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Musings about Beliefs

By Houston M. Burnside

Houston M BurnsideJust a few months ago I joined the Table: United Church of Christ of La Mesa, California. Based on my experience with other churches, I expected I would have to subscribe to a strict set of doctrines. I was wondering how my theological perspective would fit in with this church’s set of beliefs.

I discovered that a requirement for membership was a home visit from the pastor (The Rev. Kaji Douŝa). To my pleasant surprise, I wasn’t required to sign any statements of faith or promise to adhere to any doctrines or dogmas. We I just had to want to become a part of the church community.

In a flash-back I remembered California preachers I had listened to in my teens and early twenties who warned their listeners that they had to agree with certain doctrines or beliefs in order to be saved from the eternal fires of hell.  I remembered evangelists loudly proclaiming that the only way to heaven was to repeat “the sinner’s prayer” and be baptized.

The older I got, the more I began to feel that all these strict doctrines and beliefs were what separated people. If my point of view is the only right one, others are being shut out. The minute I start thinking my beliefs are the right ones, all others appear to be wrong. They are walled out by my belief system. This leads me to a kind of tribal mentality.

The more I read, the more I thought about it, I began to realize that what is really important in religion can be seen as having to do with a sense of wonder, mystery, awe and humility. Belief systems, doctrines, dogma and creeds that are taken too literally, and stretched to conform to some pre-conceived ideas, tend to block such things. They can even become dangerous.

Throughout human history a lot of blood has been shed by “true believers.” The Crusades are a classic example. Our own Civil War is another example. Both sides thought God was on their side. Scripture verses were quoted by supporters of the North and the South. Abortion clinic bombers do what they believe God is leading them to do. They take on the mantle of righteous indignation as they plant their bombs. Planes were flown into New York’s Twin Towers, killing almost 3,000, in the name of Allah. A radicalized belief system can easily support such atrocities.

I’m not sure how we can avoid all this. Perhaps there will always be radicals who stretch their beliefs beyond the breaking point of reality and common decency.

I’m not ready to campaign against religion in any form. What I would like to see is a growing interest in religion based more on love than on fear. The kind of religion I’m seeking is one based on love, a sacred sense of awe and a passion for social justice.

I’m still working on all this. I’m still seeking. I don’t want my God to be too small. I want my God to be inclusive. I don’t want to build walls. I’d rather build bridges. I want my religion to be open to compromise and change – to grow with the times, to build up rather than tear down. As a Christian, I want to be a follower of Christ more than a believer.  That’s why I joined the United Church of Christ.


HOUSTON BURNSIDE was a shoeshine boy on the streets of South Gate, California, a busboy and dishwasher at Morrell’s Restaurant and a high school dropout. He later served 4 years in the Marine Corps with duty in North China. He went on to become an ordained minister, teacher, school principal and university professor. He obtained his Masters Degree and Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate School.

Burnside now lives in La Mesa, California with his wife, Connie Anderson Burnside.

(From dust jacket, A Pew-sitter’s Search for God)

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