Friday, April 16, 2010

This I Believe... (Part VI: Beliefs About Beliefs)

Part VI: Beliefs About Beliefs

I want to conclude by taking a step back by saying a few words about my beliefs about beliefs. It occurs to me that some of you may wish to undertake a fearless inventory of your own beliefs.

First, I think it is helpful to imagine our religious selves as resting upon a four legged stool. (Many people imagine a three legged stool, but I say that there are four legs.) The stool represents ourselves as religious beings. One leg of that stool is belief: that to which we give intellectual assent. Another leg of that stool is faith. Faith differs from belief. Faith, I contend, is not an intellectual proposition but an emotional proposition. Faith is what we put our trust in at an emotional level. It transcends the cognitive functions and incorporates emotions and feelings. It is possible to believe in God but not have faith in God. That would mean something like to intellectually assent to an idea of God, but not incorporate the concept of God into your larger sense of what it is that you trust. Similarly, and perhaps more commonly, it is possible to possess an emotional faith in God even though your rational mind rejects the idea of God.

One leg of the stool is belief. Another leg of the stool is faith. The third leg is action. So is the fourth leg. I like to think of action as having two components when it comes to constructing the religious sense of who we are. One leg of the stool is action that we might call spiritual practice. Spiritual practice might include prayer, meditation, reverence for nature, worship, yoga, journaling, and other such activities.

The fourth leg is also action. The fourth leg is action in the world. I am not just talking about social action, social justice work, and service work. I am talking about every single aspect of your life: How you are in the world. How you spend your time. How you spend your money. How you raise your children. How you manage your priorities.

Because we are Unitarian Universalists, these stools of who we are as religious people are not mass produced. We can carve them and shape them. There are some points where the third and fourth leg might touch. If you attend the Julia’s Voice Stand for Peace event, you may experience it as not only an act of social justice but also as an act of spiritual practice. And, you might argue that I have sliced the first and second leg a little fine. The distinction between belief and faith may not make sense to you, according to your anthropology, your idea of what it means to be a human being.

I believe I first heard about this stool idea from my mentor in Carrollton, Texas, Reverend Dennis Hamilton. (However, the idea of the fourth leg is my own, I think.) But, I think this image can be helpful, especially for Unitarian Universalists who get stuck on the concept of belief. Your religious self is something larger than what you believe. It is what you put your trust in. It is what you do to practice your faith for the purposes of greater self-understanding, greater insight, greater patience, greater serenity, and so forth. And it is also how you practice your faith in the larger world, how you live your values.

And, I want to undermine everything that I’ve said this evening by saying that beliefs are tremendously overrated. Religion is not about belief, or, it is not entirely about belief. “We need not think alike to love alike,” said Francis David, the Transylvanian minister. My colleague Ken Beldon quotes Henry David Thoreau as saying, “I know that some will have hard thoughts about me when they hear that their Christ is named beside my Buddha. Yet I am sure that I am willing they should love their Christ more than my Buddha, for love is the main thing.”

For love is the main thing. I am willing that you should love your reason more than my epistemological God. I am willing that you should love your Buddha or your Einstein or your Goddess or your Mary Magdalene more than I love my Christ. I am willing that you should love your daffodil more than my hummingbird, your fir tree more than my birch.

Here is something else that I believe about beliefs. Not all beliefs are created equal. Some beliefs are ignorant. Some beliefs are stupid. Some beliefs are harmful. Some beliefs are just plain boring. So, rejoice in the fact that there is more to religion than belief. But also, do not forget what Sophia Lyon Fahs told us. She said,
Some beliefs are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged.

Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies.

Some beliefs are like shadows, clouding children's days with fears of unknown calamities.

Other beliefs are like sunshine, blessing children with the warmth of happiness.

Some beliefs are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from enemies.

Other beliefs are bonds in a world community, where sincere differences beautify the pattern.

Some beliefs are like blinders, shutting off the power to choose one's own direction.

Other beliefs are like gateways opening wide vistas for exploration.

Some beliefs weaken a person's selfhood. They blight the growth of resourcefulness.

Other beliefs nurture self-confidence and enrich the feeling of personal worth.

Some beliefs are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world.

Other beliefs are pliable, like the young sapling, ever growing with the upward thrust of life.
This I most enthusiastically believe! Thank you for coming out to listen [or for reading on-line.]

Follow the link to continue to Part VII: Bibliography, Works Cited, and For Further Reading

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