A game of 'I believe'

January 1, 2005

If I did not leap from my chair upon reading Jennifer Phillips’ “Mugging by Speech” (Episcopal Life, December), if I did not utter great shouts of joy and approval, it was only because at the time there was no one in my immediate vicinity to hear.

Phillips said exactly what needed to be said. She defined, moreover, what seems to be the dreary malaise of the early 21st century: a certain rigid nastiness that has seeped so quietly into our church and our society that we no longer know where it came from or when it started.

When did we begin to believe that we could define ourselves not by what we stand for but by what we stand against? When did our faith become so uncertain that it requires agreement by everyone else? When did it become appropriate to apply any vile term we could think of to others of God’s children -- and all in the name of righteousness? We are standing bewildered in a barren and grotesque landscape, captives self-delivered to a place we never thought to be.

It is time for our captivity to end. It is time to walk away. Therefore I invite everyone to join me in a game I’ve discovered. Its name is “I believe,” and I call it a game because there are rules:

Define your faith. There are no right and wrong answers, but you must define your beliefs only in positive terms. You may say, “I believe,” but you may not say, “I don’t believe.”

You may not say anything negative about the faith or theology of any other person or group or tradition. You may not define your beliefs in terms of what they are not. You may not identify anyone (including yourself) as a sinner.

You may not validate your belief by citing the words -- written or spoken -- of another. You may cite Scripture only if you include the words “In my interpretation,” or “I believe this means...” or other equivalent.

A good nudge, if needed, is to take the Nicene Creed slowly, questioning every word. What do I mean when I say “God”? What do I mean by the word “Father,” by “maker,” by “heaven and earth”? What images do these words bring to mind? Would they be different if, for example, we said “the universe” rather than “heaven and earth”?

It helps to write it down, I’ve found. Words on a page have a wonderful way of focusing our thoughts. For example, I wrote, “I believe that the church today is in the midst of a great -- and sometimes unsettling -- prophetic movement that has actually been going on for some years now.”

As soon as I had written it, however, I realized that was not what I believed at all. The church is not in the midst of a prophetic movement: The church, by its very nature, is itself the prophetic movement. Some years now? Yup -- 2,000 and counting.

Phase Two of the game gets harder. Phase Two is where we look at our faith and ask, “Why do I believe that? When did I begin to think that way?”

Belief is forged in many ways. For some, it is shaped in childhood. For others, there has been a gradual spiritual growth over the years. Some have experienced conversion, some have happily embraced the faith of their parents, some have been influenced by a trusted friend or mentor. For most of us, I imagine, the answer will be “all of the above.”

As always, there are no right or wrong answers; our purpose is not to prove but to discover -- a peaceful and nonjudgmental appreciation of where each of us is, how we got that way and where we’re going next.

And where we’re going next is out into the world. Out into the discovery, or rediscovery, of the things that really do need to be stood against -- prejudice, brutality, injustice and exploitation. We will be prepared to take them on because we have found them in ourselves and recognize their roots; because we also have found in ourselves unsuspected deeps of spiritual strength, the courage to walk with God’s wise ones and saints, and the joy to live in God’s house of stars.

That’s Phase Three.

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