The Latin word ‘Credo’ means ‘I believe.’ Many of us came to Unitarian Universalism because of what we don’t believe. Getting clear about what you don’t believe, or no longer believe, is part of the process of creating your own credo.
My clearing-process started with the Apostles’ Creed which was pasted in the back of our Congregational Church hymnals to be recited together every Sunday morning. There are twelve statements of belief in this ancient Christian creed. 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.”
A legend says that the twelve disciples of Jesus–the Apostles–wrote this creed on the tenth day after Christ’s ascension into heaven. Historians tell us that its first version was written about 200 years after the death of Jesus (Interrogatory Creed of Hippolytus, ca. A.D. 215). The common version was written in the 6th century of the common era. (Caesarius of Arles d. 542).
But the Apostles’ Creed is the name that stuck. The creed was used as a summary of Christian doctrine for baptismal candidates in the churches of Rome. Hence it is also known as The Roman Symbol.
It was given in question and answer format with the baptismal candidates answering in the affirmative that they believed each of the twelve statements in the creed.
I left the Congregational Church because of what I did not believe:
I did not believe that Jesus was born of a virgin—every birth is a miracle.
I did not believe that Jesus was God’s ‘only begotten son.’ We’re all God’s children.
(The word begotten is the past participle of the verb to beget, to father…to sire. Jesus didn’t teach a prayer that began, ‘My Father,” but with the inclusive ‘Our Father.’)
I did not believe that Jesus descended into hell, since I didn’t believe in hell as a place you go after you die–I knew it was a psychological or emotional place you ‘go’ from time to time because you are alive, and because you suffer from guilt, remorse or a deep grief. Hell happens here, from time to time.
I did not believe that Jesus ascended into heaven—it makes it sound like heaven is a geographical place: as if heaven is ‘up,’ and hell is ‘down.’ Heaven is a state of mind—it’s about feeling ‘at home’ here on earth and in the skin you’re in; it’s a sense of wholeness and authenticity.
I didn’t believe in the Holy Ghost, which is the so-called third person of the trinity. I didn’t believe in the trinity, which divides God into three persons or three gods.
I didn’t believe in the resurrection of the body. The body serves for one life—this one.
At one time I did believe in reciting the Apostle’s creed with the congregation. Aside from the words that were said, it was a way of affirming our common bond. Then I started to think about the words and what they meant, so I skipped the parts I found most troublesome.
Then I stopped saying any of it; then I stopped believing in the ritual itself, and I struggled with my religious beliefs in a more general sense. I started to clean house. I threw out the bathwater, but not the baby—not the deep spiritual life that I always found important. From early childhood I felt a mystical presence beyond my capacity to describe, but not beyond my ability to sense, intuitively.
I didn’t know there was a place where I could be honest about what I believed and didn’t believe. I didn’t know there was a place where my struggle was taken seriously, where it was expected—a place like this.
That’s a bit of an over-simplification of my personal path to the door of the Unitarian Church, but it’s the bottom line.
A couple of weeks ago I found a poem that expresses something that’s at the heart of our approach to the life of the spirit—of religion or spirituality. It’s called My Name, and it was written by the contemporary poet, Mark Strand.
One night when the lawn was a golden green
and the marbled moonlit trees rose like fresh memorials
in the scented air, and the whole countryside pulsed
with the chirr and murmur of insects, I lay in the grass
feeling the great distances open above me, and wondered
what I would become—and where I would find myself—
and though I barely existed, I felt for an instant
that the vast star-clustered sky was mine, and I heard
my name as if for the first time, heard it the way
one hears the wind or the rain, but faint and far off
as though it belonged not to me but to the silence
from which it had come and to which it would go.
To hear one’s name ‘as if for the first time’ suggests the possibility of claiming one’s own life—after being given an identity by one’s parents; after being claimed by a culture—the group into which one is born and raised; after learning a particular language, after absorbing a world view without thinking about it; after embracing a whole set of ideas, values and beliefs without thinking about it; (the German word Weltenschauung says it best—a world view.) After all that, the poet suggests, it’s possible to come to the realization that there’s something missing, that there’s a hole in the middle of what we call ‘the self,’ or ‘authenticity.’
The poem suggests that this hearing of one’s name ‘as if for the first time’ happened all of a sudden: ‘one night,’ the poet says… I lay in the grass feeling the great distances open above me, and wondered what I would become—and where I would find myself…and I heard my name…heard it the way one hears the wind or the rain, but faint and far off as though it belonged not to me
Here’s the first word in credo: the ‘I’ that precedes the word ’believe.’
We are able to have personal beliefs in proportion to the degree to which we are free—not in a political sense, but a spiritual sense: a true self.
On a deeper level the authentic self realizes that it is part of everything that is, including God, or included as part of God.
The old name, which gave you a separate identity, isn’t necessary, at least in that moment.
The poet doesn’t say what happened when he got up from the grass on which he was lying that night. So, what do you think happened to him?
My notion is that he went back to being the person he was before. But not really. That experience did something to him. It changed something in him.
He heard his credo emerge from the depths of his being, and for a moment, at least, he didn’t need his old name; he didn’t need a name. He realized something. He felt something. He was one with those distant stars: “…the vast star-clustered sky was mine…” It was a moment of realization.
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.
Spiritual wisdom causes us to move beyond the confines of our former self—the ego self—the small ‘s’ self. The most basic, essential spiritual truth is 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…the old name—the old way of thinking.
The earliest religious idea we have is that there is one god, and that we are separate from that god. But we have glimpses of something larger—it’s called intuition… insight. It’s not about cognition in the usual sense of that word—it’s a different kind of knowing. We can’t force it. We can’t will it. We can only be open to it. We can allow the experience and when we’re ready.
“One night when…the whole countryside pulsed with the chirr and murmur of insects, I lay in the grass feeling the great distances open above me…I felt for an instant that the vast star-clustered sky was mine, and I heard my name as if for the first time, heard it the way one hears the wind or the rain, but faint and far off as though it belonged not to me but to the silence from which it had come and to which it would go.”
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. Most of us are burdened by two things: first, we’re burdened by old ideas that are like narrow beliefs, as Sophia Fahs said in our responsive reading: ‘walled gardens… encouraging exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged…beliefs that are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved…rigid beliefs.”
We Unitarian Universalists run the risk of believing that we have a corner on the market of religious freedom and mature spirituality. We have to be careful about such thinking—we don’t like it when fundamentalist Christians tell us we’re going to burn in hell if we don’t accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior, so we have to curb our enthusiasm about a faith-system that works for us, and not try to tell others, directly or indirectly, that our religion is somehow ‘better than theirs.’ It isn’t.
Whatever works–whatever gets you through the day. We each have our own ‘credo.’
The second obstacle or burden is worrying about what other people think of us and our ideas, opinions and beliefs. It’s about being overly self-conscious.
Emerson said it this way:
Henceforth, please God, forever I forego
The yoke of men’s opinions. I will be
Lighthearted as a bird & live with God.
I find him in the bottom of my heart
I hear continually his Voice therein …
The little needle always knows the north
The little bird remembereth his note
And this wise Seer never errs
I never taught it what it teaches me
I only follow when I act aright.
This is a declaration of spiritual independence. More accurately, it’s 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.
We have some old beliefs that may prevent our spiritual growth—things we were taught about ourselves and about the other people, and if we are to become truly free we have to stop comparing ourselves to the others; we have to stop putting ourselves down, secretly thinking that they know things we don’t. They may have information we don’t have—but it’s information we can get from books or the internet or the librarian.
Spiritual freedom realizes that we’re as capable of deep spiritual insights as any Pope, or guru. We just have to believe in ourselves, to hear our own name ‘as if for the first time,’ again and again.
I want to address our high school seniors:
Mark Twain said, (and I paraphrase) “We should learn from experience but we shouldn’t learn more from an experience than was in it. The cat who jumps on a hot stove will never jump on a hot stove again. The problem is that he won’t jump on a cold stove, either. He learned more from the experience than was in it.”
People will ask you to tell them about your religion—don’t expect them to know. Don’t begin by telling them what you don’t believe. That’s why we have our affirmation—something we can affirm or say ‘yes’ to. Tell them that we try to find the best in all the religions of the world. If they ask you about your religion they have a reason—try not to tell them more than they want to know. They’d like to tell you about theirs. So keep it brief. Keep it simple.
There’s a story about a boy who asked the librarian to help him find a book about butterflies. He took the book to a table and looked at it for a while and brought it back and said, “This book tells me more about butterflies than I want to know.”
Don’t try to tell them more than they want to know. As soon as you can, get them to talk about their religion—which is, perhaps, why they asked you to tell them about yours in the first place.
I remember the day we moved my daughter into her dorm—it was a bridging experience. Before we brought all the boxes into her room she was sitting with some of the women with whom she would share the space—there were four rooms in an area with a common room in the middle—and she was telling them about her Unitarian faith. When I asked her why she was so quick to talk about her religion she said, “I want them to know who I am, up front.”
She was proud of her faith—she felt good about it; she appreciated it. But she wasn’t trying to convert anyone; she had a certain humility that balanced her enthusiasm. Now her children are leaders in their church youth group—and I’m proud of all of them.
There’s one more thing I want to say to you who are graduating: what you are doing now is serious business. I know that you know that. So don’t forget to nurture your sense of humor!
There’s an ancient Greek idea that a child’s soul comes to life when the child has its first real laugh…the soul is animated.
You soul (anima) is your vital core—it informs you, in the sense that it forms the person you are; it directs your decision making, keeping you in touch with what’s right and wrong; it’s your moral guide. Emerson referred to is as ‘this wise Seer…I never taught it what it teaches me.”
Nurture it. Embrace it. Take it for a walk now and then; be alone with it—stay in touch with it, and take the risk of revealing it so that you will become your best, highest self.