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[Chalice] Foundational Faith and Visionary Faith [Chalice]

Presented November 19, 2017, by Doug Muder

Opening Words

"[Everyone] dreams, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous [people], for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible." - T. E. Lawrence


"To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness." - Ursula Le Guin


Today I'm going to talk about two kinds of faith, foundational and visionary. So I've picked some readings to illustrate them.

Your foundational faith is just what it sounds like: the things that seem so certain to you that you can build the rest of your worldview on that foundation. In the West, the most iconic story of a search for a firm foundation is that of Descartes, which he told in A Discourse on Method, published in 1637.

Because I wished to give myself entirely to the search after Truth, I thought that it was necessary for me to reject as absolutely false everything as to which I could imagine the least ground of doubt, in order to see if afterwards there remained anything in my belief that was entirely certain.

Thus, because our senses sometimes deceive us, I wished to suppose that nothing is just as they cause us to imagine it to be. And because there are men who deceive themselves in their reasoning -- and judging that I was as subject to error as was any other, I rejected as false all the reasons formerly accepted by me as demonstrations.

And since all the same thoughts and conceptions which we have while awake may also come to us in sleep, without any of them being at that time true, I resolved to assume that everything that ever entered into my mind was no more true than the illusions of my dreams.

But immediately afterwards I noticed that whilst I thus wished to think all things false, it was absolutely essential that the "I" who thought this should be somewhat. And remarking that this truth "I think, therefore I am" was so certain and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions brought forward by the skeptics were incapable of shaking it, I came to the conclusion that I could receive it without scruple as the first principle of the Philosophy for which I was seeking.

Visionary faith has more to do with leaps of faith, those moments when people defy common sense and do things that appear highly impractical, because their attention is fixed not on their experience of the way the world is, but on their vision of how it could be.

I've read to you before from William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience, which comes from a series of lectures he gave in Scotland in 1901 and 1902. In the previous lectures he had identified a state he called "saintliness", and listed the saintly virtues that go with it. So in this lecture, "The Value of Saintliness", he critically assesses those virtues.

We must frankly confess, then, using our empirical common sense and ordinary practical prejudices, that in the world that actually is, the virtues of sympathy, charity, and non-resistance may be, and often have been, manifested in excess. The powers of darkness have systematically taken advantage of them. The whole modern scientific organization of charity is a consequence of the failure of simply giving alms. The whole history of constitutional government is a commentary on the excellence of resisting evil, and when one cheek is smitten, of smiting back and not turning the other cheek also.

You will agree to this in general, for in spite of the Gospel, in spite of Quakerism, in spite of Tolstoy, you believe in fighting fire with fire, in shooting down usurpers, locking up thieves, and freezing out vagabonds and swindlers.

And yet you are sure, as I am sure, that were the world confined to these hard-headed, hard-hearted, and hard-fisted methods exclusively, were there no one prompt to help a brother first, and find out afterwards whether he were worthy; no one willing to drown his private wrongs in pity for the wronger's person; no one ready to be duped many a time rather than live always on suspicion; no one glad to treat individuals passionately and impulsively rather than by general rules of prudence; the world would be an infinitely worse place than it is now to live in.

The tender grace, not of a day that is dead, but of a day yet to be born somehow, with the golden rule grown natural, would be cut out from the perspective of our imaginations.

The musical 1776 is about John Adams and his eventually successful effort to convince the Continental Congress to declare independence. The song "Is Anybody There?" happens at a low point in that process, when Adams is feeling very much alone. After everyone else has gone home, he stands in the dark in what today we would call Independence Hall.

Ideally I would sing this to you, but that's a leap of faith I'm not willing to make.

The croakers all say we'll rue the day
There'll be hell to pay in fiery purgatory
Through all the gloom, through all the gloom
I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory!

Is anybody there? Does anybody care?
Does anybody see what I see?

I see fireworks!
I see the pageant and pomp and parade
I hear the bells ringing out
I hear the cannons roar
I see Americans - all Americans
Free forever more

How quiet, how quiet the chamber is
How silent, how silent the chamber is

Is anybody there? Does anybody care?
Does anybody see what I see?


Faith is something that Unitarians are deeply ambivalent about. On the one hand, we sometimes envy people who remain serene and steady when we are plagued by doubt. We may admire people whose faith motivates them to keep going, and ultimately succeed, in situations where common sense would have told them to give up.

And yet, we also recognize that faith sometimes makes people certain of things that are not true. It can justify oppression, block the progress of science, start wars, and inspire terrorism. On a much smaller scale, faith can cause people to make nuisances of themselves by walking up to total strangers and asking them if they're saved.

I know that a lot of UUs don't like to call Unitarian Universalism a faith. Faith, we sometimes think, is an irrational thing that other people do. We just believe reasonable things supported by good evidence. How can that be faith?

I also understand that it can feel a little threatening to see someone stand in a pulpit and proclaim his faith, because faith is commonly thought of as a private road to truth. Through faith, I might claim to know truths that apply not just to me, but to you as well, and to know them through a means that you can't check. You can't look at my evidence or follow my logic, because evidence and logic are not how I know these things, if I know them by faith.

And since I am completely certain of these truths that apply to you, I might be tempted to impose them on you for your own good -- through institutional power, if I have it, or by law, or maybe even by force. So I understand why people of faith can be scary.

But what I'd like to do this morning is rehabilitate faith somewhat, by telling you about two kinds of faith that I find in myself, and explaining how it is possible to frame them in ways that allow them to guide my own life, but don't tempt me to impose them on anybody else. The key, in each case, is to let go of the vision of faith as a private road to universal truth, or a personal connection to the mind of God, and instead to see it more humbly as a way of finding my own path.

Foundational faith, as I explained when I introduced the Descartes reading, is that sense of certainty that you might feel about a few core beliefs that you build your worldview around. Descartes' story of how he came to be certain of his first principle is still being told almost 400 years later. I think that's because we can still identify with the problem he was facing.

Today, maybe more than ever, our minds are full of clutter: stuff our parents and teachers told us when we were too young to know any better, stereotypes of race and class and gender that society has imprinted on us, a sense of neediness and incompleteness that advertisers have induced us to feel so that we will buy their products, and incalculable numbers of other things that may or may not be facts. We may not even remember where we heard them or why we thought they might be true.

And so, what Descartes says he did still makes a good fantasy: What if you just blew it all away, doubted everything, and didn't believe anything again until you found some good reason?

It's like the fantasy where you take everything out of your house and only bring stuff back when you actually need it. The clothes that don't fit any more, the wedding presents you never took out of the box, the broken stuff you never get around to fixing -- it's all just gone, and you live surrounded only by things that you actually want.

Another key piece of the fantasy is that when Descartes does blow everything away, it doesn't turn out the way that we're afraid it would: He doesn't keep sinking deeper and deeper into a bottomless quicksand of doubt. He didn't wind up as a nihilist, believing that nothing is true, and that nothing is ever really right or wrong.

Instead, he fairly quickly hit bedrock: "I am thinking," he says, and he finds himself unable to doubt that. "So I must exist," he concludes, and starts building upward from there.

And he builds at a speed that seems incredible to a modern reader. Within a few pages he is equally certain of the existence of the soul, the benevolence of God, and all kinds of other things that leave me scratching my head. But even so, his story suggests an idea that still appeals: Maybe if you started shoveling all the clutter out of your mind, before long you'd reach bedrock truths too solid to doubt.

In Descartes' day, and in the Enlightenment Era that followed a century later, those chunks of intellectual bedrock were known as self-evident truths, and philosophers explained them like this: Each human soul contains a tiny sliver of the divine omniscience, just enough for us to see certain simple truths immediately, without evidence or deduction.

The examples they usually pointed to were the postulates of geometry, but in case some of you would rather not remember a high school math class right now, I have a simpler example: What if I handed you a jar of marbles and asked how many marbles were in it? You could count them, and when you got done, you might or might not be confident that you had the right answer.

But if I handed you three marbles, you wouldn't count them. You wouldn't say "One. Two. Three." You'd just look at them and perceive immediately that there are three, with no conscious process whatsoever. You'd be absolutely certain.

Some things are like that. They are so simple and clear that you don't have to gather evidence or go through some reasoning process, you just see immediately that they're true. Because all the evidence you need is in the thing itself. It's self-evident.

Now, if the phrase self-evident truth rings a bell, it's because you've heard it before. "We hold these truths to be self-evident," Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Jefferson was actually making a very audacious claim there. He's saying: "I'm not going to argue with you about this. I'm not going to gather evidence to convince you, because you shouldn't need convincing. If you just hold in your mind the thought -- All men are created equal', you will see that it is true." You'll see it the way you saw those three marbles. It's self-evident.

The problem -- and this turns out to be a problem with self-evident truth in general -- is that not everybody did see it. There were people who found it self-evident that somebody has to be on top. And to others it was self-evident that George III would never have become king in the first place if God didn't want it that way. Some people jumped to the conclusion that African men were created equal too, which apparently was not at all what Jefferson meant.

And so the vision of the Enlightenment -- that those little slivers of divine omniscience would lead us all to see the same building-block truths -- failed. Worse, it failed in a way that provoked envy and competition, because if I can see self-evident truths that aren't self-evident to you, that must mean that the sliver of God in my soul is bigger than the sliver of God in your soul. It's not surprising that wars would be fought over claims like that.

That's how things stood for about another century, and then the pragmatic philosopher Charles Peirce came up with an insight that flipped everything upside-down. Instead of self-evident truths, Peirce left truth out of it and just talked about "indubitable propositions".

In other words, he agrees that if you try Descartes' exercise of doubting everything, eventually you will fail, as he failed; you'll find something you can't doubt. But where Descartes would say that you have found truth, Peirce says something more modest: What you have learned is not something about the Universe, but about yourself: You have found the limits of your doubt.

So where Descartes or Jefferson would have seen an achievement of faith, Peirce sees a failure of doubt.

When you flip the framing that way, it starts to make sense that different people's doubts would fail at different points. And in fact, they do. For example, when Buddhists try to reproduce Descartes' experiment, they get a different result. Rather than getting to "I am thinking" and deducing "I must exist", Buddhists get to "Thinking is happening" and find themselves unable to deduce anything about a thinker.

Once you've found something you can't doubt, Peirce, like Descartes, would advise you to start building on it, but for a humbler reason: If you can't doubt some idea, you might as well accept it and work with it whether or not you can be sure that it's true, because what else are you going to do? You can't doubt it, so you might as well use it.

So how does that apply to me? One of the things I believe is that love and compassion lead to a more satisfying and meaningful way of life than hate and cruelty. Now, I could give you reasons and evidence for that, but when I'm being totally honest with myself, I have to admit that I don't believe it because of reasons and evidence.

I believe it because I just do. I doubt there is any new argument or fact that someone could show me that would convince me that hate and cruelty produce a better life. I believe in love and compassion because I'm just not able to doubt it.

My failure of doubt doesn't mean that I have arrived at some universal truth that I should impose on everyone else for their own good. But it does mean that I have found at least one foundational stone for my personal faith. I might as well build on it, because what else am I going to do? I seem to be stuck with it.

Two things change when I start thinking about faith that way.

One is that I have more empathy with people who have a different faith, because I can imagine having my doubt fail in a different place. Some people look at the world and say, "There has to be a point to all this. It can't just be meaningless chaos." I can doubt that, but I can also imagine not doubting it.

Some people at various points in their lives have had moments of insight and clarity hit them with such force, that they are unable to doubt that those experiences are important. A skeptic might say, "These so-called religious experiences are just fortuitous configurations of neurotransmitters in the brain."

But often the people who have had such experiences can't go there, because if this experience didn't mean anything, then what does? And if that experience, or those collections of experiences, are connected with a holy place, or a religious ritual, or a sacred text, or a great teacher, then they're not able to doubt that those things are special.

Understanding what the failure of doubt feels like, I can cut them some slack for that.

The second change is that I hold my foundational faith with more humility, and recognize that it might change as my life unfolds. Like any other faculty, doubt can get weaker or stronger. So from time to time, I need to revisit those foundation stones of my personal faith, to see if I still find them undoubtable. Maybe, the next time I look, I'll find that they are shaped a little differently than I had thought.

Another kind of faith I want to tell you about is visionary faith. Visionary faith is what motivates people to make efforts beyond what common sense can justify. Visionaries go to more trouble, take bigger risks, and keep trying even after it seems obvious they're bound to fail. They do that because they're not just looking at the world as it is; they're also seeing a vision of a world that could be.

The content of that vision might be anything from world peace to two kids and a white picket fence. But whatever it is, it beckons to you, it draws a commitment out of you that goes far beyond anything a cost/benefit calculation can justify.

All the historical movements for change that Unitarians admire were driven by this kind of visionary faith: abolition, women's suffrage, the labor movement, civil rights, women's equality, gay rights, and so on. People put themselves out in ways that didn't strictly make sense. And if they hadn't, as William James pointed out, "the world would be an infinitely worse place than it is now to live in."

Those among us who continue to work for a better world, who are trying, say, to preserve democracy against the current wave of authoritarianism, or protect the biosphere from climate change, or complete the revolutions of women's rights or civil rights, I think we do have a certain amount of we-hold-these-truths-to-be-self-evident in us. But if we introspect deeply, I think most of us would end up admitting that our foundational faith doesn't take us all the way there. At some point, you have to see that vision of the better world, and feel the pull of it. That's what makes worthwhile all the effort and inconvenience and sacrifice.

But visionary faith can also be toxic. The Nazis were visionaries but that didn't make their visions good. In America today, many in the alt-Right are driven by a vision of a white ethnostate. Christian Dominionists envision church and state united into single all-powerful institution, imposing on everyone the will of their God.

So while a lot of good comes from visionary faith, not all visionary faith is good. Like foundational faith, it needs to be held with a certain humility.

A key thing to understand, if you're going to maintain that humility, is that visionary faith is different from foundational faith, in that it's not about truth and certainty. It's about love and risk. A vision has gotten into your head, and no one can promise you that it is good or true, but nonetheless you have fallen in love with it, to the point that you are willing to make sacrifices to bring your vision into reality. That vision is lighting up your life the way that love does.

That's how the 1776 musical portrays John Adams. In those lyrics I read you, he's not giving reasons for American independence. He's presenting a vision of the new nation and saying, "If you could see this, you would love it the way I do."

And when William James talks about what he calls "the saintly virtues", he is almost apologetic about how much he loves them. "I know the world doesn't work this way," he tells us. "But it could." And having envisioned a world with "the golden rule grown natural", don't you love it? Isn't it worth risking a little imprudence and foolishness?

But the fact that you love a vision does not guarantee that it will come to pass, or even that anyone else will see it, no matter how hard you try to show it to them. It won't necessarily happen just because you love it, and you can't wish it into fruition just by loving it more. If it does come true, it may not come true for you, or in your lifetime.

That also is the lesson of abolition and unionization and civil rights. Many runaway slaves were recaptured. Strikes were broken. Like many civil rights pioneers before him,Martin Luther King was murdered. He climbed to the mountaintop and saw the promised land, but he did not get to go there.

Love is not about certainty, it is about risk. It is about moving forward without guarantees. Loving a vision doesn't mean that you know it will happen, it means that you are willing to risk it not happening. You are willing to risk being wrong, being laughed at, seeing all your effort come to nothing. "To love," Salman Rushdie wrote, "is to risk your life."

Sometimes that is literally true, as it was for Dr. King. But it is almost always true in at least a figurative way. Love doesn't make us indestructible.Quite the opposite: It is the people and things and visions we love that make us vulnerable.

Now, at this point I imagine that a question might pop into the mind of any person of good practical common sense: Why do it? Why let yourself fall in love with a vision of how the world could be? And if you find such a feeling rising up inside you, why indulge it? Why accept the risks? Why make the sacrifices? Why let all that impracticality and foolishness and vulnerability into your life? And my answer is simple: Love lights life up. A life that is full of love, and full of the commitments that love calls a person to make, is fuller, deeper, and richer than any other kind of life. Why do I believe that? Well, if I'm being honest with myself, I have to admit that it's not because of reasons and evidence. I believe it because I just do. I can imagine that other people would doubt it. I can even imagine doubting it myself. But I find that I can't actually doubt it. Love lights life up.

I don't know if that's a universal truth, but it's a belief that I seem to be stuck with. So I might as well build on it.

Closing Words

"The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams." -- Eleanor Roosevelt

2017 Doug Muder

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Muder, Doug 2017. Foundational Faith and Visionary Faith, /talks/20171119.shtml (accessed July 16, 2020).

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