A Faith For All Seasons

In his book The Informed Heart, Bruno Bettleheim writes that those who best survived the Nazi concentration camps were the Jehovah's Witnesses — "best survived" meaning that they did not give in to despair, did not give up the struggle to live, and did not turn on others for self-preservation.

There can be no doubt that traditional religious beliefs have sustained millions of people throughout history. The followers of Jesus went bravely to the cross, to the lions and the gladiators, firm in the belief that they would, in the twinkling of an eye, be transformed into everlasting glory. The faithful, during centuries of Christian history, have gone to the sword and to the fiery stake with praise on their lips, steadfast in their faith. The faith has sustained many through personal tragedy, death and loss. What is this faith that has carried many gloriously to the teeth of the lion and sometimes even gladly into death?

I don't wish to over-simplify but, essentially, the core of the traditional Christian faith is the doctrine of personal immortality, of life after death. It is sometimes said that there would have been no Christianity had it not been for the resurrection of Jesus — or at least had it not been for the belief about the resurrection of Jesus.

According to traditional Christian belief, Jesus was crucified, was dead, and buried. Many martyrs have died for their convictions and have died on behalf of others. The difference in the Christian story is that on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead, walked among the people then went to join God, his father, in heaven. And the gospels have Jesus say to the faithful, "Because I live, you shall live also."

The Christians went to the lions, to the stake, to Hitler's death camps, and to death by disease or old age without fear and sometimes in joy believing that, at the instant of their deaths, they will be transfigured, "meet their savior face to face," enter an eternity of blissful immortality. Those suffering from disease and from poverty — like the common people who went to the lions in Roman amphitheaters — have borne their suffering in the conviction that, in another world to come, they would be richer by far than the kings of this world.

Similar beliefs about a glorious afterlife have also provided courage and succor to people of other faiths. Japanese kamikaze pilots dove their planes into allied ships in the firm belief that they would, at the moment of their deaths, join their ancestors. American Indian warriors charged into stunned federal troops without fear for their lives, in their belief, like that of the Japanese, that they would go to their ancestors. The conviction that, after death, conscious existence, with personal identity intact, will continue forever, has been a sustaining faith for a considerable portion of humanity since the dawn of religious consciousness.

Does Unitarian Universalism have such beliefs to uphold its people under trials and imminent death? No. The question arises, "What does Unitarian Universalism offer its members to sustain them in similar situations?" It is a good question. It leads us to consider our faith, to consider its adequacy to uphold us in all seasons of the soul.

Several times in my ministry, I have had the experience of watching Unitarian Universalists revert to their former faith when facing death. I will never forget one young woman, married with two high school children. She sang in the choir of the church I served then, taught Sunday school, served on committees. Her husband was president of the congregation. Our families had become close friends over the years.

Then she developed cancer. When she entered the hospital for what we all knew would be the last phase of her illness, her liberal religion failed her. She reached back into her childhood to embrace a faith and a God to sustain her. I could no longer be her minister. I visited her to the time of her death as a friend, leaving her spiritual care to a local Methodist minister.

Those, like my friend, whose liberal religion fails them in a time of crisis, may have been filled with guilt and remorse, or they have simply feared death — been overwhelmed at the end by the old beliefs about hellfire and damnation and needed the assurances of traditional Christianity. Not once have I argued with them in their struggle. Not once did I attempt to reason with them. If their reaching for and grasping their old beliefs helped them to face what they had to face, then who was I to get in the way?

At the same time, I have never felt that ours is an inadequate faith. I have never felt that we Unitarian Universalists should or ought to have a faith that would give us the comfort, and assurance of traditional beliefs. It is a comforting belief — that, at the moment of death, we shall be transfigured from this life to another. And it is a reassuring belief that some other existence — a place and an endless time after life on earth — will be easier, richer, simpler, more beautiful — than the life we have. “Blessed assurance,” as the Christian hymn says.

Yet the conviction of personal salvation and immortality may be a costly conviction for humanity in general. Emphasis on some life to come, while it may give some comfort in the trials of this life, has led, in many, to a devaluation of this life, and a devaluation of the earth on which we live. Through my grandmother’s influence, I was indoctrinated into the beliefs of the Jehovah's Witnesses for several of my adolescent years. I remember clearly the extent to which it was drummed into me that this world is temporary, this life is transient, the end almost upon us, nothing in it — including my own family — worth saving or worrying about. Those who discount and devalue this earthly life in favor of some storied afterlife will take risks with this life and with the earth that endanger us all and may remove themselves from responsibility for what happens in this life and to this earth. Many fundamentalist Christians are not afraid of nuclear wars because they believe in "the rapture." They believe that world-engulfing wars may be simply God’s tools for cleansing the earth and that he will take all true Christians up into heaven before the final holocaust. So why work for a peaceful world? Why work to end hunger, poverty, disease — if, after taking that blessed step from life to death, there is another world, a world of bliss and eternal happiness?

Why worry about the ecology of the earth if heaven is our goal?

Such beliefs, embodying as they do a carelessness about the world we share, threaten all of us — threaten the lives of those of us who do not take this world so lightly and who perhaps are not so convinced that we have more than one life to live.

The fact that a faith has been a blessing to those who hold it does not, in itself, recommend it as superior to others. The highest value of a religion, it seems to me, is not in whether or not it helps people to die with grace but in whether or not, and to what extent, it helps people to live in this world with meaning, purpose, and joy. I firmly believe that people who value this life, who have experienced the beauty of this life, and who have shared the wonder of life in relationship with others will not fear death. They may regret death. But they will not fear it.

Bruno Bettleheim put forth the Jehovah's Witnesses as those who best survived the Nazi death camps. Others have drawn more humanistic lessons from the same horrors. Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist, was an inmate of the death camps for several years. Out of his experience, he developed a psychological system called "logotherapy," or "meaning therapy," which was based on his personal observation that those who best survived the death camps were not necessarily people of one faith or another.

The survivors, Frankl said, were those who had a meaning for their existence whatever the source and foundation of that meaning — that was stronger than their suffering and more compelling than the threat of death. "Those who have a why for living," Frankl wrote, "can live with almost any how." Those who loved music, Frankl said, though they had lost everything, every worldly thing — even the gold fillings in their teeth — could create music in their heads. Some painted pictures in their minds. Created stories. Developed mathematical theorems. Frankl himself created and stored in his mind what turned out to be a ten-volume work of psychological theory on the meaning of meaning.

Elie Wiesel, who has devoted his life to studying and teaching about the holocaust, tells the story of the death camp inmate, who, close to death, one day crawled through the snow to the fence around the camp. There, beyond the fence, pushing up through the frozen crust, he saw a single flower — and in that single flower, blooming in that place, he saw the grace of the universe. He died in hope, in a unshakable trust in life in spite of the evil of the moment.

I don't question Bettleheim's story that Jehovah's Witnesses survived the death camps. I know them well enough to be sure that many of them probably did. Many faithful Jews and Roman Catholics also survived in their unshakable faith. The question is, what conclusion should we draw from that? That traditional faith is essential to surviving this life? That this life is only bearable or, at least, is only valuable as a way-station to the next?

Marx painted with too broad a brush in damning all religion. But it is certainly true that religion can be an opiate for the masses. Religion can, as Marx said, makes people able to accept suffering, rather than doing something about their suffering. Worse, it may lead people to accept the suffering of others, rather than doing something about their suffering. Traditional Christian faith — the doctrine of personal salvation — can be a very self-centered perspective on existence. Victor Frankl's experience taught us that finding a powerful meaning for existence helps us to live, gives us a reason to live and, yes, helps us not merely to endure suffering, but to cry out against the injustice of it.

Which brings me back to Unitarian Universalism and what it offers us and what it does not. We must remind ourselves, I think, that ours is, quite consciously, a religion of the religious quest. It is not a religion of religious certainty. If other religions exist to confirm people in what they already believe, ours exists to affirm and support people in their religious journey. Our religion is significantly, radically different from the religion of traditional Christianity. We do not have established doctrines and dogma, such as those having to do with life after death, heaven and hell, sin and suffering, damnation and salvation.

When one is identified as a traditional Christian, we know immediately and certainly what the content of that person's faith is. But we have not seen it as our religious business — and we have consistently resisted the temptation — to package a set of beliefs for common consumption no matter how comforting such beliefs might be. We have also made it quite clear, and have taken considerable pride in the assertion, that it is the right — and ultimately the responsibility — of every Unitarian Universalist, to develop her or his own convictions concerning the ultimate issues of existence. One of our seven guiding principles says that we gather to “affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

What we have, then, difficult as it may sometimes be, is not a religion of contained beliefs which may sustain us in time of need. What we have is a religion and religious community which is a context in which each person works out his and her own faith in the fellowship and support of other seekers.

Now, this does not mean that individual Unitarian Universalist women and men do not have a faith and beliefs by which to live. Again, I have known Unitarian Universalists to rest back into their traditional Christian beliefs in times of great trial or as death approaches. I have also known Unitarian Universalists who in such times have found their liberal faith — their faith as Unitarian Universalists — to be adequate for whatever the season of their soul. Some have finally needed the asssurance of a life everlasting. Others have needed only the assurance that their lives have been lives of beauty, love, and value. A person of liberal faith may regret death, because life, on balance, is good. But those who love life, do not fear death. A life-long Unitarian, brother of a Unitarian minister, said to me as he was dying of cancer, “Damn. I hate to go.”

As for suffering — ours is a faith that does not attempt to explain suffering or to explain a God who inflicts it for some mysterious purpose. Suffering does not mean, it is. I have found that most Unitarian Universalists have counted it a blessing that they have not had the burden of needing to sustain lives of needless suffering out of some dogmatic belief that their lives are not theirs to let go of.

My faith — the undergirding theology of my ministry–is that there is in the wholeness of the universe a power of Creativity — God, if you will — which is the continuing process which seeks to bring all things in existence to their fulfillment. The human task, and the task of religious community, is to create the social conditions, to create the world, and to create the kind of human relationships, through which that Creativity can transform us.

Transformation is a continuing, open-ended process. Dogmatic beliefs, claims to have the only and the final truth, close the doors to process and discovery. No matter how comforting beliefs may be, when they are dogmatically held they bind us to one place and to one narrow view of existence.

The transformation we seek in religious community is not mere personal salvation or personal assurance but the salvation, the transformation, the continuing re-creation of all humanity and all being. That all life, all being, is in continual re-creation and transformation is a faith — faith being a choice of how to understand existence and our place in it.

Ours is not a faith for another world. It is not a faith for other-worldliness. It is a faith for this world, this life, this moment as this moment moves into the next. It is a faith out of which we commit to the transformation of our lives, of all lives, and of the way we live with each other and with the earth. It is a faith in which we are persuaded that this is the life we have to live, to create and re-create out of sorrow and loss, out of pain and frequent incomprehensible horror, and out of love and sublime joy.

A few years ago, our Associate Minister, Martha Griffith, a young woman not yet forty, lay dying. She kept a journal in her final days and in her journal she left us a message. She wrote that she had often wondered if her Unitarian Universalist faith would sustain her if tested by sickness, loss and death. She wrote, “It does.”

Ours is a faith that will not look beyond this life or look away from it. It is a faith which embraces the whole of it; all the depth and breadth, the light and shadow of it, the searing heat of passionate being and the numbing cold of despair. It is a faith for all seasons.