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In his spiritual essay, The Over-Soul, Emerson says:
“There is a difference between one and another hour of life, in their authority and subsequent effect. Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual. Yet there is a depth in those brief moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences.”
“There is a deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is accessible to us. Every moment when the individual feels invaded by it is memorable. It comes to the lowly and simple; it comes to whosoever will put off what is foreign and proud; it comes as insight; it comes as serenity and grandeur.
“The soul’s health consists in the fullness of its reception…
“When it breaks through our intellect it is genius; when it breathes through the will it is virtue; when it flows through the affections it is love.”
“…within man (sic) is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE… We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.”
‘Our faith comes in moments,’ he says
“The soul is the perceiver and revealer of truth. We know truth when we see it.”
What’s the truth about faith? What’s your truth?
A few years ago, partly in response to the attack on the World Trade Center, Sam Harris wrote a book called The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. It became a best seller.
Books about religion, pro or con, tend to sell, especially those that contribute to the battle for God, or the battle about God.
The clash between faith and reason is an old one, I guess it’s as old as time – at least as old as time as told in the myth of the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve tasted the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil…the forbidden fruit, which God the Father told them not to do, warning them, “On the day you eat of it you shall die.”
The serpent – one of the main characters in the story – God’s antagonist — promised Adam he wouldn’t die, saying, “God knows that when you eat of the fruit you shall be like God knowing good and evil.”
There’s a Freudian twist to this story — the newly-formed man, still in a child-like state, would like to be able to be ‘like God the Father,’ and compete with him for Eve’s affection.
The story says that Adam and Eve tasted the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil – they lost their innocence and as a consequence they were evicted from the Garden.
But they didn’t die.
What’s the truth in this story?
One truth, simply put, is that we are evicted from Paradise by virtue of our knowledge of good and evil…the good and evil evidenced in the world we experience, day after day, resulting in two things: first, the necessity to do good, to be good, as it were…the live out our capacity for goodness.
You could call that the religious aspect of our life, or the moral, ethical aspect of life.
It’s a human responsibility – to be truly human is to participate in the creative aspect of life, or to continue what the Creator started ‘in the beginning.’
The second truth in the story acknowledges evil…which sounds obvious; but the trick is to acknowledge evil without generalizing, without becoming completely cynical, without being suspicious of everyone’s motives, including your own.
First they tasted the apple, the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. They liked it. So they digested it and when they got its full effect they realized ‘you are what you eat.’
Faith is the capacity to comprehend the meaning in living this life – the simple-but-profound meaning of living the life you are given, the life we are given, without demanding some larger meaning…without even asking ‘what’s the meaning of life?’
The meaning of life is living it…but there’s more: the meaning of life is living a life of integrity, accepting the fact that we’re all fallible – some more than others, of course.
“The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” Robert Byrne
At their best, the religions of the world provide a structure or framework…a set of guidelines – a recipe for living a good life, but you have to do your own cooking!
At their worst, the religions of the world perpetuate hate, envy, bigotry, hubris and ignorance, and a slew of sins, all of which the very same religion is against.
At their worst, the religions of the world stifle critical thinking and perpetuate prejudice that leads to violence – religious history is strewn with violence.
At their worst, the religions of the world attack our faculty for rational thinking and set up an impossible clash or battle within the individual, depriving us of inner peace, to say nothing of depriving us of being at peace with one another, of being at peace with those who do not share our particular religious beliefs.
Is it possible to be rational and still have faith?
Faith and reason are not only compatible, but at their best they are married to one another…they are partners who must learn to live in harmony, the way two people have to learn to live together in a way that enhances each of them so that each contributes to the partnership.
So, what is faith?
For Sam Harris and countless others, faith is synonymous with religious beliefs…with creeds and dogma.
Is there a battle between faith and science? Are the two necessarily in conflict?
What do we mean by the phrase, “A crisis of faith?”
In his book The End of Faith, Sam Harris begins by attacking the kind of religious fanaticism or fundamentalism that led to the World Trade Center attacks, carried out by so-called believing Muslims.
But he doesn’t stop there. Looking through the filter of his own eyes, which we all do, he sees that religious fanaticism is grounded in faith itself, according to Sam Harris all religion is grounded in the illusion called faith.
Harris has a special contempt for religious moderates, or for liberal religion, suggesting that we liberals, by promoting tolerance or respect for all the religions of the world, prolong the problem of religious faith the way life-support systems prolong the inevitable by keeping a terminally ill comatose patient alive.
He says, “We will see that the greatest problem confronting civilization is not merely religious extremism: rather, it is the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself. Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed.”
I would remind Harris that the three pillars of liberal religion are freedom, reason and tolerance.
Each of these three can be taken too far – there are limits to freedom – we call those limits ‘the law.’ The limits.
There are limits to reason – we call those limits arrogance or hubris, the dangers of which are obvious, like flying planes into the World Trade Center ‘in the name of God.’
There are limits to tolerance – there’s a line that has to be drawn. A powerful example is the prevalence of bullying through the internet – we haven’t establish the necessary rules of the road, yet, and many young people are being badly damaged.
Hatred and bigotry and prejudice lead to a variety of forms of violence – some as subtle as bullying – some as extreme as the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The list goes on and on, of course.
Harris is saying that religious moderates are as much a part of the problem of religion as the fanatical extremists, because moderates provide the framework for tolerance which fosters extremism.
Harris wants to put religion in hospice but without the benefit of palliative care.
However, he is willing to use religious metaphor when he says, “The only angels we need invoke are those of our better nature: reason, honesty and love,” which sounds like a summary of our statement of affirmation, except when he adds faith to his list of evils, saying, “The only demons we must fear are those that lurk inside every human mind: ignorance, hatred, greed and faith which is surely the devil’s masterpiece.”
To paraphrase Shakespeare in Hamlet, “The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks.”
In any case, Harris predicts, and hopes for, the end of religion as we know it, the end of faith, as he sees it.
The end, as T. S. Eliot suggests, is where we start from.
So I’ll jump back to where I intended to start, with a new book by theologian Harvey Cox is titled The Future of Faith. Clearly Cox’s book is a response to Harris, though he doesn’t mention Harris or his book.
A bit of background on Harvey Cox: he was ordained as an American Baptist minister in 1956 and taught at Andover Newton and then at Harvard Divinity School for many years. He retired two years ago at age 80 and wrote his latest book, The Future of Faith, which is a kind of summary of what he’s been saying for fifty-plus years.
In his best known book, The Secular City, published in 1965 – a best seller – he says, “God is just as present in the secular as the religious realms of life”.
As a religious liberal, Cox suggests that institutional Christianity has become a religion about Jesus rather than the religion of Jesus.
In his book, The Future of Faith, Cox looks back over the 2,000 year history of Christianity and divides it into three periods which he calls the Age of Faith, the Age of Belief, and the Age of the Spirit.
The age of faith lasted about three hundred years, when the followers of Jesus simply embraced what they understood to be the teachings of Jesus, or the religion of Jesus as it was lived out. (Debra’s Christmas Eve reflection.)
Then, beginning in 325 at the Council of Nicaea with the emergence of dogma and creeds, was the Age of Belief, during which Christianity became a religion about Jesus and church leadership became hierarchical with limits put on acceptable doctrines…the emergence of orthodoxy. (My Christmas Eve reflection about Christ.)
His third period, the last fifty years (which coincides with Harvey Cox’s own ministry as a teacher) he suggests is the Age of the Spirit. This is a time, he says, when Christians ignore the dogma, when they have taken clergy down from the pedestal (though many clergy fell or jumped) and the people embraced what is loosely called spirituality, as when someone says, “I’m spiritual, not religious.”
In the Age of the Spirit we find common threads running through all the religions – the spirit of ecumenism – the effort to re-unite all of Christianity…which led to the inter-faith movement – the effort to find the common core of all the religions…the best in all religion.
Harvey Cox is best known for his book, The Secular City, where he said that he saw, “…a profound change in the elemental nature of religiousness,” and “…a resurgence of religion” in the world.
At the risk of oversimplifying his new book, The Future of Faith, Cox makes a clear, sharp distinction between faith and belief.
That’s his purpose for writing this particular book, and if you take nothing else away from this sermon let it be this most basic point: faith is not about belief, in spite of what Harris says…in spite of the way the word faith is so often used.
When talking about the church they belong to people will often say, ‘my faith,’ meaning the Catholic Church, or the Christian religion in a more general sense…but it’s clearly about the beliefs…the teachings of a particular faith community.
To equate faith with religious belief is a common way of using the word faith.
To Cox, this is an important misconception and he wants to distinguish between faith and belief. You don’t have to have particular religious beliefs to have faith – indeed, faith begins where belief ends.
Faith, at its deeper levels, resides is in the individual’s mind and heart. It’s not in a creed – it’s not in a religious institution. It’s not in our statement of affirmation.
The future of faith is uncertain for each of us individually, and for us as a religious institution, and for the religions of the world.
The one thing we know for sure is that religion will not be as it has been…it will be different, just as it is now different from the way it has been.
The future of faith is certain, or as certain as anything can be…faith is built in to the human experience of living life, day to day, knowing that it will end someday.
Faith will not be pushed out by science. Faith will not be pushed out by information.
Beliefs will change, collectively as we advance in our knowledge of the world…and individually as we mature.
Faith flourishes as long as we have freedom from religion imposed on us. Freedom allows each of us to have our own set of ideas and beliefs; each of us has to work out our personal faith system, and it may have little or nothing to do with traditional religious beliefs about God and an afterlife, about sin and salvation, and so forth.
Our Freedom overcomes the distinction between the secular and the sacred…making the sacred an aspect of the secular, the day-to-day life we’re living.
That was the message of Jesus: your real religion is the way you live your life…feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, visiting the homebound or hospitalized, etc.
That was the message of the Buddha – living a life of simple compassion…day-to-day.
That was the message of Lao Tzu and every spiritual teacher and guide – your religion isn’t about words on paper but about actions and about an inner life.
Faith is the ability to live without the answers. Religious beliefs work for many people – for most people, it seems.
But religious beliefs change, not only in response to the advances in science, in knowledge, but religious beliefs change for each individual in response to experience – we are formed as well as informed by our experience and the way we process our experience…the way we think about it.
We’ve been talking for years, decades, really, about the difference between being religious and being spiritual…a new spirituality is changing the nature of religion or the so-called religious experience
It’s not about the end of faith, it is, however, about the end of dogma and the beginning of taking personal responsibility for one’s faith … one’s inner life.
Harvey Cox’s book, The Future of Faith, plays like the dueling banjos with Sam Harris’s book, The End of Faith, and Christopher Hitchens’ book God is Not Great, and Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion and Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell, each of which has made a necessary contribution to the religious conversation and has helped promote the maturation of faith in our time.
In quantum mechanics there is a phenomenon called entanglement…which I don’t presume to be able to explain, since I don’t really understand it well enough. It feels more like poetry – metaphor or mysticism.
Scientists are telling us that particles that interact and then become separated are still connected on a subatomic level…which gives a new twist to my definition of religion, rooted in the Latin verb ‘to bind, or to connect’…
Religion is the lifelong process of re-connecting the separated self…
When you’re born you become separated…and need to form connections…to be nurtured…to survive the earliest years of absolute dependence…
We come to believe, on some level, that we are independent, but we never lose the need to connect…with other persons…with an ever-changing, failing-and-being-forgiven self…and with Nature…from which we came and to which we return when this separate existence we call Life is over.
The need for faith, in this broad sense, isn’t over till it’s over