Do We Get to Decide What to Believe?

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this reflection.

A few years after I graduated from seminary, disappointed that I was not going to be a minister, at least not a United Methodist minister—this was a long time ago; I had been an out lesbian, had been a Southern Baptist, became a United Methodist—realizing I wasn’t going to be a minister, I began to work for my family’s business. I was managing the teams that went out in our vans to sand and finish wood floors all over northeast Florida and southeast Georgia. After a year or two of doing that, I began attending a class or two at a time intending to earn a Master of Business Administration at the local state university. 

Part of that degree program included taking a marketing class. I had majored in religion as an undergraduate and I had earned my Master of Divinity degree from Vanderbilt. I enjoyed the accounting class I had taken. I loved the contract law class, as the teacher was excellent. But in the marketing class, I just couldn’t get past the lack of consciousness about values.   

There was no energy at all spent on teaching us to think critically about what we might market or to whom. There was no encouragement to consider the web of underlying beliefs and values that were in involved in the endeavor we were attempting to learn.

I had so many questions that went unanswered, not unlike those I had of my Sunday School teachers years before in the Southern Baptist church I attended with my family. Why are we being taught this and not that? How will marketing these products make anyone’s life better? Shouldn’t that be considered, as much as profit or sales commissions? This course raised more questions than it answered. “There is a well of assumptions going here!” I kept saying.

I asked a classmate or two if they felt the same unease that I did, and of course they looked at me like I had two heads. If they answered at all, they said, “We learn what we are supposed to believe in church. We are here to learn how to make a living. I don’t see where the two things have anything to do with each other.”

I didn’t finish that degree program. Instead, I eventually—after working for my family’s business for a while—went into chaplaincy. I prepared again to go into the ministry, this time Unitarian Universalism.

I have always been intrigued by the basic theological questions. Not what only happens to us after death, but…

Who is in charge here? Why were we born? What are we to do with our lives? How are we to live with or understand evil, or suffering? Is there any meaning beyond ”Get saved, go to heaven?” Is there anything else?

I used to bug my mother a lot with “why are we here?” The first time, or the twentieth, she sat me down and started talking about the birds and the bees.

“Not that, Mom! What are we supposed to do while we are here?” She said I should go ask my Sunday School teachers.

Thinking theologically is not just about deciding if there is a God, and what God might be like, or what God’s intentions are. It certainly is not just about securing a happy afterlife. Or about how we might get closer or distance ourselves from a present or an absent ultimate being.

It is about asking “To whom or to what do I belong? Is there a creative force larger than me, larger than us? And if there is, how does this creative force make it possible or impossible for me (for us) to know truth, to see beauty, to do good? How does knowing to whom or to what we belong, or are loyal to, transform our behavior? Should it?”

For me it all comes down to: “How do we know what to do? What is the purpose of our lives? If the story I’ve been given doesn’t feel right, can I find one that does?”

It was clear my story was not going to be illuminated in that MBA program.

I already knew that all the world’s religions have tried to supply answers to all the fundamental questions, as have poets, and novelists, philosophers, sometimes preachers. Some say, “Just believe what I tell you to believe.” Some say, “Just believe what we have always believed, then you will be one of us.” Some say, “There is nothing to believe; it is all made up. Just do the best you can.” Some say it is a mystery, beyond our comprehension.

Perhaps, that which we use to explain the mystery is all made up. If that’s so, can’t we claim the power to define meaning for ourselves?

When I was in undergraduate school, I read what was I would describe as an “eye-opening” book. It was The Sacred Canopy by Peter Berger (1967). Berger was a sociologist who sought to explain the origins of religion. His basic point was that religions are historical products. His thinking was that all religions were originally created by human beings as a way to explain to themselves and to their heirs, their children, what this life is about and what it is for and what human beings should do and be. A simplistic view of Berger’s theory is this: Once a religion and a set of beliefs and stories are created by human beings, those beliefs and stories become externalized and are—in his words—”the sacred canopy” under which we stand. The canopy itself takes on the power to act back upon us. Later generations of people aren’t creating the beliefs and the stories, anymore. They are internalizing the original stories that have been externalized. That sounds like a sociologist!

But for me, at the age of 18 or 19 it made everything make sense. It was an explanation that gave me hope. If the original storytellers could make up stories to explain, then throw them up in the sky and the stories could act back upon us, and that was why we believed them, ‘cause they were in the sky, couldn’t we make new stories? 

That is why the light came on when I found Unitarian Universalism, or it found me. We seem to get it. That revelation is not sealed, but ongoing. We seem to get it. That loyalty to a better afterlife could change to loyalty to a better life here and now. I felt at home.

I believe it is with these theological questions that people come in the door here, either bodily, through the front or back door, or when they are checking us out online. 

Some personal loss occurs, and we question why it happened, and we ask, “What now?” Some cruelty goes unpunished, and we ask why. We ask, “Why isn’t who I thought was in charge in control of this chaos?”

“Why do people suffer? Why am I suffering? How can a I find a group of people committed to making it better, when something that affects me seems so wrong, when there is something so wrong in my world, in this world?”

These are theological questions. Creating the answers is a human thing to do….

We need each other to create answers. That is another core Unitarian and Universalist belief. We need each other.

It seems to me that some of us stop asking the theological questions and just get used to the “new” answers we heard 20+ years ago, and we stop asking the questions. We get used to the color of the canopy we stand under, the answers we have heard, or the ones that we have found comforting, and we pack those answers away to maybe pull out again when we feel discomfort, or unease, or loss or confusion, or we are with someone who does.

The answers become a tribal secret, that when shared, become a loyalty test.

But really, our loyalty is to what I have long called “freeing faith,” not binding religion. 

Our loyalty should be to what lifts the questions up, again and again and again. The answers are never frozen. Or if they are, they are frozen in a past time. What we have always agreed to, especially when coming to what would become the United States, captured in the Cambridge Platform, is that we must gather with each other to hear “the spirit of life,” the “spirit of Love” together. We must not just be in a closet by ourselves, but in a room with each other discussing these things. Listening. And we have again and again and again defined “God,” “The Spirit of Life,” our purpose, as Love.  I will end with this poem from Rebecca Parker.

“The Call of Love” by Rebecca Parker

In the midst of a world
marked by tragedy and beauty
there must be those
who bear witness
against unnecessary destruction
and who, with faith,
rise and lead
in freedom,
with grace and power.

There must be those who
speak honestly
and do not avoid seeing
what must be seen
of sorrow and outrage,
or tenderness,
and wonder.

There must be those whose
grief ­troubles the water
while their voices sing
and speak
refreshed worlds.

There must be those
whose exuberance
rises with lovely energy
that articulates
earth’s joys.

There must be those who
are restless for
respectful and loving
companionship among human beings,
whose presence invites ­people
to be themselves without fear.

There must be those
who gather with the congregation
of remembrance and compassion
draw water from
old wells,
and walk the ­simple path
of love for neighbor.

There must be communities of ­people
who seek to do justice
love kindness and walk humbly with God [The Spirit of Love],
who call on the strength of
to heal,
and bless life.

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