There is a Hasidic story of a rabbi who tells his students, “Everything God created has a purpose,” to which a student asks, “What is the purpose of atheism,” and the rabbi replies, “When a poor person asks for your help imagine there is no God to help this man and you alone can help this person.” In this way even atheism can serve a holy purpose.
What this story suggests is that it is possible for atheists and believers to find common ground in working to end poverty and helping others in need.
Dr. Martin Luther King was a Baptist minister, however, when he was organizing the civil rights movement he never hesitated to work with atheists, skeptics and non-believers. When he was criticized for this approach he replied, “I’d rather work with a committed humanist than an uncommitted Christian.”
In more recent times the activist Chris Stedman has written about his efforts to work with interfaith coalitions. His autobiography is called Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. The title came from a derogatory comment when a fellow atheist dismissed Stedman’s interfaith work by calling him a faitheist.
So the term faitheist was not originally intended as a compliment, nevertheless, Stedman openly embraces the term as a positive description of who he is and the work he does.
Stedman argues that being an atheist isn’t enough because there are racist and sexist and xenophobic atheists in the world. For this reason, he’d rather work with a committed person of faith than an uncommitted humanist.
Stedman says he wants to change the trajectory of the relationship of atheists and believers from a story of conflict to a story of cooperation, changing the tone from a monologue to dialogue. He envisions a world where we move beyond toxic atheism and toxic religious reactionary impulses, moving past tearing each other down and toward building a better world together. He is not interested in celebrating diversity in a superficial way but in actively engaged pluralism, recognizing real differences but also making common cause.
So it’s no mystery why his book was published by Beacon Press, a publisher connected to the Unitarian Universalist Association because one of the most important dimensions of our faith is the desire to create the conditions where people of all faiths and beliefs can find common ground and work together for the common good.
Our interfaith approach is not just something we practice “out there” in the world. We practice it “in here” within the walls of our church.
John Murray Atwood, who was a Universalist minister and dean of the Canton Theological School at Saint Lawrence University once commented on the presence of atheists and believers his church by saying, “The Universalist Church includes people who put their faith in God and those who put their faith in humanity and those who put their faith in both.” Ours is a faith grounded in engaged pluralism, not minimizing difference but working together and making common cause.
This week a friend who is a member of another faith posted these words online, “God is bigger than your past, your depression, your pain, your hate, your anger, your doubt, your fear.”
These words stuck with me because I often say, “In the Unitarian Universalist Church we do not have to believe in God but we need to believe in something bigger than ourselves,” something bigger than our past, our depression, our pain, our hate, our anger. We may not all have the same name for that “something bigger” than ourselves, but without a connection to it we experience a failure to thrive.
Recently I have been leading a class on the book by Bruce Marshall In Later Years: Finding Meaning and Spirit in Aging. Bruce is the person who came in as a consultant to help start our pastoral care program here at TVUUC. Currently he is working as a chaplain for a retirement home and it is this experience he brings to the book.
When Bruce speaks to finding Spirit in aging he is speaking about finding something bigger than ourselves. He defines spirit by saying, “Spirit has to do with the energy of our lives, the life force that keeps us active and dynamic….Spirit connects us the force of existence: the energy that creates, sustains and renews.”
Now if you take this definition and understanding of spirituality seriously then the important questions are not, “Is there a God?” or “Is there life after death?” Instead the essential spiritual question is, “What gives us life?” What animates us and makes us feel fully alive.
Bruce contends that as we age and lose our capacity to do many things we have more time for contemplation, “Contemplative spirituality finds expressions in many faiths. At its center is the affirmation that we can draw closer to the force that gives us life. In some traditions that force is named God, while others use different terms to identify the essential energy of being: the Tao, Allah, nature, the light, the ground of being. The contemplative aspires to be present to what is life-giving, renewing, liberating.”
So whether we are atheists or theists or faitheists we can all benefits from drawing closer to the force that gives us life, and that is what we aspire to do here in this room every Sunday morning, draw closer to the power that makes for abundant living.
When Guillermo Maduro-Vazquez visited this church for the first time he drove through our upper parking lot and then down to our lower parking lot and he said to himself, “This is the UU church with UU parking lot.” However as he began attending he came up with another way to describe our church. He said, “We are the United Nations of Religions.”
I love that understanding of who we are. “We are the United Nations of Religions.” It’s for this reason that I often go up to the Spring Seminar of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office, because I do believe that there is a connection between what we believe and the work of the UN for human rights and peace in our world. In many ways the UN is doing a lot of the work “out there” that we are also doing “in here” and in our local community.
When Dag Hammarskjöld was Secretary General of the United Nations he worked tirelessly to prevent nuclear war, genocide, famine and hunger and for this reason he said “The United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell.”
Hammarskjöld felt that people of all faiths and beliefs should be able to practice love, compassion, generosity and service including atheists and believers. He wrote, “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”
When I first came to this church in the late 1980’s one of the first persons I met was Torsti Salo who was an atheist who regularly volunteered with a Christian ministry. Like many others in this church he helped deliver groceries through the FISH program, an effort created by Christian Churches to address hunger in our community. He said to me, “There are some things that everyone should be able to agree about. One of those things is that no child should ever have to go hungry.”
So in a world where atheists and Christians are often in competition Torsti Salo was a role model for cooperation for the common good. And you can too. Anyone of any belief can volunteer to work with the FISH program through our church.
Roger Christian Shriner is a Unitarian Universalist minister who has written a book called Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheist and Agnostics. Unlike Chris Stedman whose efforts were inspired by community organizing Shriner grounds his book in his work as a couple’s counselor. Sometimes the God Gap is the gap between two people in love, two people who are married, two people who share the same home and children.
So like most couple’s counselors he finds that it is task to remind the couple of what they have in common, a reminder that there are core issues that unite both atheists and believers, fundamentally our shared humanity.
“We are all much more alike than we are different…We have much more in common than we have that separates us from each other…We (all) want life to be our ally; helping us, empowering us, enabling us to be safe and happy. We (all) want good things to come our way; our wounds healed, our loneliness banished, our power restored, our fears allayed. We (all) want alienation to be replaced by belonging, impoverishment with abundance, bondage with liberation.” (Shriner)
I began by telling the story of a rabbi who taught how atheism can have a holy purpose. Perhaps he was inspired by these words from the prophet Micah about the value of humility. The bible says, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”
So let’s hear that verse in the way I faitheist might hear it as an opportunity for us all to be a little more humble whatever we may believe.
For atheists and believers are more alike in our ignorance than we are in our knowledge. We are more alike in what we don’t know than in what we do. Every one of us could stand to cultivate humility to be “mindful of truth ever exceeding our knowledge and community ever exceeding our practice.” We may not be able to share the same beliefs but we can share the same values. We can feed the hungry. We can work for justice. We can protect the earth. We can build the beloved community. When so many are tearing each other down we can build each other up singing together, “We are building a new way, feeling stronger everyday, we are building a new way.”
(This sermon was given by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday September 23, 2018)