August 12, 2005

Pardon Me While I Rip Off This Entire Post: Believing Whatever You Want To

from - smijer

When I have to explain the UU church to someone new, I'm always a little uncomfortable with describing our non-creedalism. This fantastic post from Jeff Wilson takes care of that.... Listen:

There's a mighty big myth about Unitarian-Universalism that has been circulating for years. It's the idea that in UUism "you can believe whatever you want." That's not how I understand it at all. Truthfully, in UUism "you have to believe what you really do believe, whether you want to or not." Followed authentically (dare I say "religiously"?), this is potentially a far harder, more spiritually refining course than creedal religion. UUism isn't for slackers.

I have never been able to believe "whatever I want." I want to believe that people are always good, that things are getting better, that there is justice in the universe, that I don't have to work at improving the world, that there is a design to the world, that love conquers all. But wanting has nothing to do with belief. Who can believe what they want? In UUism we are called to believe what we believe: to test our beliefs and those of others, to replace fantasy with truth, even when fantasy seems infinitely preferable to truth. If I could believe whatever I wanted, I might well be a theist, since it's much more comforting to think that there is a deity watching out for us, with some sort of plan that makes all the apparent crap in the world make sense. I might want to believe in karma, that all the blessings I've received in my life came because I deserved them through some effort of my own. I might want to believe in the soul, that I'll continue forever in some form and therefore I don't have to be afraid of death or broken-hearted over the loss of loved ones. I want to believe these things. But being a UU, I can't. Because as a UU, I'm committed to living my religious life with complete sincerity, and sincerely, I'm not convinced that any of these things exist.


When I encounter theist UUs, I never think "Oh, he just wants to believe that there is a God." When I encounter Wiccan UUs, I never think "Oh, she just wants to believe in magic." I assume that he has struggled with his beliefs and found that he can't deny the existence of God. I assume that she has wrestled with how the world works, and can't discount that our intentions impact the world and what we put out into the universe comes back to us many times over. I assume these UUs believe different things as UUs because they can't escape the fact that they believe them, not because they merely wish them to be true or find such beliefs fun. That's why even though I don't agree with either perspective, I give both UUs genuine respect.

Let me just wave my hands in the air excitedly and tell you, "that's exactly right!!!"

Then, though I hate to ruin the mood, I have to quibble with what follows:

Believing what you really do believe can be a very harrowing path. It also means that you must allow a certain level of criticism. For example, I have no way of proving that my Universalist convictions are correct. It may be that Hell is real and many people are damned. I could be wrong that complete reconciliation is the end-point of the religious journey. The fact that I cannot prove my intuitions means that I must accept criticism from those who do not share them. If other UUs wish to argue against Universalism, I am committed to hearing those criticisms and to acknowledging that my religious understanding at times rests on faith, not proof. But don't mistake this faith for a stubborn refusal to face reality. It isn't a shield or a comfort: I am a Universalist because I truly believe in Universalism, even if there is evidence to the contrary, even if my non-theism might disqualify me from normative Universalist circles, even if it doesn't make sense. Because I am a UU and must believe what I believe, I must admit to a belief in universal salvation, and admit that I cannot fully support it. Thus to be a UU is to be vulnerable in your conviction and to accept that vulnerability as part of the price of acknowledging your true beliefs.

What does this mean? Is it a mixed signal? How can one believe, much less be firmly committed to, an idea which is contradicted by available evidence, or that doesn't make sense?

I am universalist myself in a sense... I believe that there is hope for the reconciliation of everyone.... even Charles Manson and George W. Bush... But that is because I feel that the balance of the evidence supports that idea; and because it seems sensible that, since their problems result from broken minds and broken ideas, both can be made whole through clinical therapy or critical thinking. In that sense, I'm universalist - tentatively, of course... the evidence isn't absolutely convincing that everyone can come to a place of sound social and psychological being, if only we had the technology. But I feel that the evidence is, on balance, in favor of universalism or near-universalism. Otherwise, I wouldn't believe it.

Where Jeff says that he must acknowledge that his religious understanding is sometimes based on faith, not proof, I don't quite understand this either. Is it a religious understanding if it is based on "faith" in the traditional sense? And if, as it often is with me, his religious understanding is informed more by hope than knowledge... well, what's wrong with calling that "hope" instead of "belief"?

So much for the quibbles. Otherwise... job well done, Jeff. Hope you don't mind me ripping off nearly your entire post...


Posted by smijer at August 12, 2005 09:09 PM

Do you think it is possible to "believe" what you "hope"?

univar.jpg Posted by Buck on August 12, 2005 11:06 PM
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I think that is usually called "wishful thinking". :)

univar.jpg Posted by smijer on August 13, 2005 09:45 AM
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