What do you think?
What, for example, do you think about religion; what do you think about the stories in the Bible – stories about Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah; stories about Moses and the Red Sea parting and the angel of death passing over the households marked with the blood of the lamb?
What do you think about Judaism? Christianity? Islam? What do you think about Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, and the great variety of religions in the world today? What about Mormonism?
What’s your take, so far, on Unitarian Universalism?
What about your own personal religion, which you may choose to call spirituality to distinguish it from a set of beliefs, but touches on that deep, unnamable thing inside that sustains you. Do you have a spirituality or a belief system that sustains you; that ties all the pieces of life together?
What do you value? What’s important? What’s more important? What’s most enduringly important? What are you hoping for? What, for example, what would you like this sermon to do for you?
The Latin word ‘Credo’ means ‘I believe.’ Many of us came to Unitarian Universalism because of what we do not believe.
We need to free the mind from that old negative clutter. We need to be able to let go of things we don’t believe, or no longer believe. That’s a step in the process of creating your own credo; clearing away things that get in the way.
Theologians refer to this process as the via negativa; the ‘way of the negative.’
But that’s the easy part of the two-part process: the ‘way of the negative,’ needs to be balanced by the via positiva, the way of the positive.
That’s why I began by asking: What do you think? What do you believe? What do you affirm? What do you value?
During my senior year in college, when I was considering seminary, to become a minister in the Congregational Church, I went through a difficult journey down the via negativa – a precarious and rocky road.
The first stop on that journey was a close encounter with the Apostles’ Creed, which was pasted in the front of our hymnal — we recited it together every Sunday morning. It says:
“I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary: Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell: The third day he rose again from the dead: He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty: From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead: I believe in the Holy Ghost: I believe in the holy catholic church: the communion of saints: The forgiveness of sins: The resurrection of the body: And the life everlasting.”
Christian theologians count twelve statements of belief in this creed, one for each of the twelve Apostles. (How many can you count?) The Christian story, or myth, says that Jesus had twelve disciples, one for each belief (and each of the twelve tribes of Israel.) The legend about this creed says that the twelve disciples of Jesus, the twelve Apostles, wrote this creedal statement on the tenth day after Christ’s was reported to have ascended into heaven: thus the name: The Apostle’s Creed.
Historians, however, tell us that the first version of this creedal statement was written about 200 years after the death of Jesus – the Interrogatory Creed of Hippolytus, composed in 215; the current version was written in the 6th century of the common era, in the year 542.
But the Apostles’ Creed is the name that stuck. It was used as a doctrinal test for candidates for baptism in the churches of Rome; you were expected to confess your personal belief in each of the twelve belief statements in the creed.
In December of 1961 I used it as a doctrinal test for myself as I considered ministry with the United Church of Christ, so I arranged a private meeting with my minister and asked him if I was expected to believe in these statements ‘literally.’ He said I was, and I told him I thought they were ‘metaphorical statements.’ Poetry.
I left the Congregational Church because of the Apostle’s Creed, which, in Latin begins with the word ‘credo,’ I believe. I didn’t believe.
Recently I had a meeting with an Episcopal priest as part of the Bridgeport area clergy collective — our effort to organize clergy and congregations in and around Bridgeport for social change — in addition to meeting together as a group, we commit to meeting one another on a one-to-one basis.
I recounted that pivotal, doctrinal-test meeting with my minister, telling him that I left the church because I didn’t believe in the Apostle’s Creed. He threw his head back, opened his arms and said, “Oh, the creeds are meant to be sung!”
In essence, that’s what I tried to say to my Congregational minister all those years ago – that I see the creeds as poetry, not theology, not a statement of literal belief.
I’ve come to realize that I’ve spent a lot of time traveling down the theologically rocky via negativa. But poetry has provided the via positiva.
When I heard my Episcopal friend say ‘the creeds are meant to be sung,’ I said, “Yes, that’s it. It’s poetry!”
Later on I realized that I’ve never really come to terms with the Apostle’s Creed; I’ve never tried to take it apart, piece by piece, to understand the metaphors, the way I do the poems that speak to me.
I traveled the via negativa, but not the via positiva.
So I decided to do some work on it, and, if this was part of your tradition, I invite you to look again at some of those assertions and see what you can make of it. What, for example, do you make of the opening statement: ‘I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth?’
To me this is a poetic phrase that acknowledges a Creative Force that is active in the world in which we ‘live and move and have our being?’
A Psalm attributed to the shepherd, David, says, with my editing: ‘Make a joyful sound unto the Creation and imagine a Creator…it is he that hath made us and not we ourselves, we are his people and the sheep of his pasture, enter into his gates with thanksgiving and into his courts with praise and be thankful unto him for life is good, and the goodness of life endures through all generations.’
Isn’t it a poetic way of referring to Creation itself — the natural world, or Nature, with a capital ‘N?’
The creed says; ‘I believe in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord.’
Emerson summarized a Unitarian view of Jesus nicely in the Divinity School Address in 1838. He said, “Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, `I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.’
He said, “(Jesus) spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends…the word Miracle…is…one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.”
Then the creed says that Jesus was ‘born of the Virgin Mary.’ Matthew refers to the book of Isaiah, the Hebrew Scripture, that says, “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.”
John Shelby Spong, Episcopal Bishop of New Jersey, points out that the Hebrew word Almah, used in that text, means a young woman; it never means virgin. The Hebrew word betulah means virgin. He says, “In Greek, however, the word parthenos combines the two concepts: young woman and virgin, thus the origin of calling Jesus’ mother Mary, a virgin.” She was a young woman, very human, giving birth to a very human son.
Every birth can be seen as an indication of the miracle of life.
When my daughter Susan handed her newborn child, Alex, to me nearly 20 years ago, she said, through her tears, ‘Dad, this is a miracle.’ “Yes,” I thought, “absolutely.”
The creed says that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate.
Well, to be human is to suffer: to feel pain, to experience distress; to experience losses of various kinds, to be susceptible to injury, pain and, ultimately, death.
Jesus suffered precisely because he was human, and it is in his humanity that we can feel a kinship. Remember the old gospel song: ‘Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus…glory hallelluia.’ We humans want to relate to those who understand us, who know what we’re going through because they, too, have been through the same or similar thing.
The creed says that he died a difficult death – he was crucified dead and buried.
I think of those famous lines in the 23rd Psalm: ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil, for thou art with me…’ We’re all walking ‘through the valley of the shadow of death,’ since we know that death is inevitable – even more than taxes!
The creed says, ‘He descended into hell…he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty…
Whitman said, “I’ve heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end. But I do not talk of the beginning and end. There never was any more inception than there is now, nor any more youth nor age than there is now, nor any more heaven or hell than there is now, nor any more perfection than there is now.”
Hell is simply a word to describe human suffering, including the existential suffering of estrangement, to be cut off from those we’ve loved. Hell isn’t some kind of punishment in an imagined hereafter, it’s a way of describing the suffering we experience in the here and now.
The creed says, ‘…he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.’ Judgment is built in; we judge ourselves, or feel judged, by this thing we call conscience.
It’s not about a summing up at the end of life, but at the end of the day, or in any moment when we stop to think about what’s important. One of my favorite Biblical passages summarizes this reality; it’s in the book of Matthew, chapter 25:
“Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘come oh blessed of my father and inherit the kingdom prepared for you; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. And they will answer ‘master when did we see thee hungry and feed you or thirsty and give you drink; when did we see you sick or in prison and come to you. And he will answer, ‘As you’ve done it to one of the least of these my brethren you’ve done it unto me.”
The creed says, ‘I believe in the Holy Ghost, in ‘the holy catholic church.’
The third person of the Trinity, or third attribute of God, if you will, acknowledges that God is not visible to the eye; we know God because we see God’s Creation – we live in it; we know that God is made visible in every act of love, in every instance of kindness: ‘as you have done it to one of the least of these…’
The Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit simply suggests that there are aspects of God about which we know nothing, can see nothing and should say nothing.
The holy catholic church, as used in the creed, means universal – it is spelled with a small ‘c,’ means; the universalist aspect of church that embraces all human beings; it is not limited to those who have been baptized, or only those who belong to a particular religious group; it embraces all people the world over.
The word catholic with a small ‘c’ is rooted in the Greek ‘holos,’ whole. It’s Latin root is sollus, which means ‘entire,’ or ‘whole,’ and it shares that root with salus, for health, or wholeness. We toast by saying, Salud, to your health.
The creed says, I believe in ‘the communion of saints…’ I believe in community; our affirmation summarizes it: ‘Love is the spirit of this church and service its law. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.’
I believe in ‘the forgiveness of sins.’ Forgiveness is at the foundation of one’s spiritual life; without it we’re paralyzed by anger, resentment and guilt. Without forgiveness a spiritual life is simply impossible. Resentment, anger and guilt leave little room for a spiritually healthy life.
The creed says, ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.’ Well, I believe in life everlasting; I know I came from the earth and will return to the earth.
I’m reminded of a passage from Carl Sandburg where there’s a conversation between a passenger on a luxury liner and the captain. “Captain, isn’t that an iceberg up ahead?” “Yes it is, madam.” “Well, what will happen if we hit it?!” “The iceberg, madam, will just keep right on going.”
We gradually develop our credo; it’s no longer an assertion about something we believe, but a deeper understanding of who we are, of what we are, and what we’re becoming; the credo begins in assertions of belief and moves toward an acceptance of all things – not approval, mind you, but simply a kind of acceptance of things as the way they are: ‘no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should,’ the Desiderata says.
Spiritual wisdom causes us to move beyond the confines of our former self—the ego self—the small ‘s’ self, to realize, in a deep way, that we are all connected; we are part of that which encompasses all; we are not separate, except in this temporary existence we call the self.
There is a spiritual or religious aspect of life that needs to be developed and needs to be nurtured, the same was as the body needs nourishment.
The spiritual aspect of life needs to be exercised, the way the body is exercised by walking or jogging or biking, etc.
The credo, or set of beliefs, emerges little by little, the way the little green shoots emerge out of the earth; the way the little blossoms suddenly appear in spring.
There are obstacles to spiritual development.
Whatever works–whatever gets you through the day. We each have our own ‘credo,’ and, truth be told, it’s an organic thing: it’s not static, it’s alive and it changes daily as the sun rises and move across the sky and then sets, again.
The credo we come up with must always be a declaration of spiritual independence on one side, and flip it over and you’ll see a declaration of spiritual interdependence.
When we Unitarian Universalists are asked what we believe we often say that ‘we can believe anything we want to believe.’ There’s no creedal test. (Channing said, “No one can be excommunicated from the Unitarian church, except by the death of goodness in the heart.”)
Freedom requires responsibility.
Our beliefs are a function of our experience—what we think or believe at any moment is a function of what we’ve experienced up to that moment. Not only what we’ve experienced, but how we’ve processed those experiences; how we’ve thought about them; how we’ve tested them in conversation or journal writing—finding words.
As long as we continue to have experiences, our beliefs change—usually in very small ways, but change, nonetheless. We must be free to allow for that change and not think we need to have a credo carved in stone. Our credo is more like a verb than a noun. God is more like a verb than a noun.
Garrison Keillor’s book of ‘good poems’ he calls them, includes this a poem by Philip Appleman – a good one with which to close.
O Karma, Dharma, pudding and pie,
gimme a break before I die:
grant me wisdom, will & wit,
purity, probity, pluck & grit.
Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, kind,
gimme great abs & a steel-trap mind,
and forgive, Ye Gods, some humble advice —
these little blessings would suffice
to beget an earthly paradise:
make the bad people good —
and the good people nice;
and before our world goes over the brink,
teach the believers how to think.