Relation versus Belief

I suppose it will be a recurring theme of any Unitarian Universalist’s blog, just as it is a recurring theme of any Unitarian Universalists conversations, to discuss what “Unitarians believe”, “why go to church if you don’t believe in God”, and other such questions that make perfect sense if your only experience of church and religion is in the context of American Christianity.

Linked are the comments of Reverend Thomas Perchlik on his blog. Quoted below is the portion of interest that express this conundrum another way:

Thus theological depth in UU religious life requires that we understand the difference between faith as ‘trust’ and faith as ‘belief.’ It requires that we understand that belief is central to Christian and Muslim belief, but not to every religion. Depth requires that we think about the difficulties caused by rejecting belief as a cornerstone of a religion, and to understand the ways that covenants are mis-used and mis-understood. It means that we think through the difference between covenant and contract, covenant and non-sacred promises, etc.

Most people in American and Eropean Culture begin their studies of religions in terms of belief. “What do Jews believe?” they ask for example, or “What do Hindus believe?” not realizing that these are Christian questions that may not lead to an adequate understanding of Hinduism or Judaism. To some extent the whole idea of “Hinduism” was created by British Christians who wanted to understand the religious culture of India, never realizing that there was not really “One” Hindu faith until they began asking, over and over again, what is Hinduism, and what do Hindus believe. The same thing happens with UUism. In order to break from this yoke we must be able to speak clearly to the theological justification of Covenant as the way that the true and good comes into human lives.

In other words, among other things, we have to explain to people who aren’t geared to get it that not all religion must center around belief. It’s likely that more people worldwide have religious practices that don’t center on belief than that do. I personally think that belief is important in some ways, but is a poor primary focus for spirituality. That’s mainly because belief isn’t voluntary, and developing an epistemological system sufficient to establish correct beliefs of such import as to make them central is too hard for many people.

Also published yesterday, the comments of Rev. Michael Tino on the matter of “spiritual spam”. Truly thought provoking, and in some ways an answer to Perchlik’s call – here I particularly mean items #3 & 4:

Third, any spiritual teaching worth paying attention to seeks to build relationships between and among beings. Between people, with the other beings of Earth, or even with something you might choose to call God—it doesn’t matter. But relationships need to be strengthened by spiritual teachings.
Finally, a good spiritual pathway needs to connect you to something greater than yourself. That need not, of course, be a supreme being of any sort. It can be the community of humanity, the creative power within us, the life force pulsing through all of nature, or the infinite expanse of the universe.

Of course, you have to have a bit of experience with a matter before you can learn to filter it well. And, of course, one can set a “spiritual filter” based on poor criteria – effectively locking onesself into a less-than optimal spirituality.

Now, it would be shallow to speak of Western Christianity as being exclusively credocentric. In fact, many “born again” Christians characterize their religion as a relationship with Christ, despite their heavy dependence on the notion of “belief” for salvation. So, that’s a start. It remains to flesh out what the nature of that relationship is, and how it affirms the important things in life, but it’s worth noting that there is a facet of evangelical Christianity that isn’t (necessarily) tied up directly with “belief”. Maybe a good element of our explanation to our Baptist neighbor of what we do in the UU church, then, is that we have relationships with one another and with something greater than any of our individual selves.

As to what my “spiritual spam filter” would look like? Well, I’ve learned that everything that comes under the heading of “belief” belongs in the spam folder. Anything that doesn’t enhance relationship – with people and/or with nature – is junk mail. And, of course, it’s never “all about you”. I think that is the number one most important thing that any religion helps us understand – that there is more to life than just “I”.

I guess that’s about it.

2 comments to Relation versus Belief

  • Ron

    Nice post, smijer! I’ve been talking along those lines for a while now at my websites. The emphasis on correctness of belief sure seems to miss the mark in our particular mode of liberal religion. The old radical Reformation idea of “holy spirit” is taken far too literally, seems to me, and I would suggest that pres. Obama is described that “spirit” as well as anybody in his talk this morning at the prayer breakfast, saying that… “Too often, we have seen faith wielded as a tool to divide us from one another.” Some may–and obviously do–see it differently, but I too (silly Universalist that I am) see “the holy spirit” as a spirit that ultimately unites instead of divides, regardless of our particular opinions in matters of theology or the Great Mystery.

  • Thanks for engaging in this and for connecting those two sermons. You, of course, know what I base my filter on, since you read the sermon. I appreciate your thoughts on the subject.

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