Pursuing Authentic Faith

Join the congregation of First Parish of Sudbury Unitarian Universalist on Sunday, November 26 for our worship service on this month’s theme of Faith. The Nov. 26 sermon, “Pursuing Authentic Faith” will be delivered by Mr. Michael Tyo, Chair of the Worship Associates Group at First Parish. Music on Nov. 26 will be provided by our own Alex Andrews. All are very welcome.


Pursuing Authentic Faith

Based on Touchstones Journal article by Rev. Kirk Loadman-Copeland

This is the traditional season for being mindful about all the wonderful things in our lives, a time for recognizing the bounty of the Universe in providing us with all we have. And also, it is a traditional season for recognizing that the Universe withholds its bounty from so many of our brothers and sisters.
I had the opportunity to learn an important lesson about this as a child of 11. My father was hired by the US foreign aid program USAID to do a two-year job in Ibadan, Nigeria, so we moved to West Africa. Part of the social life for Westerners at that time, just a few years after British colonial rule had ended, was to join the country club and play golf, a pastime previously unknown in myfamily, but enthusiastically adopted by my parents. Right around this time of year, the country club had its annual Christmas party, a night of enjoyment with an open bar and buffet and live music. They held this party in the swimming pool area. The pool had security with a chain-link fence around the perimeter and a gate with an attendant. The buffet was set up on tables around the fence, filled with a delicious selection of appetizers, veggies, rice and breads, all kinds of meats, desserts – you get the idea. As I went up to the buffet to fill my plate, my eyes fell on shining eyes, in the darkness, on the other side of the chain link fence. Local children, drawn perhaps to the aroma of the buffet and the unusual buzz of activity, were lined up shoulder to shoulder, their eyes flicking up and down, down to the food, and back up to my eyes. They had never seen such an extravaganza, and the children nearest to me held out their hands in the universal sign of asking. I turned to one of the adults and asked if it was OK to give them something, and was told in no uncertain terms that this was forbidden, as it might start a stampede. Start a stampede…
All the adults that I could see in the buffet line were filling their plates and chatting pleasantly amongst themselves, their eyes carefully avoiding the children on the other side of the fence, seeing only what they wanted to see. I know now, that I was learning an important life lesson – how society expects us to behave in the presence of inequality and injustice. Just keep moving along, nothing to see here.
Since then, I’ve thought about that evening a lot, and the question that keeps coming up for me is: what should I do today about inequality and injustice? What can I do? We heard this morning about someone trying to save a few starfish at the edge of the ocean. What difference could one person’s efforts possibly make, with all the millions and millions of starfish – and people –  needing help? Well, it sure makes a big difference to the ones we save.
We’ve been talking about faith this month, and the pragmatist asks ‘Why? – Why faith, why is it important?’ It is important because what one person does, can make a real difference in our shared Universe. Our deeds make a difference to the ones whose needs we directly attend to, and they make a difference to the future in ways we can never comprehend. The mathematics of chaos tells us that as a butterfly flaps its wings, its tiny effect on the lightest breeze can affect the course of weather across the globe. The butterfly effect is real, and it means that our actions are connected across time, cultures, and generations in ways that will be forever mysterious, but are nonetheless real. The belief that individual actions can make a difference, provides the driving force for those actions. Faith is the energy source for action. Or, to express this idea in the 21st century language of visual memes, imagine the word Faith with a lightning bolt pointing to the word Action.
In the November Touchstones Journal, Rev. Kirk Loadman-Copeland writes about Unitarian theologian, professor at Harvard Divinity School, and social ethicist James Luther Adams:

Adams did not conceive of faith in terms of being true or false. Rather, he was a champion of the development of authentic faith, as opposed to faith that was inauthentic because of idolatry, dogmatism, or self-righteousness.

Adams taught that:

  • An authentic faith focuses our attention on ultimate issues, such as God, human nature, and the meaning of life, but in a way that connects with our life concerns. It links the intimate and the ultimate dimensions of life.
  • An authentic faith elicits a commitment that is costly in some significant way and degree. The power of the will to action follows from the commitment of faith and its subsequent life decisions.
  • An authentic faith wrestles with ‘principalities and powers’. It takes responsibility for the shape of things to come in the human community. It even ventures a new beatitude, Blessed are the powerful.
  • An authentic faith seeks to incarnate its spiritual and moral value commitments in social institutions. Therefore, we may say, By their groups you shall know them.
  • An authentic faith takes shape in history through the commitments that we make with others. It is shaped by the historical covenants we form within the covenant of being.
  • An authentic faith locates itself within the encompassing drama of history. It believes that there is a meaning in history that requires responding faithfully.

The heart of Adams’ thought about the character of faith is that it takes time seriously.

The final task of faith is its continuous renewal. Adams held this belief about renewal: “Faith is formed through the historical process of human communities, and reformed through processes of ‘deliberation and decision’ within those communities.” Adams’ understanding of authentic faith involved a moral directive (that is, “a way of living”) and a critical principle (“a way of assessing life”).

Crucial to this understanding is that, according to Socrates, an “unexamined life” is not worth living; and that, according to Adams, an “unexamined faith” is not worth “faithing.” Both forfeit one’s freedom. Adams wrote, “The free person does not live by an unexamined faith. To do so is to worship an idol, whittled out and made into a fetish. The free person believes with Socrates that the true can be separated from the false only through observation and rational discussion. In this view, the faith that cannot be discussed, is a form of tyranny. An unexamined faith is not worth having, for it can only be true by accident. A faith worth having is a faith worth discussing and testing.” For Adams, the quest for a reasoned understanding has no less religious significance than faith itself, and it expresses an important form of faith, namely fidelity to truth.

Adams would have had no patience for either “fake news” or “alternative facts.” He would have called both demonic because they are reflections of the dark side of human existence.

For Adams, faith is not fundamentally about one’s beliefs, but about one’s commitments. With regard to belief, Adams’ developed what has been called his Pragmatic Theory of Religious Beliefs. By pragmatic, he was not interested in the content of belief, per se, but in how you act, based upon the belief. For Adams, the concern went beyond one’s personal belief. He invited consideration of the ways in which a belief was aligned with or opposed to the behavior exhibited by social, political, religious, and/or economic institutions.

Emerson wrote, “A person will worship something—have no doubt about that.” In like manner, Adams wrote, “The question concerning faith, is not, shall I be a person of faith? The proper question is, rather, which faith is mine? Or better, which faith should be mine? For whether a person craves prestige, wealth, security, or amusement, whether a person lives for country, for science, for God, or for plunder, that person is demonstrating a faith, is showing that he puts confidence in something. …Find out what that is and you have found his religion. You will have found his god.”

While theology has often been defined as “faith seeking understanding, Adams was more concerned with ethics, which he defined as “faith seeking understanding in the realm of action.” In this, Adams argued that an inauthentic faith is a “faith that it is not the sister of justice.”

For Adams, authentic faith is prophetic faith. Prophetic faith yields a theology of hope. It means proclaiming, in the face of present injustice, a justice to come, and proclaiming, in the face of present hatred and fear, a peace to come—both as moral commitments, and as articles of faith. It means knowing that the sin to which religion is susceptible is ‘cheap grace,’ offering spiritual comfort without ‘the call to make some new sacrifices.’

If there are different approaches to faith, how are we to distinguish between authentic faith and inauthentic faith? The challenge is similar to distinguishing between false and true prophets. In speaking about a tree and its fruit, Jesus spoke of the good fruit of true prophets and the bad fruit of false prophets. Jesus concluded saying, “Therefore, by their fruits you will know them.” For Adams, the principle is also an ethics of consequences as distinct from an ethics of conscience, an ethics concerned not only with right means but with good ends, and not only with motives but with outcomes. Adams’ tests for authenticity of faith are these: “by their roots you shall know them” and “by their groups you shall know them.”

Given this commitment to a very intentional form of faith, what are we to do with inauthentic faith, our own and others? For us, it means ongoing self-criticism and openness to reform. It means resisting the group-think that is the consequence of dwelling within ideological bubbles. It means taking seriously, that with which we do not believe to be true. It means thoughtfully engaging the authentic criticism of others. An authentic faith is not a ‘blind faith,” but an ‘examined’ faith. Its integrity depends on its ability to maintain a self-critical rather than a dogmatic or unquestioning stance. It is of course natural to resist criticism, and when it comes to matters of personal devotion, in which an emotional investment has been made, it is even more natural to resist self-criticism. While all religious traditions teach humility before the transcendent, many regularly violate the principle of humility, especially with respect to their own brand of religion. While we may be reluctant to do it, we are also required to make judgements about the faith of others, at least in terms of the fruit that they are peddling in the public square.

Adams was fond of repeating Goethe’s maxim, “A tradition cannot be inherited, it must be earned.” Whether born into this faith, or someone who arrived in it as soon as they could, regardless of their age, how are you earning this faith? You earn a tradition in the process of making it your own. You live with it, argue with it, and restate it in the language of your own experience. And you listen carefully and critically to the language and experience of those in this faith, with whom we are journeying together. The journey of faith is one of ongoing renewal, and action in service of justice.

Those hungry children beyond the fence are still there, or at least a different generation of children. In the 50-plus years since I witnessed first-hand the eyes of poverty, they have been looking at me at each festive meal, from beyond the walls. They look at each of us, silently asking us each day, what are we going to do today about injustice and inequality.

I ask you now to sit in silent reflection or prayer for a moment. I suggest that you consider using as a focus of your meditation the image on the cover for today’s Order of Service, and open your minds and hearts to whatever comes up.