Thursday, 5 March 2009

I Believe, part 1

Lent 2009: The Apostle’s Creed
Session 1

I believe

Congratulations on making it to the first of our talks for this Lenten period as we grapple with the Apostle’s Creed. As it was my suggestion that we follow this series over these five weeks it is also my responsibility to say why I think, or even ‘I believe’, this is a good idea, and what I hope will happen over this next few weeks, before I get on with talking about what we are doing when we say ‘I believe…’ particularly when we consider this creed that we will be looking and saying together over the coming weeks…


I’ll come clean and say that the reason we are looking at this document over the coming weeks is because I think that on the whole very few of us really think about what we are doing when we stand up together and say the Creeds. Week by week we reel off either the Apostle’s Creed – our subject of study and the version used in morning and evening prayer; or the Nicene Creed – a longer document used at Holy Communion started with the early Church council of Nicea in 325 a.d. The Creed was formally adopted at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 a.d

The Apostle’s Creed has been attributed to the twelve apostles, each contributing one of the twelve articles which make up the Creed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This is a rather fanciful story and those who study these things believe the roots of the Creed to be in a first or second century statement of faith called the ‘Old Roman symbol’ and was influenced by the Nicene Creed. The earliest potential record we have of the Apostle’s creed is a reference in a document of 390 which refers to the ‘Apostle’s symbol’ but some theologians date the Creed to as late as the fifth century.

We don’t have a definitive date or place or origin of this Creed, but we do know something of the purpose of having a Creed.

Actually to take a step back as I just said the Creed was referred to as a ‘symbol’ which is described as indicium, i.e. a token or password by which Christians might recognize each other, and collatio, that is to say an offering made up of separate contributions. In other words the Creed was about togetherness – it showed that Christians were united in a certain understanding of the nature of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit which in itself from the work of a body of scholars or apostles within the Church itself.

And that is where I want to start, really, in thinking about the Creed. In choosing the Apostle’s creed for brevity (to be honest it was easier to fit in five sessions on this on than the Nicene) we come up against one common misconception with the very first words – I believe.

The first point!

This primary misconception is firstly that the creed is about me and my belief. I don’t mean me – I mean the individual – that it is about taking on a certain approach to faith for myself. Actually this couldn’t really be further from the purpose of the Creed which was not to authenticate the individual’s own personal approach to religion but to align and draw together the body of Christ under one umbrella of faith in which all are a part. To this extent the Creed is as much about belonging as believing. It is about submitting to the discipline of faith, and saying that this is faith of the Church and I am a part of this.

In saying ‘I believe’ at the start of this creed – rather than the ‘we believe’ which is rather more obvious at the start of the Nicene Creed – we are submitting to, aligning with and including ourselves in the Church which bears and seeks to proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ. It is not an exercise in individualism, and those who put together this Creed and the early Christians who shared in its proclamation wouldn’t even have understood the idea of individual belief in the way that we do today.

The second point!

Having made that statement about a shared approach to faith, I now want to think about our understanding of what it means to say I believe and then to follow that with a whole lot a thoughts about the nature of God and the Christian life. In order to do this I want to consider the ideas behind the words ‘Faith’ and ‘Belief’. Two words of common currency in the Christian world, and indeed the world of Religion and Philosophy. Two very important words, often used, but used with a whole load of sub-texts, particularly in the Church. Perhaps you say the Creed week by week without ever thinking about what you are doing, or like a number of Christians, including clergy, I know, say some bits of it with your fingers crossed (at least mentally) – because you are expected to subscribe intellectually to a whole raft of ideas, some of which you might not feel completely happy about.

So, I want us all to think about this whole faith and belief thing again, to consider what we mean when we say ‘I or We believe’ or when we say ‘I have faith in x or y’

I should say, though, what the rest of this talk (or any of the talks in this series) will not do –
  • it will not tell you how you can have faith
  • it will not explain the deeper mysteries of faith, and prove the existence of God once and for all
  • it will not set out what you are and are not allowed to believe and still call yourself a Christian

What I do want to do is think about these words, their meaning, and how looking at and thinking about them again can add to the richness of our own experience of God and relationship to our (for want of a better word) faith.

We use the word ‘belief’ all of the time in our expression of what it means to be a Christian. If we really think about it, though, we should soon move on to considering ‘what is it to actually believe that x is the case’ closely followed by the question ‘what difference does this make to the way I think, act, feel and live my life.’ Are we willing to ask these questions – because if we do we might find the answers strange or difficult? But, to examine the meaning of these words ‘faith and belief’ is first of all to bring to our attention the importance of these words.

Words have power in us, they give form and meaning to ideas, emotions, hope. To be willing to subject the meaning of something to scrutiny is to be willing to open ourselves to a new meaningfulness in ourselves, and to make possible a new richness in our use of language, and to allow it to sink deeper into our consciousness and our souls.

Meaning and change

So, as we think about meaning lets take the essay writer’s favourite opening gambit and look at the dictionary definition. The little Oxford dictionary talks of belief as:
“Trust, confidence; acceptances as true or existing, what is believed.”

Whilst faith is defined as
“Trust, belief in religious doctrine or divine truth; religion; loyalty, fidelity; confidence.”

These are typical definitions and reflect a common approach to the study of faith and belief – that is, the concern is to examine what intellectual assertions one can make about the nature of faith/belief and what effect this has on those who claim to have faith. A lot of the study I’ve done on faith and belief relates to what can be known empirically, what can be measured about these things. It tends to relate this to religious structures, symbols, doctrines, and traditions, or to a study of the language used by believers and how that language relates to the world outside.

Now I’m not saying that these definitions are wrong in any way. It’s just they reflect a contemporary understanding of ideas of faith and belief. It’s very much a modernistic, mechanistic way of seeing the world, a rational, post-enlightenment way of viewing the world. In a way it’s a kind of scientific study of ideas, trying to reduce them to a basic level at which they can be measured.

Of course this is very much a most enlightenment view, and our world – at least western society – has lost faith in the post-enlightenment world-view (but that’s a whole new seminar and one which I wouldn’t want to unleash on such an unsuspecting and generous audience as yourselves, at the risk of watching your brains ooze out of your ears as I get more and more obscure). Suffice to say that in our current world we are finding that people want definitions that reflect more than the scientific, more than the rational, something that embraces mystery, that is more open ended, that takes our experiences into account and offers something for us to hold on to.

I do acknowledge that words change their meanings over time, for instance, in Elizabethan times ‘indifference’ meant without prejudice and fair, now it means that one doesn’t really care. Which is why the compilers of Common Worship changed the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer from ‘rightly and indifferently minister justice’ to ‘rightly and impartially minister justice’ As for the ideas of what faith and belief are, if their meaning was inconsequential then it wouldn’t matter, but it does, because we use them frequently and because we claim that they are meaningful to the extent of being life-changing…

A Start

If I had a penny for each time someone, non-Christian and Christian, has said that ‘I wish I believed what you did’ or ‘I wish I had your faith’ to me over the last twenty years I’d be, well, at least a couple of pounds better off by now. I think I know what they meant, but at the same time the words become swapped around, confused, and lose meaning by being used interchangeably. It’s as if faith and belief come a single package, and the two are indistinguishable. But I don’t think they are – and I’m pretty sure most people don’t actually think they are either.

Basically, most people in the Church would talk about ‘belief’ as some kind of intellectual assent to certain doctrinal statements – a kind of ‘apprehension of the facts’ which when gathered together creates Christian belief. Like a Creed – for most of us, it’s a set of ‘beliefs’ that we claim to have mentally assimilated (to a greater or lesser extent) and which we affirm.

Faith is considered by many philosophers as a ‘quality’ – not entirely definable, not something that can be contained, held within any kind of narrative or logical description, but based within a relationship, something on a deeper level than the intellect – at the same time, though, faith is something less than ‘knowledge’ – when I say have faith that x is the case I am saying that I don’t know that this is so, but that I expect this to be so. So when someone says ‘I have faith in God’ – they are making a statement of hope, of an engagement with a deeper reality, maybe a statement based on a profound and affective experience, but not a statement concerned with empirical observation and rational knowledge, as such.

Belief is often considered subject to faith – one has to ‘have faith’ in order to believe. If I have a Christian Faith, for instance, I can buy into what Christians claim to believe – stuff about Jesus being God, about Virgin Births, about resurrection. It all comes as a package after I decide that this is what I am going to believe.

This division between Faith and belief, as (in the most simplistic terms faith- spiritual and emotional, belief – intellectual and rational) such an approach, though popular, is too easy, too rationalistic, too narrow. It doesn’t take into account where the words come from, and this is what I hope might make us think differently.

Faith reconsidered.

Faith is what makes everything else possible. It is the state of being in relationship to God, to the divine. Faith is the response of the person to God. It is intimate, it is personal. St Augustine said “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” I think this is quite a good way to think of faith, a relationship, perhaps unnamed, a search for God.
Faith is that root, that grounding which opens us up to the possibility of God.

Which leads us on to consider the real crux of our subject for tonight (though don’t for a minute think I’ve finished with faith!) Belief!


The idea of intellectually coming to terms with doctrinal propositions was alien to the first Christians, and indeed to the Greek philosophers who were so influential on the formation of the Creeds and expressions of faith of the early Church. To them faith and belief were one and the same, they were expressions of a relationship with God, and for the Christian a reflection of a dynamic relationship with Jesus Christ through God’s Holy Spirit.

There is only one Creedal statement in the whole of the New Testament. Only one thing that has a similar format to the idea of Creeds as we refer to them now, It can be found in the letter to the Romans Chapter 10 verse 9, St Paul writes there:
“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart He was raised from the dead, you shall be saved”

But it wasn’t belief as we express it today. In it’s origin the idea of believing is not doctrinal, not intellectual, but relational. To believe was to cherish, to relate to, to hold fast to something that was valuable. It wasn’t to argue about it’s rationality, it wasn’t to justify something philosophically or in theological terms, belief was about trust, about intimacy. And here is why I think this is so important:

The word belief comes from an old English route. It literally means to ‘hold something close’ to ‘be Leif’ to something. Instead of claiming something to be objectively true one would take something close to them, they would draw it into their heart and cling to it. It was an emotional response, a response of the soul.

So the early Christians would not have spent hours discussing spiritual laws, or debating the merits of one system of thought over another, instead they gathered to pray and sing and share bread and wine. They clung to the reality of what they believed, rather than discussing it. A trip through scripture was an adventure to see what God was saying, not to discuss whether x or y was true or could be explained.

To see belief in this way is to see the fact that the point of being a Christian was to relate to God and to the stories of Jesus and indeed to Jesus and the Spirit in a living and dynamic way.

If we can move beyond a mentality that simply tries to explain the Christian Faith as ‘facts’ that have to be adhered to then we can (to paraphrase) learn to love God with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind. Not just by over intellectualising and seeking to bludgeon searchers into having the ‘right beliefs’ in order to become a Christian.

I’m sure that most, if not all of us, would describe the basis of our faith as relational, it is about relating to a God who is infinite yet intimate. A God who seeks to be a part of our lives and who loves us and longs for us to love God as we are loved. Our preoccupation with doctrine and rationalism has obscured the original meaning of what to believe really is – we are called to hold fast to Christ, to be close to Christ, to know God personally, not only intellectually.

So our search for truth becomes, in essence, a search for God. We stop thinking in an objective, external way about ‘what truth is’ and realise that the truth of God is found in a human relationship with him. A relationship based on trust, love and searching on our part, and on the self-giving nature of God, on God’s part. Our ‘I believe’ is a commitment to that search.

The Example of Jesus

Something that might help us grasp this a little more is to look at what is said by St Paul in Galatians about Jesus’ faith. Actually the verse I want to refer to is Galatians 6.21 and the original thoughts about this come from Markus Barth which was published in the Heythrop Journal in 1969.
The NRSV translates the part of the verse I want to consider thus:
“15We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners 16 yet we know that a person is justified not by works of the law but through faith in Jesus.”
Barth, in a long and complicated discussion which would take a very long time to go through tells us that the phrase ‘justified not by works of the law but through faith in Jesus’ is better translated ‘through the faith of Jesus.’

A very inadequate summary goes like this:
For those of you who like New Testament (koine) Greek the argument revolves around the whether pistis (a Greek word translated faith/belief interchangeably in many New Testaments) is neither an objective nor a subjective genitive, but a specifically Pauline ‘mystical Genitive’ which is also called a ‘genitive of fellowship’ – under such an understanding Paul is making a point about what faith is and where it comes from. Also the word ek in Greek can be translated of, in and from. This means that the faith of Christ, with overtones of faith being from Christ is very possible. Further, it relates to the Old Testament concept of ‘faithfulness’ which Paul refers to frequently and reflects, like the letter to the Hebrews, the idea of Christ as ‘The Author and Perfecter of faith’. It his faith we seek to emulate, his relationship with God and his prayerful, dynamic, intimate fellowship that forms the basis of what belief is.

In other words, the idea that Christians should base their faith on doctrines about Jesus (which we call ‘believing in Christ’) is not an adequate understanding of what faith is. To use the terms I’ve been using so far, Christians tend to believe thing about Jesus and base our faith around concepts about Jesus. What Barth argues is that we need to look more at what Jesus believed and buy into that.

If we are justified, if we are in a relationship with God because of Jesus, says Barth, it is because of his faith, which we share. If you think about that for a moment it’s quite pivotal. We are justified, says Paul, not by our faith in Christ, but by having Christ’s faith. This does not seek to negate the need to know about Christ, but calls us as Christians to seek to know Christ above all else, and to share his faith.

So our focus becomes not doctrine, but relationship.

When Jesus talked of God he didn’t talk about God in abstract intellectual terms, he talked about God and related to God as his heavenly father, he was in relationship to him.

Likewise in talking about the Holy Spirit he talked about the one who was a part of his life, and promised to all believers, the energetic, life giving spirit of God who inspires and conspires – meaning shares in breathing life – believers.

This isn’t new, though the way I’ve expressed it may seem different. It forms the basis of a new mentality, though – away from seeing ‘belief’ as a block of doctrine or facts that we have to somehow get our heads around and take on board. Instead the analogy of a journey, of progress and movement, of a pilgrimage becomes the best way of expressing this. On a pilgrimage it is as much the journey itself that is important as the end point, as much the mystery of the route as the destination, as much the discovery as the goal. If we can get away from being hide-bound to doctrine then we can start finding out what believing, what holding close, really means.

I believe

So in the context of our series what does it mean for us to say ‘I believe..’?

As we look over the next few weeks as this core document of the Christian faith I invite you again to consider not just the intellectual implications of all of our talks but to allow this to be a devotional series. So that when we find ourselves saying ‘I believe’ we are not making intellectual assent to certain doctrinal propositions, but acknowledging our relationship to a God who reveals himself to us, and devoting ourselves to loving and trusting him.

Some Extras

What I added at the end of the talk was:
This is not a call for anti-intellectualism, in fact I am sure that we need to consider again and again what it is we profess to hold dear to. My concern is that the Church has over-intellectualised our faith, rather than allowing it to be an experiential, engaged thing, and made it much more of an intellectual excercise. I hope that critical faculties are applied to faith, and i would certainly be worried if folk thought that what I had said was that we should 'check our brains at the door'!

Secondly, there are times when the Creed seeks to 'hold us' rather than us 'holding faith'. In times of doubt, darkness, fear, anxiety. In times when we struggle with Christian faith, the Creed serves to align us with the community of faith, to support and embrace us even when we might feel our faith is lacking or struggling. It is important to remember that, as we proclaim a faith which supports us as much as we buy into it!


david said...

Very thought provoking. Well done my guests were most impressed.We all found the same faith as Jesus idea really helpful.Sure you will be invited to USA to do a lecture tour soon!!!!!

Quilldancer said...

Interesting. I will stay tuned for more. Please don't get too busy to remember to post the whole series!

Melli said...

Alastair... I had a hard time understanding all the concepts your were addressing here... and I suspect that some of your congregations might have too. But I think that's because there are those of us who do HAVE that relationship with God - with Christ - where we DO depend upon His faith to BE our faith. And if that is where you ARE and you understand that ... then at least with ME, I don't understand the need for "intellectual" knowledge of God. And it is actually THIS that brings my husband and I to loggerheads because he is a non-believer and wants PROOF of God's existence before he will TRY to believe. He doesn't understand FAITH at all. Faith is simply accepting that what you believe to be right and true IS indeed right and true without any proof.

And it's funny that I didn't get here to read this until TODAY - because it was just this afternoon on my way home from the store that I was thinking that I hope they NEVER EVER find proof (and I don't think they will because I think He intends none be found) of God's existence. But the reason that I hope this is because as much as I would LOVE to be able to say "I TOLD you so" to a bunch of people... IF there were PROOF, then FAITH would not be needed... and it is my FAITH, not my belief, that brings me close to God. My belief is important -- but it is my FAITH that I could not live without! And it is my FAITH that can NOT be challenged. Things happen, points are brought up that sometimes for a moment make me question my own belief. But in just a moment's time, my faith takes over and the hesitation is gone. THAT is the Holy Spirit!