Words can be vehicles that lead to faith for some. For others, they can get in the way of faith ... the creed especially, I suspect. Not all Christian churches recite a creed during worship, but many do. It may be the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed. Few know, much less recite the Athanasian Creed. Some churches use an “Affirmation of Faith” that is built on one of these creeds, but is designed to avoid language and concepts that can be problematic.
For the faithful who do not take every element of the creed literally, reciting it Sunday after Sunday can seem hypocritical. If you are one of those folks, take heart. There are others who do not believe that Jesus was born of a woman who was literally a virgin or that he ascended into the clouds over Judea. Not believing those things literally doesn’t mean that you don’t hold to the truths they seek to convey. For those of you who do believe those things, you believe what the church has taught for hundreds of years. You believe what is orthodox (right belief). But the opposite of orthodox faith is not wrong faith. It is different faith — heterodox.
It wasn’t until the fourth century when the Roman emperor, Constantine, pulled together the dispersed, rag-tag groups who called themselves Christians that heterodox beliefs became “wrong belief.” Until that time there were disparate beliefs based on different stories, and this variety was the norm. Constantine, for political expediency, came close to creating what many of us were taught that the Church always was: unified, cohesive and homogenous.
The primary means by which this astounding transformation took place was the development of the Nicene Creed. Oddly, Constantine had no vested interest in what the Creed said. He just wanted a defining statement of the faith created so that it could be used to unify the Church. Words that control — that’s what he wanted.
In a culture where there are few, if any, real penalties for heterodox belief, is it essential that we take the words of the Creed literally if we are to be a Christian? Most Christians would probably say that is the case. But over the 10 years I have been a pastor, I have seen more earnest, good, church-going folks than I ever would have imagined who have come into my office, made certain the door was securely closed, looked furtively around, and have said they don’t believe a lot of what they say on Sunday — at least not literally.
What if being Christian is more about what we do than what we think or the words we say? What if being a Christian is about living the way Jesus, the “pioneer of our faith,” showed us — living lives marked by compassion, forgiveness, non-violence and self-giving? Sure, we can live that way without following Jesus — there are people who hold to other faiths and to no faith who do that. But some of us find in the story of Jesus a story of which we want to be a part.
For some of us words are part of what support us in faith, not because they tell us what we have to believe literally, but because they tell us a story so compelling that we want to participate in it. We want to be written into that living text, our lives paragraphs in the ongoing tale of a world moving toward harmony and peace.
When words aren’t used to direct us to “orthodox” belief, much less control or shame us into it, they can open up a world where we are free to discover other ways of understanding and believing that are just differently tied to the Christ who embodied the stories from which they arise.
Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or firstname.lastname@example.org