The Problem With Creeds

Here we are almost at the end of the season of Epiphany and I can’t help but think of the epiphanies I’ve experienced.  I’ve had my share of “aha!” moments, but most of my epiphanies roll out slowly with the cover peeled back a bit at a time until I realize that I’m seeing or understanding things differently than before. What are your epiphanies like? How do they happen?  What new light of understanding illuminates your world so that you see something differently than you did a month ago, a year ago, a decade ago, a generation ago?  

God won’t be boxed in.

God is almost entirely unpredictable.  I say almost entirely because the one thing we can predict is that regardless of circumstances, God loves us.  God will love us in, with, under and through all things, but trying to predict what that love will look like, what shape it will take, how it will work?  That’s crazy-making.  God won’t be boxed in.  

I’ve been reading a fascinating book called When Jesus Became God by Richard Rubenstein, which is about the fascinating theological and political battle surrounding the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE in which the first prototype of the Nicene Creed was formulated.  The Emperor Constantine called the Council to settle a raging theological dispute that pivoted around several theological questions:  Was Jesus divine?  What did that mean, exactly?  What was Jesus’ relationship to the Father?  And the Spirit?  Was Jesus subordinate to the Father?  Was Jesus co-eternal with the Father or was he created? 

These questions had simmered in the background since the very beginning of Christianity but most Christians were more or less content to live with differing opinions on these matters.  But when Emperor Constantine became a Christian, stopped the persecutions, and made the religion legal, suddenly it seemed important to find official answers and establish doctrine.   

The Council of Nicaea was supposed to settle these matters once and for all, but, even though the Trinitarians “won” the debate and formulated most of the language of the Creed, the Arians continued to push for their interpretation of the faith for more than a century and often were in the majority.  They believed that Jesus was created by the Father and was not co-eternal, that he had a kindof divinity as the son of God, but was not equal to the Father, was instead subordinate to the Father. And so on.  So while the Creed gave language to the first official doctrine of the Church, in practice it really failed to unify the Church in any meaningful way.

Creeds can be useful.  Up to a point.  They are useful to help clarify what we think.  They draw lines that determine the boundaries of what we understand about God and our relationship with God, and help us identify ideas that don’t seem consistent with what we’ve known and experienced of God.  They tell us who’s in and who’s out—who agrees with the official line and who does not. But that’s also part of their limitation.  God is bigger, deeper, wider and more innovative than any boundaries we draw.  God is not a cat.  God does not want to curl up inside our box.  

Another problem with creeds is that they emphasize some aspects of our faith over others, sometimes even ignoring things that are vitally important.  In both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed, for instance, more and more Christian thinkers are calling attention to what’s being called The Great Comma.

“But have you ever noticed the huge leap the creed makes between “born of the Virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate”? A single comma connects the two statements, and falling into that yawning gap, as if it were a mere detail, is everything Jesus said and did between his birth and his death! Called the “Great Comma,” the gap certainly invites some serious questions. Did all the things Jesus said and did in those years not count for much? Were they nothing to “believe” in? Was it only his birth and death that mattered? Does the gap in some way explain Christianity’s often dismal record of imitating Jesus’ life and teaching?” –Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story

Perhaps the greatest problem with our creeds, though, is that they focus on what we think about God and not what we’re doing to live out our relationship with God.  There is nothing in their language about service. There’s nothing about love. There is nothing about hope.  There is nothing in them about helping “the least of these brothers and sisters”, or life together in a family of faith.  Forgiveness of sins is mentioned but there is no actual call to forgive each other as we have been forgiven.  In fact, there is no call to action at all. The creeds are, instead, a historical snapshot of what the men who formulated them (and they were all men) understood to be the most important philosophical premises of their faith. And to be clear, these were the statements formulated by those who won the battles—battles that were sometimes physical and not just philosophical.  One can’t help but wonder how Jesus felt about that…or feels now, for that matter.

Yes, we do believe.  But more importantly, we are called to follow Christ and to live as the Body of Christ.  I wonder… what would a creed look like that focused on that?  What language would move our statement of faith out of our heads and into our hearts and hands and feet?

No Place Like Home

2 Corinthians 5:6-11, 14-16

“We’re at home in the body,” says Paul the Apostle…at home in this vessel that bruises and jostles and ages and wrinkles and sneezes and bleeds, at home in this meat case of incessant needs, at home in this temple of hungers and appetites yearning for ecstasy, longing for paradise, wishing escape from our aches and our pains, our own wounded psyches, our time-addled brains. From the tips of your toes to the crown of your dome, be it ever so…broken… there’s no place like home.

There’s no place that needs such upkeep and maintaining. One day you’re feasting, the next you’re abstaining. One day it’s easy to carry your weight, the next day you wonder “Who packed all this freight?” One day you’re an athlete racking up points, the next you’re a senior with bionic joints. One day you’re a tower of strength, in your prime. The next day lumbago is twisting your spine. The years pile on and give you a licking, but with diet and meds the ticker keeps ticking. So we take baby aspirin and pray for catharsis because, after all, home’s where the heart is.

Home’s where the heart is…so, although we are slowing, we’re still pretty confident about where we’re going. We walk by faith, not merely by sight–especially when nature calls three times a night. But despite all our physical hurdles and hobbles, despite how our little world teeters and wobbles, despite all our blindness and deafness and woe we still, pretty much, know which way to go. Though our feet may meander, our attention may roam, softly and tenderly Christ calls us home.

Christ calls us home. And yes, we are judged. We stand here before him all battered and smudged, we feel every scar—especially those we’ve inflicted—every lie or dark deed–we stand here convicted. But we stand here with Christ who died once and for all so that our death is wrapped up in his in one ball of death-killing love and mercy and grace that lifts us right out of that self-centered place where we wallow in fear and ego and worry and gross self-importance and anger and hurry. We find mercy and grace, forgiveness, shalom—our souls wrapped in love until Christ is our home.

Christ is our home. So we see with new eyes—a new point of view—and to our surprise, because Christ is more than a mere human being, we see that there’s really no mere anything. Or mere anyone–we are, all of us, deeper, more complex, more cherished, and no life is cheaper than yours or than mine or than anyone else’s. We find our true selves when we learn to be selfless, when we fall into Christ and let love conform us, let the Spirit inspire, reshape and transform us, till in this slow stew of transfiguration we see that in Christ there is new creation.

In Christ, new creation. All things are reborn—the ones you love most, the parties you scorn, the planet itself, the stars in the skies—all things are made new and we see with new eyes. Old habits, old angers, old grudges, old fears, addictions, obsessions, your old unshed tears, old guilts that trouble your sleep in the night, opinions and bias that narrow your sight—it all fades away to allow a fresh start in Christ, your new home, in Christ, your new heart. The old fades away as the new takes its place and life becomes grace upon grace upon grace.

Grace upon grace, even through the long waiting that drags on our days as we’re anticipating that final renewal, the post-mortem waking, when you’ll shine like a jewel at the final remaking of all things that are and all things that will be and all things that were. And all you. And all me. The blossom that hides in the seed is concealed and what we will be has not yet been revealed. And though we’re impatient to make our escape, like a nymph in a chrysalis we’re still taking shape. But home’s where the heart is and our hearts are glowing, so we speak with confidence about where we’re going. We walk by faith, not merely by sight. Love urges us on and Christ is our light. Our feet may meander, our attention may roam but softly and tenderly, Christ guides us home.