At the Tipping Point: The Matter of Belief and Faith
This sermon, “At the Tipping Point: The Matter of Belief and Faith,” was originally delivered to the congregation of Harmony, a Unitarian Universalist Community, on June 3, 2018. It is published here with permission from the writer, with all rights reserved.
By Dick Galloway
I believe our culture is at a tipping point, and at a tipping point, the matter of belief and faith are more important than ever. The question becomes: When your beliefs fall apart—no matter what they are or for whatever reason—do you have the faith to move on?
Belief and faith. For most people there is little or no difference between them. But this morning, we are going to consider how they are quite different.
In some ancient languages, belief is a noun. It has no life or action in it. Faith, on the other hand, is a verb which acts on our belief and moves in the direction indicated.
In the process, we often have to shift our plan as new information is discovered. That is not a lack of faith. It’s just how it works. This whole process is an “act of creation” of something new that didn’t exist before. That sounds religious, doesn’t it? BUT this morning we want to examine belief and faith not just in the religious sense. Religion does not own these two words.
Ironically, I will start with a Biblical account to make my point. We might note that after healing the woman, Jesus said, “Go. Your faith has made you whole.” Please notice: He did not say “faith in me” or “faith in God.” He just said “faith has made you well.” Both words are generic and they work as well for atheists and in all situations whether we aware of it or not.
We live in a time when people’s views are all over the map. It is clear that for many, there is a serious and widespread disregard for facts. For example: The belief that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time. Preposterous!
Don’t we often shake our heads in disbelief of what others believe despite all evidence? The reason? When people place blind faith in their beliefs, anything that challenge those beliefs are automatically rejected.
It is not so much the rejection of the facts as it is the protection of their beliefs.
If creation took place in 4004 BCE, they have to adapt what they believe is true accordingly. Let that sink in: not the rejection of the facts, but to protect their beliefs.
Belief and faith: A personal journey
For me, attempting to balance belief and faith has been at the center of most of my life. Being the child of the minister of the biggest and richest church in Middletown, as far as I could see, everything seemed to be working just fine. Our family was well known and well treated. I had no real reason to question it.
That began to change my junior year of college in Beirut where my world view, my idealized American belief system, was decimated. I was compelled to see the difference between how things are seen from a position of power are entirely different for those who are subjected to that power. They are as different as apples and oranges.
For most of us, “normal” is what we absorbed without examination ever since earliest childhood. How would we know anything different? Americans mostly perceive our nation as being the strongest, most moral on earth, a nation with purpose and destiny.
The danger is when pride in real accomplishment becomes nationalism and chauvinism which distort the truth of the matter. People like to believe they know better than everyone else. Here’s the thing: In our American culture, it is almost impossible to escape this strong prejudice of seeing the world through the eyes of power—and the use of force as the answer for almost everything.
For this to begin to change takes a personal tipping point. It has to start with individuals. For me, living and learning among Third World students forced me face the dark side of the typical American worldview. To put it mildly, we have not always been kind to the rest of the world. To change this requires those who are audacious enough to step outside of those common beliefs in the faith a better world is possible. They are the prophets, the dreamers who sow the seeds of an emerging vision of possibility.
Shifting the balance
What I am describing here is not what is often called a “conversion experience.” It is critical not to confuse the first epiphany—the new and sudden flash of insight—as being the same as being able to live fully in accord with that insight. Confusing the beginning with the end makes it a powerless noun. This often happens with those who become saved—not by faith they live by, but by belief alone.
Stepping outside of the cultural norm and becoming a change agent is different. It’s the beginning of a long and arduous path. As psychologist Rick Hanson says: “Neurons that fire together wire together.” It takes time and effort to shift all those millions of neurons that program us to see things the way we were taught. Reversing this process is a lifelong quest.
Back to my personal story: On return home from Beirut my central question became, “What do I do now that my belief system collapsed?”
This was not an idle intellectual pursuit. I was floundering like a ship lost on a storm-tossed sea.
I had to reconcile my new understanding of the world with that of my past and what needs be done to fix it. And it became clear to me that what I was discovering was not very welcome in most circles. And it often came with a huge personal price of rejection and isolation.
Fifty years later, what do I believe? I believe more than ever that we are at what some call a “tipping point.” Others call it a “paradigm shift” in consciousness. In the widest context these mean that the change needed in our culture is so basic that the old beliefs and values are dangerously out of sync with the world we live in. In many ways they have become toxic and abusive.
If there is any truth to these observations, it only makes sense that our beliefs should often change. Challenging our beliefs should be normal, an essential part of mental health.
Principles vs. dogma
Isn’t this questioning attitude the reason many of us became UUs? We question things deeply and hold most of our beliefs lightly. In fact, isn’t this why we have our seven principles to live by, not dogma to believe?
If we let go and fully embrace the need for fundamental change, the process becomes – well, not necessarily easy – but at least easier. It may help if we take a more scientific approach to our beliefs. I love the way that Neil DeGrasse Tyson explains the scientific method in this episode of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey”:
With that in mind, let’s take a deeper look at beliefs.
Typically for most, there is comfort in clinging to the past. It’s like backing into the future. It feels familiar, safer. This is regardless of the degree of the self-deception necessary to resolve these nostalgic views with the current world.
In times of deep change, history shows that that dogmatic religion, authoritarianism, chauvinism, tribalism—all ways of clinging to the past for security—become rampant. These are all attempts to hold back the tide—a fool’s errand.
This clinging resistance to change is largely the reason a “paradigm shift in consciousness” with the deep change implied are rare in history. Unfortunately, wars and revolutions—the result of divisive beliefs—are common, but fundamental change in basic cultural beliefs normally only happen once in a century or more. Why? Largely because most resist it with all their might.
Let’s explore the meaning of “belief” itself more deeply. It simply means “to accept as true or real.” We believe all kinds of things. We believe that the world is round, sun will come up in the morning, and that China is somewhere on the other side of the planet although most of us will never see that for ourselves.
A slice of pi
Many of our beliefs are a matter of “fact”: The value of π is 3.1416…. and never changes. It’s the same everywhere. It’s built into the cosmos. These beliefs are buried in nature of things that existed before and beyond our belief in it. It’s well tested—we can accept it with confidence and for good reason.
Even factual belief can be totally passive, simply an intellectual concept held to be true. For most of us, π is a good example.
We wouldn’t know what to do with “pie” unless we have a fork in our hand. On this first level, belief is merely what academics call “propositional assent.” It goes something like: “OK. I say I believe [whatever] is literally true.”
Unsaid in the background is the corollary that by believing, the work is already done. Nothing else is required.
For some, it comes with the sense that God is in control of everything, so we don’t have to worry about climate change, pollution, poverty, injustices, war, or anything else.
Another corollary of passive belief systems is that you must never doubt or the whole thought system falls apart. Allowing questions may feel like your head will explode.
When doubt is not allowed, it raises a strong, but false, sense of correctness and security: “I’m right and I know it.” To them, anyone who believes differently is obviously wrong, even evil. The other must either be converted or removed as a threat.
Whether right or wrong, strongly held beliefs are like a laser. If you excite a ruby crystal, the light travels outward spherically and diminishes as the square of the distance. It has little or no effect. “A flash in the pan,” as it were. But if you add the necessary optics to produce a coherent beam, it can cut through steel. Like a laser, beliefs direct our energies in a specific direction. But remember without faith – without the energy – they accomplish nothing.
Here’s the rub: Scientific beliefs are quite different than either religious and social beliefs. For the most part, scientific beliefs have little to do with what organizes and motivates our lives—how we interact with our families, jobs, and the world at large.
When believing becomes dangerous
The definition of belief begins to take on a whole new perspective when broadened to the trans-personal: a “body of tenets that are accepted by a group of people” carries far more power than personal beliefs. Negative examples are easiest to find.
The mass hysteria of religious wars, the Inquisition, Nazism, Jonestown, the KKK… Commonly held beliefs make all this possible.
For millennia, those who wield power have known and manipulated unquestioned beliefs to maintain their power. It’s way more efficient and cost effective than having to police everything. These beliefs are often intentionally couched in a “religious” form.
The word “religion” comes from a Latin word meaning “to bind together.” That is exactly what our common beliefs do—for better or for worse.
That’s why progressives who question beliefs are seen to be a threat to those in power and their minions. The mainstream believers oppose advocates of change automatically without being told to. Because we do not believe as they do, we are called un-American, socialist, heretics and worse. “Love it or leave it,” they shout in anger.
It sometimes seems that we are playing against a stacked deck in dealing with dogmatic beliefs, and there’s some truth in that—at least in the short term. Long term, I promise, the truth eventually wins out.
Dangerous as they are, without common beliefs, we could not learn or function. The integration of the human psyche, let alone society, would be impossible.
Hopefully we can believe that our families, homes, jobs, health, all those familiar and comfortable things that fill our lives will continue to surround us. Positive beliefs bring stability, assurance, trust and confidence. They free us of unnecessary anxiety and allow us to move beyond and to function more fully in the world around us.
Maybe we should consider replacing the word “belief” with the word “principles.” Our seven UU principles are not dogma we must profess, but rather a path to follow along life’s journey. Here’s where faith comes in. St Paul says, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, things not yet seen.” Without faith the belief is empty. When faith is added to our principals, when we step out on that faith, the new begins to take shape in the world around us.
Beyond the tipping point
So what is the takeaway of our consideration of belief and faith as we approach a tipping point?
For the most part in today’s world, both right and left cling fervently to their own rigid beliefs about what is wrong while fighting against each other. Both their efforts are in vain. Their divisiveness cancels each other out. Both are paths to nowhere.
Here’s the thing: It is not what we are striving against, but what we are striving for that matters. We ask ourselves individually and as a community of faith what is necessary to create a better world? One where we can live sustainably and securing the gift of our beautiful planet for generations to come. To create a society that fosters compassionate, equitable, and just relationships. To bring healing wherever healing is necessary.
To vest this with undaunted faith—each one of us doing whatever our unique skills, abilities, and passions call us to be. When we join together as a community of faith… When healing beliefs merge with strong faith, positive change becomes possible… we can move the proverbial mountain.
The future belongs to those who live in it. May we be part of that brighter world which is not yet seen. May it be so.
Dick Galloway is a member of Harmony UU.