There are a couple of spots where the grammar might not be all that it should, so if there is anything hard to understand it's likely to be my writing rather than your reading that is at fault, apologies, I hope it makes sense overall....
Lent 2009: The Apostle’s Creed
I believe in God
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I hope those of you who were here have recovered from last week’s excursion as we grappled with some major philosophical concepts and theological idea in our short time together. I realise that a lot of last week’s session involved me talking to you and leaving you with lots of ideas and questions which there wasn’t a huge amount of space to discuss, so I will encourage you to interact a little more this week – make the most of it though, it may not happen again….
I was intrigued whilst doing some research for this evening’s talk to read a reformed theologian’s reflections on the same themes as I have covered so far, and have discovered we don’t share a similar viewpoint. For this reformed theologian, belief is all about each individual and his relationship with God, and the point of a creed is so that we make intellectual assent to the propositions of faith. I am not sure this chap has read much about the early Church or the formation of the creeds, though I suspect he might be in grave doubt of my own ‘soundness’ were he to encounter my reflections anyway!
So we move on, and in an effort to break you all in gently lets do a little word association. Actually I only want you to associate with one word…. God…
What is your response, what is your immediate reaction to the word ‘God’.
The one thing
Whatever answers, whatever associations we have with the word, the concept of ‘God’ we realise that all language is inadequate in describing the Divine. All of our words and philosophies and theologies are nothing but provisional. They are what we have to work with until fuller knowledge comes along.
In fact the only definitive thing we can say about God is that God is wholly other. That God is beyond our words, our conception, our understanding, our wisdom (such as it is), our selves. God is beyond all definition.
And yet… In the Creeds of the Church, in our Scriptures, in our prayers, our liturgy, our books, our everyday talk, even (every now and then) in sermons we boldly profess who and what we believe God to be. The opening statement of the Apostle’s Creed, which we have said together this evening doesn’t just say I believe in God, but something about who he is, and the relationship he has with us.
Actually I want to pause for a moment and say that I, in common with most of us, use masculine pronouns when talking about God. I’m not actually terribly happy with that, but its what we have to work with. I’m not happy because, as I said last week, I think the words we use have power, they sink into us, they form our understandings and opinions. I think that due to the English language and traditional expression of God as ‘him’ we do often have a skewed understanding of God. Whatever we say about God we cannot say that God is defined by gender as human beings are. Within God there may be some traits which we might consider as relating to gender because Genesis says that human beings are in the image of God as male and female. I find that referring to God as male often causes an unconscious perception of God as male, this combined with our regular use of images such as Father (more on that in a moment), king, warrior etc means that we often limit our own understanding of God by defining God in this way.
I could talk even more on this, but will leave you to do some more discussion on that in a moment. First of all I want to make my first real point
We have no right to define God. Our words are inadequate, our language cannot begin to express an accurate concept of God. Yet we do. Why?
Because, as Christians we believe that God has in some way revealed him/herself to us. Sorry I am going to revert to him again as it is clumsy to do otherwise…I hope I made my point just now!
John of Damascus wrote in the eighth century:
“Neither men nor the celestial powers nor the cherubim and seraphin can know God, other than in his revelations. By nature he is above being and therefore above knowledge.”
And yet God has chosen to reveal himself to us. God allows us to speak of his nature and attributes using clumsy human language. God has shown something of his nature to us, in scripture, in the revelation through the created world, in human interaction and love, and especially through Jesus Christ – but more on that next week. God has made himself known to us.
The first break….!
This may well be a good time to take a momentary break and get you to talk amongst yourselves. Just for a moment I want you to think not about lots of questions, as I gave last week, but you have about three minutes each on how you feel God reveals himself to you, or times you have felt the knowledge or presence of God. When, where, or why have you known God?
Anyone want to share?
I used to know a Parishioner, a one time churchwarden of mine in Cambridgeshire. He was one of the last Lancaster pilots surviving until his death at the end of last year. A fascinating man, with a breadth of experience and a deep faith he often said to me that he had a profound sense of God when he was flying. There was something about being up there in the clouds that gave him a glimpse of God, a feeling of God being with him. I am sure that many of us have such feelings, moments, instants even, when things seem to all fit together and God, for a second seems very real. Students of Religion call these ‘numinous experiences’. I like to think of them as glimpses of God.
The Creed itself!
As Christians we do believe that God has made himself known. Not just in a sort of conceptual or abstract manner, not just as a sort of floaty, ethereal ‘thing’ but that through action in history and revelation to human beings we have some apprehension of God. In some way, God has made himself known in ways we can understand.
It is important to note that the Creed doesn’t make airy-fairy statements or ‘might’ statements. There’s no ‘we believe there might be a God, and he might be a bit like this or that’. The Creed is bold enough to pronounce ‘I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth’
This isn’t just ‘ I believe in a God, but that this relationship with God has some definition. Belief not so much as a statement of fact but a statement of meaning, of being given meaning by our relationship with this God.
What do you mean vicar? I hear you think!? In making this opening statement we are declaring something about ourselves in relationship to God. I believe, and whether we go with last week’s theory about belief meaning holding close, trusting, rather than just intellectual theorising we are placing ourselves against, or next to, or under God.
Oh dear, you may be thinking, last week we only got through two words. This week we seem to have added only two more. When do we actually get into talking about the content of the Creed itself. Well here we are….
Obviously, one of the most striking statements in these opening words is that God is referred to as Father. Now we are used to that idea, but for many ancient philosophers, and even plenty of modern ones, the whole idea that humanity could be in a relationship to the Divine that mirrors the relationship between a parent and a child is simply beyond comprehension. Yet this is how scripture reveals God to us, indeed when Jesus teaches his disciples to pray he says to go into their rooms and say ‘father’. And he refers to our and your heavenly father on a number of occasions. This idea of a relationship to God wasn’t unique to Jesus, in the contemporary Judaism of the time there were rabbis whose writings remain and references to whose writings we still have records of who were encouraging faithful Jews to relate to God in such bold terms.
Something perhaps that might assist us in understanding the importance of this concept of ‘Father’ is to think in terms not of the ‘Pater Familias’ of the roman household where Father was responsible for running the household, and his word was law but of the more intimate model of near Eastern parenting. This is, at least stereotypically, a passionate, involved model, where mother is in partnership and the household is a shared responsibility. In Jesus expression of God’s fatherhood, and particularly on the occasions where he says ‘Abba’ – there is a closeness to the relationship of God to humanity.
We use ‘father’ in the creed as a kind of shorthand, it expresses a relationship with God that is one of dependence, trust, love, support. Even more so, to look at the wider documents of Christian and Jewish scripture God is referred to in many intimate ways, a mother hen, a shepherd who cares for his sheep, even a lover. If we take the expression of God’s fatherhood in the Creed as part of this rich tradition of analogy and familial imagery from scripture then in proclaiming God as Father we are again stating our love for and closeness to him. To go back to an earlier theme, it is entirely appropriate, as Biblical writers and Christian thinkers, mystics and poets have through hundreds of years, to use Mother and even Lover as expressions of our devotion to God and indeed God’s devotion to us… The danger of over-stressing ‘Father’ as our primary expression of our relationship to God is that again we confine ourselves to gender specific terms, and terms which may have positive and negative connotations for us. The expression of God’s fatherhood is much more about an expression of ideal fatherhood, or parenthood – giving, sacrificial, loving and intimate. I believe we should be bold in exploring other, biblical, models of relating to God, and remember that ‘Father’ carries within it other layers of meaning beyond stating that God is either male or constrained by cultural models of fatherhood.
Time for a little discussion, what good and bad feelings might the image of father, or indeed other expressions of God’s nature, have for you.
It is easy, though, to get stuck on the image of God as Father, and stressing the intimacy of our relationship to God is an important redressing of the balance, or imbalance, of much Christian teaching over the past couple of centuries, and beyond maybe. But it is not the whole picture, and the Creed contains within itself a kind of internal balancing mechanism. Again, it is just one word….Almighty. Yet in the Greek text it comes attached to the proclamation of God as father Πιστεύω εἰς ΘΕΟΝ ΠΑΤΕΡΑ, παντοκράτορα or for you Latin scholars Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem. The two words are linked with the proclamation of God as – Patera pantakratora and Patrem omnipotentem.
Alongside the intimacy of our relationship with God as Father, we are called to remember the God that we believe in, the God to whom we hold close, is also a God of power, might, majesty and splendour. He is God Almighty.
I think that often we lose sight in the Church of the need to hold these ideas in tension. God loves us and embraces us – that is the message of many contemporary reflections in poetry and song. Yet at the same time God is awesome, powerful beyond our imagining, frightening, disturbing, life changing and earth shaking. We must hold both these understandings together – of, technically speaking, God’s immanence and God’s transcendence – of God being alongside us and God being beyond us. This should in fact be a creative tension – as so many parts of faith have the potential to be, not a good thing for those of us who prefer a more systematic theological world, but my experience is that life doesn’t often conform to our own constructed reality! Or our preferences.
A quick break
I just want to give you a minute to chat to the person next to you – about what your experience of this tension is, or about your inclinations with regards to how you address/think of God.
The home stretch
We come now to what I think some might think is the crunch, and in my original notes for this session was the focus of my talk for tonight. We are really going for it now as I want to reflect for a few minutes on ‘Creator of Heaven and Earth’
A lot of ink has been spilled and a lot of hot air has been expelled over the whole creation and evolution argument. And I don’t want to contribute to the debate – though I am happy to do so in another place. For tonight I just want to reflect on what this Creed says is important, that we acknowledge God to be creator.
For those with faith I think that it’s not a great leap to say that we believe God is the creator. I suspect that even the most scientific minded Christian would feel able to say that God was involved in the creation. It seems that most of the arguments that go on are about the mechanism of creation – and the fear that to say that perhaps the world wasn’t created in six days, to deny the literal truth of the story of creation is somehow to start on the slippery slope of liberalism and loss of true faith.
A quick look at Genesis chapters 1 & 2 will soon reveal that there are two differing accounts of the creation, two seemingly contradictory accounts, with the familiar six day plus day off order in Chapter 1v1 to Chapter 2v3, then an unspecified timescale for an order that begins with a garden and people and gradually fills up from there.
It doesn’t deny the authenticity of scripture or it’s inspired nature to say that it may not be trying to give a literal account of something. My faith does not hang on the fact of the literal truth of scripture, but on the deeper truth of God’s inspiration through scripture.
Now that’s a whole evening in itself right there and I don’t want to go into it too much.
I will say though that the structure of the opening chapters of Genesis, and the way in which the first creation account contains a repeated refrain ‘evening and morning came and God saw that it was good’ suggests a poetic or hymnal contruction with the desire to inspire devotion rather than a concern to lay down the fact exactly as they occurred. People are welcome to disagree with that later, but I don’t really think it would help to go in to that here and now…
What is important, though, is that this statement of believing in God as author of creation, as the prime mover, the uncreated one who created from nothing (however that was done, big bangs, six days, whatever) is making a statement again about the power of God and of the fact that we should be in awe of God, and also making a statement about our relationship to the created order.
In saying ‘I believe in, trust and live in a relationship to the creator of heaven and earth’ we are saying that we have a part within that created order, that we are integrated into the plans and purposes of that God. This has, I believe, implications for our care and stewardship of this world, for our attitude to others within the world, for our own feeling of place and purpose for our lives. These implications are not for me to spell out word for word here this evening, but to say that in reconsidering our relationship to the created order we should reconsider the way in which we live our lives.
So we’ve actually got around to considering some of the content of the creed this week! I hope that, as I said last week, some of the things I have said, and that you have discussed, have inspired some thoughts about how we live our lives as God’s people, as those who declare our shared faith in a God who reveals himself to the world and calls us to live in a way which makes real our common desire to know and love God and to serve him in one another.