It’s a long-standing tradition, of course, that when a new year begins, people make resolutions to change certain behaviors that seem to impede their growth in one way or another. I thought that it might be a nice change to instead focus on those things we claim as our core beliefs, those things that allow us and encourage us to engage in the world in a way that is healthy, effective and satisfying to the soul.
A “credo” is a statement of belief. It can be as short as a sentence if you are confining yourself to a particular and specific subject. It can be as long as a book or a lifetime if you desire to dig into the details. I’m going to share with you today a few things that I believe. We’ve included a blank sheet as an insert in your order of service so that you might begin to create your own credo statement, if you wish, as we enter 2017. If you find something that I say to resonate as true, you are welcome to make a note of it. If you find something that I say to strike you as off-base, you are welcome to make a note of your own stance on that subject. You might find it rewarding to create a credo statement, something that you can call on as your guide.
I believe that life is a complex affair. There are many things that make up life on the physical level, the psychological level, the social level, the political level, the level of personal intimacy, the moral, religious and spiritual levels. And we cannot know all the components of life, the components of these various levels, either, with any degree of precision. Many of us think of life as a problem to be figured out. Some of us think of life as a process that we must make our way through. It seems that there is some truth to both ways of understanding: we learn by living and we change as we grow.
I believe that there is much suffering in life, but I don’t think that life is characterized only through suffering. I believe in hope. It’s something that gets us through the hard times in life; it’s something that can grow and something that can be lost. The times I’m most aware of hope are the times when I feel it slipping away. If it slips away, it must have been there, right?
I believe that the greater one’s understanding is, the greater one’s tolerance and flexibility can be. I believe that all people have strengths, sometimes beyond their own understanding; I believe that all people have weaknesses, though it’s hard, often, to admit our weaknesses to ourselves.
I believe that life is a gift, a wonderful, mysterious, puzzling, challenging, enigmatic gift. I believe that we are not responsible for being born, but that we are responsible for the welfare of our bodies and minds once we become capable of agency in the world.
I believe that we human beings are connected with one another, that we are all interconnected and we have the choice (most of us) as to how much and in what way we honor that interconnectedness. I believe that, in fact, we are interconnected with all living beings in some way, though it may be through links in a chain well beyond our knowledge or understanding. In fact, I believe that there is an interconnectedness with all things, whether living or non-living and that that connection is made through energy, an energy that courses through our veins, through our cells, our muscles, tendons, and bones. An electro-magnetic force—that’s the best term we have for it at present.
As far as karma goes, I believe that what I am today is as a result of what I was yesterday and in years past, and that what I am tomorrow will be a result of what I am today. And I believe that we are equipped, most of us, anyway, to make choices that will alter our present and our future if we are patient enough and careful enough in the self-observation that occurs through living a mindful life.
I believe that we all have the capacity to act selfishly and we all have the capacity to act in a way that holds the welfare of others as important and valuable.
I believe that we all have to be loved in order to be healthy, well-balanced, well-adjusted and caring. I believe that if people don’t experience love in a way that feels genuine when they are children, they will have a hard time knowing what love means and knowing how to be a loving person later in their life. I believe that what the Dalai Lama says is true, “People were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. The reason that the world is in chaos is because things are being loved and people are being used.”
I believe in God and I believe in the devil, but not in the usual way those words are understood. If you are old enough to remember the comedian Flip Wilson, you will no doubt remember his catch phrase, “The Devil made me do it!” The idea was that there is a real and embodied devil who has strong powers over each of us and can make us slaves to his will if we are not careful. Because we can most easily understand things that have bodies and appear to have substance, we tend to shape our views of the world through realities that have (at least) three dimensions. What we call the Devil is simply the temptation that lives within us to act selfishly, to seek one’s own gain at the expense of another or at the expense of a principle we know to be right; or to be cruel: to take delight in causing harm. Perverse as that sounds, I believe that there is a destructive urge that lives in most, if not all, of us.
We live, I think, constantly between the poles of selfishness and altruism and an honorable person attempts to steer a path of integrity where both the needs of the self and the needs of others can be fulfilled.
I believe that God lives in the energy that animates the universe—that God is in every thing, living and non-living, at the level of the subatomic particle and at the level of the uniform universe. I believe that conversations about God can lead to greater understanding between people if those talking are willing to listen and are open to new ways of looking at the things that seem most important to us. I also believe that these conversations can lead to more strife and conflict when views are so deeply held that there is no room for growth.
I believe that freedom without discipline is meaningless at best and frightening at worst. And I believe that the most meaningful form of discipline is self-discipline. I believe that love lives at the crossroads of freedom and discipline. I believe that love is both a feeling and a reality and that the feeling is, in itself, an aspect of reality. I believe that love cannot exist without respect and trust and almost certainly, affection. Because we are only human with all the competing needs and desires and imperfections that that includes, we cannot know perfect love.
I believe that all persons should be treated with dignity and respect and that it’s up to each of us to draw the boundaries that we feel are appropriate in terms of our interactions with others. I believe in evolution based on a kind of natural selection and that complex life forms have evolved from simpler life forms. I find that contemplating these matters leads to a response of awe and wonderment on the spiritual level and tedium on the level of minute scientific investigation, always remembering that there is an enormous variation in human personality and interests.
I believe in transcendence, that certain experiences bring one out of one’s normal sense of being in the world so that a sense of wonder is attained and a sense of beauty is experienced that makes real the connection we have with others and the divine animating energy. I believe that grief is an aspect of love and that the pain of loss reflects the reality of our connection with one another.
I believe that humor has healing powers and that a shared sense of humor is one of life’s great delights. I believe that a feeling of outrage at injustice is perfectly justified, but that one must be careful as to how it is expressed so as not to create greater division between people. So, I believe in the need for discernment, for deliberately working one’s way through conflicting ideas and emotions in a way that creates responsible action and grounds for responsible communication.
I believe that good communication is one of the few absolute conditions for creating community and that good communication is exceedingly hard. I have come to see good communication as mastering skills of revealing and concealing. If one is unwilling to reveal oneself (one’s feelings as well as thoughts), one is unable to make the connection necessary for good communication. If one holds nothing back, the other party to communication feels swamped and overwhelmed. Each relationship we form emerges in a kind of dance, one step forward, one step back, one step forward, two steps back, two steps forward, left, right, back and forth. For some people, this all comes very naturally; for others, it involves a good bit of work.
I believe that we all make mistakes and that some can be rectified and some cannot. Relationships of any kind cannot succeed without trust and various people have varying capacities for trust. If love is present, trust can grow. If respect is present, trust can grow. It’s very easy for us to be disrespectful without even knowing it, as we aim for that middle path of satisfying our desires and allowing others to satisfy their desires.
I believe that we all have feelings, that we all have emotions, and that we all are capable of thought. To trust that we will always be rational is to believe in an ideal that is incongruous with reality. I believe that it’s important to trust one’s feelings as a guide to behavior, but for the rational part of our natures to be responsible for our actions.
Because we are a composite of the rational and the irrational, we will make mistakes. A person of integrity and emotional maturity will take responsibility for his or her mistakes. A person of compassion will allow for mistakes as natural occurrences, as part of the fabric of life and of relationships of all kinds. I believe that compassion allows for growth in oneself, in building successful relationships, and in being fully human. At the same time, discernment is necessary in order to protect oneself from exploitation and psychic damage.
I believe that spiritual growth means taking risks. It’s all too tempting to be so concerned with safety that we don’t take risks. If that’s the path we choose, we may find it difficult to find meaning in our lives, as meaning is found in relationship and no relationship is without risk.
I believe that one must learn to love oneself before one can love others. That means allowing oneself to make mistakes, to show weakness, to be imperfect. I believe that the experiences of early childhood shape us in ways that we are not even aware of. And I believe, despite the bumper sticker to the contrary, that sometimes it is too late to have a happy childhood.
I believe that knowledge provides a certain kind of power and that willful ignorance can also exert significant power. The battle between good and evil is not as simple as some would have us believe. The roots of goodness are complex: they include a response to the love that has been shown to us and to the moral teaching we’ve received and whatever we are born with that moves us to actions in support of others. The roots that manifest in the destructive urge are complex. The forces of wisdom and ignorance are the forces of light and darkness. Wisdom has love in it, love for others as well as a love of knowledge. The force of ignorance is powerful, but confused: it can lead to great harm.
I believe that politics is a way that we sort out our beliefs and priorities and find ways to enact them. I believe that politics is neither good nor bad, but in the service to ideas which can run from very good to very bad. I believe that ideology is necessary, but to worship ideology over genuine human connection is idolatry.
I believe in climate science. I believe in biodiversity. I believe that the planet knows what is best for itself and it would be wise for us to follow her lead rather than to make her bend to our wills. I don’t believe in the myth of the noble savage, but I do believe that the Native American (or better, indigenous) people of this continent understood the primal connection of human life to the web of life and the land that sustains us better than the European conquerors.
I believe that democracy is the best form of government, but that it only works if the populace is educated. I distrust most politicians from the start, assuming that their motives are to exploit others for their gain. That may be cynicism, but it’s based on hard experience.
I don’t believe that progress is best measured by technological innovation. In fact, the better we get at manipulating technology, the better we get at justifying inhuman acts. Killing people by drones is no less murder than killing people by guns or knives.
I believe that Black Lives Matter and that the movement is a justifiable response to unjustifiable murders of Black citizens by those who are paid to protect them. That does not mean that I believe police in general to be racist or reactionary. I believe that democracy cannot be taken for granted and it’s the duty of people of conscience to stand up to injustice in all of its forms.
I believe that the same kinds of virtues and vices that we embody as individuals, we embody as nations and institutions. I don’t believe that corporations are people. I do believe that greed is one of the great dangers to the civilized world and that the more the power supporting greed is consolidated, the more dangerous it is.
I believe that women’s rights are human rights and that there is still an institutional bias against women receiving equal opportunity and equal rights in their workplaces. I believe that women no less than men are qualified for positions of authority and that the deck is stacked against them through centuries of stereotyping of roles.
I believe that I have more in common with refugees and immigrants than I do with those who make it their business to demonize them. I believe that Muslims in general are following an authentic religious tradition that makes them better and more considerate people. I do not believe that there is an Islamic conspiracy to undermine democracy in America, but I do believe that some misuse Islamic teachings for the sake of violent disruption and because of paranoid delusion. I believe that some politicians see it in their interest to fan the flames of distrust and xenophobia.
I believe in the right of others to disagree with me on these points or any others and I’m sure that I can continue to grow in wisdom and in compassion through informed and thoughtful dialogue. I’m also aware that my temperament is not always as steady as I’d like and that I can be reactive and impatient, myself.
I believe that attraction, romance, and love are manifested in many ways and that people whose identity includes attraction to people of the same sex are neither unnatural nor immoral. I believe that when some people display the characteristics of one gender while claiming the identity of another gender, they are not confused or self-deceived, but that both gender and identity have more mysteries than we might imagine.
I believe that we are neither pure not complete, any of us. I believe that we nurture prejudices because claiming a superiority over others grants us a status that feels more secure and powerful. I believe that people from all religious traditions have virtues in them and prejudices, weaknesses and fears. I believe that the only way we make progress in the world as citizens of the world is to reckon with our own inadequacies and to enact the values that we say we hold. And I believe that that’s a damn sight harder than we would like to believe.
I believe that we do better as members of community than alone and that the kind of community that functions best is one of voluntary association. I believe that the values captured in the seven principles espoused by Unitarian Universalists can create the kind of world where all are honored, all are respected, and all are given a chance to live in harmony and civility, with awareness, tolerance, acceptance and celebration of diversity.
I am committed to those values and I know that you are, too. I look forward to growing together with you as we approach yet another year on this planet which is our home.
- Mindfulness in Plain English. Venerable H. Gunaratana Mahathera. Wisdom Audio Visual Exchange. 1991.
Presented by the Rev. Peter Connolly
at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY
on New Year’s Day, January 1, 2017