This is the text of a talk I gave this morning at the annual Credo service at the Unitarian Church of Sharon.
The modern translation of Credo is “I believe,” and the word creed has come to mean a statement of religious beliefs.
Being asked to talk about my religious beliefs presents something of a problem for me. I’ve come to think beliefs aren’t the most interesting or important – or even an essential – element of religion.
In fact, I’ve come to think that metaphysical beliefs can, for many – present company excluded – be a real impediment to development of a sense of wonder and reverence, of a broad and deeply felt connection to the universe, other beings, and oneself. For me, these are hallmark traits of mature spirituality.
Any praiseworthy ethical framework flows from this sort of orientation.
I suppose I do have my religious beliefs (including those just mentioned), but they’re quite spare.
I didn’t arrive at this perspective through a syllogistic reasoning process or an act of mental will, though I certainly have done my fair share of thinking about religion.
I was raised Catholic and still have a deep appreciation for the mystical tradition in Christianity. I’ve always had what I’d call a contemplative orientation.
As a young child I was troubled by the confusing and inconsistent ways in which people used the word God – it seemed like the free space in Bingo, or that proverbial blank to be filled in however one might wish – and yet I felt the deepest connection to . . . to . . . to what?
I made a secret shrine in a construction zone near the new subdivision to which we moved when I was eight or nine, and I sneaked away to pray there several times a week. I read the Bible, Jonathan Livingston Seagull – for those of you old enough to remember it – and all the Hardy Boys novels, of course, in a quiet little monk’s cell I made on my closet floor.
I eventually attended a Jesuit university.
In my late 20’s, shortly after finishing law school and entering law practice, I began to meditate. I soon became very involved in a movement called Contemplative Outreach, which is reviving the ancient practice of silent prayer within the Christian community. It was started by a Trappist monk, Fr. Thomas Keating – a lovely man who has had a big impact on my life, and on the lives of so many others.
I also encountered Zen during this period, initially through Kyudo, or Zen archery. I studied with Kanjuro Shibata Sensei, an archery master and the Imperial Bowmaker of Japan. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, much of the year.
I spent a great deal of time on silent retreat at monasteries and convents in Colorado and New Mexico.
During this era, I began to feel that my world, that I myself, was divided between interior and exterior, between the contemplative perspectives and pursuits that had become so important to me, on the one hand, and the rough-and-tumble world of business and corporate law, on the other.
Unable to reconcile these seeming poles at that life-stage, in 1995 I turned down an offer of partnership in a good law firm to study at Harvard Divinity School. I planned to get a Ph.D. and become a scholar of comparative religion.
It turned out to be an absolutely brilliant move, but not for any of the reasons I thought I was making it.
During my first year I took a class on comparative theologies in which one session’s readings, and much earnest discussion regarding them, focused on the problem of syncretism – of combining religious perspectives and forms.
In reality, all religions are syncretistic, a fact too few religious people appreciate. The overt syncretism of Unitarian Universalism is one of the things that attracted me to it.
One of those class readings and the discussion that flowed from it revolved around questions like, “If a person borrows from Christianity and Buddhism, might his brain be reincarnated in a newborn’s body and the rest of him end up in heaven? Are these people putting themselves in some sort of metaphysical jeopardy?”
I’m not joking.
In the very probing, yet balanced, manner of the scholars I had come to learn from, I reflected for a moment, then raised my hand and asked the group,
“Are you serious? Who cares?”
This didn’t endear me to the professor or most of my classmates.
Around the same time, the NY Times published a huge expose about the battle of Srebrenica, which occurred in July 1995, near the end of the war in the former Yugoslavia. Thousands of Bosnian Muslims were massacred in an assault the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia later declared to be an act of genocide, and the worst mass slaughter on European soil since World War II. It seems NATO – the Clinton administration and other western powers – may have let Serbian General Ratko Mladic overrun a supposed UN safe zone where the Bosnians were encamped. It was inconveniently located in territory western officials believed would have to be ceded to the Serbs in order to achieve a peace accord.
The NY Times article contained a picture of a Muslim woman hung from a tree limb, a rope around her neck. She killed herself to avoid being killed. I broke down in tears.
I knew then that the academic study of religion, or of theology, at least, was not my calling – at least not then. I retooled my program, and my path, by combining my legal background with my interest in religion and international affairs. I created a course of study in international conflict resolution, and eventually ended up teaching and practicing in this area at Harvard Law School for several years after I graduated.
I eventually returned to private law practice, but I’m now also part of an NGO that helps create and support broad-scale peace processes to end civil wars, as well as broad-scale national dialogue processes to help avert them. We helped end Nepal’s civil war in 2006. Our current project is in Lebanon, and it’s beginning to spread elsewhere in the Middle East.
The meditation practice I began 20 years ago seems to have contributed to the progressive dismantlement of the religious conceptual framework I inherited. I sat alone during 10 years in the middle of those 20, until eventually finding a spiritual home in the Zen tradition.
I’m part of an emerging western Buddhist community called Boundless Way Zen – BoWZ for short. Last year I became one of its very junior teachers. BoWZ has a strong, if informal, connection to Unitarian Universalism. Our most senior teacher, James Ford, is minister of the First Unitarian Church in Providence.
I consider myself nontheistic, which I prefer to the term atheistic. For me, non-theism is about being religious without embracing the idea of god or standing in opposition to the many wonderful people who do.
A revered, ancient Zen teacher once said, “Not knowing is most intimate.” That’s certainly my experience.
This “not knowing” is not the “I don’t know” of agnosticism. It’s not the product of indifference or laziness or resignation.
It’s a full-to-the-brim sort of not knowing.
Unlike the author of the author of the late 14th century classic of contemplative Christian spirituality, The Cloud of Unknowing, however, I don’t experience this “not knowing” in theistic terms. That just doesn’t resonate with me, particularly not in terms of the person-like images of God presented in the Hebrew Bible and some of the sayings attributed to Jesus of Nazareth.
For me, this not knowing can’t be contained. In words, in beliefs.
Or, rather, it’s contained by, and it contains . . . this.
Nothing extra. Nothing less.
Now I look back at that nine-year old praying at his shrine – or throwing a ball, or chasing his dog, or hugging his parents, or staring at the night sky – and understand why Jesus pointed to children, and the lilies in the field, when adults asked him how to enter the Kingdom of God.
He also reminded them that “the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
These hands. No hands but our hands.
My family is new to this community, yet Esther and I saw immediately how it accommodates a range of religious perspectives, including those that emphasize belief more than mine does. I’m so impressed by the open-mindedness and big heartedness that makes this possible.
Just this includes everything. In the words of another revered, ancient Zen teacher, there is “nothing worth begrudging.” Nothing that can’t teach us; no fact, experience or viewpoint that can’t serve as grist for our individual and collective mills.
The modern meaning of Credo is “I believe,” but I understand its ancient usage conveyed a somewhat different meaning – something more along the lines of “I give my heart to this.”
And, I do.