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Speaking Our Faith in a Secular World

Rev. Dr. Brent Coffin
Sun, Sep 27

The Question

This morning I’ve been asked to share some thoughts on a question that keeps surfacing for us as a diverse congregation. How do we speak our faith not only in church but in the larger secular world? How do I articulate my faith to our children? How do I express my faith to a friend who wants to know why I come to First Church? How do I bring my faith into the workplace?

Such questions have emerged as a broadly shared concern for us. Last spring many of us responded to a congregational survey on the health and vitality of First Church. The results were overwhelmingly positive. In area after area—morale, conflict management, governance, ministerial leadership, education, worship and music—the results were almost off the charts. There is just one area where we gave ourselves a very low mark. The area had to do with spiritual vitality. Really? How is it that we feel so good about this community, yet rate ourselves low in spiritual vitality? Here’s how the consultant interpreted it.

This measurement looks at how well people are integrating their faith experience with the church into their daily life. For First Church members this is a big disconnect and affords a great opportunity… [of finding new ways] not to compartmentalize our faith, and instead allow it to penetrate into all elements of our life.

Wow! Good for us! What a great affirmation of this community that we have named our desire to address what I believe is the most difficult challenge in being a person of faith: how to articulate and integrate the way of Jesus’ inclusive love and compassion into all areas of our lives.

In my 45 years as a student of theology, a minister in inner city and suburban churches, the executive director of a center on values in public life, and a senior research fellow on religion and civil society, there has not been a single day when I did not experience this as the challenge of being a person of faith.

It’s a challenge that is rooted in my own story. My mother was a Protestant and my dad was a Catholic. Both of their families were steeped in the religious bigotry of that era. In fact my parents nearly broke up their courtship and didn’t get married because of religious differences. Fortunately, my parents didn’t let that happen. Instead, they adopted a pact of tolerance and silence. On Sunday mornings Mom took us to the Episcopal Church; Dad stayed home and made brunch. After church at the kitchen table, we didn’t talk about God or faith or even pray. Looking back I wish my parents’ pact of tolerance didn’t include self-silencing. But more importantly, my parents lived their faith that religious bigotry cannot be the way of love.

This morning I can only offer a few thoughts on the challenge we have identified and want to address together. First, I want to offer some observations on the secular world. Then I’d like to suggest several different ways we bring our faith into the secular world. Finally, returning to St. Paul, I want to remind us that we need one another to meet this challenge.

The Secular World

So what is the secular world?

The best way I can describe it is to recall a cartoon. In the foreground are two young fish talking to one another. In the background is an old fish all by himself. One young fish says to the other: “He keeps talking about water. What the hell is water?”

That’s the secular world. It’s in us and around us, everywhere; so much so that we can hardly see it.

Two Perspectives

That said, there are two primary lenses for seeing the water.

(1) Disestablishment of Religion

First, the “secular world” is made up of all those areas that are not governed by religious authority. In other words, our modern secular age came out of the disestablishment of religion. And this is a great historical achievement. All the powers of the secular world do not have the authority to determine our relationship to God. And none of us can use the powers of government to determine how others worship or do not worship God.

As I spent a number of years arguing at Harvard, the disestablishment of religion in America did not make religion irrelevant. Just the opposite: it has allowed religious communities to flourish, making this one of the most religious nations of the world. Because we are free to worship and serve God as we believe, we also are responsible for sustaining vital communities of faith—this one for nearly 380 years. Now, one of the great fault lines in the world that will determine the future separates liberal-democratic societies that guarantee the rights of citizens to practice their own faith or none, and theocratic societies that require all to submit to one religious system. So in this first sense of the water, thank God we live in a secular society where many faiths may flourish.

(2) No Religious or Spiritual Basis

There is a second, very powerful way of experiencing the water. Secular in this second sense means, and I quote the Oxford Dictionary, “attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis.” Is that what the water is—spheres of human activity that have no religious or spiritual basis, no meaning and purpose other than what we get for ourselves? If so, then we’d better just huddle together in our little lifeboats of religion—because faith disappears in the water all around us.

(3) Currents of Faith

What the hell is water? I can’t describe it. What I tell you is that the water is filled with currents and cross-currents of human faith. Because human beings live by faith!

There is the elemental human faith in the goodness of existence. When we get out of bed in the morning, brush our teeth, feed our children, go to work, and ache over the tragedies on the evening news, we are living the elemental faith in the goodness of being.

And what about science? Science takes things apart to explain how they work. Religion put them together to interpret what they mean. But science also is founded on a particular faith. Faith that the world is ordered and intelligible. Faith that research on brain cells and galaxies will unlock new realms of knowledge and human power—for good or evil. Science gives humanity great powers, but not the power to choose between good and evil.

And what about the hard-headed world of the bottom line, economics. Surely economics is not based on unprovable assumptions, attitudes and behaviors of faith. Oh, but then Greece defaults or a car company engages in systematic deception. And suddenly there is a loss of confidence—con-fide, faith—that affects millions of people. Economics depends on trust, but it doesn’t give us the power to do business with integrity.

So what the hell is water? We may not see it. But wherever we go, we are navigating currents and cross-currents of human faith.

Navigating by Faith

How then do we speak our faith in a secular world?

Let me distinguish three ways, and invite you to see if these make sense in your experience as we face this challenge.

As we navigate the water, we can speak OF our faith; we can speak FROM our faith; and we can live IN our faith.

(1) OF Faith

There are those times when we need to speak of our own personal faith. Perhaps to our children, a friend, maybe a co-worker or even a stranger.

We speak OF our faith when we articulate our own religious or spiritual experience in our own ways. When have I most experienced God’s presence in my life, and felt God’s absence? What do I find most compelling about the example and teachings of Jesus; and do not believe about him? How has the First Church community become important in my journey, and how do we need to change?

It’s not easy to speak OF faith here at First Church, much less out in the secular world. That’s why it was so exciting last spring when we spent five weeks in Lent asking a central question that too few churches are willing to ask: “Who do we say Jesus Christ is for us today in the 21st Century?” We explored how we understand the full humanity—the limitations, vulnerabilities, and teachability of Jesus. We explored what it means to see the divinity of God in Jesus…and in ourselves as human beings. And we explored how we find the reality of our brother Jesus, not in theological creeds, but in community.

(2) FROM Faith

However, there are many situations where it is not only difficult to speak of our personal faith. Like at my parents’ kitchen table, it is unhelpful or unwise. So let’s consider a second approach. Along with speaking OF our faith on occasions, much more often we have the responsibility to speak FROM our faith. We speak FROM our faith when we become bi-lingual, and use a public language we share with others to promote the common good.

This past week many of us have been inspired by Pope Francis. How many of you were able to see his amazing address to Congress? The Pope never once promoted the Catholic Church or Catholic doctrine. He spoke the language of the American people. The language of Lincoln and freedom. The language of King and inclusive solidarity. The language of Dorothy Day—a woman who was divorced, had an abortion and was a fierce critic of the Catholic Church—advocating for the poor. The language of Thomas Merton—a man deeply rooted in a life of prayer and committed to dialogue with persons of other faiths. What a remarkable example, and case study, for our own daily challenge to speak FROM our faith, in a language we share with others, to advance the common good.

(3) Living IN Faith

Finally, as we speak OF our faith to others when the occasion allows, and FROM our faith to advance the common good as often as we can, there is a third way we bring our faith into the secular world—by holding on to the practices that help us to live IN our faith wherever we are.

These aren’t the stuff of gurus and saints. They’re the routines that help us to stay spiritually centered and open to God in the water of daily life.

Perhaps a quiet time of centering before going out the door;
Or closing the door for a few minutes of silence during the day;
Perhaps it’s a personal prayer or spiritual reading;
Or checking in with a trusted colleague or friend.

Whatever it is, in the water of endless information and constant demands, we need to remember the simple practices that help us to stay centered IN our faith and open to the presence of God.

Coming-In and Going-Out

Let me conclude these thoughts by returning to Saint Paul. Writing to gentile converts in Rome, Paul is offering guidance on how they can live the way of Christ in an empire of many gods. “Do not conform to this world,” Paul writes; “but be transformed by the renewal of your minds, so you can discern the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” wherever you are in the water.

And what makes this possible for Paul? Not going it alone. But staying connected to others in the body of Christ where we strengthen one another in the faith of Christ.

And so it is with us. First Church Cambridge is not a lifeboat rescuing us from the water of a secular world without spiritual and ethical foundations.

No, we are a coming-in and going-out people:

We come in to speak the first language of our faith as we worship God, sing our hymns, offer our prayers;
We come in to have conversations, like last Lent, when we speak OF our faith and listen to others’;
We come in to create settings, like the Faith and Life groups, where we explore how to speak FROM our faith to the common good—faith and work, spirituality and parenting, the environment, and racial justice;
And we come in to learn from one another daily practices that help us to live IN faith wherever we are.

Then we go out:

Sometimes to speak OF our faith when the time is right;
Always trying to speak FROM our faith, in a shared language, to advance the common good as best we can;
Holding on to the daily practices that help us live IN faith wherever we are.

What the hell is water?

Whatever it is, God is infinitely more than water. God is intimately present in the water. So may God sustain our coming-in and going-out as we navigate the water by faith.

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