This week, a follow-up from last week…
When looking at Christian history, starting with the earliest Christian communities, we see a dynamic spirituality anchored in the faith experience of the followers of the Way of Jesus. Gradually, recollections of Jesus’ life and deeds and Christian community foundational experiences were recalled and written down. As communities expanded, organizational structures were created for good order and to ensure a correct passing on of the Way of Jesus to the next generation. The Scriptures were written down. Symbols, rituals, and statements of belief were created. A key operational principle was that if language and structures no longer worked, they were changed and adapted to fit the needs of the local community. This explains why we have four very different theologies in the Four Gospels.
Ideally, change and adaptation in language and structure should be an ongoing process. Occasionally, as history shows, Christians have had times of arrested development and institutional rigidity. In times of rigidity, the message always was: don’t question or think, just believe!
This brings me to my subject today: the Creed.
I know the creeds – Nicene Creed and Apostles Creed — very well. For many decades now I have recited and sung the Nicene Creed; and in my younger days -– few know this — I even accompanied that singing as a part-time organist in my home parish.
Now for my first creedal observation:
The classical Christian creeds: the Nicene Creed, written in the fourth century, and the Apostles Creed, whose earliest version appeared in the fifth century, were formulated within the context of a comparatively simple biblical understanding of a three-level universe: Heaven was up there with God. Earth was down below. Below earth was Sheol: the abode of the dead. What we think of today as “outer space” was believed to be a large universally-wide cosmic ocean. A big dome over the flat earth kept the waters away. As needed God could open little windows in the dome to let it rain over various sections of the earth. The stars were suspended from the ceiling of the dome. Very simple and compact. God was the heavenly manager. He – yes God was considered male — had all the strings in his hands.
A very faulty English translation of Sheol in the Apostles Creed, by the way, says Jesus “descended into hell.” A more correct translation would be “he descended to the underworld” or “descended to the world of the dead.” What the creed was really referring to was that, after dying on the cross, Jesus went to the place of the dead. He did not go to a Satanic hell. The Latin version of the Apostles Creed has absolutely no mention of hell. The Latin version reads “descendit ad inferos,” where “inferos” (not infernos with an “n”) means “those below.”
The three-level universe perspective is also found in accounts of Jesus’ Ascension, where Jesus steps into a cloud, like into an elevator, and then he is lifted up to Heaven. Curiously the same old perspective was used in the Catholic doctrine of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven. That teaching dogmatically defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950, says that Mary was lifted up to Heaven, body and soul to sit next to her Son and reign as “Queen over all things.”
Today we have moved far beyond the biblical three-level universe. Consider for a moment that one light-year is the distance light travels in one Earth year: about 6 trillion miles. Our ever-expanding Universe is 93 billion light-years in diameter at the present time. Those 93 billion light-years cover just our observable Universe. The whole Universe might very well be 250 times larger than the observable Universe.
Last week I stressed that the reasons why people are abandoning the churches do not lie within our Christian Faith but rest with the way many church authorities present Christian belief.
We are not static medievalists. We need to begin with an historical developmental perspective on what happened with the disciples of Jesus after his death and resurrection. Then we need to shift to an historical developmental understanding of what is happening to us today as contemporary believers.
Now for my second creedal observation:
Christian life is a process. Spirituality comes first. Structures, doctrines, and creeds come after that. If certain church structures, doctrines, and creeds in particular times and places fail to nourish the spirituality of its constituents, they will either have to change, or they will fade away. Or people will fade away from them. It is happening now.
When I read either ancient creed, I think immediately about obedience and loyalty to the institution. The Roman Emperor Constantine (emperor from 306 to 337 CE) certainly wanted exactly that when, in 325 CE, he convoked the first Christian council in Nicaea and had the bishops come up with a binding creed to unify Christianity in his empire. Many scholars suggest Constantine’s main objective was to gain unanimous approval and submission to his authority from all classes in the empire. He chose Christianity to implement his political agenda but had to first of all insure Christian unity through loyalty and obedience to the Nicene creed. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 during the reign of Emperor Theodosis I, who ruled from 379 to 395 CE.
Frankly what I miss, in both creeds, is human warmth: a spirituality that speaks of a compassionate and loving God, who journeys with us, and holds us in the palm of his or her hand. I would like a more spiritual creed that speaks of a wondrous creator of the constantly expanding and immense universe, who is beyond our imagination and ability to describe, and yet who is as close to us and as intimate as the air in our lungs. I would like a creed that resonates with Paul in I Corinthians: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” That warrants much reflection.
I would like to see a creed that reassures people today that Jesus’ voice is just as much a living voice as ever; that his truth is a living truth; and that his God is a living God, near to all of us.
A few years ago, in a summer theology course I taught at St. Michael’s College in Vermont, I asked my students to write their own creeds. The results were amazing and deeply moving. The most touching creed was written by a young fellow who was a professional jockey! When I complimented him in private he replied with a big smile: “Well I guess I am a believer who is also, as you say, an inquisitive still searching believer.” I hope he is doing well today, and still an inquisitive believer.
Third creedal observation:
Please write down your own creed. I am serious. For your own spiritual reflection. Or it could even be a group process.
By way of a example of a contemporary creed. a friend sent me a creed created by The United Church of Canada.
We are not alone,
we live in God’s world.
We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others
by the Spirit.
We trust in God.
We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to live with respect in Creation,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.
Now get started writing your own creed. 😇