Sunday, September 16, 2012

We believe in one God

In my absence from blogging I have been carrying on a discussion about the Nicene (or Nicene-Constantinopolitan, if you insist) Creed. It is so widely normative in Christianity (accepted by Anglicans, Catholics, Lutherans and Orthodox) that it's a good kernel from which to think through basic teaching.

Thus, I am resuming this blog with a series of posts on the Creed, which I used as the basis of the confirmation classes I taught years ago.

I always began those classes with the question "Anybody here believe in God?" The pre-adolescents would dutifully all raise their hands. Then I would ask, "Why?" Their look of surprise would confirm that no one had ever asked them to consider that. Yet how could they be expected to confirm their baptism without turning the question in their minds at least once?

Let's begin, then, without further ado.


The creed starts with belief as a community, rather than as individuals. This is suggestive of the historical Christian perspective on humanity as a community created by God who is also community.


The creed states what the community believes. It is not a statement of fact or knowledge.

The ancients who composed the creed were philosophically minded, unlike the apostles themselves. They were responding to particular challenges the apostles had never completely addressed.

They did so in a manner known as the via negativa, or path of negation. They took what the apostles had taught, particularly in the books of the New Testament, about which there already was a consensus concerning its canon, or list of accepted books.

They did not feel authorized to add to what Jesus and the apostles had taught. But there was a religious, social and even political urgency to respond to various notions that were circulating. These questions had not been directly addressed by Jesus or the apostles.

Some said Jesus was a god who pretended to be human; others said he was human and was made divine in a way we all could be. If Jesus was God, what about the things God had done before Jesus was born? And so on and so forth.

These are not our questions, but they were those that arose in the third century as the Christian faith could be legally proclaimed and discussed in the open, without fear, for the first time.

So they examined what could not be said if one accepted apostolic teaching, and proceeded from there, before articulating the little that human beings who believed could say about such things.

Belief is the conclusion of an act of assent.

For about a millennium in Europe, assenting to the statements of the Creed was assumed or deemed the conventional thing to do, in some cases the legally required thing to do. Thus, many in Europe conformed to the social custom of expressing belief without genuinely assenting to the propositions of the Creed. This was not, and is not, faith.

Real faith is when we truly and without compulsion receive the witness of faith, or experience a revelation, or somehow reason our way to certain propositions, then make the willful decision to say, "yes, I believe this."

in one God

Monotheism is the cornerstone of the three Semitic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The belief involves an insistence on a collective experience of communication with one deity, the only real deity.

Karl Rahner speculated that if all belief were to be forgotten and lost, there would still be a need for a universal reference point, which would be a version of the God of Abraham, Jesus and Mohammed. A faint version, to be sure, one without legend or mythology, ritual or theocratic movements.

God as a universal reference is a concept. Everything hinges or depends upon or somehow starts with this one reference point, God.

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