Friday, July 20, 2018

On the Christian Creed: Some Questions & Responses

The man in Sapphire Blue, Hildegard of Bingen's vision of the Trinity

The Apostles' Creed [is] the Baptismal Symbol and the Nicene Creed [is] the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.

The Christian creed enunciates a powerful and provocative understanding of the world, one that ought to scandalize a world that runs on the accepted truths of Modernity. There is something in the creed to offend virtually every contemporary sensibility. At the same time it communicates a compelling vision of the world’s destiny and humanity’s role that challenges the accustomed idolatries and the weary platitudes of current worldly wisdom.

The creed provides the boundaries of Christian belief and therefore of the Christian community.
– ibid, p. 49-50

I seek to be centered in the faith delineated in the Christian creed (by which I mean both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles' Creed). I am wary of attempts to make that Creed more palatable to this or that contemporary intellectual fashion.

1.      But, isn't one's faith about one's relationship with the living God and with God's children. Can’t we just say Love God and love your neighbor and leave it at that?

We can, I suppose, if we already think we know something about these things before we get to the Creed. "God" is a meaningless word until it is given meaning. To say "Just love God with your whole heart mind and soul" only begs the question, "Who, or what, is this 'god' I am to love and what does it mean to love this 'god'?” As for loving neighbors (let alone enemies), why should I? And in what way? Why is it so hard to do? And, for that matter, what does it mean to be human? And what kind of a world do we live in? Any answer to those questions takes us into the realm of belief and doctrine. The Creed is the basic Christian answer to those questions. You might prefer other answers or make up your own, but you cannot talk about “god”, “love”, “creation”, or “human beings” without some sort of belief system, i.e., a creed.

It is inadequate to appeal to a simplistic pietism, whether in its more conservative or more liberal versions, that says "Don't bother me with doctrine, just give me Jesus". We have no access to Jesus other than the Gospels which are soaked in interpretation (doctrine) of who Jesus is and why he matters. And the creeds are the Christian guide to understanding God in light of Jesus.

2.      Can’t we just worship God without getting hung up with the Creed?

Again, that presumes some knowledge (creed) about God and what it means to worship.

In any event, within my Episcopal/Anglican tradition, getting rid of or ignoring the Creed would not resolve things for those who don’t like it. The rest of the liturgy is rife with the same story and the same imagery.

Further, the Creed and worship are integrally related:
Nicene Christianity has also understood orthodoxy in a richer and deeper sense: as right praise. To be orthodox is to strive to stand rightly with others before the mystery of the true God. To be orthodox is to join with a community of faith in adoration of God’s doxa (glory), which already casts light on the day when God will finally make everything right. Belief is never correct when it becomes nothing more than a political mechanism to ensure the unity of an institution. Belief is right only when it points us in the right direction: to glorification of the true God, who promises not to give us a secret wisdom, but to be graciously present to us, even and especially where our vision and knowledge are weak.
– John Burgess, Going Creedless

3.      But isn’t the language of the Creed poetic, rich in metaphors?

Quite so. And we should always remember that lest we begin to think we have comprehended God who is always beyond our comprehending. In fact, you'd have a hard time finding a theologian of the early Church who did not say the same. They were not so naïve as moderns often suppose. Over and over again, the early theologians remind us that all our language for God is stammering. All images must be held lightly. Gregory Nazianzus, one of the more important defenders of the Creed, affirmed, "It is difficult to conceive of God, but to define him in words is an impossibility" (Theological Orations 4). And yet those same theologians also affirm that we must speak of God because God has spoken a Word to us – in history, especially in Jesus Christ. Thus, while we must speak cautiously and humbly in the face of the mystery that is God, we can yet dare to say something about God because God has said something to us in Jesus, the Word made flesh. "The impossibility has become a possibility by the boundless excellence of the grace of God," is how Origen put it in his treatise On Prayer

Because it is about God, much of the Creed is indeed metaphorical. Certainly, referring to God as "Father", while it reflects the language of Jesus and signifies something of the character of God, does not mean God is male. Gregory of Nyssa, another of those who defended the Nicene language, is clear on this in his commentary on the Song of Songs. Similarly, affirming that Jesus Christ is "seated at the right hand of God the Father metaphorically signifies something about the relationship between Jesus and God the Father, but it is not a spatial relationship. There is no literal physical chair on which Jesus sits. 

But, because the Creed is about the God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus much of it is not metaphorical, but historical (i.e., everything from “became incarnate” through “he rose again”). That has always been the scandal of Christianity to the philosophers and Gnostics (ancient and contemporary) who want to keep God safely on the side of the metaphorical (protecting God? or themselves?). But, Christians confess an historical virgin birth to an historical Mary of an historical infleshment of God who died an historical death under an historical Pontius Pilate, but lives again through an historical resurrection leaving behind an historical empty tomb – all "for us and for our salvation".

The Creed is part poetry, part prose. Indeed, one might say that in the incarnation, God (ultimately hidden in Metaphor) has become prose – prosaic  in order to turn all to poetry. Trying to keep them strictly separate or make it all one or the other always gets us into trouble.

To say that our language about God’s essence is metaphorical is a theological truism. To conclude that therefore all metaphors for God are only human creations or that all metaphors are more or less equal are assumptions and theological falsehoods. To say that all language about God acting in history, e.g., the virginal conception, the incarnation, and the bodily resurrection as historical, physical events, is metaphorical and only true in some spiritual sense is to try to be more spiritual than the God we know though Jesus has deigned to be. The God we know through Jesus and the creeds is a God who is prepared to get down and dirty in the material world to address the very literal, tragic, and historical mess we have made of ourselves, others, and the world.

4.      But, I read or heard somewhere that the root meaning of credo is to “give the heart” so intellectual assent is not the point.

To say that the root meaning of credo is to “give the heart” and reduce its meaning to only that is like saying that every time the atheist, Richard Dawkins, says, “Good bye,” he really means, “God be with ye.” However helpful it might be in adding color to our understanding, the meaning of words and phrases are not reducible to their roots. The meanings of words evolve. What did credo mean to those who used it in the 4th century? One need only look at the historical development of the creeds to know that they were meant to delineate right belief from wrong belief as well as to shape the direction of the heart.

Both are necessary. You cannot give your heart to something without some knowledge or belief about that to which you are giving your heart. And you cannot truly come to know something without giving your heart to it. Love and knowledge go together. Can I claim to love my wife but then believe whatever I want to believe about the kind of person she is? Getting to know her as she is what it means to love her.

You are not supposed to be able to say the Creed with integrity if you find it incredible (a related word). The very reason for trying to shift the meaning of credo from intellectual assent is self-contradictory in as much as it is based on the conclusion that some aspects of the creed are no longer intellectually credible.

Continuing to say the words of the creeds without intellectual assent and meaning them in the common sense warps language. Either we mean it or we don’t. Or we stretch the meaning of words beyond all logic. What if we used the same approach to language with the marriage vows? Can I have an affair and then tell my wife she needs to get over her unsophisticated, literalistic interpretation of “forsaking all others”?

Reducing the creeds to “matters of the heart” to minimize their intellectual claims tailors them to the heritage of a naïve romanticism prioritizing feeling over reason. It is an odd thing to do for those who (as many Episcopalians love to do) pride themselves on being in the “thinking person’s church”.

5.      That doesn’t leave much room for doubt.

The issue is not about doubt or judging those who struggle with this or that aspect of the Creed. I have no problem with honest struggle with the Creed – historical or otherwise. I have my share, though as I've said elsewhere, there are implications of the Creed that I struggle with more than things like the virginal conception or bodily resurrection (see Virginal Conception and Other Preposterous Things). Thankfully, it is not up to us to believe this or that bit of the Creed on our own. As we sometimes pray, "regard not our sins, but the faith of your Church" (1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 395). Sometimes others believe for us. In spite of any personal struggle, the Creed is the standard of Church teaching. At the very least, it is what Christians aspire to believe and conform their lives to – however inadequately.

One thing I do object to is when official teachers and leaders of the Church go beyond doubting and publicly reject the Creed of the Church. Why should anyone consider us credible – again, a related word – if our preaching and teaching contradict the rest of what we say in worship? Or if all we have to offer is doubt and more questions? The latter is almost always a power move that hides the real answers those who claim to be about questions are actually peddling.

Doubts, whether about orthodoxy or orthopraxy, arise when one way of understanding how the world works and how God engages the world comes into conflict with another. But that cuts both ways. Questioning the virginal conception and the bodily resurrection, for example, is unsettling to one way of understanding things. Believing them is unsettling to others.

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