“Everyone should believe in something. I believe I’ll have another beer.”And while I do, on occasion, believe I’ll have another beer, I wonder about the claim that everyone should believe in something. On the one hand, we can’t help ourselves. We all form beliefs – from beliefs about where we left our car keys, to beliefs about which politicians will best benefit their electorate. We can’t live without beliefs. Problem is, we can’t live very well with them either. Beliefs get us into trouble, because we all need to keep learning, and a belief is like a stopping point in the unfolding of learning. A belief is a mental stuck place in the flow of awareness. We have to have them – but we also need to be ready to replace any of them. Clinging to beliefs gets us into trouble.
In the 16th century, Michael Servetus said the trinity is "a diabolical monster with three heads" and that Jesus Christ "is not the Son of God from eternity" but only temporally -- though it's hard to imagine what practical difference this could possibly make. Servetus was very attached to certain beliefs, and the Syndics of Geneva that sentenced him to be "attached to a stake and burned with your book to ashes" were very attached to opposite beliefs.
Our way of liberal religion is a different approach. We are a people of covenant, not of creed -- a people of promise, not of beliefs. We are not bound together by what we believe. We are bound together simply by the power of promising to be bound together.
What do Unitarian Universalists believe? We believe that your religion isn’t about what you believe. Religion is about three things. (See sidebar at right, "What Religion Is About")
For some religions, creed – doctrines, beliefs – is a part of how they bring those three functions together so that each can strengthen and support the other two. We respect those religions that employ a creedal strategy. Our point is that, although everybody needs to believe something, there isn’t any one thing that we all have to believe together. For religious community, sharing a creed is optional, and we Unitarian Universalists opt out.
Covenant, however, is not optional. Covenant is essential.
A covenant is a promise – a promise that continues to hold us, no matter how many times we break it. A covenant is not a contract. If one of the parties to a contract breaks the contract, the other party doesn’t have to continue to keep its side of the bargain. A contract is all about the quid pro quo, the tit for tat. A contract says, "I will provide some benefit, good, service, or money to you in exchange for some benefit, good, service or money from you." A covenant is less about what we DO for each other and more about who we ARE together.
In some strange and magical way, the fact that we don’t always know if we’re keeping the promise, or if the other person is, gives the promise a special power for us. It’s not something you can check off: "Done. OK, what’s next?" The covenantal promise adds meaning to our lives, yet, paradoxically, it does so by being ambiguous. Its meaning is never too clear, but rather creatively – sometimes surprisingly – unfolds.
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This is part 1 of 3 of "Interdependent Web of Covenant"
Next: Part 2: "Come, Yet Again, Come"