This I Believe
Rev. Douglas Taylor
May 5, 2013
The invitation is simple: using only a few hundred words, write about the core principles that guide your life. Our Coming of Age youth do it every year. When we host the Building Your Own Theology class, participants do it as well. In these staples of Unitarian Universalist religious education curricula, we ask participants to write a Credo statement, an “I believe” statement. Interestingly, there is a secular parallel thanks to Edward Murrow and his 1950’s NPR “This I Believe” series. The rules are a little different for the National Public Radio series. NPR asks people not just to write about what they believe; they specifically ask people to avoid creeds, doctrines, dogma, and instead focus on one core belief or principle. The guidelines they offer are: Name your belief, tell a story, be brief, be personal, and be positive. You can actually read or listen to the essays online at http://thisibelieve.org/. They currently have over a hundred thousand essays and continue to receive more. The tag line is “A public dialogue about belief – one essay at a time.”
What do you think you might say if you were to write such as essay for NPR? What belief or principle would you focus on? Perhaps you would focus on God or some aspect of God as Susan Cosio, a hospital chaplain from California did in her essay when she said, “I believe in a daily walk to listen because that is when I am close to God, that is when I find my way.” (This I Believe, 2006, p 45) Or you might say something like what Actress Helen Hayes concludes: “I must help myself, yes, but I am not such a self-contained unit that I can live aloof, unto myself. This was the meaning that had been missing before: the realization that I was a living part of God’s world of people.”
Or perhaps the opposite. Magician, comedian, and research fellow at the Cato Institute, Penn Jillette (the taller, louder half of Penn and Teller) said,
“I believe that there is no god. I’m beyond Atheism. Atheism is not believing in god. Not believing in god is easy, you can’t prove a negative, so there’s no work to do… But, this “this I believe” thing seems to demand something more personal, some leap of faith that helps one see life’s big picture, some rules to live by. So, I’m saying, ‘This I believe – I believe there is no god.’ … Believing there is no god gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-0, and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have.”
Remembering the guideline to ‘stay positive,’ Jillette made that distinction between not believing in god and believing there is no god. For what it’s worth, Jillette’s essay continues to be the top most viewed essay on the website. I think people find his essay compelling not simply for its commitment to no God and its clever twist of the ‘state what you believe, not what you don’t believe’ rule. I think people like his essay because it is a compelling step into that public dialogue about belief that the website claims as their purpose.
As Unitarian Universalists we, of course, endeavor to have this same conversation in our congregations on a weekly basis: a public dialogue about belief. We trip up when we get caught in the trap of polite society that does not discuss religion or politics in mixed company. We slip when we allow the religious equivalent of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ to close down our attempts at open conversations. I think we, in this congregation in Binghamton, are a little more relaxed and willing to talk about beliefs. That is certainly the goal of all the personal witnessing of my own faith and beliefs that I have offered over the years from the pulpit: to create an atmosphere of engagement and an example of stepping into the conversation.
When I’ve written my credo, which I’ve done a couple of times over the years, I find I too want to talk about the nature of God and the implications it has on human nature. But here’s the best part: a personal Credo, or a ‘This I Believe” essay does not need to focus on God of any other traditional theological belief. Of all the essays I have read, and I have read no more than a small fraction of the thousands that are posted, very few actually focus on God. Of those that refer to God it is often in passing. The majority I saw focus on other aspects of belief and principle.
For example, General Colin Powell, when he wrote his NPR This I Believe essay, said, “I believe in America, and I believe in our people.” (ibid p184) In the original 1950’s series, First lady Eleanor Roosevelt said, “I am pretty much a fatalist. You have to accept whatever comes and the only important thing is that you meet it with courage and with the best that you have to give.” (ibid p203)
What would you write about? Perhaps you would focus on ethics and morality, as physicist Albert Einstein did in his essay in which he said “Man’s ethical behavior should be effectively grounded on compassion, nurture, and social bonds. What is moral is not of the divine, but rather a purely human matter, albeit the most important of all human matters.” (ibid p59) Or as journalist Norman Corwin said in his essay, “Good can be as communicable as evil, and that is where kindness and compassion come into play.” (ibid p41)
Famous essayists have included John McCain, Gloria Steinem, Temple Grandin, Bill Gates, Helen Keller and John Updike. For every famous person there are hundreds of regular, thoughtful, interesting people like you and me who have offered essays. What do you believe? Maybe this is a question about God but more likely it is a question about life and the principles that guide your living.
In the first of the recent reissuing and updating of the “This I Believe” essays, a book by that exact title from 2006, there are two essays written by the same person. At the age of 16, Elizabeth Deutsch had her essay selected in the 1950’s for inclusion in the radio program. Then, decades later, when they reinstituted the program as a weekly radio series, she wrote a new one. I’ve abridged both of her essays for time, so it is still worth it to you to look them up later to see the full essay. Here is what Elizabeth Deutsch wrote in 1954
An Honest Doubter by Elizabeth Deutsch
At the age of sixteen, many of my friends have already chosen a religion to follow (usually that of their parents), and are bound to it by many ties. I am still “free-lancing” in religion, searching for beliefs to guide me when I am an adult. I fear I shall always be searching, never attaining ultimate satisfaction, for I possess that blessing and curse—a doubting, questioning mind…
The one rule that could serve anyone in almost any situation is, “To see what must be done and not to do it, is a crime.” Urged on by this, I volunteer for distasteful tasks or pick up scrap paper from the floor. I am no longer able to ignore duty without feeling guilty.
… During this year, I have visited churches ranging from orthodoxy to extreme liberalism. In my search for a personal faith, I consider it my duty to expose myself to all forms of religion. Each church has left something within me – either a new concept of God and man, or an understanding and respect for those of other beliefs. I have found such experiences with other religions the best means for freeing myself from prejudices.
…This is my youthful philosophy, a simple, liberal, and optimistic feeling, though I fear I shall lose some of it as I become more adult. Already, the thought that the traditional thinkers might be right, after all, and I wrong, has made me waver. Still, these are my beliefs at sixteen. If I am mistaken, I am too young to realize my error. Sometimes, in a moment of mental despair, I think of the words, “God loves an honest doubter,” and am comforted.
Deutsch lived in Cleveland when her first essay was selected. Her essay reminds me of some of the lines we usually hear from our youth at the Coming of Age Service. She talks about being untraditional, she suggests that she might be wrong and will keep searching, she talks about respect for other beliefs, and she talks about the importance of being a good and kind person. Fifty years later Elizabeth Deutsch is now living in Ithaca and working as a professor at Cornell. Here is her follow up essay from 2005.
Have I learned anything important since I was 16? by Elizabeth Deutsch
Over 50 years ago, at the age of 16, I wrote an essay published in the original This I Believe series. …
I still believe most of what I wrote long ago. Many of my early traits remain, including skepticism about religious authority, curiosity about the world and the lofty desire to live a righteous life. The world I see now worries me at least as much as it did in the 1950s.
So, have I learned anything important since I was 16?
I now know that life is very often unfair. My own life has gone well, with much happiness and no exceptional grief or pain. Yet travel to other countries, experiences closer at hand, and just reading the news show me how hard things are for many people. That contrast troubles me, and I’m still not sure how best to respond to it. I do believe that those of us who have prospered should view our good fortune not as an indication of personal merit or entitlement, but as an obligation to recognize the needs of others.
Sadly, I’ve fallen short of my optimistic youthful goal of “doing what must be done.” I … recognize that my efforts have changed the world only in small ways.
…after the events of 9/11, I returned to the Unitarian Church, the same denomination in which I was active when I was 16. I’ve come to appreciate once again that communal reflection about life’s deeper matters is sustaining and uplifting and provides a consistent nudge in worthy directions. I believe that it’s good to spend time engaged in the present.
I recently heard and admired the phrase “wherever you are, be there.” This may not work for everyone; dissociating from misery may be wise. But someone like me, who focuses on lists of the next day’s tasks and often reads a newspaper while walking outdoors, should remember also to look up at the sky and at the people around me.
…When I was young, an honest and moral life seemed like a straightforward goal. I now know that it’s not always easy to see what should be done and even harder actually to do it. Nevertheless I’m grateful that I still have some time to keep trying to get it right, and to savor each remaining day in my life.
Both Kathleen (our Worship Associate for this morning’s service) and I were interested not only by this unique pair of essays from a single person, but to also learn that she is somewhat local to us in Ithaca, and more than that, she’s a Unitarian and was back when she wrote the first essay! One of the valuable opportunities of writing down a credo like this is to be able to look back later and see the trajectory of your living, to see the evolution of what you named at the core of your life.
A dozen years back, before I was serving this congregation, I was the Assistant minister of a large UU church in the Washington, DC area. I offered a sermon with this same title, “This I Believe.” Pretty much everything I said then still stands for me today.
I talked about how I believe God is an event, a reference to Process Theology which I’ve preached about several times over the years. I talked about what I see as the core of Unitarian Universalism: our shared belief of human nature articulated as a commitment to every person’s capacity to choose good and evil behaviors.
I have not recently written a brief credo statement. I have preached on beliefs and on what *I* believe multiple times lately. Indeed the Gould Discourse I delivered in Niagara Falls last weekend was significantly focused on my personal witness of faith and belief. But that was 45 minutes and 10 typed pages long. I haven’t written a succinct credo recently. I was tempted to do so for this service, but decided the real point I have for today is not to do my credo but to encourage you to do yours. Really the point is to encourage the public dialogue about belief.
What would you write about in your brief, personal, positive, storied version of the core belief or principle that guides your life? I will post this invitation as my newsletter column coming out this week: an invitation into a summer project. Let’s see how many This I Believe essays we can produce together.
Founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, Eboo Patel begins his essay saying, “I believe in pluralism.” (ibid p178) Poet Gregory Orr begins his essay with, “I believe in poetry as a way of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions, and traumatic events that come with being alive.” (ibid p175) Creator of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler said “I believe in the power and mystery of naming things.” (ibid p62) These examples show how the focus of your life, Monday through Friday, is exactly the grist for reflection on Sunday or whatever day you set aside for Sabbath reflection.
Have there been particularly formative events in your life that have shaped who you are today? Is there a story you keep returning to of your own experience that you are working to understand? Is the work you do or a passion you have rooted in something deeply important to you?
Me? Here is one rendering of what I might come of with this summer. I believe in people. I believe all of us shine and I have invested my life in Unitarian Universalism ministry because it makes a commensurate claim that all people shine and all people are of worth. Any conversation about the earth, about God, about justice, about good and evil, about the meaning of life is rooted for me in a commitment to by belief that all people shine.
What about you? What is your story? What is your credo? What is at the root of your living? What do you believe? I believe we can talk about this and that talking about it will bring us closer, and will help build a better world through understanding and compassion. Because that is what Unitarian Universalism is all about: the beauty of our diverse beliefs together.
In a world without end,
may it be so.