The Very Hardest Thing

In one of the many enduring classic cartoons of James Thurber, his typical poor sad sack of a male is slouched, indolent, defeated in his chair. Two bemused children stand nearby. His wife, fierce and unsympathetic as Thurber women often are, is saying “You’re despondent! We’re all despondent!” This is a man whose dreams have not come true, whose bright faith and hope of once upon a time has crumbled beneath realities and harsh truths. And he is despondent. As, so says his cynical spouse, are we all.

Reading David McCullough’s marvelous biography of John Adams during my sabbatical, I came across a passage by his beloved daughter, Nabby, a passage that, quite naturally, grew into a sermon. Nabby was twenty-two years old as she wrote this to a friend: “Do you know what the very hardest thing is? The very hardest thing is to hold on to your faith when you discover the truth.” It struck me as being so simple, so obvious a statement and, at the same time, so precociously profound. She had caught the process of maturing faith as precisely as any theologian or preacher could have done. What can we suppose was Nabby’s faith that would have been so hard beset by truth?

Young ladies were protected from harsh realities far longer in the early nineteenth century of the Adamses. She would have kept her naïveté, and her faith, intact far longer than our children in this information age bombarded with truths by the hour. The faith of a girl and young woman in the early nineteenth century Massachusetts village of Braintree would have been built by simple Sunday School lessons in the parish church where her grandfather was a deacon. She would learn first that there is a God and that God is good, never mind the complications of evil yet. She would learn Bible verses by heart. She would learn the basic rules of the Christian life: live by the Beatitudes, the Golden Rule, and the Ten Commandments. Do unto others, as you would have others do unto you. Honor thy father and thy mother.

Only gradually would truths be discovered and come to bear on this simple faith in God’s goodness and loving care for his children. Perhaps a beloved pet would be killed by a carriage in the street. Why? Friends, good Christian children, would die of one disease or another. Fire would claim a family just down the road. Bad things would happen to good people. It would not be long before the local pastor’s assurances that all this suffering and loss were somehow part of a good God’s plan would begin to ring hollow. Moreover, just as the truths of the world begin to weigh in, the truth that our parents are flawed or merely limited also begins to dawn.

As a young woman, Nabby witnessed in disbelief and disillusionment as her beloved father and Thomas Jefferson, a longtime family friend, were pitted against each other in vile politics; each hired the same yellow journalist to smear the other. Politics can put an ugly mask on the sweetest faces.

The very hardest thing is to hold on to one’s faith when one begins to discover the truth. In most cases, and in families such as the Adamses, the faith would be maintained by virtue of their willingness to let faith and the truths of daily living live side-by-side, not forcing one upon the other. John Adams said, “Admire and adore the Author of the telescopic universe, love and esteem the work, do all in your power to lessen ill and increase good, but never assume to comprehend.” One pocket for faith, another for the truths. It is called “the suspension of disbelief.”

Of course Nabby never said it was easy. She said it is the very hardest thing. It has been no easier for us. Whatever our faith is or has been, truths have railed against it, shaking or shattering it, changing it, most certainly, for most of us. “We’re all despondent,” says Thurber’s realist. Depression is, in part, a reaction to loss. I suspect that, to some great extent, at the root of our shared despondency is the accumulation of the losses of chunks of faith we could not save from unavoidable truths. The hardest thing is to maintain one’s faith when the truth is discovered. The poet, ecologist, and farmer, Wendell Berry put it another way: “Be joyous even though you’ve discovered the facts.” What is this, Mr. Berry? “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die?”

What is this faith, so hard to maintain, and what are the truths of our lives in our time? Contemporary liberal faith was perhaps formed in the early part of this century with a generation’s almost absolute trust in the future. Wonderful inventions and discoveries abounded. An interval of peace was at hand. They saw the early dawn of social consciousness. It seemed that humankind could only go onward and upward. All boats lifted by the rising tide of good feeling. And, quoting Shakespeare, “What a piece of work is man; how noble in reason.” Humankind, so held the faith, was basically good and would grow naturally more good as modern science made life easier and war unthinkable. All this is summed up by the mantra “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” A happy thought marketed by a French pharmacist-turned-therapist, perhaps one of the first among the self-help gurus.

The truth? The slaughter of millions in a world war (though it was thought to be the war to end all wars). An influenza epidemic. A great economic depression. And then that which theologians have called the greatest threat to faith in human history the Second World War and the Holocaust. How could there be a God? And, if there is a God, how could God be good? How could millions of people be slaughtered, how could people slaughter them, if God cares? The problem of evil: How can a good God allow evil, not only to exist, but also to prevail? Right up to the present day, from the holocaust, through September 11, to the continuing mindless killings among Israelis and Palestinians, the liberal faith in the perfectibility of humankind is tested to the breaking point by the daily-demonstrated truths that human beings are capable of just about anything.

The first principle of Unitarian Universalism is “We gather to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Never mind Hitler, what about Osama Bin Laden? What about the young woman who hit a homeless man and left him impaled for three days in her windshield to die? The truths on every side make it very hard to maintain faith to “affirm” the inherent worth of persons, to proclaim hope for the future.

What is faith? “Faith,” says the Christian Scripture, “is the substance of things hoped for. The evidence of things not seen.” Faith, then, is not actuality. Faith is not fact or truth. If faith were truth, of course, it wouldn’t be faith. To have faith is to have a vision of the future, a vision that may fly in the face of truths, of facts. To have such faith determines how we live in the present.

You remember the story of Job. It is perhaps the oldest story in human history. Job’s faith in God’s steadfastness was tested by a series of trials in which he lost all his possessions and was left sitting on a dung heap, scratching the sores on his body with a shell. There are actually two endings to that ancient story of Job. The oldest ending, predating Hebrew editing, has Job left with all his suffering and all his losses. Life is what it is. Tough luck, Job. Job’s own wife told him to curse God and die. That ending, that truth, was hardly inspiring. The Hebrew editors added a happy ending. For his faithfulness, God restored Job’s health, increased his herds a hundred-fold, and blessed his family forever.

It is easy to hold the faith that all is in God’s hands, that there is a divine, humanly inscrutable reason for such incomprehensible suffering, all to be revealed and all losses returned in God’s good time. Nevertheless, the truths of daily living cannot be ignored by most of us, and faith is hard. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we are saved by faith.”

Niebuhr was saying that faith is essential for salvation, salvation meaning being made whole. Faith gives us little proof in our lifetime that how we live will make a difference or that the goodness and beauty we see or that we create will make any sense in the long run. Faith, again, is a vision by which we live without guarantee, which is the very hardest thing.

Let me give you my personal theology of faith and truth. I call it (while waiting for a naming more profound) the “as if” theology of faith. I begin by re-affirming the obvious: that faith, by definition, is not fact. Faith is a declaration. In faith, we declare how life is, what life is, what human nature is, what the future can be. We declare the nature of things in spite of those truths that make faith very hard. We say, for example, in the first principle of Unitarian Universalism, that we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. The term “affirm” indicates that this is not a statement of fact.

We are not confirming that every person is of inherent worth and dignity as if we were going along with an obvious truth. We are affirming it, declaring it. So to live by faith in the face of those truths we discover that make maintaining faith very hard is to live as if what we declare about life and the nature of things is true. To live by faith is to live as if. Faith is a choice among alternatives. Looking at the truths, the Holocaust, vicious people, the child abusers, we can choose to live as if human beings are little more than talking beasts doomed to self-annihilation (or Armageddon).

My question is obvious. Since we don’t know that grimness to be the truth of us, why choose it as an affirmation to live by? Because, make no mistake about it, we will live and behave in our lives by what we declare life and truth to be. In the Christian Scripture attributed to the Apostle James, James says it is simple enough to know what a person’s faith is. “By their fruits you shall know them,” he said.

If faith is a declaration of the nature of things, why not declare that human life can be improved by our efforts, that what we do makes a difference? Why not live as if that is true? I suppose that is what was intended by that French pharmacist (Emile Coue) when he recommended that daily mantra “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” Why not hold that faith? Why not live as if that were true? What does it serve us to live as if every day, in every way, we are getting worse and worse?

The faith of early childhood is naive, and perhaps it needs to be. We have other fish to fry in those first years. The disillusionments are also necessary. To mature, we must be able to live with the truths we learn about Santa, fairies, parents, people in general, disease, and death.

As young Nabby wrote to her friend, in the throes of the discoveries we all must make, it is hard to maintain faith when the truth is learned. Yet, if we cannot do that, we must either live in childlike innocence, – the seduction of Peter Pan and of immature religion – or live sadly out of touch with reality entirely. Much of mental illness, after all, stems from the inability to live with the truths.

“We gather to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” That is not a statement of fact. That is an affirmation of faith. And we gather to affirm it and not only to affirm it but also to promote it, to proclaim the faith. It is a declaration we Unitarian Universalists choose to live by. It is an item of our faith.

Yes, there are truths that make it hard. I’m frequently asked, “What about Adolf Hitler; was he of infinite worth and dignity?” I don’t know. Probably not. But I’ll tell you what; I’ve stopped struggling with that. I can live with the truths , that is, I can live with apparent exceptions. Why not live as if every person is of inherent worth and dignity? What is the alternative? Surely the “fruits” (the behaviors) of those who live by this faith of the inherent worth of every person result in more good than the fruit of those whose faith is that some people are of infinite worth or that we are all trash destined for hell.

Unitarian Universalism, rightly understood, is not an easy religion and I for one do all in my power to make sure that it neither is nor seems that way. The easy religions are the ones that tell you what to believe. Most of you here were there at some time and it didn’t work for you. I tire of hearing that Unitarian Universalists don’t have to believe anything. I guess I just don’t understand that. Unless you are looking for a date or sales prospects, why would you associate with a religious institution in which you don’t have to believe anything? I hope you are not here with the expectation that I am going to affirm that you don’t have to believe anything. There are plenty of places to go for companionship in which you don’t have to believe anything.

I believe that it is the task of the Unitarian Universalist minister to do the very hardest thing — to proclaim and maintain a faith, while struggling with the truths that, without a faith to live by, would hollow us out and beat us down.

We gather in this circle, around the flame, for warmth against cold, prosaic fact. We gather for the light we can add each other, no single light sufficient. And we gather for the courage we find in community to live by faith, to live by profession and affirmation, to live “as if” in a world of truths we would not cower before but, by the power of faith, transform.