Faith and Reason

Reading 1


Excerpt from “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris

According to Gallup, 35 percent of Americans believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of the Creator of the universe.' Another 48 percent believe that it is the "inspired" word of the same-still inerrant, though certain of its passages must be interpreted symbolically before their truth can be brought to light. Only 17 percent […] remain to doubt that a personal God, in his infinite wisdom, is likely to have authored this text-or, for that matter, to have created the earth with its 250,000 species of beetles. 
Some 46 percent of Americans take a literalist view of creation (40 percent believe that God has guided creation over the course of millions of years). This means that 120 million [Americans] place the big bang 2,500 years after the Babylonians and Sumerians learned to brew beer. If our polls are to be trusted, nearly 230 million Americans believe that a book showing neither unity of style nor internal consistency was authored by an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent deity. 
A survey of Hindus, Muslims, and Jews around the world would surely yield similar results, revealing that we, as a species, have grown almost perfectly intoxicated by our myths. How is it that, in this one area of our lives, we have convinced ourselves that our beliefs about the world can float entirely free of reason and evidence?

 

Reading 2


Contraband, by Denise Levertov
      
The tree of knowledge was the tree of reason.
 That's why the taste of it drove us from Eden.
 That fruit was meant to be dried and milled to a fine powder for use a pinch at a time, a condiment.
 God had probably planned to tell us later about this new pleasure.
 We stuffed our mouths full of it, 
gorged on but and if and how and again but, knowing no better.
 It's toxic in large quantities; fumes swirled in our heads and around us to form a dense cloud that hardened to steel, 
a wall between us and God, Who was Paradise.
 Not that God is unreasonable – 
but reason in such excess was tyranny
and locked us into its own limits, 
a polished cell reflecting our own faces.
 God lives on the other side of that mirror, 
but through the slit where the barrier doesn't quite touch ground, manages still to squeeze in – as filtered light, 
splinters of fire, a strain of music heard then lost, then heard again. 

 

Sermon


Dear congregation - members, friends, visitors.  You are impossible!  Or if not impossible, you are, at the very least, unreasonably improbable!

What I mean to tell you is that every rational analysis says that you should not be here - a congregation should not grow in a country where only 5% of the population is interested in religion, and you have grown from a small handful of people to well over 50 members.  You should not be as young as you are - it seems you have failed to realise that young adults are not interested in religion. You should not be as diverse as you are - haven’t you heard that people of different classes, races, origins, sexual orientations, and beliefs can not get along together?  Don’t you know that you can’t join together in this way to create a spiritual community that nurtures and enfolds and serves you? Isn’t it obvious that you can’t work together side by side to spread justice and love?

If you go to almost any Unitarian congregation in this country, you will find out that this congregation – in all its vital, energetic, lovely, glorious diversity – is quite impossible. It is said that an aerodynamic analysis of the bumblebee proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that - with its small wings and bulbous body – the bumblebee can not possibly be capable of flight.  Just don’t tell the bumblebee that!

The bumblebee flies and, unless I have been having some kind of extended and very convincing hallucination, you are here and you are real. Reason would have told us to give up long ago and it might have brought a world of bumblebees crashing to the ground with millions of sad little plop, plop, plop, noises.

And yet reason, rationality, is a central element of the Unitarian tradition.  The three watchwords of the Unitarian movement have long been freedom, reason, and tolerance. We have talked quite a bit about freedom and tolerance in religion - the commitment that each person should be free to arrive at their own beliefs and that we will be respectful of where their responsible, thoughtful, search takes them.

Reason plays a critical role in this Unitarian trinity.  The early Unitarians disputed the notion that God existed as three co-equal persons. They concluded after studying the bible and church teaching that such a view was both unscriptural and irrational.  These heretics – meaning people who choose – applied their own ability to think and reason to questions of belief and they came up with answers different from the dogma imposed by church teachings.

To us, the use of reason in religion seems so - well - so reasonable…  But many would not agree with us. That great reformer, Martin Luther, called reason “the enemy of faith.”  Even today, the attitude that church teachings must be adhered to without question remains with us. The statistics from the United States that we heard in our first reading this morning make clear that literalism – belief without the filter of reason – is thriving across the pond. It’s not absent here either: In a recent edition of our local Islington newspaper, a retired Baptist minister attacked Unitarianism saying “once a person departs from orthodox Christian doctrine…there is no way of knowing where he will end up in matters of doctrine and practice.”  

And yet, we live in a time and place where reason has become the accepted way of knowing and understanding the world around us.  There is no longer a dominant church hierarchy to force us – upon pain of prison or death – to believe the orthodox doctrine.  We are free to apply reason to understand the world and many use reason as their only viewing lens.

But reason, as Denise Levertov puts it, is “toxic in large quantities.” Reason in excess walls us off from the wonders of the world and leaves us disconnected from all that is sacred.

Pi Patel, the main character in Yann Martel’s novel “Life of Pi” survives for many months in a lifeboat adrift at sea after a shipwreck. When he is finally rescued, investigators from the shipping company question him. They are dubious about the rather amazing tale he has told them.  They tell him that his story is hard to believe.  He responds: 

"If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn't love hard to believe?"…"Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?" 

"We're just being reasonable” reply the investigators.

"So am I! I applied my reason at every moment. Reason is excellent for getting food, clothing and shelter. Reason is the very best tool kit. Nothing beats reason for keeping tigers away. But be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater.”

Where does this leave us?  On the one hand, we been free – often at great risk – from the need to believe without question. We have been freed, as our hymn says, “from the bonds that bind the mind to from the narrow thought and lifeless creed.”  We are now free to use reason, that sharp knife of the mind that cuts through superstition and fear, as we move toward truth.
On the other hand, the sharp blade of reason, unrestricted, cuts life to the very bone. A dry and sterile intellectualism remains, leaving us bereft of awe, wonder and hope. 

I have long struggled with the duality of reason and faith. In my training as a scientist, I was taught how to hone the blade of reason to razor-sharpness and apply it rigorously to every problem and question. In the world I was prepared for, nothing is to be believed without evidence. Certainly, nothing is to be taken on faith.

My evolution toward religion was a growth beyond that sterile scientific world view and that transformation itself was an act beyond the rational. It was not a reasonable thing to exchange a career that pays well for one that does not. It was not reasonable to start anew at mid-life. It was not reasonable to turn toward religion amid a life that treasures objectivity.  

Certainly, this was a leap of faith – on my part and for my family. I could only rely on the fact that – as unreasonable as it was – I knew deep down that this was the right path.  Blaise Pascal’s words rang true: “We know the truth, not only by the reason, but by the heart.”

I had reached a place beyond which reason could take me no further.  This place is the province of faith. You have been there too.  We reach this place when playing it safe is no longer an option – when we have hit the edge of the cliff and we must either jump or face the beast that has driven us there.
“Intellect takes us along in the battle of life to a certain limit” said Mohandas Gandhi, “but at the crucial moment it fails us. Faith transcends reason. It is when the horizon is the darkest and human reason is beaten down to the ground that faith shines brightest and comes to our rescue.”

Rationally, I know that you can not possibly be here. Reasonably, this congregation can not have grown by more than 50% in the past two years. And yet, even if I rub my eyes and pinch myself, you do not evaporate. 

A stubborn faith kept this congregation alive when all seemed hopeless.  A stubborn faith has given it vitality in a nation where religion is barely a footnote. A stubborn faith allows us to create unity out of our diversity. A stubborn faith makes us believe that we can make a difference, and so we do.

May it be so.