Year C, Proper 19 September 11, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“We believe in one God…”
Last week in the Tune Up, was a bit about a little girl in England who had a question addressed to God: “To God, How did you get invented. Love Lulu xo” Her atheist parents didn’t have an answer, but did not want to disregard it, so they posed it to a few folks they knew, then a Catholic priest, whose response was a bit too heady, and eventually sent it in a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who amazingly, answered it personally. He wrote, “Dear Lulu, Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised…” and he continued in that vein, it is well worth checking out in the Tune Up archives on line.
That story has inspired a preaching series I am calling: “Questions from Lulu!” I am collecting questions and will attempt to address them in sermons over the next couple of months. If you have a burning question of theological or scriptural import, please pass them on. And no question is off limits! If you can’t ask the hard questions about religion at church, then where can you expect to ask them? I can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to field all of them, but please, ask away. (Slip them under my door if you want to ask more anonymously).
I have received a couple of questions already, and here is the question of the day (which is far and away the most common theological question I get so I am very glad that it was the first one I received): Do you have to accept all parts of the Nicene Creed?
I’m not the only one who gets the question a lot. Garrison Keillor dealt with it once in his Prairie Home Companion. A Lutheran man in Lake Wobegon went to Pastor Inqvist, and said something like, “Pastor, I have sort of a confession to make. Each week in the creed… well, I just can’t say catholic, so I don’t.” That’s funny, but not an uncommon thing. (And for clarity’s sake, catholic here has a small “c”, from the Latin meaning universal, not implying allegiance to the church of Rome). But how about you… Do you believe what you say when we say “We believe in God…”? Or do you even say it?
I love this question probably because first, it is a meaty theological question, which is not what dominates the lives of most parish priests, contrary to what my systematic theology professor in seminary had me believe. And second, I love this question because I love, I mean it, I love the Creeds. They are very important to me. Does that mean that I “believe” every word of them? Well, I guess that that depends on what you mean by “believe.” My goal today is not to say, “Yes. You need to accept the whole creed and nothing but the creed so help you God.” Rather, my goal is to open up how the creeds can be useful to you spiritually or at least have them not be distracting aspect of our lives in faith together. Maybe that is too low a bar, not being distracting, but we are in south Eugene and maybe affirming creedal statements in this context is a lot to ask… In any case, the creeds.
First off, I will speak today primarily on the Nicene Creed, that is the Creed that we recite most Sundays at Mass. This is the most ecumenical of creeds, and is generally accepted in Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant churches as, and this is technical, “a sufficient statement of Christian faith.” Not all encompassing, not binding, not exclusive, but sufficient. A very important distinction. Briefly, the Nicene Creed was adopted at the First Council of Nicea, in year 325, and was reaffirmed in 381 at the First Council of Constantinople. The first was a council called by the nearly Christian Emperor Constantine, he wasn’t baptized until his death bed, and it was called primarily to come up with a party line around the nature of Jesus Christ. Some were saying that he was fully human and fully divine, others, led by Arius of Alexandria, put less emphasis on the divine nature of Christ (that is the classic heresy of Arianism). Especially in a fledgling community, it is important to know what the agreed upon story is or in short order a community can dissolve. Creeds are standards of orthodoxy, right belief. If you affirm the creed you are part of the group, if you don’t you are not. Nothing sinister in there, just defining. Creeds are exclusive, they exclude some, but all communities, like all individuals, need boundaries or they/you cease to be definable or cohesive.
So there are a two distinct ways that I find the creed to be helpful, if not necessary. The first is the words themselves, what they mean. Content matters. The second then is of course the form, the function that creeds satisfy, because regardless of what is in the creeds, the category of creed, a focal point of a community or religious system, can be very, very important. But let’s start with the words.
When we say “We believe in God, the Father…” or “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…” are we saying “I believe God exists as I believe the earth is round?” That is a faith statement, I’ve never verified the roundness of it, but on faith my mind agrees that that is true. Is that what “we believe” in this context means? Maybe. For some of us it certainly does and maybe that is precisely what it is supposed to mean. “I believe God is these things.”
But what if “We believe” is more like we all saying together, “I believe in you.” Like “I believe in this cause or this principle,” like many of us are desperate to “believe in” a political leader. I believe in my father, in this country… There are so many things we can believe in. Believing in this sense may not be about cognitive assent, agreeing that something is or is not, but believing in this way is about trust. Trusting the will or the nature of something.
In John’s gospel, Jesus healed a blind man and Jesus asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” That was not a question of whether the cured man believed that Jesus existed, His existence was obvious, it was, though, a question of whether the formerly blind man trusted Him.
Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a gem of a book about the creeds called Tokens of Trust. He writes of the blind man in John, “He believes; he has confidence. That is he doesn’t go off wondering whether the Son of Man is out to further his own ends and deceive him. He trusts Jesus to be working for him…” “I believe in you Jesus.” Think of saying that to Him, not about Him. That is a wholly different thing.
Another way to look at the words “We believe,” the good Archbishop suggests, is through the lens of our Buddhist brothers and sisters. Buddhists often recite the phrases “I take refuge in the Buddha (the teacher); I take refuge in the Dharma (the teaching); I take refuge in the Sanga (the community).” They could just as well use the words “I believe in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sanga.” We could turn it around, too. “I take refuge in God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all this is, seen and unseen.” I trust God. I find shelter in God. Or as Archbishop Williams writes, “It is the beginning of a series of statements about where I find the anchorage of my life, where I find solid ground, home.” As I said, when asked, do we have to believe in this stuff? It really does matter what you mean by believe.
Now this, though, is one of the sore spots for us on the liberal end of religion. Believing in one thing (be it believing in something’s existence or in trusting in that thing, either way), believing in one thing means that you can’t believe in everything else, we need to be a bit more specific. A great scholar of creeds, the late Jaroslav Pelikan recognized the need for some specificity in prayer. He said, “…prayer addressed ‘To Whom It May Concern…’ does not have any staying power. It’s OK to have that at 10:00 on a Sunday morning when you’re out with your friends somewhere, but in the darkest hours of life, you’ve got to believe something specific.” And the creeds give that, the crucial highlights of the story: the nature of God the creator; the nature of Jesus Christ and His Incarnation, Death and Resurrection; and, the nature of the Holy Spirit and how God is revealed to us. Now the fact that none of the life, ministry and teaching of Jesus Christ is included in the creed is pretty annoying, but the creed does lay out an agreed upon understanding of the nature of God; and that can be very helpful.
Now one thing that is not helpful for some, that can be a real barricade to Christian practice that is enshrined in the creeds is the masculine language. “God the Father, the Almighty…” “He” for Jesus Christ after the Resurrection. “He” for the Holy Spirit. We use the Enriching Our Worship version of he creed, which at least de-genders the Holy Spirit. I don’t have an answer or a remedy for those who experience God as utterly non-anthropomorphic, hence un-gendered (as I tend to do) or as a feminine, which many do. I don’t have a satisfactory answer to that objection.
So maybe here is where we move from content to form and function. There is great utility in creeds; they state what the center, what the common ground or belief is for a community. So if you find yourself in irreconcilable opposition to the creed that grounds a group or a religion, that might be a sign that that is not the place for you. Regardless of what anyone else knows or cares about what you believe, but for yourself, it is a great test. Some folks are not at all interested in having a common statement of belief, it is unimportant, or as my experience as a Unitarian, it is undesirable to some to have common beliefs. Anabaptists, Quakers, Campbellites like the Disciples of Christ, none of them accept the need for any creeds. “No Creed but Christ” (but isn’t that a creed?) There are many other sources of authority that gather those communities. And that is totally fine.
And there is power in history. Our liturgy goes back nearly 3000 years to the early Temple of Israel, and the communal recitation of prayers and singing of songs, or psalms. There is power in doing the same things, in saying the same words that have been said by millions of others over the course of centuries. The Creeds have had a place in common worship for 1500 years, said nearly the same way for nearly the same reasons. There is great power in that act.
And the power is not only in our own beings, but in the continuity of the church. The Creeds are a focal point, an object of contemplation and meditation. Think of the words I use to introduce the creed each week. “Now let us contemplate our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed.” Our friends in Christ at St. John the Wonderworker, a Serbian Orthodox church, or St. Mary’s Roman Catholic, or First Congregational… we all make very different meaning of it, we come to those ancient words from many different angels, but that creed holds a center that leaves a community of over a billion people in its wake. If we dispense with a creed, what do we teach our children? And they their children? Without a center like a creed provides, very quickly our communities have nothing to depend on, no foundation from which to build a life together. It is building upon sand, not stone. And the same can go for ourselves.
Jaroslav Pelikan late of Yale, besides having the best name ever, was the greatest church historian of the 20th century. His final project was an exhaustive exploration of the Creeds called, creatively, Credo (Latin for creed). He was interviewed some years ago by Krista Tippet on the NPR program “On Being.” The interview begins with this quote:
“My faith life, like that of every one else, fluctuates. There are ups and downs and hot spots and cold spots and boredom and ennui and all the rest can be there. And so I’m not asked on a Sunday morning, ‘As of 9:20, what do you believe?’ And then you sit down with a three-by-five index card saying, ‘Now let’s see. What do I believe today?’ No, that’s not what they’re asking me. They’re asking me, ‘Are you a member of a community which now, for a millennium and a half, has said, we believe in one God?’”
That is where the creeds really excel, or are even essential, maybe most particularly for us in the liberal, reasonable, educated wings of the church. It is not about us. Our opinions, as precious as they seem to us, don’t amount to much of anything in the fullness of time. And this object, these words and the ideas they represent, though they were written by men, they have been hallowed and sanctified by generation upon generation of our ancestors, not that they had a choice in the matter, but profound experiences of God have occurred in and around the communities bound together by this common profession of faith. And that is some powerful medicine for the sin-sick souls of every generation.
So, do you have to accept all parts of the Nicene Creed? I don’t know about that, but in the end, to be part of a Christian church such as this one, you at least have to deal with it. And maybe that is the whole point. AMEN