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Saturday, September 18, 2004

Credo, a first draft.

Here's something I've been meaning to reflect on for some time: A statement of faith I wrote as a college student back in June 1993, when I had been attending the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake for two years. (I can't quite remember the context, although I think I had written it for one of our young adult group meetings because I have a clear memory of discussing it with people in the young adult group in Fault Line Park on 400 South. It's a wonderful memory of the way the midsummer sky looks over the city a little before sunset.) Later, I'll also post a statement I presented more recently at the UUA General Assembly in Quebec City on Christian humanism.

My goal in posting these two statements is to reflect on some of the religious themes that are strongly present or notably absent — or sublimated! — in each statement, because I've been aware for a long time that some of the religious ideas I feel drawn to are in some tension with the more personal affirmations that I've found a way to make, and I've never quite known how to address that tension. But I'll save the rest of my commentary for later. Here's the "Credo" I wrote when I was 22:

I am a human being, responsible to the world of time and things to cultivate meaning in and by my life.

I am a human being, surprised to be alive; I am a human being, stunned that I will die. My responsibility grows from the awareness that I did not choose to be born, and that I did not choose to die. My responsibility is to cultivate creative and healing places in the plot fenced between my birth and my death.

I am broken and I am whole. I know regret and grief, and I know hope, and I know joy. I do not need salvation, nor the curse of damnation: I am always saved and damned, dependent and free, benevolent and evil. I am no dualist; I am a human being. I am alive with the hope that wholeness lives in brokenness.

I know what it is to be grabbed at the core by another personality. I know what it is to fall under the spell — for good and evil — of a hero, of a parent, of a lover. I know what it is to run from the challenge of loving. I know how impossible and still necessary it is to love the world. I know that the inevitability of loss — death in all its many forms — gives strength to love and makes love terrible and wonderful to inhabit.

I know that no one has ever been right before, that every prophet, saint, witch, philosopher, parent, book — that every one has been both true and not true, that truth is not, in its most important sense, a finished product but the activity that continues in the midst of being wrong and being unhappy to be wrong.

I am a human being, and the need to speak as a human being — and not as a member of some smaller group with its insiders and its outsiders — is at the essence of the impulse toward true religion. To be bound together, to be religious, is to feel and express the true interconnection of things. This is an impossible stance; this is the only possible way to be. Being is what it is I would become. "I am a human being; nothing human is alien to me."

First, yes, I do see myself being clever and deliberately paradoxical and I'm just a bit embarrassed about that, but what can you do? This is what I really wrote when I was 22.

But on to substance. I have always felt the most ambivalence about my statement "I do not need salvation, nor the curse of damnation," because even as I wrote this statement I knew I was overstating my own view. I had read and found great insight in William James's Pragmatism, and strongly marked this passage in the final chapter:

May not the claims of tender-mindedness go too far? May not the notion of a world already saved in toto anyhow, be too saccharine to stand? May not religious optimism be too idyllic? Must all be saved? Is no price to be paid in the work of salvation? Is the last word sweet? Is all 'yes, yes' in the universe? Doesn't the fact of 'no' stand at the very core of life? Doesn't the very 'seriousness' that we attribute to life mean that ineluctable noes and losses form a part of it, that there are genuine sacrifices somewhere, and that something permanently drastic and bitter always remains at the bottom of its cup?

I've never shaken off the tragic sense I acquired when, in the lingo of my Mormon childhood, I "lost my testimony" of the Mormon "plan of salvation." So James's acknowledgment of ineluctable loss rings very true to me. But the ghost in what I go on to say — "I am alive with the hope that wholeness lives in brokenness" — remains at the heart of my faith today. The most powerful fact in the devastating experience of losing my Mormon faith as a freshman in college was my sense that I was freed from great mental and spiritual anguish. (I can even point to the moment when it happened.) And although my immediate response to that moment of liberation was to stop praying to a God I feared, the strange thing was that I now had an experience that I recognized as a kind of grace.

That paradox — that I do believe we experience both salvation and damnation even though in my credo I claim not to need the promise of one or the fear of the other — is probably the central puzzle of my liberal faith today. It's also at the heart of my attempts to wrestle with the meaning of the Christian story of resurrection, which I've always responded to strongly even though I have often not felt able to "believe in" it. (You can read an essay I wrote about resurrection back in 1996 here.) When I was actively writing new hymn texts as part of my senior thesis at Harvard Divinity School, I wrote a compressed stanza about my idea of grace that goes like this:

My soul is held and, turning, is returned
By love unseen, a gravity sublime.
Though light had failed, as my heart in its time,
Your dawn, O God, has graced my life unearned.

Hard to sing, I admit, but at times that really has been my experience.

There are other things I notice in my eleven-year-old credo, but I think I'll save further reflection for later posts. You're welcome to comment or respond to it, too.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 18 September 2004 at 9:37 AM

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David Engel:

September 20, 2004 01:33 PM | Permalink for this comment

I commend you on having written a creed at 22. I am 34 and cannot say I have one written.


December 8, 2004 10:43 AM | Permalink for this comment

When I left evangelicalism, I was thrilled to find the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. For the first time, someone had summarized the faith I had been told all about from my earliest days in language both precise and imprecise, both rational and mysterious. Evangelicalism had often tried to do so, but with language and ideas that smelled of business school mission statement drafting classes. And that seemed to leave a lot out.

I'm still getting over the classic creeds.

I think your creed was great. My own version of the exercise started when I found these and I have to test each statement each week, to ponder how my belief and the corporate belief differ, are the same, and what that means.

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