by John Andrews
July 6, 2014
What do Unitarian Universalists believe? This is a perennial question, too often answered by listing things we don’t believe.
It is good that we don’t have a laundry list of metaphysical propositions and historical truth claims to which we must agree in order to be members. Anyone who wants that in a church has plenty of choices elsewhere. We do have principles, of course, but these are located in the here and now, and not in any separate spiritual realm. This, too, is a good thing.
Still, is it really the case that Unitarian Universalists must avoid transcendental beliefs altogether? Are such beliefs entirely valueless?
Most people use such beliefs to help make sense of their lives. I’m reminded of the character Annelle in the film “Steel Magnolias.” After the tragic death of her friend Shelby from complications of diabetes and childbirth, she says that Shelby is in heaven and will always be young and beautiful. She goes on, “Some people might think that sounds too simple, it’s stupid, and maybe I am. But that’s how I get through things like this.” Most of us are not quite that self-aware.
I love Annelle, but I’m afraid I can’t ride on the same evangelical Christian bus with her. I’d have a problem going with any group whose ticket to ride requires me to believe a lot of unprovable things, especially if the requirement is accompanied by a threat of punishment if I don’t go along. That’s why I like our tradition. Our tradition is based on reason. Reason tells me that the more such things I’m asked to believe, the more likely it is that some of them will be either false or meaningless. The proliferation of dogmas is at best a silly business, and at worst an excuse for persecuting heretics. If this is at all on the right track, it would be prudent to pare one’s core religious beliefs down to the bare minimum necessary to have a healthy spiritual life.
The minimum, however, is not zero. Reason does not demand that we be nihilists. I therefore make bold to argue that there are two transcendental beliefs that do fit well with our liberal religious tradition and that can also have great value for living our present lives.
The first of these is that there is an end to suffering. This is a positive way of saying that there is no such thing as eternal punishment. The idea of hell was invented long ago by priestly classes as a means of social control. The only real hells are the ones we humans too often create in the here and now.
Actually, this is more than a belief. Traditional religious teachings about heaven and hell are logically inconsistent. How could I be happy in heaven knowing that you are suffering eternal
torture? Moreover, I do not understand how anyone who truly believes in a loving God could possibly believe in hell, except as the result of persistent indoctrination beginning in early childhood.
Is it important to state this explicitly? Don’t we all take this for granted? Well, I would think it is probable that nearly all of our members do take this for granted, but what about those who pass by on the Turnpike? Many polls show that a majority of Americans believe in hell. I think we should actively spread the good news that we are a hell-free religious community. What a relief!
The second proposition is that as participants in the interdependent web of existence, it matters what we do. For better or for worse, we can make choices that other animals can’t. Those choices will ultimately decide whether conscious life on earth, including human life, flourishes or is extinguished.
We cannot say whether consciousness is unique to this planet, but certainly it is rare. And consciousness with love is priceless. The extinction of conscious life on earth would be a tragedy, not only for us but for the cosmos. And the possibility of cosmic tragedy is an idea that is religious at its very core. It implies that what happens on this planet matters in a sense much deeper than what could be inferred from physics alone. In other words, it is a matter of faith. Yet one need not believe in any particular theology in order to feel the truth of this.
The deeply religious Christian writer C.S. Lewis wrote a book titled Mere Christianity, in which he laid out the minimum set of beliefs he thought were needed in order for one to be considered a Christian. In similar fashion, the above two beliefs, which I consider to be all that are necessary for a healthy spiritual life, I like to call “Mere Faith.”
Mere Faith captures, at least for me, the essence of our Unitarian Universalist heritage. “Suffering is not eternal.” Is this not the message that itinerant Universalist preachers spread throughout 19th century America? “It matters what we do.” Isn’t that the logical end point of the centuries-long doctrinal housecleaning undertaken by Unitarians ever since the days of Michael Servetus in the 16th century? And yet these beliefs are expressed in a simple form that is attuned to a 21st century sensibility.
But what about other beliefs, you might ask? What about God? What about death? [musical interlude]
So: What about God? What about death?
Belief in God is not part of Mere Faith. Why not?
First of all, if by God you mean the vindictive monster who dangles sentient beings over an eternal fire, that God is dead, and good riddance. Some people claim we can’t live moral lives without such a God, but I’ve seen little correlation between belief and ethical behavior. Some
of the noblest acts have been done in the name of God, and so have some of the worst atrocities.
That, however, is not the only God on offer. One must be careful, though, in trying to define the word God too precisely. Any verbal description of God must be metaphorical, and it also must recognize that God is beyond human-made categories such as matter and spirit, or, to put it another way, beyond belief.
The suggestion I would make is that if believing in God makes you a more loving person, then by all means believe. If disbelieving makes you more virtuous, then I hope you are an atheist. And if your faith is more about being faithful than it is about belief, that is best of all.
I think that both Confucius and the Buddha would approve of this.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t ask the deep questions. I’m talking only about whether it matters what we end up believing. Here’s an analogy. It matters whether an asteroid is about to hit the earth, but my belief or disbelief in the asteroid only matters insofar as if affects how I feel or how I act. The asteroid will hit or not hit regardless of what I believe.
The good news is that we won’t be punished for guessing wrong. How our beliefs affect our actions is more important than whether those beliefs are true.
What about life after death? Why isn’t that part of Mere Faith?
Death isn’t something we like to think about, but is there anything good about it? Well, for one thing, without death we wouldn’t be here at all. Evolution requires death in order to operate. That’s well and good, but wouldn’t it be great if—now that we’re here—scientists discovered a way to eliminate death and let this generation live on?
Probably not. If the magic elixir were to be found, tyrants would live forever. It’s likely that most humans would be subjected to an eternity of servile misery. I keep this in mind so that, when my time comes, I might say to today’s tyrants, “I’m taking you with me.”
All well and good, perhaps, but the question remains. Is there an afterlife—of any kind? I find disembodied souls unbelievable, though to explain why would take us way outside the bounds of Mere Faith. However, the image of the soul leaving the body the way a lifeboat leaves a sinking ship is not the only metaphor for the continuation of life. Buddhists believe in universal consciousness but not in individual souls. They say that their collective experience in deep meditative practice supports this claim. It is not possible, from the outside, to confirm or refute this.
Mere Faith’s answer is—to repeat a thought expressed already about God—that what we believe about life after death won’t change what is or is not. If like me you are confident that
we won’t be punished for guessing wrong, then there’s no need to lose sleep over it. In any case, we do live on in the minds and hearts of people we have influenced in our lives. It seems to me that this is reason enough to stand on the side of love.
Even for the traditionally religious, there’s no way to make death easy. People who believe in immortal souls cry just as much at funerals as those who don’t—maybe more, if they’re bogged down by a fear that their beloved might be doomed to eternal fire. Charles Darwin’s wife loved him dearly and was afraid he would be damned because of his theory. At the risk of seeming trite, I feel her pain.
Whatever we believe, the price we pay for love is the pain of leave-taking. Perhaps the supreme comfort on facing death is to be able to reach out to those soon to be left behind. To look death in the eye and still say Yes to life—that is the last, best gift we can give to those we love. I hope I’ll have the necessary courage.
And so to conclude: I’m not arguing against imagination, speculation, inspiration, wonder, or even theology. I indulge in these things myself, just about every day, with no need for apology. One of my favorite spiritual poems is just three words long: “God is evolving.” I love Peter Mayer’s song, “God is a River.” I am not afraid of God language, but I need to remind myself that theology is poetry, not physics. That is not meant to demean poetry, but to exalt it. Poetry —and the arts in general—are how we apprehend aspects of reality that are beyond the reach of science.
Still, such poetic expressions are not core beliefs. If someone said to me, “You’re wrong, John. God is definitely not a river,” I’d be more amused than upset. It’s a metaphor, after all. But “Suffering is not eternal” and “It matters what we do”—these are core beliefs. I’d have to take serious issue with their negation. My message today is that these are the firm strata we need on which to construct the edifices of our spiritual lives. So what if we build in many different styles, some sleek and simple, others resplendent with ornamentation? So what if they sometimes clash aesthetically? Down at the bedrock, we’re all on the same foundation.