Doubt and Uncertainty – Columbus 2018

Alison Wohler, August 12, 2018

First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus

Frederick Buechner wrote: Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep.  Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.  They keep it awake and moving.   

If Unitarian Universalism can be described as the institutionalization of religious freedom, then we could also be known as the institutionalization of religious uncertainty, the ants in the pants of traditional belief.  I like that.  

Two of our seven UU principles encourage us to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, as well as to accept one another wherever our spiritual path has taken us.

We encourage the search, not specific answers.  This is what makes us different.  We are comfortable with uncertainty.  It is the bedrock of our “way” of doing religion.

So, welcome, brave souls!  This is not a tradition for the faint of heart.  To join this band of heretics you need courage, bravery, a sense of adventure, and tenacity.  I’ve been a UU all my life and I know this is true.  

Here is how colleague Charles Magistro put it:

I’m amused by the view that it’s easy to be a Unitarian Universalist. It’s as easy to be a Unitarian Universalist as it is to be persistent, courageous, and curious. It’s as easy to be a Unitarian Universalist as it is to search the murky waters of life without sure charts to guide us or any guarantee that we will find a safe port to put down anchor. It’s as easy to be Unitarian Universalist as it is to overcome the natural fear of the unknown and venture forth with nothing to sustain us save our zest for living and hunger for new experience and knowledge.

There is more than a little existential angst to be found in any gathering of UUs.

We don’t have all the answers here – about much of anything.  But we sure have passion and commitment.  We often extinguish the Chalice with words about who we are and what we are searching for: “…the light of truth, the warmth of community, the fire of commitment...”  

If you are comfortable with uncertainty, you will feel comfortable here – at both First Unitarian Universalist of Columbus and with Unitarian Universalism.  “The art of living with uncertainty is the ability to love the world the way it is as much as the world we wish it to be,” wrote UU minister Rob Eller Isaacs.  This takes courage, because uncertainty is a fearful place sometimes.

Interestingly (I’m going to bring a little of my interest in science to this sermon), it is now becoming evident that there seems to be a genetic basis behind one’s comfort level with uncertainty.  Perhaps we have all gathered here this morning because of some genetic predisposition to a comfort with not knowing.  

Chet Raymo, in his book Skeptics and True Believers, identifies skeptics and true believers as two intellectual positions on questions of knowledge and faith. (p. 2 – 3)  Remember, these are his words, not mine.

Skeptics are children of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.  They are always a little lost in the vastness of the cosmos, but they trust the ability of the human mind to make sense of the world.  They accept the evolving nature of truth and are willing to live with a measure of uncertainty.  Their world is colored in shades of gray.  They tend to be socially optimistic, creative, and confident of progress.  Since they hold their truths tentatively, skeptics are tolerant of cultural and religious diversity.  They are more interested in refining their own views than in proselytizing others.  If they are theists, they wrestle with their God in a continuing struggle of faith.  They are often plagued by personal doubts. 

True believers are less confident that humans can sort things out for themselves.  They look for help from outside – from God, spirits, or extraterrestrials.  Their world is black and white.  They seek simple and certain truths, provided by a source that is more reliable than the human mind.  True Believers prefer a universe proportioned to the human scale.  They are repulsed by diversity, comforted by dogma, and respectful of authority.  True Believers go out of their way to offer (sometimes forcibly administer) their truths to others, convinced of the righteousness of their cause.  They are likely to be “born again,” redeemed by faith, apocalyptic.  Although generally pessimistic about the state of THIS world, they are confident that something better lies beyond the grave.

While I find that I want to say his description of the True Believer is a bit extreme, what he said about the Skeptic seems to fit me pretty well.  Where do you fit in these two ways of thinking? 

One of the first sermons I wrote for my old congregation was called “Living with Uncertainty.”  I talked about how when I was fourteen I discovered something about myself that I thought was the curse of my life – I was somehow able to see both sides of most everything.  This had become abundantly clear in a unit on debating in my eighth grade English class.  I just could not do it.  I felt like I was a fence sitter with a wishy-washy mind, doomed forever to the gray-zone between black and white.  I discovered that debate teams are just not looking for that special someone who will inevitably chime in with “Oh, I see your point!”  Why couldn’t I be like all my other fellow students who lived in the world of absolutes and definite opinions?   It was quite traumatic to get a C in debating class.

I have since come to realize that Unitarian Universalists live, breathe and eat in that gray zone. The very core of our existence is rooted not only in the lack of, but also in the impossibility of absolutes. 

I think that at 14 my UU upbringing was already affecting my thinking – and now I see that as a good thing.  But then, and even now as an adult, the uncertainty of UUism can be a tough thing.  If you think having freedom in this pulpit to speak my mind on any subject I wish is easier than being a minister in a more orthodox faith, you are mistaken.

Some people think that Unitarian Universalists are so open to uncertainty that you can believe anything here.  You’ve probably heard this myth dispelled before.  While we are definitely non-creedal here, and have no set beliefs, there are limits (strange as that may sound) to what we will accept among us.

The past president of Starr King School for Unitarian Universalist Ministry, Rebecca Parker, in a sermon called “The Challenge of Unitarian Universalist Theology,” (Quest, September 2014) wrote:

While we are open to many things, you can’t really believe anything and be a UU.  There are limits.  Unitarian Universalism is not an empty cipher.  It is not nothing.  And there are theological options that are beyond the pale.  For example:

You can hold a view that there is no God or that God exists.  But you cannot hold the view that God is the all-powerful determiner of everything that happens, such that there is no exercise of human freedom

You can define salvation, healing and wholeness in many ways.  But you cannot hold to the view that there will be an ultimate separation of the saved from the damned by which the good are rewarded with eternal bliss and the damned are punished with eternal suffering.  UUism is clear that all souls are of worth.   We hold that salvation is universal.  And, while remaining open to mysteries that may be revealed beyond the grave or in realms beyond what we know at present, UUism is clear that the ultimate is present here and now, and can be grasped and experienced, even if only partially, within this limited frame of our mortal existence.

You can be devoted to a specific religious practice – Christian prayer, Buddhist meditation, or pagan ritual (to name a few).  But you cannot hold the view that there is one religion that encompasses the exclusive, final truth for all times and places.  Not even Unitarian Universalism.  We are confident that revelation [in the many ways it arrives] is not sealed. 

It took brave people to venture out in new directions from the ancient religions of our world.  Unitarians and Universalists have always been willing to do this, since the beginning.  Today we need not fear being burned at the stake, or accused of witchcraft, but still, even now, we do often experience the disapproval of our friends and families, or other clergy at multifaith gatherings.  In this way being a Unitarian Universalist takes even more courage. 

I appreciate the significance that you, and I, have committed ourselves to a faith tradition that is very different from almost anything else out there.  We are not ethical societies.  We are not philosophical clubs.  We are not social workers.  We are not orthodox religion.  But we are a religion.  Don’t let anyone tell you we aren’t (which they sometimes try to do since we don’t all necessarily believe in god and heaven).  Religion, no matter which, is about finding our place and our way within the nature of our Universe and what it means to be human.

I am among the very fortunate who get to spend their summers at Chautauqua, NY, where every week-day morning there is a significant lecture on the week’s theme by someone of note.  One Friday author Roger Rosenblatt was interviewing Alan Alda and his wife Arlene on the theme of what it means to be human.  I was taking notes and I caught Alan’s last two words about what his plans were in this stage of his life.  He said he was going to “surf uncertainty.”  I did a little research and turns out he used that phrase during a commencement address he gave at Carnegie Mellon University in 2015.  He said in his address: “Uncertainty can be good.  I think the way to handle it is not to resist, but to surf uncertainty. Keep your balance, stay agile and expect the unexpected bumps.”

What great advice for those graduates, but also to Unitarian Universalists in general and to each of us in our own lives.  It did seem sort of cool to think that I think a bit like Alan Alda.


Does being comfortable with uncertainty (maybe even wondering if there is any meaning and purpose to any of it) mean that truth and finding meaning in our lives do not matter?  This is not what I am suggesting.  Conversely, I am suggesting that we live as if it does matters, even if we don’t know exactly why.  There is an art, perhaps a balancing act, to living within the uncertain and existential nature of our world. We may indeed be “the chance inhabitants of one planet on one edge of a solar system in a universe that is endless,” (wrote UU minister Charles Stephens) but we can love this world nevertheless. “Just because the universe is indifferent to us, is no reason for us to be indifferent about it.” 

Recently, on Facebook, I saw a t-shirt with words I like.  It said: “I’m a Unitarian Universalist: the bedrock of my faith is an unshakeable belief that your guess is as good as mine.”  (author unknown)

Unitarian Universalism has made a whole new way of doing religion out of its emphasis on the necessity of doubt and uncertainty.  Thank you brave souls for your participation in this unique experiment in meeting the needs of the human spirit.  

When I was fourteen I wished that I could be like everyone else and know for sure what was real and true and right. Now I know that the world as I see it has not limits and strict definitions, but rather is full of possibility.