What Do I Believe?

In A God of Infinite Possibility on August 17, 2012 at 7:04 pm

A Deist’s Creed

                                I believe that everything that is, is of God and is God.

                I believe in a God of infinite possibility and endless variety; who cannot be defined or contained by all the thoughts and words and deeds of humankind; who speaks to us in every tongue and many voices; who has created, of God, a living, evolving, rational universe.

                I believe in the gift of free will, the power of unconditional love and the grace of forgiveness.


A deist believes in God.  Or god.  Or gods.

That’s it.  That’s what defines a deist.  There is a belief in something that the believer defines in god-terms.

Those who identify themselves as deists (or unaffiliated believers, or non-denominational, or whatever other terms they might choose) also tend to believe that organized religions are human institutions in which it might be possible to find positive aspects of community and common practice, but which are flawed institutions that are as likely to limit and distort the individual’s relationship with God as they are to enhance it.  These feelings may range from simple disagreement to outright hostility.

That’s why I call my creed “A Deist’s Creed,” not “The Deists’ Creed.”  I describe myself as a deist.  Not that long ago, I would have called myself an agnostic.  I have never been an atheist.  But these are all ways of explaining the development of my own beliefs about these matters.  I was raised in a rural Episcopal church in southern Massachusetts, attended church only spottily as an adult, and as of this writing, go regularly to a United Church of Christ Congregational parish.  This creed is an expression of the process of my faith, rather than a statement about its final resting place.  As long as I can continue to think about what I believe, examine my relationship with both spirit and other human beings, and observe my own experiences, then my creed may change from time to time.

For me, the most important aspect of being a deist is to know what it is I believe.

What is not important to me is to spend much time going on about what I don’t believe.  I am not interested in trashing other people’s beliefs, arguing about whether God “in fact” exists, or picking apart religious texts to find the “flaws” in them.  I was raised with the King James Bible, have also read the New International Version and parts of several other versions, and have studied some non-Christian texts and scholarly works of religion and philosophy.  I have also read texts of literature, art and science.  I consider all of these texts to be of human origin and therefore flawed – though the specific nature of their flaws is open to disagreement.  I also believe that all of these texts, precisely because they are the work of human beings, contain truths that come from the connection between us and our beliefs.

If you ask me, “Do you believe in God?”  And I answer, “Yes I do.”  What do you know about me or my beliefs?  Unless you know what I mean when I say “God,” then you cannot know anything more than that I profess to believe in something and I call that something “God.”  And unless you know what I mean by “believe,” then you cannot know how I experience that God.  Moreover, unless I know what you mean by those same words, I cannot answer your question with any sure sense that I know what you are really asking.

Now you may be thinking that I am making too much of these differences, that there is a general agreement about what these words mean in this context, that if we come from a common culture which generally speaks about God and belief in certain ways, then surely we can understand each other well enough.  But experience tells us that isn’t so.  Our individual definitions can create enormous gaps in understanding that we will be insensitive to because we think that they do not exist.  Consider the phrase “In God We Trust,” which appears on U.S. currency.  Why is this not a violation of the first amendment to the Constitution?  When the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1953, why was it not also denounced as unconstitutional?  Can you use the name of God – and when it is capitalized it is a name, not just a noun – without invoking a religious belief?  And if you answer that it doesn’t matter because everyone can imagine his own God, then what about the atheist, who clearly does not trust in God and does not wish to swear allegiance to a nation under that in which he does not believe?  What about the devout Christian who believes that using God’s name in that way is blasphemous?  Words do not exist without definition and definitions do not exist without consequences.

All faiths and all religions define God in some way.  When we choose to believe, it is a good idea for us to choose what we believe very carefully.

Now I have just used two more words that need careful definition: faith and religion.  And to these I would add two more: philosophy and science.  I will take each of these terms separately and tell you how I define them, so that you will know better what I mean and be able to say whether my definitions are at all close to your own.

                GOD – In my deist’s creed, I say that I believe that everything that is, is God.  If I believe that God is infinite and that nothing existed before the creation of the universe, except God, then it follows for me that there was nothing for God to create the universe out of, except God.  Does that sound like a non-definition?  It may be.  Perhaps the best definition for the God I believe in would be, “God is that which cannot be defined.”  To define something is to limit it.  That’s what it means to define.  To make finite.  To say what something is, and simultaneously to say what it is not. To draw the edges of it so we can know what is included in it and what is outside of it.  If we say, for example, that God is masculine, then we simultaneously say that the feminine is not God.

The definitions of God in the major religions are, of course, not so simple or concrete as that.  They have lots of layers and nuances and complexities, which the many volumes of theological writings attempt to explain and refine.  Even my own non-definition definition requires further explanation and allows for interpretation and argument and refinement.  But this is my starting point, the gross outline of my definition of God: “Everything that is, is God.”

FAITH – A way of knowing that which we cannot prove, so that we can act on that knowledge.  Faith allows us to treat our beliefs as fact.  We usually associate faith with a belief in God or adherence to a specific religious practice – we even use the terms “faith” and “religion’ interchangeably much of the time – but one can have faith in things that are unrelated to the divine.  We can talk about faith in our system of government, faith in the essential goodness of human beings, or faith in the ability of reason to find solutions to our problems.

RELIGION – A system of belief, dogma and practice used by humans to experience and express their understanding of and relationship with the divine.  Just as our culture helps us to organize the world through shared perceptions and definitions of the world and society in which we live, religions help people to organize their ideas about the divine through shared perceptions and definitions of God or the gods.

The first requirement of a religion is a belief in some kind of divinity.  If God does not exist, then religion is an exercise in delusion.  But there is very little in the human experience (some would say nothing) that does not contain at least some illusionary elements.  But so what?  Religion is not about proving God, but believing in God.  That belief can be formulated in as many different ways as there are individual believers.  God can be masculine, feminine, neuter or transcendent of gender entirely.  God can be singular or multiple; human in form, animal, a combination of human and animal, or exist in as many forms as there are elements, compounds and complex organisms; omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent; or malleable, sometimes ignorant and confused, and distant.  God can be a being of some kind or something more like a primal force or consciousness.  There is no limit to the variations in beliefs about God.  But without a belief, religion is not possible.

The second requirement of religion is dogma.  Fundamental to the shared experience of its adherents, every religion has a body of literature that attempts to make the beliefs accessible to human beings and to say how the beliefs are to be applied to life.  Dogma usually include a history of the faith and the religion, a set of rules and moral codes for living, and an explanation of the consequences of adhering or not adhering to those rules and codes.

Finally, religion requires a specific set of standard practices, usually associated with worship of the divine.  These practices are designed to create closeness to God, to create a religious community, and to give humans a way of seeking help from God, through supplication or outright manipulation.  Practices such as communion, baptism (or other rites of membership), marriage, and prayer give religions their outward form and manifestation.

There are a great many diverse beliefs in the world and vast bodies of literature to expound on those beliefs.  There are also a great many human practices – in fields from science to politics to art to the simple requirements of daily life.  But unless there is a clear and deliberate, purposeful organization of all these elements into the creation of a distinct community of adherents, focused on our relationship to the divine, then there is no religion.

PHILOSOPHY – A set of perceptions and beliefs that create a framework for an individual’s experience.  A philosophy may seem at times to be very close to a religion — I have heard Buddhism called both, for example – but it doesn’t have the same structure.  One may share one’s philosophy with a great many others, for instance, but it is rare that a group of people with a similar philosophy will meet regularly and frequently in a sense of worship or to engage in specific practices required by that philosophy.  One can argue, therefore, about whether a theosophical society is a religious gathering or a philosophical one, but a convention of existentialists meeting once a year to discuss a variety of philosophical questions is clearly not a religious event.

Philosophy, like religion, is a guiding force in a person’s life, but generally a less public or even conscious one.  There is no hierarchy of priests to tell us how to interpret what we believe or how to apply it to our lives; there is no clear community of like-minded believers with whom we regularly gather for formal instruction or common practice.  And the larger society doesn’t provide support for the practice of philosophy.  There are no philosophical “holidays” or “seasons.”  The stores don’t offer special sales on Descartes’ birthday or give workers a paid day off to celebrate their belief in Keynesian economics.  Generally, we discover our philosophies through examination of our lives, rather than through specific adherence to a particular set of prescribed texts or correct behaviors.

Every human being has a philosophy, and every human being has the necessary language to express that philosophy, but not every human being can articulate that philosophy clearly for others.  A great many people never even clearly articulate their individual philosophies to themselves.

SCIENCE – A way of observing the universe and drawing reasonable conclusions about its nature.  There are two key ideas here: observation and reason.  Observation is used broadly here to include all kinds of direct experience and some indirect.  Direct observation often leads to the kinds of widely accepted conclusions that make further direct observation less necessary (although the assumption is that such direct observations could always be made).  It is no longer necessary to observe the coming and going of ships over the horizon in order to determine that the Earth is a sphere, but standing on the beach watching the ocean-going traffic can still be a rewarding experience.  Indirect observation is sometimes required because of the limitations of human ability or technology, but usually requires some sort of direct observation to support it.  Some of the smallest particles in nature have been identified not by direct observation of the particles, but by observation of energy “trails” that show where the particles have been; astronomers are discovering planets around distant stars by observing changes in the stars’ behavior.  We can perhaps argue about whether some things can actually be observed, or whether there are things that exist which cannot be observed directly; but some sort of observation is required for science.

It is more difficult, however to clearly define what constitutes a “reasonable” conclusion.  Generally, a conclusion is reasonable if it can be shown to arise as directly as possible from the observations.  Conclusions which require the application of separate, unobserved assumptions reduce the reasonableness of the conclusions.  Also, science usually requires a sufficiently large and sufficiently objective number of observations and the ability to replicate those observations in order to make the conclusions reasonable.

These are my own definitions.  If you find that you tend to agree with them, I am glad of it.  If you disagree with them in part or in whole, please don’t let that discourage you from reading further.  I don’t offer them as absolutes, but as perspective.  Understanding my definitions might help you better understand my perspective – regardless of whether you agree.  Also, we might define these things differently, yet still arrive at similar understandings of the larger ideas; just as we might agree on the definitions and be miles apart when we try to apply them to our experiences.

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