|This I Believe
From a panel presentation at Prairie Unitarian Universalist Society, March 1, 2009
I considered starting with the usual discussion about my parents' religion, but that seemed a little silly since my mom just spoke. I'll just mention my dad is an atheist and doesn't have any faith as far as I can tell. That makes him prone to a very pessimistic world view, and watching my parents it was clear that my mom's faith made her happier than his made him, so that certainly shaped the development of my faith.
I have been a Unitarian Universalist all my life. I started in Sunday school at age 3. That means I've always been a seeker, and never had certainty about anything as far as the meaning of life, God, and what it's all about. So I'll start by talking about doubt and uncertainty.
I think for most people who are religious, their religion is an anchor, something they can be sure of and lean on. What feels so unusual about Unitarian Universalism is that it asks me to accept uncertainty, knowing that I do not know. I am supposed to be a scientist in my approach, always working to get closer to truth, knowing anytime one of my treasured theories could be cast out as false. Even the best scientists sometimes have a hard time remaining always open to new knowledge that conflicts with what they think they know, but we work toward this "open mind" in our religion. I am supposed to admit I don't know the true nature of the universe. There are bound to be forces beyond my understanding. A patient once described this to me graphically. She said, "This is all there is that can ever be known (big space between hands). Here is all of human knowledge right now (much smaller space.) Here's what I know (very much smaller space.)" On one hand, I am a scientist and I get this approach to knowledge. I think it's exciting that there is so much to learn. But when it comes to what I always call the "big questions," what's the meaning of life, how do I decide what to do, what is death, it would feel better to know. I accept (sometimes unhappily) that I am very limited, and try to keep that humility in my consciousness. I think the only position I can take that is consistent with all this is agnosticism. I tell folks my agnosticism does not mean I am not sure. I am sure - I'm sure I don't know, won't know, can't know many things. One of those things is knowing the nature of God. But I'll get to that in a minute.
First, about the nature of people: I don't believe like some liberals I know that people are essentially good. I believe we are born wild, and need to be "tamed" or civilized to treat each other well. We naturally have instincts primarily toward selfishness, but also for both nurturing and cruelty. This fits with what I know from my work as a psychiatrist and what I have seen in myself. People must be shaped to bring out the good in their nature, first by parents and family, then by wider circles of relationships, society, and by oneself. I think a major purpose of religion is to help with that shaping, reinforcing the good and discouraging the selfish and the cruel, and that holds for our religion too. And the older I get, the more I know I have to be responsible for shaping myself.
So why should I work to shape myself, my family, my patients? What difference does it make? As an agnostic, how do I frame my meaning, my purpose in life? We UU's have many different ways of conceiving the answers to the "big questions", but what we generally agree on is the action - the need for each of us to act as agents for good. I think we share this with most religions. In my Catholic-sponsored clinic, one of our mission leaders once said our purpose in life is to "bring about the reign of God on earth." Though it was jarring to hear it said that way, I realized with just a moment's thought that I share that view. It's all about action to make the world better. Except there's something missing - it doesn't mention getting joy and pleasure while we're here, which I also believe in.
One of the things I struggle with every day is the balance between doing good and enjoying myself. It's wonderful when I can feel good while doing good, and I am very grateful to have a job that allows me to do this. So does my church, which gives me many opportunities to mix work and pleasure in ways that are very satisfying. But what about going to Cancun or Jamaica? I can try to convince myself that staying in a condo and spending money at restaurants is good for the local economy and it's my way of redistributing wealth, but that's kind of a stretch. At least I try not to do harm when what I'm doing is for my own enjoyment. And there is one other essential issue in the balance - my mental health.
Without a certainty of an intervening God guiding us, mental health is intricately connected with what I believe because "making the world better" takes action - to act effectively in the world I have to be functioning my best, so I have to be as psychologically healthy as I can be. I believe we all work to "tame" one another and ourselves so all of us can think clearly and act effectively in the world. And I believe all of us need to experience pleasure and joy like food and water as part of what keeps us mentally healthy. So it's pretty obvious how I chose my work.
So why don't I just live for enjoyment? What keeps me trying to work for good when it isn't satisfying or fun? Isn't that one of the main questions religion tries to address? This brings me to a discussion of my faith. Faith is a belief without proof. It is about confidence, not knowledge. Since my faith needs to keep me psychologically healthy, there is an aspect of choice to my belief, whether conscious or not. (I was really struck with Rick Ruecking describing some of his beliefs as choices and realized that's true for me too.) I sometimes think of my faith as the belief in progress, the belief that human beings will ultimately make the choices that move society towards justice and peace. Unfortunately, I don't think this is a conclusion I can draw from looking at history, and I don't believe humans are born good, so this belief in progress is based on faith. This brings me to the question of what stimulates progress in the direction of good? I think of it as Love.
I'm not talking about the feeling of Love, but of Love the verb, Love the force, the power. Human Love is the choice to act to heal and help and nurture and inspire - and to devote the time and energy to improve ones own capacity for action through getting psychologically healthier.
So what is God? Is God this force, Love, that carries the human race along like a river current? Is God born of the Love emanating from us? (That's something like Bob Cape's concept of God evolving with us.) Is God is the wellspring of Love that feeds us? Or is God Love working through us to grow itself?
At times in my life I have felt more aware of this force of Love or God in a mystical way. Those are the times I have come up with images to help me articulate to myself this force and connectedness. I rarely try to put it into words. Sometimes I think of it in the terms of physics. We are all made of the same substance of the universe - atoms, protons, electrons, quarks. There is no difference in my atoms and those of the trees, the stars, the rocks, the person next to me. We are connected by gravity and by electromagnetism. We are all of the fabric of the universe. Is that fabric God? I imagine that fabric as a pool, and we people are drops formed of the pool, and on our death we return to the pool.
Most of the time I am too involved in the tasks of life to think about this view of the universe, which I think of as mystical, but I believe it is as true as the reality I'm usually working in. Do I pray? Not much, but I should. For me prayer is letting myself be aware of this essential connectedness of all things, and to remember and feel the power of Love. One of my favorite quotes is from Willa Cather's Death Comes to the Archbishop, where one of the priests says miracles rest on "our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always." I hope in the not too distant future I will be able to make more room in my life for that kind of prayer.
I don't feel very comfortable using the word God, because most folks around me who use it mean something different than I do. Maybe. Or maybe it's just a different metaphor they use, a different language. When I'm with a "believer" I have no trouble using that language. We look "up" when we speak of God because it's traditional. But my belief is that when we reach for God we reach into the well within. Emerson talked about the light of the divine in each of us - the light of mine is my piece of creation, my drop of the spirit pool, my cut of the fabric of the universe. Some would say it is God shining out of me. I call that light Love, and I try to let it shine.