The phrase “crisis of faith” may not exactly inspire action movie music, but it deserves at least one stirring montage: the conflicted believer on his knees, struggling to pray; the drone of a priest’s sermon barely heard as tears slide down the doubter’s cheeks; maybe a visit to the grave of a loved one, or merely a long walk down colourless streets. Behind it all, the weight of a choice, with a soul hanging in the balance.
My Unitarian crisis of faith is not so cinematic. We are not prone to grand gestures, and in any case, the trappings of most religions – prayer and sermons and all that – are incidental at best to how most of us worship. Looked at from one perspective, the entire Unitarian experience is a sort of ongoing crisis of faith, which means when a real crisis hits, you might not even notice it.
For the heathens: Unitarian Universalism is an open faith, with its roots in protestant Christianity but with vines and branches poking into every ethos north of Zoroastrianism. The mess of doctrine is all held together by a grounding in rational humanism and social justice, which means that UU followers embrace a neverending search for truth and meaning, but try to be compassionate and progressive as they go. I once tossed off a ditty about UU’s basic principles, though I don’t think it’s made it into the hymnbooks yet.
The occasion for that post, written almost one year ago, was a vaguely UU-themed informal gathering in Baddeck – the first UU event on Cape Breton since we moved here seven years prior. It turned out to be the first of many meetings, but by then I was on another continent, searching for meaning in more solitary ways.
Perusing my pre-France posts, I can see how eager I was to approach the sabbatical spiritually. I prepared a list of core values so I could meditate upon each one in turn, musing on how to best enact them once I came back home. I imagined finding sacred spots at every turn, and experiencing wonder and joy through the abundance of architecture, art, and the sheer diversity of humankind that I’d encounter on my travels.
Now I can see that plan for what it was: another bundle of clichés. The “spiritual walkabout,” the pilgrimage without a destination, is your basic Eat Pray Love mid-life crisis experience. None the less, there’s a chance it might have come true for me, if real life hadn’t intervened.
But there’s the rub, and therein lies the seed for my dull, confusing crisis of faith. Core values are worthless if they can’t be acted on, and “real life” is the only chance we get to act. One thing I’ve always admired about UU as a faith is its emphasis on positive, practical action. Time for meditation and spiritual searching? Sure! But without some tangible engagement with the world, all that introspection adds up to – well, to this. A lot of self-indulgent speculation without much payoff, personal or otherwise.
I’d planned to spend my time in France cementing my core values and strengthening my spiritual self, but I have come home less sure than ever of what I believe, and less capable of putting belief into action. I didn’t meditate about those core values, and those concepts which eight months ago inspired me now feel random and false. Nor did I find wonder at every turn – most of my art gallery visits felt like chaperone duty, not pilgrimage – and not even revisiting former sacred sites held much interest. Mostly, I felt tired and small.
Unitarians love to ask questions, to challenge traditional dogma, and to personalize universal ideals until each believer has their own bespoke relationship to the “infinite spirit of life” (known by some as God; your mileage may vary). A Unitarian crisis of faith, I’ve discovered, looks like lethargy: no interest in big questions, no energy for challenging, and in my case at least, a growing cynicism that replaces personal engagement. Instead of trying to pray, I curse my creaky knees and never get around to bowing my head. Instead of the tear-stained sermon, I withdraw from the very idea of congregating; and certainly, no tears can be bothered to flow.
But now that I’m home, I do have access to a community, at least – what Buddhists might call sangha. That quasi-UU group in Baddeck is still quasi-congregating, bless their hearts. This month, they’re meeting to ruminate upon the theme of “wonder.” I’ll go, for sure – I have just enough faith left in me to believe that a meeting with like-minded weirdos might be what it takes to jump-start my rusty batteries. But for somebody who has covered more kilometers in the past year than most Capers travel in their lifetimes, I feel ashamed when I think about “wonder” and come up empty.
The “crisis of faith” narrative only clicks when something important hangs in the balance – a soul, if you believe in that sort of thing. Maybe I feel so stuck because I don’t know what my options are – what choice do I actually need to make, here? — in a middle-aged, middle-class, privileged life like mine. There’s wisdom in the premise that one should act as if with conviction, even when conviction is lacking. And maybe the same is true of wonder – if I can act as if my world is full of beauty and meaning, maybe that’s what I will find.