Friday, January 1, 2010

What I believe

I saw this bumpersticker a few years ago on a pickup truck outside the local post office:

I laughed. It probably sums up my own frame of reference more succinctly than anything else.

I actually think it's a delightful rejoinder, not just to cocksure theists of any kind, but also to most hardline and smug atheists. And it appears that some hardline atheists are noticing.

As I say, I like it. Yet I don't consider myself, in formal terms, an agnostic.

What I believe in is the Mystery, and the metaphor.

When DairyStateMom and I first met a little more than six years ago, our religious differences were something we looked at directly fairly quickly. She was a committed Christian who happily belonged to the Presbyterian Church. I was a committed Unitarian Universalist and long-time active member and lay leader in my own church community. Despite creedal differences we found that we could appreciate and respect each other's perspectives. Her Christianity is not of the "Believe in Jesus or you Go to Hell" variety. I do not share the scorn of Christianity, especially Mainline Christianity, that I hear from some people in UU circles. I belong to a religious movement that was the first in the nation to celebrate gay unions and has been on the forefront of the fight for Marriage Equality, and to a congregation that is one of many in our religion to have an openly gay minister. She left one congregation because its pastor was overtly hostile to opening Presbyterian ordination (which includes lay leadership, not just the clergy) to gay and lesbian people, to join first one, and later a second, congregation whose pastors are at the forefront of the fight to do just that. We found very close congruence in our deepest values and attitudes.

Sometime during our courtship, we had an earnest telephone conversation that revolved around our beliefs. I honestly don't remember how it got started, but at some point it became clear to me that it was necessary for me to lay out what my own rock-bottom beliefs were. It was a little scary: I know that I worried that I might "say the wrong thing." And, indeed, I had not had the occasion to articulate for myself even exactly what I was going to say now.

This is what it came down to:

I believe that there is more to the universe than we are capable of seeing or knowing. That is not a supernatural belief. It is simply a reflection of the limits of our senses, experience and insight.

I believe that all religious doctrine is ultimately metaphor -- allegory: Our attempt to explain and understand the mystery we cannot fully know.

And I believe that all religious scripture is the work of human beings, not dictated by any outside supreme being.

Those underlying principles make room for pluralism: to accept one particular religious truth does not have to lead one to say that all others are false. But they also make room for discernment: This is not a statement that all religions say the same thing; moreover, it allows for the judgment that some metaphors and scriptures are healthier and closer to the mark than others. It allows for eclecticism, even a so-called "cafeteria religion" -- a concept often derided but one that I openly embrace. And finally, I honestly admit I cannot prove it. It is the product of a lifelong hunch, the cumulative result of experience in the world, exposure to a wide range of ideas and belief systems, and my own contemplation.

I do not pretend to think that it is going to satisfy anyone who firmly believes their creed is the only, absolute belief system and one that must be accepted and understood in literal terms. Such a person would, quite understandably, dismiss my claims, telling me: "What I believe is true, not just some metaphor."

But I do think it helps advance the conversation beyond the statement that "well, everyone can't be right in their beliefs. If you believe X and I believe Y, one of us must be wrong."

Needless to say, my "faith statement" didn't shock DairyStateMom. She didn't even argue with it. Our courtship continued and the rest is history.

When we married, our ceremony was officiated by one of her favorite Christian ministers and my favorite UU minister. We lit a chalice (the one that is now the symbol of this blog) and stood before a stained glass cross.

And since then we have attended each other's churches. DSM loves my church's minister and appreciates our services -- but she misses the anchoring in Jesus and God that she gets in the Presbyterian Church. Meanwhile I have enjoyed visiting her church and getting to know its members and pastors. I've also grown from getting reacquainted in a meaningful way with the story of Jesus and of the God of the Old and New Testaments as a window into the Mystery of the Universe. But I remain a UU, and would miss the insights from my own church that are drawn out of sources as diverse as the ancient Jain tradition, neo-Paganism, Gnostic Christianity, Buddhism and Rational Humanism.

I feel blessed that neither of us has to make such a trade-off.

A Happy and Meaningful 2010 to One and All.


  1. Beautifully said! Print it out and send it to Mom. She'd LOVE it!! Love to you both~ Big-er OLDER Sister! Happy New year!! :o))

  2. I'm not agnostic, but I love the bumper sticker. And I love that atheists are taking notice. :)

    Your beliefs listed above closely mirror my own (with a few small changes of course).

    Love your blog! Happy New Year!

  3. Thank you, Kaylynn, and a Happy New Year to you, too!

  4. Just found your blog from searching for references to Rev. Sarah Drummond's study of the Cambridge FCC -- and I'm engrossed. I'm an Episcopalian/UU mongrel, and strongly identifies with the belief positions you articulated.

  5. Welcome, Michel! Having grown up Episcopalian, with ties as well to the Quakers, I can certainly identify with the "mongrel" description! Thanks to the lovely DairyStateMom, some days I think I'm becoming a UU/Presby mongrel :-) !


Comments on this blog are moderated retroactively. Comments will be published immediately, but spam, slander, abuse personally directed at other commenters or at third parties, or comments that hijack the thread will be removed without further discussion, explanation or apology. Comments that I am unable to read (for whatever reason) will be deleted.

Comments that challenge the viewpoints expressed here within the bounds of civility and good manners are welcome. Blogger limits comments to 4,096 characters.