I believe in choice, and I believe in choosing wisely.
I believe that I have an independent will and that I can use it — but I also believe that there are good ways and bad to use that will. Liberty is therefore a great good, but only because it allows people to make the right choices — it is a means to an end, not an end itself. Unbridled freedom, choosing solely for choice’s sake — living in the Land of Do-As-You-Please — can be both good and bad, and choosing well requires more than simple freedom.
I believe that everyone can be helped to choose wisely. My own choices, or at least the wise ones, are helped by my friends, my family, and (greatly important to me) the stories I have heard and I myself tell. This is why I went into teaching, to tell stories that could help people choose well.
I believe that the Golden Rule is a pretty reasonable guide for our choices, as long as we remember to apply it to those living in the past and the future as well as to those living in the present. But I also believe that everything should be put to the test, for there are always exceptions. I also believe that sometimes wisdom needs to give way to nobility and heroism — and, occasionally, to pure silliness.
I believe, moreover, that people can only learn what is wise by being foolish for a while. As much as we can manage, therefore, we should let them make their mistakes, and then help them learn afterward.
I believe that in general we need to support each other, but not control each other; that compassion and generosity are necessary for life; that forbidding something makes it more appealing, and so clear-eyed attention to consequences works better; that since we all make mistakes in everything we do, a diversity of ways of life and ways of thinking is invaluable so we can find solutions to the problems that beset us.
I believe that a species that produces Mohandas Gandhi is either not so fallen as might be thought, or already well on the way to redemption. I also believe that a species that produces a man as deeply flawed as Gandhi still has a long way to go.
I believe that pain has its place in life, but that hate doesn’t. I believe that life is terribly precious, but that death is not the worst thing, and that sacrifice for others is sometimes the noblest course. I believe that life without some beauty is no life at all. I believe that taking life, in war or in law, does no good at all. Yet I believe there are some things worth fighting for — and I believe that for these, there are excellent alternatives to violence.
At the core I believe that how we treat each other is the best measure of our lives. As the author teaches us, “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do” — or, to put it another way, if no one is keeping score, then compassion toward others for its own sake is invested with immense significance, since there is no reward. Indeed, it may be the only significance there is. And if there is Someone watching, I believe that the acts of compassion will impress.
I believe all this because of the stories that guide my life. Some of those stories are about Jesus of Nazareth, and others are about other notable thinkers, religious and atheist alike. (Some of them are about spaceships.) I believe that we can learn much from the religious stories, regardless of their historical or literal actuality — or, to put it another way, there’s truth in those tales even if they never really happened. So there might be a heaven and there might be a hell, but it doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me is living my life rightly, making good choices, and doing well by others. Therefore, of necessity, I must do well by myself also.
I believe these religious stories may not matter — but I do believe there is a great power running through the universe. I call this power the One. I believe the One is the creator and sustainer of existence, and that the One has both will and wit, and that the power of the One is the strongest ever conceivable. I believe that the One is very interested in the choices we make, and has opinions on what choices are right. I also believe that the One has left us free to make these choices, and that the One is more interested in our freely making the right choices than in our reverence, or worship, or obedience. The One may even care more about whether or not we choose rightly than about whether or not we believe in the One. If it helps us choose rightly, however, the One will not remain totally secret — for I believe that messengers and teachers are chosen in every generation to teach us more.
I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was one of those messengers — or maybe more than just a messenger, since he knew a lot about the One. Thus I think he probably was real, or at least someone named Yeshua bin Yusuf did a lot of teaching in the area called Palestine at about that time. Am I a Christian, then? That is a good question, and requires a careful answer. As I said, I am not certain that it matters to me, but it will matter to others. Do I believe that Jesus Christ is my lord and savior? If by Jesus you mean only that man and absolutely no one else, if by Jesus you mean a god who constrains and controls, threatening the punishment of hell and promising the reward of heaven… then no. I cannot believe in that, because I can readily imagine a god far greater, and why should I settle for less?
But if by Jesus you mean the spirit of the One who either taught the man in Palestine or was the man, and who also sat with Buddha beneath the bodhi tree, and stood on China’s peaks with Lao Tzu, and told Mohammed to recite in the cave, and who inspired all the great works of art and beauty, and who helped tell all the great tales, and who sets the blessing of wisdom to guide us and care for us in every human work and in all of nature… then, yes, I think I can worship such a One.
This is not an answer that will satisfy some people. It will be too large for some and too small for others and has too little supporting evidence for still more. But this is my statement of belief, as I currently believe and think at present (i.e., spring of 2010). It is the result of long thought, long study, and not a few conversations — real or imagined — with the power I call the One. I believe these things because they feel right to me, but more importantly, I believe them because I think I can do more good believing them than resisting them. I believe I may be wrong about the existence of the One, but I also believe that small element of doubt has its uses, and I believe that even if I am wrong, if I am simply an imaginative madman who thinks he’s talking to God, I can still be a beneficial madman. Benevolently crazy.
So: I believe in the One, who has been called God. I also believe that specifics about the One matter much less that we might think, and that what we choose in life and how good we are to each other matter much more. For it is the choices we make — for whatever reasons we make them — that matter most of all. Therefore we should strive to make good choices, and to help each other make them as well.
This I believe.