Sunday, January 23, 2011

Personal Credo for My Building Your Own Theology Class

Building Your Own Theology is an adult education course offered in Unitarian Universalist churches. Since our denomination does not have any test of faith or required beliefs and we covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, this class is designed to lead one through the kinds of questions and explorations that would lead you to be able to determine what it is that you personally believe about Life, Ultimate Reality (God), human beings and what is right, and then to take the step of expressing this in the form of a credo. I took this class this fall and then was sort of lovingly prodded into actually reading the damn credo I wrote to our whole congregation, along with one other brave soul. I did that today. After all that work, I decided I should at least be able to steal what I wrote for my blog.

Here it is.
(click the link above for audio podcast, which includes another speaker, T.J. Ulrich, who is fully worth listening to in his own right)

I decided to take the latest Building Your Own Theology class not because I didn’t have a theology already of sorts, already, but because the struggle to fully articulate it has plagued me for the last couple of years.

In the class, we did a lot of reflection on where we have been religiously at different points in our lives and what we choose to reject and keep from all of that experience. I was struck that, there are lots of other people whom I know for which anything religious has seemed tangential to their inner lives. For myself, as long as I can remember, I have been engaged with religious and spiritual questions. I have developed theological ideas from my youth in a Unitarian Universalist church, from a young adulthood as a practicing Pagan, from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and years lived as a sober person, from multiple seminars that I have taken as an adult, from Bill Maher, from the Flying Spaghetti Monster people, and now from my adulthood in a UU church.

Not all of these ideas work well together.

Photo by gb_packards
Since I have experience of the unique benefits each perspective has to offer, I have found it challenging to coherently express the sum of my religious beliefs. Often, I find it easier to reject an idea that is offered up. I wanted to be able to speak in the affirmative.

The basic problem for me has been that I require a spiritual life. For my happiness and emotional well-being, everything in my experience tells me that I need to feel part of something larger than myself, and that this something needs to be not just a social movement, not just a set of ethical principles, but something which can connect my inner life with my outer life, and ultimately, with Everything. This is a problem because I just can’t accept the easy answers. As a matter of integrity, I can’t believe something just because it would make me happier to do so or because others believe it. It has to make sense. It has to provide direction. It has to work under any circumstances. I guess that’s my UU breeding.

Periodically, someone challenges me about why I call myself an atheist and not an agnostic. I guess my answer is that agnosticism seems to me to work only if the question of God is not terribly important to you. To me the question is paramount because every day I wake up into a world in which, either there is a Creator who has a plan for my life, wherein my main job is to do good things and trust in the unfolding of that plan, or I wake up into a world where there is no justice that we don’t strive for ourselves, where suffering is not offered up as part of a menu of spiritual refinement but is simply, suffering.

In this second world, I have enormous responsibility for how things go. My actions and ethics would be entirely different given either of those two worlds. So, for myself, I have to make a choice about God, if not forever than at least to go forward with. While others may say God and mean “Universe” or “Ultimate Meaning” or “Interconnected Web of Life”, I find it distracting, like saying “cheeseburgers” every time you mean “houses”.

So I needed to articulate the path that I am already on, a path which offers me a great deal of fulfillment and meaning and which has seen me through many dark days. What follows is my attempt to express it in the form of a credo.

I believe that to be human is to constantly encounter Paradox.

The consciousness that I have developed as I gained the ability to produce language tells me that I am separate and whole unto myself, with unique thoughts, perspectives and traits. In fact, my individuality is what makes me who I am—the uniquely valued wife of my husband, daughter of my parents, mother to my three boys. Yet, at the same time, I am just one iteration of an evolving Universe fully beyond my understanding.

My bones, skin and brain are particles of stardust that have existed since the moment Existence ever was, and will take another form after me, time and time again. I will someday exist as matter that no one will recognize, in memories of others that tell only part or half the truth of my story. No matter who I am or was at the end of my days, one day I will surely be part of everything, something unrecognizable.

As part of the fundamental toolbox of my humanity, I can create ideals of justice and compassion out of the thin air of imagination and declaration. I can nurture, heal, transform, give meaning, lend comfort. And, inescapably, I will hurt, self-deceive, and participate in systems that bring death and suffering to fellow humans, fellow animals. My instinct to personally survive, to garner resources, to bring the world as it is into accordance with the world as I need to see it, sometimes wins out over the possibility of Beauty or Compassion or Wisdom, no matter how dear I hold these ideals. I think that we are unwise when we place unwarranted faith in human nature to be anything other than as it is, but I find in the compassion and understanding that I can have for that nature, a peace with the world and a way to practice love.
I think human beings create a concept of God to allow them to connect in some way with that part of themselves that is an expression of what is possible and beautiful, that part of ourselves in which we can quietly find peace and acceptance, that part of our DNA that reacts with love and recognition to all other living things. I do not think that there is a God that is sentient, in any sense larger than that the concept encompasses the sentience of those creatures who happen to have it. I do not think that there exists a God that has a plan of any kind, that the Universe is travelling in a predictable direction, or that inherent fairness from a source larger than humanity will win the day.

While thinking these things may lend comfort to me, and has in the past, I find that wrestling with the task that a masterless Universe presents me with makes me a better person, a person who cannot just sigh to myself in the face of suffering that “God simply has a plan that we don’t understand” and turn away, but am called upon to lend a hand or face the consequences of my inaction.

The ethical creed that arises for me out of my understanding of humanity and Ultimate Reality makes it necessary for me to question everything, to be wary of any and all absolutes that I am offered. I can offer Wisdom in the form of my unique point of view, and so I try to. I can bring Compassion and so I actively strive to bring compassion to my relations with other people and creatures. I can create reality with the words I speak and so I conduct myself with Integrity to whatever extent I can muster.

In a world that can prove no absolute truth of any kind, where our understandings of the machinations of nature are a moving target, where absolute ethics exist only in the form of societal agreements fortified by the imperative that we survive as social creatures, I still find Beauty to be everywhere and human beings most beautiful of all. I see this as the unconditional love that a family has for all of its members. The world and human beings are deeply flawed and imperfect and I love them because they are mine and I live with them. I know no better way to live here than to love the world, just as it is, as it seems, as it spins out its meaningless, gorgeous threads that make up the tapestry of history, and in which we all find our own pattern there to see.

I will end with the thoughts of Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock, who has written in her beautiful song, “We Are”:

"For each child that’s born
A morning star rises
And sings to the universe
Who we are.

We are our grandfather’s dreamings.
We are the breath of our ancestors.
We are the spirit of God.

We are Mothers of Courage
Fathers of time
Daughters of dust
Sons of great vision.

We are
Sisters of Mercy
Brothers of love
Lovers of life and
The builders of nations.

We are
Seekers of truth
Keepers of faith
Makers of peace and
The wisdom of ages.”
We are our grandmother’s prayers.
The photos of the cactus wren and the skeleton were taken in Tucson, Arizona by my brilliant son, Devin Cantua. November 2011


  1. So, this is pretty dang awesome. One of my friends sent me to this post and she was right; I gobbled the whole thing up. I've spent a lot of years being asked my beliefs and have also been able to answer more easily with what I don't believe than what I do. This post is serving as a bit of an eye-opener for me and I appreciate the soul-searching it takes to create something like this.


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