A religion for hard times

A religion for hard times

Faith is what’s left when you stop responding to radical uncertainty with panic and denial.
Doug Muder


Is Unitarian Universalism a religion for hard times?

We’re in the process of finding out. Hard times, to paraphrase Thomas Paine, try our souls. They also try our congregations, our theologies, and our faith. Is Unitarian Universalism up to the challenge?

In easy times, almost any religion will do. Easy times tempt us to believe we have life under control. When we need to make choices, the conventional wisdom seems more than adequate. If we supplement it with our own research or cleverness or insight, it’s because we’re trying to get ahead, not save our necks. Even life’s unpredictable possibilities seem manageable: We can list them, assign probabilities to them, and perhaps even take out insurance—without the slightest worry that the insurance company might fail.

An easy-time religion can even be generous and helpful in an easy-going way. We can stand up for the poor without worrying that we might join them. We can comfort the dying without facing our own deaths.

Hard times force us to remember what uncertainty really is. Life is not like roulette—its possibilities spaced evenly around a wheel, our chips stacked neatly in front of us, our bets depending only on our choices and calculations. Sometimes life is more like being lost in the woods at night, wondering not just whether this is the right trail, but whether it is actually a trail at all.

All around us now, people are facing situations they never imagined. They’re losing jobs they expected to retire from, losing homes they thought their grandchildren would visit someday. Nest eggs that once seemed to guarantee a comfortable old age—invested in apparently safe and steady companies like AIG or Citicorp or General Motors—have shattered like Humpty Dumpty. Promises made with love and confidence—“you just get the grades and let me worry about paying for college”—can’t be kept.

Helping such people deal with their new situations is an enormous practical problem for our congregations, many of which are facing their own pressures from lowered contributions and shrinking endowments. But while we must never turn away from nitty-gritty concerns, I think it’s important that we not get lost in them and miss the bigger picture. Facing the uncertainty of life is fundamentally a religious problem, not just a practical problem. Hard times don’t just call for help, they call for faith.

The wake-up call I received from the financial crisis—my personal reminder that I don’t have life tied up in a neat bow—was comparatively mild. Shortly after the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy last fall, my money market fund notified its shareholders that it would be returning our money—most of it—on its schedule, not ours. Six months later, the fund’s liquidation is still incomplete.

In a theoretical sense I had known this possibility, but it was the last thing I expected. I had thought of that account like a stack of twenties under my mattress. It was my security blanket, my what-if money. But I wasn’t prepared for this what-if: What if one of the oldest and most respected money-market funds in the business goes under?

That splash of cold water made all the other bad news real to me: triple-A companies bankrupt, trillions of dollars lost, millions of jobs gone. Each day seemed to bring a headline more awful and unimaginable than the last. I have no idea what can and can’t happen, I realized. I thought I did, but I don’t.

I pride myself on being a reasonable person, but that kind of uncertainty is not a job for reason alone. Reason helps you manage your knowledge and figure out how to apply it. But once you’ve had the thought that totally unexpected things can happen on a totally unexpected scale, you need more than Mr. Spock and his logic. You need faith.

Faith is a difficult word for many Unitarian Universalists. Like God or soul or love, it repels definition. In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defined faith as “belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.” Sam Harris also adopted the “belief without evidence” definition in The End of Faith. No wonder he wanted to declare an end to it.

But the kind of faith I’m talking about is not an attachment to some supernatural order of facts. It is a way of living in the present, closer to a mindset or an attitude than a belief. Like any experience—like sweet or red or comfortablefaith can’t be grasped through a definition. All you can do is describe situations where the experience might be had, and hope that those who have had it will recognize it. I can’t even do that directly. The best I can manage is to start with a situation—radical uncertainty—and peel away the more common reactions—panic and denial. Faith is what’s left.

Panic is the most obvious reaction to that feeling of being lost in the woods. That’s actually where the word comes from: the Greek panikon, meaning “pertaining to Pan.” Pan was the god of wild places, the unmapped, uncharted regions where strange creatures might lurk and none of the familiar rules or patterns necessarily applied. It may seem odd to think of Pan roaming the floors of stock exchanges or the virtual worlds of credit default swap markets, but in a sense he does. We used to describe all financial crises as panics, until our leaders decided that depression sounded less alarming.

The simplest way to avoid panic is denial: Tell yourself nothing is wrong. You aren’t off the map, or you’ll be back on it any second now. Stuff like this happens to you all the time. Not a problem. All part of the plan.

Just about every religion tells you not to panic, but religion and denial have an ambiguous relationship. What some people call faith—the kind of faith rightfully rejected by Bierce and Harris—is a way to prop up denial, not transcend it. We put aside uncertainty by claiming God’s certainty as our own. God’s plan is not a mystery to which we must adjust ourselves, it is our plan copied over in God’s handwriting. And so the Almighty becomes an agent carrying out our will rather than the other way around. Of course God will cure our loved ones’ diseases, save our factories, restore the value of our 401(k)s, or stave off disaster in some other miraculous way. How could S/He not?

Many of the people most hostile to religion today are the disappointed veterans of such denial-enhancing theologies. “I hate it when people say prayer works,” says one of the anonymous postcards of the Post Secret Project (which I described in an earlier column), “because it didn’t when I was begging God to save my baby’s life.”

Humanism and secularism can prop up denial too, when their beliefs become too sweeping, too certain, or too optimistic. Excessive confidence in progress, evolution, or the human spirit can close our eyes to real uncertainty. The arc of the universe may indeed bend towards justice, but that doesn’t guarantee that any particular justice-seeking effort will succeed, no matter how ardently and sincerely we pursue it. And letting ourselves imagine that science’s map is complete—that questions with no answers need never be asked at all—is yet another way of denying Pan his due.

Faith is something else, a third experience of moving through Pan’s domain. A way seems to open up and you take it. You have no guarantees of where it will lead you, only the confidence that you are doing what you can do, and that you will be able to accept the consequences, whatever they turn out to be.

No religion holds the patent on faith. Christianity describes it as “trusting God.” In Buddhism it’s “action without attachment to outcome.” Twelve-steppers are pointing to that emerging path through Pan’s woods when they say: “One day at a time.” The lives of many Humanists, some of whom never use the word faith, are inspiring testimonies to their faith in truth and conscience.

Our actions may succeed, they may fail, or they may be completely irrelevant when the hurricane comes. If you know that and act anyway, confidently and yet with total awareness that anything at all can happen—that’s what I’m calling faith. That—not denial—is what people need from a religion in hard times.

Does Unitarian Universalism provide, support, or engender that kind of faith?

It can, but it doesn’t always. We’re good at popping bubbles of denial. But if that’s all we do, we’ll just send people back to panic.

Our congregations are full of faithful people, people who have survived not just financial setbacks, but also illness, betrayal, the death of loved ones, the failure of plans long crafted, and every other kind of hardship life can muster. Many have come through with their eyes open and their heads high.

Now is the time for such people to testify—time for all of us to testify about our experiences of faith, however large or small they might be. Not to spread false confidence, not to reassure each other that everything will work out the way we want, but to tell our stories of what has kept us going and what keeps us going today—even though we can’t be sure where this path through the woods will lead.

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