Faith without God

In dark times, let us bring a light
We kindle this flame as a sign of hope
A sign of comfort
A sign of unity
And a sign of the faith that our work can bring about a better, more just world.


Trust, by Thomas R. Smith

It’s like so many other things in life
to which you must say no or yes. 
So you take your car to the new mechanic. 
Sometimes the best thing to do is trust.

The package left with the disreputable-looking
clerk, the check gulped by the night deposit, 
the envelope passed by dozens of strangers— 
all show up at their intended destinations.

The theft that could have happened doesn’t. 
Wind finally gets where it was going
through the snowy trees, and the river, even
when frozen, arrives at the right place.

And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life
is delivered, even though you can’t read the address

Little Summer Poem Touching the Subject of Faith - by Mary Oliver

Every summer I listen and look under the sun's brass
and even into the moonlight, 
but I can't hear anything, 
I can't see anything -- not the pale roots digging down, 
nor the green stalks muscling up, 
nor the leaves deepening their damp pleats, 
nor the tassels making, nor the shucks, nor the cobs. 
And still, every day, the leafy fields grow taller and thicker -- 
green gowns lofting up in the night, showered with silk. 
And so, every summer, I fail as a witness, seeing nothing -- 
I am deaf too to the tick of the leaves, 
the tapping of downwardness from the banyan feet -- 
all of it happening beyond any seeable proof, or hearable hum. 
And, therefore, let the immeasurable come. 
Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine. 
Let the wind turn in the trees, 
and the mystery hidden in the dirt swing through the air. 
How could I look at anything in this world and tremble, 
and grip my hands over my heart? 
What should I fear? 
One morning in the leafy green ocean the honeycomb of the corn's beautiful body is sure to be there.

Message, by Andy Pakula


Faith is a word that doesn’t sit comfortably for a lot of us. It’s a word that can be divisive.

There are supposedly people of faith and people who have none. And we, here, don’t fit in with that very well. Is New Unity a ‘community of faith’ as I often say each Sunday? And I say a ‘radically-inclusive community of faith’, which would seem to many to be self-contradictory phrase. Doesn’t a community of faith imply a single faith? And then, what is this ‘faith’ that we supposedly are or have?

I called today’s message ‘faith without God.’ It’s a topic that feels very personal to me. My faith journey has taken me from despising the notion of faith to seeing faith as essential - to becoming a faithful atheist. Of course, I am counting on you having all sorts of different beliefs and perspectives. The important thing today will be looking at the important role faith plays in all of our lives - whether we want to use that word or not and no matter what supernatural beliefs we may or may not have.

The lyrics of Sting’s song seem particularly relevant - perhaps more so than when he wrote them more than two decades ago. If we don’t have faith in a traditional religion, if we lose our faith in progress and politicians - what do we have left? When the assumptions in our lives start to crumble, when the systems and people we trusted prove unworthy of that trust and we feel as though we are cast adrift in a hard and uncertain world, where can we turn? What, if anything is worthy of our faith? And do we need faith at all?

Faith is an ambiguous word.  It can mean a way of believing, like when someone say ‘you must have faith.’ And it can be an organised system of belief - a religion. 

But faith almost always means relying on God - a divine or supernatural something - that will never fail.

Despite the difficulties of the word faith and all its traditional baggage, I have faith. And I also believe that you each have faith. And this is important and it is something that we can do more with. Exploring our individual and collective faith makes us stronger, more resilient, and more able to act for ourselves and others. Faith is a crucial foundation of our ability to work for a better, fairer, more loving world.

So, I’ve said you have faith. And you might be wrestling a bit with that. Given the traditional meanings, you might be silently arguing with me. So, let’s take a step back… 
What is faith? The word itself comes from a Latin root that means to trust. Since the 14th century, Christianity gave the word a meaning of holding a belief with incomplete evidence - and maybe no evidence at all. 

And this is what really rankles many of us - those like me who think of ourselves as rational and maybe even scientific. We don’t want to believe in things just because someone else says so. We have our own minds, don’t we? We don’t want to believe something just because our parents did. The fact that a billion other people believe something or that an idea has been around for a long time or that it’s supported by ancient texts doesn’t do it for many of of us.
And I think we resent it even more when questioning a belief is treated as unacceptable. If you were to wonder about a religious teaching and ask ‘how could he fit all those animals in a boat and didn’t they eat each other?’ or ‘why would God let there be so much suffering?’ you might be told that it is not something to prove or something to discuss in the way we talk about other things in our lives. The reply might be that these teachings are a different kind of a thing - a thing to accept on faith. Something to be believed because otherwise the whole system won’t work for you. You won’t get the rewards built into that system and you might be threatened with some punishments.

And that doesn’t sit well at all with those of us who expect evidence in our daily lives. But faith seems to be a thing that you’re meant to do without evidence - and especially because of tradition or someone else’s say-so. 

Surely, this is not the kind of faith that I have and that I say you have. Well, in many ways, it is. And in some other important ways, it’s not.

I know that you have faith because the truth is that we couldn’t manage without having some kind of faith. 

It’s like Thomas Smith’s poem - Even getting through everyday life requires that we put our trust or faith in many many places - in people and things that we can’t be sure will come through for us - even when sometimes we fully suspect they won’t.

But the faith I have in mind is about more than the risk of lost parcel or a cheque deposited in a machine that may not show up in your account.

We’re talking about life-saving and life-sustaining faith.

I say we have faith because faith is something that allows you to pull yourself up when you are knocked down. Faith is something you can reach toward and gain hope in terrible times. Faith recharges you and makes you able to look to the future and see something other than darkness. 

If we didn’t have faith, we wouldn’t be here.

You’re here. You’re not hiding in a locked room. You haven’t given up, despite hard times in your personal lives and the hard times that haunt our politics and our society even now.

You may have faith in more than one thing. Your faith may not be so clear as to be identified with a thing at all. It may not be something you can name. It may be more like poetry than that. Like Mary Oliver’s beautiful and mysterious words describing the invisible and silent but inevitable transformation of seed to mature corn plant.

The great 20th century theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us that - looking at the span of history - everything is confusing, mysterious, and unpredictable in its own time. His words: “Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any im­mediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith.”

And this is essential. If we were to decide to act in the world only when we were certain of the consequences - absolutely confident of the future effects of our current actions - then we would do nothing at all.

Faith is necessary for acting in the real world - in the reality that nothing is certain and that everything is far more complex and mysterious than we can understand.

For a very long time, I rejected the idea of faith, preferring a scientist’s notion that nothing should be believed without evidence. I eventually came to realise that life is not like that. Even science is not like that! Most experiments brought surprises and their own mysteries. 
The next step for me was to ask what I could have faith in - what could I hold onto - what was it that gave me the strength to get up and try again. For me, the answer was not God or anything supernatural, but it was certainly mysterious and unprovable.

The answer I found helps me to find my faith when I need it. And having that answer allows me to explore it further and it helps me to make my faith more robust, broader, and deeper.
The past year has brought difficult events and realisations for most of us. We have seen the Brexit vote bring out racist, islamophobic, and xenophobic acts. We have seen right-wing movements rising throughout Europe that draw on many of the same dark impulses. And then, just a few weeks ago, the US election brought to power a man who has deliberately stirred racist tensions - who has boasted of sexual assaults - who has exacerbated fear and hatred of anyone different. 

And I, like most of us, felt shock and grief. It is faith that I draw upon to come out of mourning and toward action. My faith, as I have come to understand it, is a faith in the potential for human goodness. It is easy to believe that some people are evil and have no goodness within them. I choose to believe that everyone has the possibility of good and that no one wants evil. No one, I believe, wakes up each day thinking ‘how can I cause misery today?’ 

Many of us cause harm and suffering, but it is not because that is our aim. It is a misplaced and distorted working out of our pain and of our shared longings for happiness and meaning and love.

This same faith can be found as the first of the seven Unitarian Universalist principles, which affirms ‘the inherent worth and dignity of all people.’ Those words weren’t enough to make a faith meaningful for me. They were just words until life and reflection and words came together to create what I can call faith.

And it is faith in the sense of being unprovable. There is certainly plenty of evidence to the contrary. People can be horrible and cruel. They can do terrible things.

But I found I had to choose what to believe - whether to believe that some people were good and others evil or to believe in good. The first is a dead end. If human beings are evil, there is no chance of change - not chance of progress - no chance of a better world.

So I choose my faith and in my choosing, it grows stronger and broader. It gives me hope and helps me to act. It helps my heart turn away from hate and toward love.

Faith may be different for each of us. It will surely change and grow over time. It doesn’t need to be traditional or have any supernatural component. But we need to have faith. We need it to return to joy and meaning after the dark times in our lives. We need faith to rise again amid dark times in our world - to look toward the future - and to get to work.

May it be so.

Let us have faith
Faith in one another
Faith in our interconnection
And faith that we can make a difference in this world