Sermon: What We Talk About When We Talk About Faith by, Ethan Loewi

2019 October 1
tags:
by DoMC

What We Talk About When We Talk About Faith

Ethan Loewi

First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn

9/29/2019

I’ve come here to make an outrageous proposal. To share an idea about faith that is flatly absurd, laughable, and some would say borderline demented. If I were to tell you this idea right now, at the top of the sermon, it would unleash bedlam. I think most of you would pelt me with your shoes. So I’m going hold this absurd idea close to the vest. Roll it out slowly. And I’d like to start by subjecting you to a few minutes of autobiography.

            I come from a multi-faith family: Christian on my mother’s side, and Jewish on my father’s. What’s more, both sides of the family tree are unusually ripe with religious ardor: I have rabbis in my paternal ancestry, and my maternal grandparents founded one the largest Christian radio stations in Ohio. My dad is a secular Jew, and not big on organized religion—but my mom is a professional organist, so my two brothers and I grew up in church. It’s a whole mess. If I had to choose a metaphor to describe my religious upbringing, it would be the ten-car pileup. As in many multi-faith families, religion has not always been a force for unity. There’s been real tension there. On one lamentable occasion, when I was twelve, a Christian relative in Ohio gifted me a set of the Left Behind books. For those who don’t know: it’s a young adult series about the rapture, which leaves all the non-Christians behind in an apocalyptic world. Talk about FOMO.    

          So the main characters, led by pastor Bruce Barnes and airline pilot Rayford Steele, all become born-again Christians, who fight to convert the lost, and save the world from the anti-Christ. To be clear, I didn’t read these books, I immediately recycled them. But I wanted to share that delightful plot summary.

             I can laugh about it now, because these books are laughable, but the gesture at the time was a hurtful one. The subtext of that gift was not subtle: it was “We’d hate to see you wind up in hell, Ethan. Because that’s where you’re headed.” That’s a lousy message to send to anyone—much less a 12-year-old. So faith was a wedge between us. It would be hyberbolic to say that religion split my family in two. But it did feel that way sometimes.

            The pain that lingers is how it shaped my relationship with my Grandfather. Faith was at the absolute center of his life. He was a father of four children, a veteran of the marine corps, and a zealous spiritual seeker. From the dust of an Ohio field, he raised a radio tower: 374 feet of triangular steel lattice. A monument to Christ, looming and luminous, red lights blinking in the tranquil heartland twilight.

            We were never very close. On the rare occasions in my childhood when I was able to fly from Oregon to Ohio, I think neither of us knew where to begin. Sometimes he’d make me a milkshake, and we’d talk a little while, but that was about it. He would not be thrilled to learn I’m a UU. And I wish I could tell you that our relationship matured over the years–that we got past our cultural barriers to find common ground in faith and shared values. But that simply wouldn’t be true. He died in March of 2018, before we found time to really attempt that conversation. And that’s where I’m going to leave the autobiography for now. In a hard place.

            I share this story in part because it sets up my outrageous proposal, still to come, and because it captures the difficulty of interfaith connection, and how religious commitments can divide us. That’s my real subject here today: how we talk about faith, and why it matters. Fair warning: if “how we talk about faith” is the kind of meta, painfully wonkish sermon topic that makes you want to run for the exits, all I can say is get used to it. I’m here for two years! You’re gonna have to learn to put up with my nonsense. I have also had the ushers lock the doors.           Talking about faith can be hard, more so across traditions, and I think most of us tend to struggle with it. Religion lies at the intersection of highly sensitive and highly complicated. As the old saying goes, the two things one should never talk about in polite company are politics and religion. Well, when it comes to politics that ship has sailed. Seems like politics is the only thing we talk about these days. But religion can still feel taboo. And religion, with its vast diversity of personal and institutional expressions, does not lend itself to neat and tidy comprehension. As a result, our national conversation around faith can become muddled, and painfully divisive. The way we talk can be so combative, so toxic, that we lose any hope of productive dialogue.

            There are many examples I could call on, to embody this culture war quagmire. But the one that looms largest in my mind, that still shapes how we think about religion in the public square, is the practice of debate. Thousands of debates, on TV and the internet, in theaters and lecture halls. In these debates, there’s always one person from Team Atheist and one person from Team Religion, usually a Christian. And they’re duking it out over some big question: does God exist, was Jesus resurrected, etc. These debates claim to be about finding truth—but far more often, the result is a kind of gladitorial circus,that eschews nuance and common ground in favor of sweeping judgments and sick burns. Some people have built their careers on these debates, like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens was the most fun to watch, with a gift for dry humor and lacerating rhetoric. He’d say things like “The Gods we’ve made are exactly the gods you’d expect, from a species that’s half a chromosome away from being a chimpanzee.” It’s kind of a funny thing to say, if you take it as a joke. But it might also freeze any movement towards mutual understanding. Hitchens once told an audience “Take the risk of thinking for yourself.” and “Faith is the surrender of the mind; it’s the surrender of reason, it’s the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other mammals.” Driven by the crude imperatives of Us-versus-Them, these sentiments reduce billions of people to unthinking zealots, and reproduce the tiresome falsehood that reason and faith are contradictory. They epitomize the kind of brassy condescension that makes these debates so unhelpful. He assumes people believe a certain way—but the Bible means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Origen of Alexandria, among the influential thinkers of the early church, was interpreting the Bible with great allegorical subtlety 1800 years ago. But in the spirit of debate, the complexities of religion are flattened to a monolith. All too often, secular critiques of religion embody the same type of sectarian bigotry that they condemn.

            Of course, people on Team Religion can be just as mean-spirited, crowing about how atheists are morally groundless, or some similar nonsense. In their frenzy of tribalistic bludgeoning, both sides ignore the simple fact that violent, insulting rhetoric doesn’t change people’s minds–it just makes them dig in their heels.

            I watched a ton of these debates when I was younger, because they’re fun to watch! The spectacle of conflict can be hypnotizing. These debates have hundreds of millions of views online, and sell out huge auditoriums to this day. Maybe their attraction lies precisely in their meanness and their bombast. Our empathy is bulldozed by the urge to win at all costs. We see this in online debates, especially, where other people are reduced to their screen names, and anonymity can give free range to our worst impulses. At this point, I’m so sick of these debates that I’d rather watch pro wrestling—because at least pro wrestling is intellectually honest. When Triple H body slams Stone Cold Steve Austin through a table, you know they’re engaging in full-on warfare. That’s why you tune in. But conversations shouldn’t be like that.

            Faith should be something we talk about with the utmost care and kindness. A person’s faith, be it in God or nature or humanity, is at the core of who they are. And if we are going to engage with something at a person’s core, we have got to be extraordinarily respectful. But it feels like faith has become just one more battle ground for culture war bickering.

            Now, the last thing I want to be is anti-joke. I need religion jokes to get through the day. As a seminary student, my life is a religion joke! Nor do I propose some kind of cringing hyper-civility, where we can’t critique any aspect of religion. But we have got to be thoughtful in our critiques. This isn’t about nicety—the stakes are very high. When we fail to talk about religion in a healthy way, the outcome is ignorance, prejudice, division—and it is marginalized faith groups, like the Muslim community, who suffer the worst of this. We have got to do our homework, be precise, and not fall prey to the tribalism of our historical moment.

            The way we talk about faith today, millions of blameless people—Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists—are getting caught in the crossfire. Now, there are thousands of superb reasons to criticize religion—when it leads to patriarchy, abuse of power, bigotry towards LGBTQIA people, or a litany of other issues, we can and should be forceful in our opposition. Critics like Hitchens have done important work in calling out religion’s failings, and I honor that. But we can be kinder and more critical. There is no contradiction there, we can have it both ways. We need to learn to condemn a corrupt, abusive priest, without condemning every soul who happens to sit in the pews.

             The most cliché point one can make about American today is that we are divided. Every op-ed writer on every newspaper has written at least five columns about how polarized Americans are, and it almost feels like we’re living in different realities. Spite seems to saturate the air, pungent as gunpowder. And with this grim backdrop in mind, I think it’s about time I got to my outrageous proposal. I’ll give you a second to take off your shoes. I believe that while faith has the power to drive us apart, it has just as much power to bring us together—and it could be the force that binds up our divisions. No shoes? Ok, great. Interreligious dialogue is not easy. But the reward can be an incredible wealth of human connection, that transcends labels like Christian and Atheist. If we could learn to talk about faith with nuance and empathy we could learn to talk about anything.

            To quote the great theologian Paul Tillich, “faith is the state of being ultimately concerned.” It is our most intense and comprehensive form of defining value. Not everyone is religious, but everyone has some form of faith. It’s what makes a person tick; it’s what they live and die for. If you can understand something about a person’s ultimate concern, you have a profound insight on their spirit, and the root of your shared humanity. Let’s make a world where atheists and Christians can admire each other’s beliefs. In a world of Us Versus Them, people of different faiths cannot be friends, or comrades, or family—they can only be debate partners. And that wouldn’t that just incredibly depressing.

             So how do we un-poison the water supply, when it seems like it’s been pretty thoroughly poisoned? To start with, let’s talk about faith. Toss out the old taboo. Each one of us can be an instrument of peace. Let us be curious, and kind, and open-minded. According to a new Pew Research Center study, only a third of Americans talk about religion with people outside of their families at least once or twice a month. Let’s change that trend. To some extent, I know I’m preaching to the choir here—Unitarian Universalists like to talk about religion, and have a commitment to interfaith empathy. But we can always do better. Each one of us can have a major impact on shaping our shared conversation. Next time you hear a friend say something reductive or mean-spirited about a person’s faith, maybe question if they’re being fair. If you hear a dehumanizing comment towards people of a certain faith group, push back. Resist the logic of Us versus Them, of “we’re sane and they’re crazy.” Try to build a space for genuine conversation—and let me suggest that you can’t have real conversation without deep mutual respect. You can have a lecture, or a debate, or a tirade—but not a conversation.

             In the past, many have used faith as an excuse to burn bridges—let us use it now to build them. It didn’t happen for me and my grandpa. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen—in our families, in our schools, in our houses of worship. Anywhere.

            In closing, I’d like to make a brief return to autobiography. I was in Ohio back in August, and I got to spend a full week with my Grandmother. I stayed out on the farm, where the radio tower still stands. We’ve talked more lately. She’s not sure about this whole UU business, but she’s given me nothing but love and support. Faith is right at the center of her life, like it was for my grandpa. She’s deeply Christian, and I’m not, but we’re not letting that divide us. We can still pray for each other, still talk about God, still share an understanding of the sacred. During my visit we exchanged book recommendations, ate cantaloupe, and watched some Agatha Christie DVDs. We also liked to sit out on the porch and watch the hummingbirds. And as we sat together in the bright late summer morning, resplendent in difference and sameness, I felt we were more family than ever. Neither of us were left behind.

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