In a recent cartoon from cyber-space two women are talking. One says, "My boyfriend thinks that if you're religious, it's because you're weak and can't think for yourself." Her friend asks, "Hmmm, so will you still be getting married in a church like you wanted?" The first replies, "Well, I hope so, I mean, I'm not just going to sign a paper at city hall." A third woman, overhearing the conversation, muses, "She doesn't want an atheist kid, and he doesn't want a Christian .... Oh well, yet another Unitarian in the world."
Unitarian Universalism has historically been a meeting ground for interfaith couples. Why? Because we do not require one to hold specific theological beliefs. Therefore, the atheist and the Christian can join our non-creedal community without giving up deeply held convictions, providing they respect variant views and seek to learn from them. This radically open-ended approach to religion never ceases to amaze outsiders - and not infrequently insiders as well. Yet, surprisingly, it appears to work.
When we are asked to describe Unitarian Universalism to others we often say "you can believe anything you want" - our holy doctrine of "anythingarianism." It has been said that within our churches "anarchy rules" - a classic oxymoron; we have been called the church that "tastes great" in the beginning, but is "less filling" in the end. Some have said we are a place for people who cannot make up their minds. Others say we are a "refuge for rebels, a haven for heretics and a shelter for skeptics. One of our ministers even says that being a Unitarian Universalist is "like getting a nice warm bath."
Two Thursdays ago a member of my Building Your Own Theology adult education class set this thought to a popular showtune.
"Got no dogma, got no creed;
"These are things that you don't need.
"Meeting's Sunday, please do come,
"Join us 'round our vacuum."
Sometimes we so amuse ourselves by this self-inflicted humor that we don't comprehend the seriousness of its implications. Is it true that because we are presumably free to believe anything we want, Unitarian Universalism is all process, no substance? We rightly understand that creeds are not the basis of our religion - to us they seem to be beliefs frozen in time and space - they say "no" to new truth.
We know we need constantly to recreate our covenant - the mutual promise-making and keeping that enables us to walk together religiously. We correctly claim that our church cannot compel the conscience - ultimately we must be our own religious authority.
When one of our popular advertising campaigns says liberal religion puts its faith in you - it ought to be real scary. Who me? Me, a theologian? Me, who determines if God is dead? Me, who must signify the meaning of Jesus? Me, who must determine right and wrong and - worse yet - live as if I knew it? Me, the creature who must create meaning out of the raw stuff of my own existence? You've got to be kidding!
It is so much easier for me to say what I don't believe! I don't believe God is that supernatural figure in the heavens - much less a white male with a beard. I don't believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. I don't believe the Bible is the literal word of God. I don't believe we live this life just to get into Heaven - if there even is a Heaven.
Stating the negative - that's the easy part! The hard part is to figure out what I do believe. These are non-trivial issues - serious matters that make a difference in the way I live. It is important that I come to terms with my feelings about that Reality in which I live and move and have my being. It is vital that I have some models of human behavior to whom I can repair for hints about how to live a life. It is crucial that I have a strong sense of right and wrong - and try to live by those standards. It is essential to me that I detect in my life some reason for living.
After all, one of our oft-repeated Principles is the "free and responsible search for truth and meaning." Our openness to the search, however, can have two meanings. One relates to indifference, in which we either give up on ever finding truth, or simply don't care to look.
Poet Russell Davenport gave us a sober warning:
"Let us not fear Man: let us fear
Only what he believes in ...
It is Nothing that we must fear: the thought of Nothing:
The sound of Nothing in our hearts ..
The belief in nothing."
Robert Frost described himself as always "a pursuitist, never an escapist." "Don't be an agnostic," he said. "Be something." And, of course, there is the old saw, "The trouble with being open-minded is that your brains may fall out."
Therein lies one of the great misunderstandings of our religion - that we are a faith without content. Wrong! Our non-creedal religion requires much more of its adherents than meets the eye. In understanding this religious liberty as merely freedom-from, we have not understood the heavy burdens freedom places upon us - its severe disciplines, its weighty responsibilities. Remember, it must be a free and responsible search!
If we cannot have a faith based on creed, dogma, tradition, ecclesiastical authority, on what can we base it? Ourselves? Surely that is a weak reed upon which to lean. But what other? Who else will shoulder responsibility for our convictions if we ourselves are not willing to do it?
Which brings us to an openness that invites us to the quest. My theological school dean and mentor, Angus H. MacLean, once wrote about this search because he had experienced it himself. Born a Scots Presbyterian, he only gradually thought his way to Unitarian Universalism. Having been turned down for the ministry by his denomination's credentialing body for heresy, he came to us. His rejection was the creedal straw that broke his theological back.
Angus understood the dangers of rebellion - of severing one's ties with one's religious heritage. He knew the temptations of freedom are great. One escapes from a rigid creed, which no longer represents one's convictions, to a kind of dizzying freedom. As he put it, "The urge to get out from under anything that irritates us can easily be identified with freedom." But what then?
Angus described the situation in his typically graphic way: "The empty mind is the house from which the demon was evicted and then swept and cleaned for the seven devils that immediately moved in." He went on to write, "I have met people who regard a request at a meeting for all to share their convictions as they might regard a request to appear undressed in public. There is something at work here which is not just the commendable sense of privacy.... Is the stuff of your life in your thought?"
Angus MacLean planted a seed in me long ago when he wrote, "It has been said that liberal religion is a 'do it yourself kit.' But there is a danger that we would make it a kit not only without blueprint but without tools and materials."
The blueprint we can liken to any authoritative religious formulation - the Apostles Creed, the Westminster Confession, the Baltimore Catechism. Clearly we are without such blueprints. But how about tools and materials? My observation has been that people entering our churches from other traditions experience a certain joyful release when they learned we would not compel their conscience or require any particular belief. But when the aura of that freedom faded; with what were they left? A series of rejected beliefs. But that is not much help in living a life. What comes next?
There is a graphic image from an unlikely source that helps me here. It is a metaphor from that radical community organizer Saul Alinski: "The question mark is an inverted plow, breaking up the hard soil of old beliefs and preparing for the new growth."
Surely everyone who walks through these doors has one or more serious questions about religion or they would not be here. But the questions merely serve to plow up the ground of religious conviction - "breaking up the hard soil of old beliefs," but also, "preparing for the new growth."
It was that line of thinking that led me to the creation of the "Building Your Own Theology" course. Our task here is not to understand the Unitarian Universalist creed, for there is none. Our mission is to create personal credos - "I believe" statements that reflect our best thinking and feeling and being and doing.
Liberal religion is not merely a process of living together religiously - though it is that. It is not simply learning to respect the values and beliefs of others. It is not simply making peace among warring believers. It is a place wherein one comes to believe not anything one wants - as if religion were so casual an affair - but to believe what one must - because the mind and heart and conscience compel us to do so - because our understanding of history and our observations of human life insist we square our beliefs with our experience.
Poet Anne Sexton says it succinctly, "Need is not quite belief." She wrote those words in compassion for a friend who sent her a beloved crucifix and urged her "to make an appointment for the Sacrament of Confession." But the need to recognize we often "miss the mark" is not the same as believing what we should do about it. Sexton wrote,
"My friend, my friend, I was born
doing reference work in sin, and born
confessing it. This is what poems are
for the greedy
they are the tongue's wrangl
the world's pottage, the rat's star."
Need is not quite belief.
We need some sense of basic trust in the universe. That is not the same as saying there is a heavenly father who notes the fall of every sparrow - and always knows just what I am about. We need some moral guidelines to enable us to live creatively in community. That is not the same as saying I can do anything I want because there is no God to punish or reward me. We need some sense of meaning to get us through the day and the night, but that is not the same as saying our task is to praise God and glorify him forever. Need is not belief - need may lead to belief, but only to beliefs that grow out of the raw stuff of our own experience.
Martin Buber put it poetically when he wrote, "Freedom is a footbridge, not a dwelling place. Freedom ... is the fruitful zero .... It is the run before the jump, the tuning of the violin, the confirmation of that primal and mighty potentiality which it cannot even begin to actualize." Too often we only tune up and forget to play; we run, but don't jump.
Matthew Arnold carried that thought to its logical conclusion in 1861 when he wrote, "It is a very great thing to be able to think as you like, but, after all, an important questions remains, what do you think?"
It's a bit like doing a crossword puzzle. Consider these words: "You should do theology like you do a crossword puzzle. First of all, you do it in pencil, because it is very arrogant to do it in pen. As you find out more, sometimes you have to change answers you thought you had. And sometimes you may never find the answer; sometimes you just have to live with the question."
Building your own faith is like working a crossword puzzle. We know that while others may help, no one else is going to do it for us. We know we'll make mistakes and have to erase our first best guesses. We know we are unlikely to be able to ink it in and get all the answers right. Most important, we know that we have to try to put some letters - some words - in those spaces if we are to grow.
And so I share with you my own theological crossword puzzle - penciling in my provisional answers to the big questions - enjoying the process but needing to state my own convictions - where I stand here and now.
I believe in life - a life with its dark nights and bright days and those time in which joy and sadness commingle in measureless ways;
I believe in a life of birth and death and a precious interval between.
I believe in this life - I need no promise of the hereafter, only the certain conviction that if I live this life well, it will not matter what comes next.
I believe life is messy and we must learn to live with ambiguity.
I believe that if my life is to have meaning I must create it.
I believe in Creation, a powerful but impersonal and indifferent impulse that pervades and permeates the universe; manifest on earth as nature, over time as history, and in humanity as love;
I believe in myself, a creature of this Creation, blessed beyond all telling, a creature who delights in the gift of life;
I believe in the spiritual leadership of all the great prophets of the human spirit who live in love for justice;
I believe in humanity - in the great living tradition - in the procession of people who have sought to eke out a meaning in the years allotted to them.
I believe that people are precious, that it is an honor to share the globe with prophets and paupers, with all those who draw breath and make the journey with us;
I believe in reverence for all of life with which I share the planet; the earth is a garden to be cultivated, not a mine to be emptied.
I believe history is the only arena of human meaning and destiny, and that destiny is in our hands, no others. Whether the world will survive or perish is not written in the stars, but in our very human heads, hearts and hands.
I believe in the power of people of good will and sacrificial spirit who seek to create the Beloved Community of Earth - a vision forever unrealized but which moves me to work for its coming - though I will not live to see its fruition.
I believe that in the love of beauty and the spirit of truth we unite for the celebration of life and the service of humanity. Amen.
I could go on, Lord knows I could go on, but there are other Sundays. I believe this not because I simply want to - I believe it because I must. It is part of the distilled essence of the stuff of my life. That is my credo. What is yours? Let a thousand credos bloom.