Covenant Not Creed

Everyone should believe in something. I saw that on a t-shirt:
“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.

Both sides were in a miserable state. It’s miserable to want to burn someone else to death so badly that you get some of your friends together and actually do it, and it’s miserable to be burned. It’s a lose-lose scenario when we get all clingy about our 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.

Marriage is one example of a covenant. In marriage, two people make a promise to each other that is special in several ways. For one thing, there’s an aspect of the promise that goes beyond what we can see. The promise is partly visible – there are more-or-less objective, agreed upon criteria for keeping the marriage promise – and it is also partly invisible. There’s something that the partners promise each other that is intangible, and if it’s missing, its absence might not be immediately recognized. When a couple promises to be together in love, there is no bright clear line that separates “being together” from “not so much” -- or that separates “love” from “not so much.”

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"


  1. Religion: to bind together

    I wonder though, don't we UU's have some other shared beliefs? What about our belief that what we do in this world, right here right now, is more important than what happens when we die? This is one I hear in our elevator speeches often. Another is that we believe in our 7 principles, but then those are a mere 25ish years old. This question of what it is we believe is vital to the growth of our faith. Religious education has been moving away from teaching about other religions and instead teaching about our faith and it seems to me, though I admit I am scratching my head, that teaching our kids about UUism means teaching what is is we believe. Then again, I tend to focus on what our faith compels us to do... perhaps that is different than a belief?

  2. Marriage surely is full of surprises! (disclaimer here, I am Meredith's spouse). We both are very different people than we set out to be together and what we have given and received is not what we could have predicted. It is better, freer, than the limited visions of our minds and hearts could have created intentionally. Though the intention piece is not absent - it is to live in covenant. And then the miracle occurs. I'd love to see that happen more in our congregations.

  3. Rev. Garmon, your description of a lose-lose scenario reminded me of something I read yesterday, from an old book about democracy, which described the hardline belief of dogma, whether in religion or secular politics, as a "unanimity of the graveyard". And that immediately made me think of what Paul in the Bible described as a uniformity of "the letter" that kills, as opposed to unities of "the spirit" that gives life. In covenant we look for the latter, the unities of good relationship that bring people together voluntarily, with their diverse gifts, rather than the creedal pursuits of unanimity that winds up killing the better angels that resides somewhere in each of us.

  4. LoraKim, What you said above is one of the reasons I strongly support couples getting some type of counseling or guidance before marriage. The discussion around what it means to live in covenant is a powerful one; both for marriage and congregational life.