Thinking Through the Creed, Conclusion

When you read the writings of non-religious people, especially more committed, doctrinaire atheists, you get the sense that they assume that faith is a kind of certainty about God--a person, for whatever reason or through whatever process, becomes "sure" that God exists and has certain qualities.  And, to be fair, many religious people certainly try very hard to project that vision of what faith is, and certain theologies (especially certain Evangelical theologies) try to affirm that vision.  

But I don't think that's what faith means.  In fact, that sort of certainty is a kind of self-hypnosis, a way to ward off our own doubts about our lives and their meaning.  But we shouldn't be warding off doubt, as disturbing and dislocating as doubt can be.  Faith is not the enemy of doubt; faith is a posture of incorporating doubt into our world view.  Having faith means living in the uncertain space created by our doubts, not banishing or denying the doubts but not letting them utterly control our perspective, either.   

The late, great Cardinal Carlo Martini said that "the line between belief and unbelief runs through each one of us."  The future Pope Benedict XVI, Josef Ratzinger (at times a foil for Cardinal Martini), talks about the same idea in a beautiful way in his book Introduction to Christianity, quoting a story by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber:

An adherent of the Enlightenment [writes Buber], a very learned man, who had heard of the Rabbi of Berditchev, paid a visit to him in order to argue, as was his custom, with him too and to shatter his old-fashioned proofs of the truth of his faith. When he entered the Rabbi’s room he found him walking up and down with a book in his hand, wrapped in thought.

The Rabbi paid no attention to the new arrival. Suddenly he stopped, looked at him fleetingly and said, “But perhaps it is true after all”.  The scholar tried in vain to collect himself – his knees trembled, so terrible was the Rabbi to behold and so terrible his simple utterance to hear.

But Rabbi Levi Jizchak now turned to face him and spoke quite calmly: “My son, the great scholars of the Torah with whom you have argued wasted their words on you; as you departed you laughed at them. They were unable to lay God and his Kingdom on the table before you, and nor can I.  But think, my son, perhaps it is true.” The exponent of the Enlightenment opposed him with all his strength; but this terrible “perhaps” which echoed back at him time after time broke his resistance.

To be a "person of faith" is to be a person of the "perhaps."
Here's an expression of that "perhaps":

I don't really care for Styx (well, "Mr. Roboto" is kind of fun, but otherwise not so much).  But I love this song, because it sums up in a beautiful way the idea of faith as I understand it.   Our singer can only "hope that there's a heaven," he is "afraid he has lost his faith," and he is "afraid he just don't know."  And yet, in the midst of these doubts, he still seeks out something beyond.  He is looking for an experience of God, even while he is not sure God exists.  That's not a contradiction, but an experience of the perhaps, the willingness to live in the uncertain space.

Living in that uncertain space of faith is, as James Alison insists, more like a habitual behavior than some sort of mental disposition.  The product of faith is not certainty, but relaxation--I can live comfortably with all sorts of doubts about all sorts of things, because I have come to trust in my basic orientation to the universe.  I can hold on to the perhaps, not with the death grip of someone terrified to let go for fear of spiraling into the void, but with the calm reassurance that it will still be there when I need it the most.  Or, to say it in a manner I have experienced myself, we can always come up for the Rising.  Maybe my words will fail and my analysis will be confused and I will become hopelessly turned around, but in the end I can always lean back on the mysterious Other that underlies the universe, in whatever name or whatever form that can be found.

The Creed does it's job when it is an affirmation of the perhaps.  Too often, it becomes a tool of certainty, a way to draw lines and decide who is in and who is out of this Christian project.  That's not what it is for, I think.  It also doesn't really work for that purpose anyway, being far too inchoate and ambiguous and mysterious for that job.  Nor does it represent absolutely everything that is essential to the Christian story--for one thing, it skips over everything between Jesus's birth and Jesus's death, which has caused Jurgen Moltmann to suggest as series of additions to the Creed to cover these points.

But, notwithstanding these caveats, the Creed is a way to ground ourselves in the key dimensions of the perhaps.  This series has been a way to explain the shape of the perhaps for me.  For me, this is a perhaps worth trusting, worth relaxing into.  Others will no doubt find some differently-shaped perhaps, informed by different sets of doubts and built on a different set of starting points and building blocks.  That's OK.  Along similar lines, I expect that the shape of my own perhaps will change in the future--it certainly has in the past.  That's OK, too.

But it is important, I think, to have some kind of skeleton to build around,.  The Creed does that.  It doesn't answer our questions, and it doesn't strip away our doubts.  But it does give us a place to begin to learn to live with them.

Previous posts in the series Introduction


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