The Center: Faith Like a Chalice 1

We gather in concentric arcs, and the center point of all the arcs is our chalice, the symbol of our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition. Our physical arrangement reflects our spiritual orientation. Our faith is at the center of what we’re about.

In our tradition, the pulpit is respected as a source of inspiration and insight, but it is not the center. After all, the guy in the pulpit sometimes fails to be very inspirational or insightful. (It could happen!) But our faith is a vessel always ready to carry us – a flame always ready to shine. Sometimes, in all our lives, the vessel is empty, the light gone out. We gather here, in the rounded embrace of one another, to find a way to fill it again, to find the spark that will light it again.

"Faith" has a lot of different meanings. Its synonyms range from conviction, belief, assurance, certitude to loyalty, fealty, allegiance, to credit, credence, reliance and trust, to fidelity, to trust, to acceptance. The word is used in so many different ways, that there’s a lot of space for us to say what it means to us.

One thing it doesn’t mean to me – though maybe faith does mean this to some people – is “clinging to a belief regardless of the evidence – regardless, even, of any possible future evidence.” I’d say faith isn’t really about belief at all.

When I’m asked what do Unitarian Universalists believe, my most common reply is that what we believe is that religion isn’t about what you believe. Religion is about three things:
  1. Religion is about how: how you live, the ethics and values that guide your life. 
  2. Religion is about who and what: who you choose to come together with in community and what you do in that community – the rituals the affirm your connectedness, each to each. 
  3. And religion is about experience: a certain kind of experience called religious experience – the apprehension of transcendence and mystery, beauty and deep awe, that leads to deep peace and equanimity. 
What congregational life aims to do is bring those three very different things together in a way where each one reinforces the other two. Your ethics and values reinforce and are reinforced by your community connection and experiences of transcendence or oneness. Your community connection reinforces and is reinforced by your ethics and values and religious experiences. That’s basically what goes on in religious congregational life. Believing is a big part of the picture in some religions. In ours, not so much.

So, naturally, our faith isn’t about believing either. For Unitarian Universalists, and I quote from one of our denomination’s recent adult curricula:
“Faith is about embracing life's possibilities, growing in our sense of being ‘at home in the universe.’ Faith is practiced in relationships with others. While faith has aspects that are internal and personal, it is best supported in a community with shared symbols, stories, traditions, and values. Unitarian Universalist faith development emphasizes each person's religious journey—each person's lifelong process of bringing head, heart and hands to seeking and knowing ultimate meaning.” ("Spirit in Practice," a "Tapestry of Faith" curriculum for adults)
The use of the word “God” – which might mean “universe,” which might mean “love,” which might mean a person-like entity that knows and wants – might or might not figure in a Unitarian Universalist’s articulation of faith.

I know that this is confusing for some people. But the fact that they are confused doesn’t mean we’re getting it wrong. It just means we might have to explain a little bit sometimes – which is nothing new for us.

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This is part 1 of 4 of "Faith Like a Chalice"
Next: Part 2: Defining "Faith"

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