Did you mumble a bit on the creed? Many years ago, Adria and I brought Tim (not his real name) to church. Tim was a consultant working on a project for the state of Michigan that Adria was also working on. He came to church with us several times during while he was in town. Church was a little outside his comfort zone. He said to me that when the congregation recited the creed, he mumbled instead of saying it. He couldn’t quite bring himself to say the words. This post is for you, the mumblers among us, the skeptics, the doubters, those for whom church feels like an alien place, even though they attend every week.
Let me tell you a little about myself. I grew up in a small town among believers. I had believing parents, and like children of believing parents everywhere, I believed what they believed. God was part of my reality structure. I no more doubted that God existed than that the sun would come up in the morning. But some time in my growing up years, a crisis set in. I began to doubt what I had before implicitly believed. What is interesting about this is that this crisis of faith was prompted not by unbelievers, people who challenged my faith directly, but by believers, especially those believers who wanted me to make a personal confession of my faith. They wanted me to believe in a way that I not believed before, and I found it hard, even impossible to do so. Suddenly, the burden of faith was transferred to me personally. I was not ready to bear it.
And I tried. I tried hard. You can’t will belief. As soon as you say to yourself you will believe, doubts creep in around the edges. I wanted to believe. I thought it would be good if I believed, But I couldn’t manage it. And the harder I tried, the harder it got.
My problem was that I had entirely the wrong idea about faith. For me faith was what I did with my head. Belief. I had a reading of Christianity that came to me from evangelical Christianity, even though I was at the time part of a Reformed church. I imbibed the idea that we are saved by belief. Instead of the works of the law, we had works of the mind. And I was bad at it, at belief. If I were to be saved by the quality of my belief, I would never make it. I was and still am too much of a skeptic, a doubter, someone who challenges beliefs. If I am to be saved by belief, I’m in big trouble.
And then one day I had an epiphany: I am not saved by me. I am not saved by the quality of my life nor by the quality of my belief. I am saved by the grace of God, that grace which comes to me through Jesus. And God indeed does save me. Not the me I would like to be, but the me I am. The skeptic. The doubter. God says, even you belong.
The problem in the “I believe” idea of faith is the “I.” In our world we have put an enormous emphasis on the “I.” In evangelical Christianity it’s all about what I believe.” And because we put such an emphasis on the “I,” we want to worship in congregations that believe just as we do. And if the congregation doesn’t believe as we do, we move on to find a church that does. Congregations become an expression of the “I” in our confessions rather than the God we would worship.
Try something. For a moment take the “I believe” off the creed (the Apostle’s or, better, the Nicene). Begin with the content of the creed, with “God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and with Jesus Christ, his only begotten son,” and with all the rest: the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and the life everlasting. Now imagine that this creed is a kind of cathedral built by the faithful over a long period time. The articles of the creed are the pillars and beams of the cathedral, the structure that holds up the whole faith. Imagine that you, like a tourist in the Notre Dame, are walking around, looking up at the structure that soars above you.
There is more, of course: stained glass windows portraying stunning scenes from the scriptures and the history of the church, little chapels around the outside honoring various people and movements, often people and movements who thought and think that they and only they are right on some issue or other, and in the middle the central altar itself where worship is and has been celebrated in many ways across the years of the church. The cathedral is big and sometimes so beautiful it takes your breath away, and at the same time it can seem small and so ugly you want to avert your eyes. As you look around, you realize that you have a choice. You can choose to live within this cathedral with all its beauty and ugliness, which means to live in the structure of this faith, or you can choose to build something of your own, a faith you construct, something that incorporates your own ideas of what a church should be like.
I chose to live in the cathedral. I know others for reasons of their own who have chosen differently, chosen to live in the house of their own beliefs. They have constructed their houses of faith from beliefs they have come to in one way or another. The advantage of their approach is that they never have to confront ideas that trouble them, beliefs that seem dubious to them, ways of life that they find questionable. It all fits together in the house of their own ideas. And that is also the problem. The problem is that the house of their own ideas is no bigger than they are.
My epiphany, such as it was, is that living in the great cathedral does not mean that I have to agree with everything I see. Or like it. I may think that there are pillars in the cathedral that are not plumb and beams that are not able to sustain the weight the church puts on them. We could talk about which pillars and which beams these might be, but the point is that it doesn’t matter. My opinion about them changes nothing. I may disagree with something the church has always held to, but that pillar of faith was there before I was born and, in all likelihood, it will be there long after I am gone. I may be able during my short time in the cathedral to add in some small way to the structure but the structure itself is far grander and older and greater than I am.
When I came to the idea that I can live within the structure of the great faith of which I am a part without agreeing with or liking everything, it was enormously liberating. To walk in this faith is to live within its structures, to think in its forms, to appreciate its beauty, and, yes, to weep for its failures. To belong, not in the sense of owning it but in the sense that Paul so wonderfully captures in his letter to the Philippians when he says that he “presses on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus has taken hold of [him.]” And it is, from time to time, to look up at one of the pillars or beams that I had thought did not fit and see for the first time how it does fit—to be stretched into new thoughts and new ways to see,
Living in the cathedral means living in the great tradition of Christianity, not in the house of my own ideas nor exclusively in one of the side chapels that represent a particular brand of Christianity. If I can trace a line for this great tradition, it runs through the apostles and the great councils, through the likes of Perpetua and Irenaeus and Thecla and Athanasius and the Cappadocians (including Macrina) and Augustine and Maximus the Confessor and Thomas and Luther and Calvin and Marguerite of Navarre and Anne Hutchinson and Barth and Bonhoeffer and more. It is a continuous conversation about what it means to be faithful to Jesus Christ in each and every age.
In that conversation, I have my own small voice but no more than that. I do not have the right to huddle up with a few others and declare myself to hold the true faith apart from history. I do not have the right to say that I have rediscovered what the faith was about originally as opposed to what it has been throughout the history of the church. I cannot claim that I own the faith.
So, I invite you to the cathedral, you who are mumblers, doubters, who find churches uncomfortable. I invite to explore something that is much larger than you are, something that will stretch you, that will transform you. And to remember that the church at any time and in any place is only a reflection of this grander cathedral. In the cathedral, you learn a faith larger than you are, and you thereby become greater. For this is the paradox of the faith: the less your faith is about you, the greater it is.
Stay tuned to this space for more about the conversation that makes up not only the history of the church but scripture itself.