August 22, 2018

Mark Shea: Why Creeds? Part 1

PHOTO: Nils/Unsplash

This is the first of a seven part series by Mark Shea exploring the Creed.

G.K. Chesterton once remarked, “It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it. But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up.

Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilisation to savagery?” he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.” The whole case for civilisation is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.”

I think of that passage when I contemplate the problem of trying to teach people about the Creed in a postmodern world.

It is strange to say, but millions of people, both non-Christian and Christian, would be hard pressed to actually summarise what the Christian faith teaches.  Surprise people with the question “What is Christianity?” and you will often get either vagueness (“It’s… um… the teaching of Jesus about… things”) or, if you press for detail, you will get a sort of hodge-podge about loving your neighbor, “believing in Jesus”, the beauty of Christmas, something about death and resurrection, maybe a bit about believing the Bible, “being moral”, or something about Jesus’ Second Coming, or social justice, or Christ’s divinity–or his non-divinity.  It really depends on who you are talking to what the average person thinks Christianity is about.  And this is especially true in a place like America which is, paradoxically, more actively Christian than the rest of the West but less able to state clearly what the teaching of that overwhelmingly dominant religion is.

I can relate.  As a young member of a small “Spirit-led” Evangelical community. the time came when we moved from our cozy dorm floor worship group into the larger community. The problem was that when strangers from the neighborhood asked, “What do you believe?” we rudely discovered there’s nothing like having to articulate that to make you realise how much you can’t do it.

And so we found ourselves, a gaggle of twenty-somethings, huddled in a room with a blackboard, trying to create a “Statement of Faith”.

It was, in its own way, a hilarious afternoon (at least in retrospect). The chalkboard was soon filled with different clauses and points of doctrine, connected in a baffling web of arrows that looked like a football diagram in a Goofy cartoon. After several hours, we gave it up as a bad job and went home. A week or so later, the pastor pounded out something on his typewriter about the Bible, God the Father, Jesus his Son, the Holy Spirit, and being a community of Spirit-filled servants. I thought to myself dimly that it reminded me of something I’d heard somewhere, but it would take several years before I realised what that was: the Creed.

Meanwhile, I learned important truth about the supposed “Spirit-led unity of faith” I thought we enjoyed: we were not a Church, we were a club.  We were not really united by a shared faith, but by the merely natural bonds of affection that a group of friends has.  That was why we could not articulate to strangers what we believed in any coherent fashion.  And the problem of Christians trying to make the Church a club is as old as the Church.  Of which more next time.

Read part two: Why Creeds? The danger of making the Church a club

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