Can we crowdsource a sermon?

On Sunday 5 May, progressive Christian churches worldwide will be celebrating Pluralism Sunday. I’ve been asked to address the congregation at St Andrews on The Terrace in Wellington by the minister, Rev Dr Margaret Mayman. She wants me to offer some thoughts about my ‘faith journey as a secular Buddhist’ during the reflection time. Reflection time is a lovely way of describing what used to be called a sermon.

The Minister see this also as an opportunity for members of the congregation to get to know me as a trustee of the St Andrews Trust for the Study of Religion and Society, a role which I’ve been enjoying for just over two years.

However – and this is where I’m seeking your help – Buddhists don’t talk about faith journeys. In fact I’m wondering just how to deal with the notion of faith in the context of this group of progressive Christians.

It would be very easy to say that faith often comes from religious truth claims which themselves are generally based on metaphysical beliefs, and that what matters is what we do, our practice, our ethical values and our sense of belonging to a community. But is this a little too crass? How could I put this across more subtly in a way they could relate to?

Please share your ideas, and comment on this post. Let’s see if we can crowdsource a sermon!

And if you’re thinking of coming to St Andrews on The Terrace on Sunday 5 May please do so. The service runs from 10am for about an hour, with tea and coffee offered afterwards.


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  1. Pete Cowley
    Posted April 26, 2013 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    You probably can crowdsource a sermon but whether it is logical, rational and sane is another matter entirely.

    I wouldn’t worry to much about others expectations, or about being subtle. Direct is good, how your journey was for you is good.

    Your para “It would be very easy to say that faith often comes from religious truth claims which themselves are generally based on metaphysical beliefs, and that what matters is what we do, our practice, our ethical values and our sense of belonging to a community.” is not crass but you will need to add more flesh and colour to it, but it certainly won’t offend anyone at St Andrew’s.


  2. Vicki Yiannoutsos
    Posted April 26, 2013 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Too many big words for me. Sermon, Schmermon! Just talk about your experiences, you just do what you do, whether it be then or now really.


    • Ray Taylor
      Posted April 26, 2013 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

      I am not big on the christian usage of the term “faith” however i do appreciate the term saddha shraddha which can mean faith but also means dedication towards someone or something that is supreme and revered. Another translation is that which I have set my heart upon.

      Best wishes

  3. Evamaria Glatz
    Posted April 26, 2013 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    hi, ramsey,

    ‘It would be very easy to say that faith often comes from religious truth claims which themselves are generally based on metaphysical beliefs, and that what matters is what we do, our practice, our ethical values and our sense of belonging to a community.’

    this is secular buddhist standard, isn’t it? can’t you just avoid it by omitting the faith in your sermons title, just speaking about your (spiritual) journey? and maybe address the contradictio in adjecto, that this title means to a secular buddhist? you might add some thoughts about language and how men often tend to use it for security reasons. To name a thing makes us less vulnerable, and so dogmas begin to arise… Stephen spoke about that in one of the talks he gave at Upaya zen center in february (unluckily I don’t remember the number- he gave 11).
    by the way: I like the idea of a crowdsourced sermon!

    greetings from vienna!

  4. Winton Higgins
    Posted April 26, 2013 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    Buddhists do have faith. It’s called saddha in Pali, usually translated as faith in the sense of confidence (in the practice, in the first instance, and the three refuges which all invite secular application). I think the secular Christians would rather like to hear about saddha.

    Winton Higgins
    West Island

  5. Brad Abbott
    Posted April 26, 2013 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    My refuge in secular buddhism has personally been driven by an inability to reconcile with the western concept of “faith”. “Faith” for me, pertains to a belief that cannot necessarily be verified, it may well be a one dimensional view stemming from my Christian upbringing.

    I personally would find it particularly difficult to link “faith” to secularism in any way other than a rejection of it. I am pretty much with Vicki, talk about your experience.

    And with all respect Winton, I while I would agree with your strictly pali definition of “faith” I do not think it will translate well to a Christian community. I think that the christian conception of faith and the strict buddhist pali definition are worlds apart.

    As a self defined western secular buddhist I have great difficulty incorporating the western concept of “faith” into my vocabulary. I prefer to talk about action that has its roots in knowledge. To paraphase the Buddha badly, try it out before you believe it to be true. No faith there, just a knowing based on experience.

  6. Brad Abbott
    Posted April 26, 2013 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    What I would focus my Sermon is “walking in his foot steps” an analogy that I think Christians would get and I would talk about those footsteps and the experience of that walk, not the faith that may or may not be entailed in taking that first step. Just my thoughts …


  7. Evamaria Glatz
    Posted April 27, 2013 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    one more idea: you might just start with changing the word “sermon” into “talk” and develop everything else from the difference between the sermons solemnity into eyerday life’s talk.

  8. Roger Wilde
    Posted April 27, 2013 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    I also like to think of faith as ‘confidence’ in the practice, confidence in the Triple Gem. Such confidence grows and grows through insight, direct experience. Have you read Sharon Salzberg’s book “Faith – trusting your own deepest experience”? I’m sure that her definition of faith would find plenty of common ground with Christians, and indeed other religions.

  9. Luis Daniel Gonzalez
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 3:56 am | Permalink

    Perhaps focusing practice as conversation, and faith as dialogue and truth as a social construction could be useful. That would allow questioning what are conversation stoppers (fears, obsessive consolidations, dogma, methapysical beliefs, etc) this being a practice of reflection, dialogue and concrete engaged action in the face of cruelty and suffering.

  10. Ramsey Margolis
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Thanks everyone for taking the time to comment.

    @Pete – Your suggestions about how to approach the congregation at St Andrews are really, really helpful. Logical, rational and sane actions are beneficial, no doubt about that, sometimes one needs to be more adventurous.

    @Evamaria – Very useful, and I confess to needing to look up ‘contradictio in adjecto’, an interesting concept from Mitteleuropa. Crowdsourcing draws on the wisdom of many, and as we see here it was a punt which paid off. And it will be a reflection, not a sermon that I promise you

    @Vicki – Words of wisdom, exactly what I intend to do.

    @Ray – I do like your second version of sradda but the first sounds more Vedantic in flavour than Buddhist, and would suggest that perhaps both are interpretations rather than translations.

    This took me to my bookshelves to see what Sharon Salzberg had written in her book Faith as did yours @Winton. Clearly my reflections to this congregation need to go beyond the concept of faith. We need to work on this, hopefully there will be more comments on this notion. @Roger agreed on the need to find common ground, but Salzberg’s idea of ‘faith’ doesn’t always seem to hit the nail on the head.

    And this is where your contribution hits the button @Brad. I do like the idea of ‘walking in someone else’s footsteps’, it reminds me of group walking meditation in a circle where all go at the speed of the slowest.

    Thank you @Luis Daniel, you’ve made some great points.

    Guys, you’ve given me some great input, thanks, and I think it’s going to be a interesting writing something. The talk’s taking shape but not set in stone, it’s not too late to comment some more.

    BTW I go all cold and sweaty when I enter a church. Comes from a childhood listening to old folks’ talk of pogroms in ‘the old country’. Sitting with this.

  11. Linda Blanchard
    Posted April 29, 2013 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    A little bit of faith is required each time we try something new — we have faith that through the effort we’ll learn something valuable. This is really faith in ourselves, of course, in our willingness to examine what we experience and find what’s worthwhile in it. I think the idea of looking at life afresh in this way is one of the central ideas of Buddhism.

    If I’m explaining Buddhism to a non-Buddhist this is often where I start: that the difference between most religions and ours is that ours teaches us to have faith (confidence) in ourselves, and our innate ability to sort out the right way to handle things, rather than expecting a source outside us to provide. It does teach us skills we can use to come to wise decisions, but the choices are always our own.

  12. Landa van den Berg
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    Since I haven’t got a religious upbringing it’s hard for me to comment on the whole notion of ‘religion’ and ‘faith’ . When people ask me whether I’m a Buddhist I tend to say yes, explaining that for me it’s ‘a way of life’. For me studying and practising the teachings has given meaning to being a human being, and guidelines for how I want to live my life. In that way it has filled a void in my life, as in my non-religious upbringing these questions where never asked, let alone answered.

    Personally I don’t find the whole discussion about whether Buddhism is a religion very useful. Potentially it can even be damaging, as demonstrated in the lively debates when Stephen Batchelor published his “Confessions of….”.

    In reflecting on your dilemma I agree with some earlier comments that it may be best to stay very close to your personal journey. Could it be that whether you call this a ‘faith journey’ or something else (‘spiritual’?) is more about semantics than of real meaning? Whether you use the label ‘faith’ or something else will primarily be driven by your personal cultural background.

    I hope and trust you’ll find a way to share your own voice. After all, the community will most likely be interested in an authentic story!

    • Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      On your second paragraph: Winton Higgins has made a useful contribution to the discussion on whether it matters if Buddhism is a religion or not at the recent Barre colloquium. You can find what he said here.

  13. Fraser Williamson
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    I think faith is something that does not need to be verified or have an object as it’s focus. Perhaps trust is a better word. When all the concepts begin to evaporate and great doubt arises deep trust in not knowing is possible. I think ‘faith journey’ is one of those christianisms which you can ignore and just go for Ramsey unedited. I think the Jewish sensibility of not naming the ultimate is vital. If we look at a bushy thing with a big stick poking out the bottom and call it tree then we think we know what we are talking about. Also so with The Reality. Am I drifting?

  14. Jan Rivers
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    I went along to the Pluralism Service at St Andrews where Ramsey delivered his reflection. It was a great event and reading these comments after the fact so good to see how the crowd sourcing steered Ramsey’s contribution to the service.

    It was very apt and very warm and a really effective reflection on a life journey and a destination of as well as a summary of secular buddhism. (It got a round of applause from the congregation which was very heart warming – and unusual).

    I liked the mention of Tony Cliff mentioned along with all your other influences Ramsey as I knew much of him from my time in the left on London during the late 1970s.

    Reading the comments above I thought that “worldview” is a useful conceept that does for the secular what faith does for Christianity.

    On a personal level my worldview is a backcloth to living – hopefully flexible and dynamic when needed but so much part of me that I don’t have to jump across a chasm (a leap of faith) to inhabit it. Its comfortable and congruent with who I am – like a comfortable old coat. Insights meditation allows me to simplify (deepen perhaps) my worldview.

  15. Posted May 10, 2013 at 5:02 am | Permalink

    Thank you everyone for all your comments. If anyone has more thoughts, do keep them coming. From the round of applause at the end I’d say that my reflections were well received.

    You can read the text of what I wrote here and add more comments, and listen to and download an MP3 file of the talk on the Audio page.

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