Mark Shea: Why Creeds? Adventures in being spiritual, not religious

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PHOTO: Daniil Kuželev on Unsplash

This article is Part 3 of a series by Mark on the Creed.
It begins with Why Creeds? Part 1

Last time, we talked about Apollos and how Priscilla and Aquila took him under their wing as a bright pupil who sometimes went off half-cocked and “explained to him the way of God more accurately” rather than giving him the boot as a heretic.

I can empathise with Apollos.  Not that I know anything about being a great evangelist.  But I can tell you a lot about going from complete ignorance of Jesus to partial ignorance to the full teaching of the Church.  I’m this guy:

And they came to Beth-saida. And some people brought to him a blind man, and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the village; and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands upon him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” And he looked up and said, “I see men; but they look like trees, walking.” Then again he laid his hands upon his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and saw everything clearly. (Mark 8:22-25)

Like the blind man, I got my sight slowly.  Indeed, I’m still getting it and am still astonished when a new area of blindness in my fields of vision receives sight.  And I’m not alone.  Many people move from no understanding of the Gospel, to a partial grasp to a full profession of faith in all that the Church teaching.  And we do it, not on our own, but because kind people don’t attack us for our partial understanding and instead “expound to us the way of God more accurately”.  Every day, people move from being completely outside the Church and come at the teaching of the Church from an infinity of weird angles, trying to learn the truth of it but with some serious holes in their understanding.

For what it’s worth, the brief version of my rather average story is this: I was not raised in anything beyond the most attenuated American Civil Religion.  I briefly attended Sunday school as a small child, where I came away with the conviction (who knows how) that you should not say the name of Jesus out loud.  I knew Christmas was about the birth of Jesus, but mostly Christmas was about family and presents and food.  I didn’t know what Easter was about except that it meant finding a chocolate bunny hidden in the dryer, ham for dinner, and boring re-runs of The Robe or The Ten Commandments on TV. I believed in the existence of a God, but disbelieved we could know anything about him. I tried to read the Bible when I was 13, not because I was trying to learn about God or Jesus Christ but because, as an insufferable snob who believed that Being Smarter Than You would earn me my right to use oxygen on this earth, I knew that being able to quote the Bible would get me closer to my goal of smug superiority.

Eventually, in college, I had an encounter with Jesus Christ and I became a Christian with the help of that small group of believers on my college dorm floor. In celebration of my acceptance of Jesus Christ as my Personal Lord and Savior I did not receive the sacrament of Baptism because true believers, I was taught by them, did not need such audio-visual aids. True Baptism is Baptism in the Holy Spirit, where you pray in tongues and manifest other Gifts of the Spirit.  Therefore, I was instead handed a Bible and taught how to read it according to their best lights.

As is common in such circles, we believed that “the Bible alone” was sufficient to know Christ’s revelation and live as he wanted us to. We didn’t recite the words “No Creed but the Bible” (itself a sort of creed), but we would have sympathised with it.  We were all about “life in the Spirit”.

Accordingly, we had a great fear of the word “religion”. We weren’t “religious”, we said.  We just loved the Lord.

It is a mark of my naiveté and inveterate pride that I regarded this as a massive new insight that already put me way ahead of the primitive ‘medievals’ who had lived in darkness for centuries.  It is also a testament to my ignorance that I did not realise that “religion” was despised by other sorts of people besides Born Again American Evangelicals.  Indeed, depending on who you talk to, religion means various things, all of them bad.

For some, it means mystical mumbo jumbo like a lucky rabbit’s foot: a cultural thing to be patronisingly indulged until it conflicts with the consensus of up-to-date people.

For others, it is Bronze Age savagery that, in the memorable phrase of Christopher Hitchens, “poisons everything”—an evil superstitious thing to be terminated with extreme prejudice. In such a view, it encompasses all belief in the supernatural of any kind and is the enemy of Reason.

For others, particularly of our “I’m not religious, I just love the Lord!” variety, religion, while still bad, is the opposite, not of reason, but of belief in the supernatural: a human creation of mere “head knowledge” that cuts the heart off from a personal relationship with Jesus and encrusts the Gospel in an impenetrable husk devoid of living faith, hope, and charity. God, I was taught, sought a living relationship of Love for him and for neighbor.  Religion, I was taught, killed all that.  Religion had about it the savour of something stiff, dried out, mummified. It was (we thought) the husk left over when the juice of a living relationship with God had evaporated. It was the cardboard container the food came in—a thing to be thrown away, avoided, despised.

But then I discovered something: in biblical (which I would eventually learn is Catholic) parlance, religion is not a bad thing but a good thing. Of which more next time.