May 27, 2018

Mark Shea: Why Creeds? Gaining My Religion

Authentic religion is all about loving God and neighbour. PHOTO: Nina Strehl on Unsplash

This is Part 4 of Mark Shea’s series on the Creed.
It begins with Why Creeds? Part 1.

Last time, in this space, I mentioned that, so far from “being spiritual, not religious”, I discovered that religion is not a bad thing but a good thing and even a biblical thing.

James, for instance, remarks:

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, his religion is vain. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (Jas 1:26–27)

In other words, the problem is not religion but those who “make a pretense of religion but deny its power” (2 Tm 3:5). Religion, I learned, derives from the Latin “religare” meaning “obligation, bond, reverence.” In other words, it refers to our bond of sacred kinship to God and to neighbour. What kind of bond is that? Love of God and neighbour. All the stuff we talked about as the opposite of religion turned out be what the word religion meant. When we perform acts of worship to God and acts of love toward our neighbor, we are living out what the New Testament means by loving the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and loving your neighbour as yourself. That is truly living a relationship.

So relationship was not the opposite of religion. Rather, religion was nothing other than the expression of relationship.  As Christians, we believed that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). We believed Paul when he said that faith was worthless without love: If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Co 13:1–3)

We believed James when he said that faith needed to be expressed in loving action or it was unreal: What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (Jas 2:14–17)

We believed John when he fused the love of God with the love of neighbour and insisted that a faith that was all talk and no action was a lie: If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also. (1 Jn 4:20–21)

And that was because we believed Jesus, who said: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? Every one who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep, and laid the foundation upon rock; and when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house, and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But he who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation; against which the stream broke, and immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.” (Lk 6:46–49)

It is the image of a house well-built that began to bring things in focus for me.  Houses require blueprints: some kind of plan or organising idea. You don’t just slap together a house based on intuitions and feelings.  And that brings us to one final mention of the term ‘religion’ in Scripture:

St Paul writes in 1 Timothy 3:16:

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated in the Spirit,
seen by angels,
preached among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.

Those words, you might notice, are not Paul’s.  He is, in fact, quoting a brief passage of poetry current in the Church of that day–one his readers all knew by heart.  That’s because that bit of poetry serves a specific purpose for both him and his readers. It is a creed.  Of which more next time.

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