“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Monday, 30 January 2012

What is faith?

There is an interesting article about the definition of faith on The Glory Land, a Fundamentalist Baptist website http://www.thegloryland.com/ . They quote the classic definition from the 11th chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament. "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

So far, so good. They go on to explain that "faith is not mere human hope. Faith is based on the Word of God alone. Human hope may be based on the sands of wishful thinking or human desire, rather than on the rock of the Word of God. Doubt and hope raise the question, "What shall I do?" Faith says, "I have done!" The common phrase 'I am hoping and praying' is incorrect. 'I have prayed and am believing' is more scriptural."

They go on to draw a distinction between 'natural human faith' and 'faith in God': "Faith is not natural human faith. In order to function in life, we must exercise a natural faith. We have faith in natural laws such as gravity and inertia, and assume that they will work the same every day. If the universe were unpredictable and untrustworthy, chaos would reign and life as we know it would be impossible. We trust inanimate machines. By turning an ignition key, flipping on a light switch, boarding an aircraft, we exercise faith in machines. [personally, I would rather say that we trust the expertise of the human beings who have designed and made these things, but that is an aside]. We trust vegetables and animals - we assume they will perform according to our past experience. We trust other human beings. We trust our surgeon, our spouse, our pilot etc. However, faith in God is supernatural - a gift from God."

So far as I, an outsider, understand it, the central requirement of becoming a Christian is to have faith in the fact the Jesus is your Saviour, who by his death on the cross somehow atoned for the sins of humankind, and enabled us to be reconciled to God. This was an unmerited gift from God, made by His grace, and the human part is to accept it with gratitude, and try to be worthy of it. It is not a path that most Unitarians can take.

And yet, Unitarianism is often spoken about by Unitarians as a "faith" rather than a "religion". In his book The Unitarian Life, Stephen Lingwood calls us "a faith community for those on a spiritual journey, for those who believe there is still more to be discovered in religion. We believe in religious exploration - through the intellect and through the spirit. Through the intellect we explore religious questions in sermons, lectures, workshops, and dialogue. Through the spirit we explore through worship, music, ritual, meditation, and prayer."

I rather like his distinction between intellectual and spiritual exploration. For me, having faith involves trust, whether it is the "natural human faith" mentioned above, or faith in Someone or Something beyond the natural world. It is not the same as belief, which you can do with your intellect. It is not by accident that people speak of "a leap of faith" - it involves jumping into the unknown and trusting that you will be caught.

But my favourite definition of faith is that by Martin Luther King: "Faith is not belief in spite of the evidence; it is adventure in scorn of the consequences." It means living your beliefs, regardless of what it may cost. It means having integrity; it means "walking the talk". Our free-thinking, independent-minded way of approaching life is poles apart from accepting a creed because someone higher up the religious hierarchy tells us to. I would like to share the statement of faith from the website of my home congregation, Northampton, which was cobbled together from a variety of other Unitarian sources*:

Our Faith
Unitarianism is a religious movement in which individuals are free to follow their reason and conscience; there is no pressure from creed or scripture. We are open to change in the light of new thought and discoveries.

We believe that:
  • everyone has the right to seek truth and meaning for themselves.
  • the fundamental tools for doing this are your own life experience, your reflection upon it, your intuitive understnading and the promptings of your own conscience.
  • the best place to do this is a community that welcomes you for who you are, complete with your beliefs, doubts and questions.
We offer:
  • liberty of conscience and freedom from imposed creed, confessions and dogmas.
  • a fellowship where people come together to worship; to share times of celebration and trial; and to help each other in the quest for a faith to live by.
We affirm the universal values of love and compassion, peace, truth and justice.
We welcome all who come to us in the spirit of goodwill and enquiry, regardless of ethnic or religious background, age, gender, or sexual orientation."

I think that's quite something. That statement of faith places a very high value on personal integrity - on finding your own way to the best that you know. It is not something that we do for one hour on a Sunday; it is a way of living - not only affirming the universal values of love and compassion, peace, truth and justice, but also doing our best to make them matter in the world, and in our own lives. It is something on which I can rest, in the assurance that if I try to live up to those ideals, I will be faith-fully working towards becoming the best person I can be.

*General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches leaflet A Faith Worth Thinking About, and Rev. Cliff Reed.

Friday, 27 January 2012

The rule of the last inch

Over the last few days, I have been indulging myself by watching the series of documentaries about how the trilogy of The Lord of the Rings films were made. And I have been struck, not for the first time, by the loving attention to the smallest detail of every aspect of the production - the ethos seems to have been "why make a good film when you could make a great film?" I have been awed by the trouble and time taken by everyone involved to go that extra mile, to ensure that every single aspect of the production was the best it could be - the art and design work is extraordinary, to give just one example. There must have been thousands of people involved in the work (including two poor souls who actually wore out their fingerprints making chain mail for two years!) and all of them seem to have been infected with the same desire. I think it is admirable and praiseworthy.

It reminded me of the Rule of the Last Inch, as propounded by one of the characters in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle:

"Now listen to the rule of the last inch. The realm of the last inch. The job is almost finished, the goal almost attained, everything possible seems to have been achieved, every difficulty overcome - and yet the quality is just not there. The work needs more finish, perhaps further research. In that moment of weariness and self-satisfaction, the temptation is greatest to give up, not to strive for the peak of quality. That's the realm of the last inch - here, the work is very, very complex, but it's also particularly valuable because it's done with the most perfect means. The rule of the last inch is simply this - not to leave it undone. And not to put it off - because otherwise your mind loses touch with that realm. And not to mind how much time you spend on it, because the aim is not to finish the job quickly, but to reach perfection."

None of us can work to that pitch, in the realm of the last inch, all the time. But we can surely strive to do the best job we can, whatever that is. And we can "put the thought of all that we love into all that we make" as Tolkien's Lothlorien Elves do. As Kahlil Gibran writes in The Prophet:

"Work is love made visible.
And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man's hunger.
And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.
And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man's ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night."

Friday, 20 January 2012

United We Stand

This week is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The BBC Religion and Ethics website says that "If you ask Christians why they take part in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, their answers are likely to include some of these points:
  • A common desire to communicate God's love to all the world
  • Accepting that God's ultimate purpose is to unite all things in Christ
  • Obedience to the prayer of Jesus Christ "That all might be one" (John 17:21) and that "There might be one flock and one shepherd." (John 10:16)
  • Acknowledgement that Christ is the only one who can reconcile all things and people, and that Christ's people must pray for this reconciliation
  • Desire to show the Church as foretaste, instrument and sign of the unity of God's Kingdom
  • Acceptance that the Christian Church can only be the Church that God intended if all churches acknowledge their mutual interdependence
  • Desire to demonstrate a unity that is sometimes hidden by denominational differences through the act of praying together
  • Desire to achieve unity in a way that enriches rather than diminishes the legitimate diversity of local churches
Many people see it as their duty to pray not just for the unity of Christians but for the unity of all people who are made in God's image."

As a Unitarian, I believe that all people should be able to "seek truth and meaning for themselves" and not be bound to any particular creed or doctrine. So I cannot agree with some of the reasons given above - Christianity is a powerful religious path, but it is not the only valid one. Other religious traditions are just as important. I believe with Karen Armstrong, founder of the Charter for Compassion that "The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice is that it must lead directly to practical compassion. If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving kindess, this was good theology. But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel or self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God's name, it was bad theology. Compassion was the litmus test for the prophets of Israel, for the rabbis of the Talmud, for Jesus, for Paul, and for Muhammad, not to mention Confucius, Lao Tse, the Buddha, or the sages of the Upanishads."

However, I do find it heartening that Christians desire to "demonstrate a unity that is sometimes hidden by denominational differences through the act of praying together" and to "achieve unity in a way that enriches rather than diminishes the legitimate diversity of local churches". I attended a fascinating talk earlier in the week, by Bishop John Flack, who for five years was the Archbishop of Canterbury's representative in the Vatican. Bishop Flack gave a fascinating insight into the changing relationships between the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. He made one comment towards the end of his presentation, which gives hope for the future. He said that there was a big gap in Rome between official statements and the actual tenor of relationships between the two denominations. For example, the Roman Catholic Church does not officially recognise Anglican orders, but Bishop Flack was called "beloved brother Bishop" by Pope Benedict, and was given a beautiful pectoral cross by Pope John Paul II. Signs can be more positive than words.

We live in a rapidly changing, often violent world, where poverty, sickness and war are all too common. It is time for all people of good will to be reconciled to each other, to see past differences of belief, and work together for a kinder, gentler, more just world, in which we can all live together in peace.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Scott of the Antarctic

One hundred years ago next week, Captain Robert Scott and his Expedition arrived at the South Pole. Like many British children, I was brought up on the story of Scott of the Antarctic, and admired the bravery and courage of the Expedition members. Robert Scott and his companions were heroes of their time - brave explorers pushing back the limits of humankind's knowledge of the Earth.

Scott and the others at the South Pole

And yet, the end of the tale was so very sad - Titus Oates' noble self-sacrifice "I am going outside and may be some time" always moved me to tears - it was hard to understand how he found the courage to lay down his own life in the hope that without him to slow them down, his friends might be able to reach safety. But the ferocious weather was against them, and they died in their tent, a scant dozen miles away from a supply depot.

I wonder, what was it that kept them going as long as they did - I think it must have been the belief that they were doing something that was worth giving their all to. There is a lovely bit in the Peter Jackson film of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings which reflects this - Sam and Frodo are standing in the ruins of Osgiliath, and Frodo asks Sam what gives him the strength to carry on. Sam replies that it is his belief "that there is some good in the world, Mr. Frodo, and it's worth fighting for."

Most of us will never be in such an extreme situation as Captain Scott and his companions. Nevertheless, all of us will have times when we feel "down" and wonder why we bother to get up in the morning, as there seems to be nothing to look forward to, nothing worth fighting for.

At times such as these, friends are vital. If we can share our troubles with someone who loves us "just the way we are", the chances are that we will be able to get over the bad patch and realise that yes, life is worth living, and that yes, we do have the courage to face whatever comes our way. Such friendship is beyond price - it can make the difference between surviving and living, between hurt and wholeness.  It involves compassion and love, and, practiced purely, it is one of the most healing influences in the world. It may not involve laying down our lives for someone else, as Titus Oates did, but it means putting that person's happiness before our own, because we cannot be truly happy if they are sad.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Ourselves As Others See Us

Last night we were watching the very funny and talented comedian, Michael McIntyre on TV. He was performing to an audience in Wembley, and spent the whole time pacing up and down, up and down - apparently it is his trademark style. And I found it so distracting - I found it was much easier to appreciate the jokes if I didn't look at the TV. My daughter does the same thing sometimes - prowls around the room when she's talking to me. And it drives me nuts! I think it's because I was taught that it is polite to focus on a person's face when they are talking to you, and the prowling / pacing makes this very difficult, and hence uneasy for me.

And then of course I realised that I too probably have mannerisms which annoy / distract other people, which I'm not aware of because I can't see myself. There is a lovely quote in C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters which illustrates this perfectly:

"When two humans have lived together for many years, it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other. Work on that. Bring fully into the consciousness of your patient that particular lift of his mother's eyebrows which he learned to dislike in the nursery, and let him think how much he dislikes it. Let him assume that she knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy - if you know your job he will not notice the immense improbability of the assumption. And, of course, never let him suspect that he has tones and looks which similarly annoy her. As he cannot see or hear himself, this is easily managed."

It is so easy to make judgements about people for superficial reasons like this. And so very wrong. I need to remember, to constantly have in mind, that "each one of us is unique, precious, a child of God" and should not be judged, but seen whole, and loved just the way they are. This is the heart of compassion.