. He was born in late April, on the day that Quincy Unitarians honor with a plant sale. The spirit of spring is revived whenever Truth is born and celebrated; her followers think of themselves as gardeners because they so relish the cultivation and growth of truth.
Truth has many children - each has a special name - Honesty, Integrity, Wisdom, Beauty, Reason, to name a few. There are lots of stories about each of them, but that's more than I can tell right now. Each of Truth's children provides special help in times of need - they know that life can be rough, that it can tear at your very self, but each comes with the special comfort of a true friend who knows you. They are carried on breezes that gently tousels your hair. When you feel those breezes, the ones that that brush your cheek or dapple the light, you'll know that one of the truths is trying to visit you, sometimes with a bit of joy, sometimes with comfort, sometimes, when you need it, with some advice. Truth and the children think of you as part of their family and, as in many families, lessons are delivered in some peculiar ways. With Wisdom, for example, stories go from old to young, and last for generations. Truth and the kids love your company and want to be with you at dinner as often as you can have them. And, they're planning a pot luck in a few years for all of us, a kind of reunion, a summer picnic on the lawn. Be sure to bring a covered dish and, oh yes, Truth always enjoys some wine.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.