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Credo: The Nicene Creed

by Jack Hartjes, 2015


This is a series of essays intended as a venture into the meaning of the Christian beliefs established at the Council of Nicea in the year 325 and held by nearly all Christians today--the Nicene Creed. It was started in 2010 and in the following years managed to cover, phrase by phrase, the creed's first paragraph about God and the created world. The attempt at the second paragraph, on Jesus Christ, took a different path and ended up as a single book-length essay, Stories of Jesus and the Character of God, which you can access by clicking on the link. Left undone is the creed's third paragraph on the Holy Spirit, the Church, and future time.

Comments on this or any of my writings are welcome at  jackhartjes@yahoo.com.

I am a theist, specifically a Christian and more specifically a Roman Catholic. I consider theism, polytheism, and atheism alike to be  attempts to find a way, where paths are not clearly marked, among fundamental human concerns. I believe in dialogue because I believe there is ultimately one truth, not many. I expect the most fruitful challenges we can give to each other are about fundamental human concerns and how to respond to them.

These essays are about some ancient beliefs, but I do not intend these essays to be aof merely historical interest. Regarding past beliefs, believer and non-believer are in similar positions. Both can only look at the past from the point of view of the present. Christians don't simply believe today what Christians believed then. Christians  recite the words of the creed as articles of faith and a treasured inheritance, but both Christians and non-Christians live in the modern, and even post-modern, world. Like the Bible what we have received from of old must be interpreted anew in each age.

"Credo" is the first word in the Latin Nicene Creed. That summary of beliefs is lodged in my memory from reciting it every Sunday. I will follow its lead in my reach for reality. A community presents its creed to the world not just as its own beliefs, its personal or community truths, but as something worthy of belief, something for everyone to gather around. A creed is, before anything else, a sign that there is such a thing as truth. Truth gathers us together, perhaps to celebrate, perhaps to argue, unfortunately perhaps also to fight. Unlike opinion or "You have your truth, I have mine," at least it gathers us.

1. Credo: I Believe

The word “Credo,” Latin for “I believe,” begins the Nicene Creed. I begin with these two words, "I believe," because even by themselves they offer a lot to think about, which I divide up into the following parts:

1. The first 3 meanings of faith: trust, faithfulness, vision

2. Faith as a set of beliefs
  • Follows the other three meanings
  • Symbols of prior Christian experience
  • Not the opposite of knowledge
  • Grows out of the qualities that make us human
3. Standards for judging beliefs

4. The virtues of believing and not believing.

1. The first 3 meanings of faith: trust, faithfulness, vision

Christians tend to forget that the thing that is put into words existed before the words. When divisions, that necessarily arise within any group of thinking people, became, in the case of the creed, hostile factions, it was partly because this more important prior reality faded into the background and the bare words—privileged and holy though they may be, they’re still only human—were treated as absolutes.

But what else is faith besides the things that people say they believe? Marcus J. Borg, in The Heart of Christianity, pp. 28-37, lists three additional, and prior, meanings of the word “faith.” First, faith is trust. It’s the kind of thing Jesus meant when he said, “Your faith has made you whole.” It’s like being able to relax in the water so you can learn to swim. Anxiety is the opposite of this meaning of faith. If you look at the third word of the Nicene Creed, you can see why trust must be the first meaning of faith. It says, "I believe in . . . God." This is not mainly believing some idea about God or the world. Believing in someone and believing that something is the case are two very different things. The latter is something for the mind to do; the former engages the whole person.

Borg’s list also tells us faith is faithfulness, a commitment at the deepest level of one’s self. Its opposite is infidelity. In the Bible adultery is often a metaphor for unfaithfulness to God and God’s covenant. Another term that the prophets used is “idolatry,” not just idol worship but all of the ways we bow to any of this world’s lords, whether money, power, prestige, influence, a nation, or some desire, which might be perfectly healthy when it’s not THE LORD. The prophets railed against all of these. Faithfulness is more than not being unfaithful. It is attentiveness, love; it is a matter of will, identifying one’s will with the will of the beloved. It is summed up in the Great Commandments of both testaments of the Bible: loving God and loving neighbor.

Third, faith is vision. It is a way of seeing the world. Faith’s vision is at odds with two other visions:

One vision sees the world as hostile. This way of seeing is sometimes paranoia, but it is present in less extreme forms: belief in conspiracies, defensiveness as a basic response to life, survival as the most important value—I’ll take care of myself and mine. An even more pessimistic version is fatalism—nothing I do will make any difference.

The second is to see the world as indifferent. This may be the dominant scientific view of the world. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion espouses this view and expresses it this way: “The universe doesn’t owe us a meaning.” This vision says that all meaning, purpose, and value are things we make in whatever time and circumstances happen to be ours. Of course, time itself is limited; any meaning that we manage to make is destined for destruction along with the solar system and, eventually, the universe itself. There’s a group of people who say we should be taking steps now to colonize other planets, including other star systems. Their idea is that, although we can't survive forever, we—meaning the human race, ignoring all the individuals who would be left behind in any space-colonizing project—should survive as long as possible. If survival is the main goal, then their project makes sense. If it means neglecting pressing needs here on the home planet, that’s a price that must be paid. I once tried unsuccessfully over the internet to argue with an advocate of this position . I now understand that our basic difference is in our ways of seeing the world. My way is the way of faith.

The vision of faith sees a life-giving, nourishing world, a world of beauty and wonder and, yes, sometimes terror, not because of hostility or indifference but because of sheer power and immensity. In a word, the world is awesome. It is this perception, rather than any pragmatic concern, that I believe is at the origin of all religion. In religious terms, God clothes the lilies and sends rain upon the just and the unjust. Skipping the God talk, one could say simply, “The world overflows with bounty; it's generous.”

Faith is a vision that sees life as a gift. Naturally one would cherish this gift, and that includes defending, protecting, and hanging on to it; but that is not the first response. The first and most basic response of the person of faith is thanksgiving. We love the gift but even more the giver. Suppose this great entire edifice of the human way of life and civilization is not just a human accomplishment. It is that, of course, but suppose that ultimately it's a gift of “Mother Earth.” Then the earth is something to cherish even more than our way of life. Or if all gifts, including the earth are from God, then God must be loved above everything else.

Loving the Giver, if that is anything like a person, means loving also the things that the Giver loves. The fact that one gift is especially close to us, say human civilization, doesn’t mean we become so anxious about it that we forget to love another gift farther away, say the land or the air or the sea, as Earth or God made them. Love extends one’s vision and concern outward. Anxiety narrows the focus of concern to the self and what is nearby. The person of faith may recognize the same dangers as anyone else, but trust and faithfulness take the place of anxiety and self-concern. Those other two meanings of faith are closely connected with faith as vision. A person with the vision of faith is likely to trust in someone or something other than the self, and that makes faithfulness that never gives up a real possibility.

2. Faith as a set of beliefs.

The fourth meaning of faith, faith as belief or assenting to certain ideas,  grows out of the first three. These three are real experiences, not theoretical postulates. We really do trust, really are faithful—some of us some of the time, anyway, including many with no religious faith. Some of us really see a world that is generous in sharing its wealth and its beauty, a world full of meaning. (It doesn't "owe us" this meaning; it just has it. If we "get" it, it's a privilege, not our due.) We can say with the mother comforting the frightened child in the middle of the night, “It’s all right; everything is all right”; and it's not a lie. (This homey scene of mother and child is Peter Berger’s in A Rumor of Angels.) We know well enough that in this world there are no guarantees against life’s tragedies, against the ultimate tragedy of death, including the eventual death of the whole universe. But whether "God's in his heaven" or not, the world is all right.

We don’t see what would guarantee this all-rightness. We don't see God or what the mechanism of any guarantee could possibly be. Religion tells us what it might be—different answers from different religions. The one that I will be telling about--the only one I can with any confidence--is Christianity.

Look at this religion in its early stages. The beliefs, or doctrines, that it proposes break up a unitary, deeper experience into sentences to be believed one at a time. Think of the awareness the early Christians must have had of Jesus’ and the Spirit's presence with them after he died. Trust, faithfulness, and vision were all wrapped into that one experience, and it must have been enough for them for a while, but eventually the mind looks for more. It wants to know what to believe. That very soon started a centuries-long process of hammering out what it meant intellectually to be a Christian—and what it did not mean, for there were many missteps along the way. The resulting doctrines and condemnations of heresies are often thought to be the faith of the Church. They’re not. They’re symbols of, pointers to, the real faith; they’re attempts to put into words what words can’t really hold.

Faith is not the opposite of knowledge. It only seems that way when doctrinal symbols are given too much weight. Then faith would be believing something without evidence, and its opposite, knowledge, would be holding strictly to whatever evidence dictates. We would then choose to hold on to faith's guesses really strongly, more meritoriously in proportion to how strongly the will operates. Given the lack of evidence, that makes for a lot of hard work and a lot of merit. That is not what Luther and the other Protestant reformers were talking about when they said salvation is by faith and not by works. (Catholic and many Protestant traditions now see eye-to-eye on this point. The science of theology does actually make progress sometimes.)

The kernel of truth in the idea of belief vs. knowledge is that knowledge is indeed dictated and religious belief is not. Once you have the evidence for some fact, it’s illogical not to believe it, and the “facts” of faith don’t admit of that kind of evidence. There's too big a gap between what we can experience and what we're after--all meaning, and the meaning of meaning. Even so, in religion what and whether to believe are not matters of free choice. One can reject faith and still be logical, but the question of faith hounds us and will not go away as long as we are human. The question occurs in all those experiences, like the mother-and-child experience above, that distinguish humans from other animals.

I'm depending on there really being some big differences between ourselves and other animals, though it has become popular to minimize them. Some say humans and other animals are different only in degree, not kind. There have been exciting discoveries of unsuspected qualities and abilities in non-human animals. They have emotions and intelligence, they do moral as well as evil deeds, they learn and hand on learning (not just genetic information) to their offspring, they have culture. Some species can learn the rudiments of human language. I don't know how far these discoveries might lead or where they will have to stop. But there are some special things humans, and as far as we know only humans, do. Like other animals, we take part in a good meal, absorb the glow of the fading sun in the evening, rejoice in play or another's body. Then comes the uniquely human part: we wonder how the world can be so beautiful. Again, we experience some great joy or great sorrow, but then go on to challenge ourselves to our very core—“How could I be worthy of this?” “Did I deserve that?” We act well or badly, and then, in a philosophical mood, ask, “In what does true morality consist and what is the point of being good?” We acquire  knowledge and skills for manipulating things around us to our advantage and then go beyond anything reasonably required for the “good” life and seriously try—with words, models, symbols, or metaphors, in science, philosophy, religion, or poetry—to grasp all reality and all meaning, even though such a grasp may be beyond our powers.

These are distinctively human behaviors as far as anyone can tell, or if other life forms, on this planet or elsewhere, have them, then we simply have to include them with ourselves in a special category, which we then could no longer call “human.” We’d need a more inclusive word, and I’d say “religious” is as good a name as any because all of these special sufferings and strivings are the starting points of religion. Once you’ve evolved this far, the question of religion, though not necessarily the answer, is unavoidable.

3. Standards for judging beliefs.

Once you have the question you have to carry on the search, if you can. Since we are intelligent beings, we have to have some intellectual requirements that put limits on what the answers can be—standards that fill in for lack of evidence in a more scientific sense. In the following ventures with the Christian Creed I will try to use the standards that David Tracy proposes in Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology. They are:

1.      An answer must be appropriate to the general experience of humankind as interpreted by all of the human sciences, including philosophy. “Bible only” Christians have trouble with this one.
2.      An answer must be appropriate to some tradition also as interpreted by a variety of human sciences, including the interpretation of ancient texts. Rationalists have a problem with this requirement. (I think these first two requirements go together. We can’t just lay hold of an interpretation-free answer, and we can’t ignore either current or past ways humans have interpreted their experiences. Even a God-inspired tradition, if there is such, would have to grow out of human experience. Once grown, it influences—colors—whatever future human experience it touches. For a rationalist that's pretty messy, but messiness is one of the features many newer rationalists, especially those called post-modern, are finding in reality.)
3.      Finally, an answer must obey the laws of logic. It has to be coherent. This requirement poses a problem for Christians in general, especially when it comes to a doctrine like the Trinity, which structures the whole creed, the subject of these essays. Not many theologians want to propose nonsense as a matter for faith.

Like fairy tale characters on a quest, we find guides along our way—the accumulated wisdom of other seekers, the religions and philosophies of “homo religiosus.” Modern science plays a negative role. If a religious answer conflicts with the most probable results of science, then with exactly that probability you'd have to say the religious answer is wrong. Positively I don’t see science coming up with an answer, but it has its own way of getting us more and more acquainted with the question.

4. The virtues of believing and not believing.

Beliefs are not supposed to be nonsense, but there is a difficult problem for one coming at faith from the outside. It seems like a circle that you can’t get into. You look to experience for a reason to believe, but modern experience is heavily influenced by ancient traditions of belief that came before, and the attempt to analyze those traditions is caught up in what we are experiencing today. There’s no starting point, no place on the circle marked ENTRANCE. But the circle works in your favor if you’re already inside it. Thus the most profound answer to how one acquires faith is simply: Faith is a gift. I think God has many ways of giving us this gift. Two other things I’m pretty sure of:
  1. NO is not an answer to the ultimate question. It’s not a YES/NO question. If you’ve rejected every religious answer, that would make you an atheist, but you still wouldn’t have an answer, and the question wouldn’t go away—the unanswered “Why?” the unfathomable wonder. You would choose to live with the question. Faith in at least its first three senses could be there, and there’s a noble courage in living that way. That virtue of the atheist has an opposite number in the person of religious faith, and it’s not cowardice. It’s humility. Another factor in my being a Christian today, besides sheer luck, is that I like humility more than courage. But I suppose that’s a gift too.
  2. If you’re ever going to get from outside to inside what I called the circle of faith, you can’t just jump in. It’s not something to be arbitrary about. You have to be drawn in, and—scary thought—let yourself be drawn in. Faith has all sorts of rewards, but the way there is not easy or comfortable.
On to 2, In One God