Every Sunday many Catholics mumble their way through the recitation of what we believe. Doesn't the Creed deserve to be proclaimed with a little more gusto?
I imagine that for an awful lot of Catholics, reciting the Creed is something like a break in the action of the liturgy-a kind of pause between the two major sections of the Mass. As those overly familiar formulas slip past their lips, many Mass-goers are probably allowing their minds to drift, or they are fumbling for the envelope in anticipation of the collection. But this is a shame. For the Creed is integral to the liturgy and expressive of the community's deepest identity. Having heard the Word of God in the readings and the homily, the people, through the Creed, state their faith; they declare what they stand for and, in principle, what they are willing to die for.
When he was a university theologian, our present pope said that reciting the Creed is a subversive act, for when we affirm the quality of our faith in the one God, we are saying implicitly that no country, no culture, no president, no political party, no worldly power is of final importance. We state the still-dangerous truth that the God revealed in scripture and in Jesus Christ is the one true God. Four basic beliefs are articulated in the Creed: in God the Father Almighty, in the Lord Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit, and in the church. Let us shed some light on this ancient expression of Catholic faith, revealing its still transforming and, yes, subversive power.
We believe in God the Father Almighty
That Catholic Christians believe in God seems banal enough, but we have to remember that there are an awful lot of ideas about God at play in our culture. The Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas has commented that, when someone says, "God bless you" to him, he responds, "Which one?" We believe in a very specific God, "the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen."
To get at the uniqueness of this belief, let's contrast it with two views of God that are very ancient and altogether contemporary. The first is pantheism, the conviction that God is identified with the whole of nature, that "God" is another name for the universe taken as a totality. For an American example of this theology, consult Ralph Waldo Emerson's Harvard address of 1831, in which he urges his listeners to unite themselves to the "oversoul," the spiritual energy that suffuses the world. When this idea trickled down to the popular level and mixed in with elements of Eastern religion, it became the spirituality of the New Age.
In order to see the most influential and accessible version of this pantheist mysticism, turn to the Star Wars films of George Lucas. Lucas admitted that these films were intended to express the thoughts of Joseph Campbell, the comparative mythologist and historian of religions. In his famous interview with Bill Moyers, Campbell said that he did not believe in a personal God but in "the zoom of energy" that runs through all things. Lucas quite effectively translated this notion into the "Force" that plays such a central role in the Star Wars saga.
Another widespread contemporary view of God is deism. According to this doctrine, God is a supreme being-hovering somewhere above the world-who established the laws of nature, set things in motion, and then more or less retired, leaving the universe to its own devices. This understanding of God, prominent in the 18th century, was espoused by many of the Founding Fathers of our country. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Thomas Paine were more or less deist in their convictions. Because it turns God into a distant spectator, deism opens up an arena that is essentially untouched by God. The contemporary influence of deism can be seen, therefore, in our tendency to set religion off as a private dimension, separate from the economic, political, social, and cultural realms.
But both of these understandings of God are opposed to biblical faith and incompatible with the Creed. God the Creator is neither a force nor an energy nor an oversoul within nature. If such realities exist, they would be impressive creatures, but not God the Creator.
Speaking the words of Yahweh, Isaiah the prophet says, "As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my thoughts above your thoughts and my ways above your ways" (55:9). All forms of pantheism run counter to this biblical insistence on God's otherness to the world.
At the same time, precisely as creator, God cannot be distant from the world, for God continually brings it into existence. This is why the same Isaiah who spoke of God's otherness can insist that God has "carved us in the palm of his hand" (49:15). It is of this unavoidable God that Psalm 139 speaks: "O Lord, you search me and you know me. You know my resting and my rising…before ever a thought is on my lips, you know it, Lord, through and through." Therefore, all forms of deism run counter to the biblical understanding.
Why does this matter? It matters, above all, because neither the pantheist nor the deist God can truly be a God of love. To love is to will the good of the other as other. The "Force" is fundamentally the same as the universe and hence cannot stand, in any meaningful sense, as "other" to the world. On the other hand, the supreme being of deism is so far from the world that he couldn't possibly muster enough energy to want the world's good. Only the God described in the Bible and affirmed in the Creed is both far enough and close enough to be a God of love.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ
For many people today, Jesus is, above all, an inspiring ethical example, a great moral teacher. Recently I ran across a religion book for children that specified that just as Michelangelo was an artistic genius and Einstein a scientific genius, Jesus was a "genius of love."
Yet the Creed does not say a word about Jesus' teaching or preaching or moral example. Rather it talks about who he is. We hear the surprising and unnerving claim that he is "eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God."
This is in line with a pivotal episode narrated by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. At Caesarea Phillipi, Jesus did not ask his disciples what people thought about his teachings or his works; he asked them who they said he is. This question sets Jesus apart from all of the other great founders of world religions. It would be hard to imagine Moses, the Buddha, Muhammad, or Confucius ever asking his followers about his metaphysical make-up, but this is precisely what Jesus does. And the answer that Simon Peter offered-"you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God"-is the ground for the Creed to affirm Jesus' divinity.
Now what could possibly have led Jesus' immediate followers and the early church to make this extraordinary assertion? Throughout the gospels, Jesus consistently acts and speaks in the very person of God. Jesus says, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away" (Matt. 24:35). Who could claim that coherently except the one who is himself the eternal Word of God?
Looking at the paralyzed man, he says, "Take heart, son, your sins are forgiven" (Matt. 9:2). As the startled Pharisees point out, only God can presume to forgive sins. Given what he said and did, a great option remains: Either he is God, or he is a deluded and dangerous deceiver, as C.S. Lewis argues in Mere Christianity. What is ruled out is the bland middle position, so prevalent today, that though he isn't divine, he is a kind and inspiring ethical teacher.
Jesus compels a choice the way no other religious founder does. Thus he divides, as he always has: "Whoever is not with me is against me" (Matt. 12:30). Insisting that Jesus is "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God," the Creed forces us to make that same decision.
Though it doesn't say a word about Jesus' teaching, the Creed does tell us that Jesus was "crucified under Pontius Pilate." Jesus did not simply die; he was put to death, precisely as a political criminal, a blasphemer, a challenge to the status quo. As God among us, Jesus stood opposed throughout his ministry to ungodly ways of ordering things culturally, politically, and economically. As the Messiah descended from King David, he came as a warrior to do battle. But how strangely he fought. At the climax of his life, he was put to death on a Roman instrument of torture-overwhelmed, it seemed, by the hatred, violence, and dysfunction of the sinful world.
But in fact he was winning the decisive battle. Nailed to that cross, he allowed the sin of the human race to do its worst, to spend itself on him; he took on the negativity of sin and then swallowed it up in the divine mercy: "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). The tragic logic of the world said that order comes through answering injustice with injustice, meeting violence and hatred with more violence and more hatred. But Jesus, on the cross, was operating according to God's logic of love and forgiveness.
But why don't we see Jesus simply as another in a long line of tragic heroes raging in vain against the powers of the world? Because, as the Creed puts it, "on the third day he rose again in fulfillment of the scriptures." When Jesus appeared alive to his disciples after his death, he signaled in the most vivid way possible, that the divine love-which he embodied in person-is stronger than sin and death.
Decades later, reflecting on the meaning of the Resurrection, Paul exclaimed, "I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:38-39). Paul could say that because the risen Jesus had taken on and thereby taken away the sins of the world.
Throughout much of the period after the Second Vatican Council, too many theologians, teachers, and preachers have tended to soft-pedal or downplay the reality of the Resurrection, turning it into a vague symbol or an expression of the faith of the disciples. But if this is all the Resurrection means, the heck with it.
Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has commented incisively that if Jesus had not been raised bodily from the dead, Christianity would never have survived as a messianic movement. Wright says that the clearest indication, to a first-century Jew, that someone was not the Messiah would be his death at the hands of the enemies of Israel. That the church of Christ endured as a messianic religion is possible only on the assumption that the crucified one was, nevertheless, objectively alive. Claims that the disciples were inspired by a dead man would never have stood up against the early critics of Christianity.
Truly risen from the dead, victorious over sin and violence, Jesus is now, as Paul says over and again, the Lord-the one to whom we owe total allegiance, the one who should become the dominant force in every aspect of our lives.
We believe in the Holy Spirit
It is a biblical commonplace that there are lots of spirits around, not all of them holy. The Creed speaks of "the Holy Spirit, the Lord the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son." This description identifies the Holy Spirit as the love that links Jesus and his Father.
St. Paul tells us that the mark of the true Spirit is that it empowers us to call Jesus "Lord." And, as the story of the first Pentecost makes clear, the Holy Spirit is the power that turns people into evangelists of Jesus Christ, proclaimers of the Lord's death and Resurrection. In short, the Creed blocks the temptation to turn the Spirit-and hence the spiritual life-into something only vaguely connected to the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth.
In his now classic study of American religious attitudes, Habits of the Heart (University of California Press), sociologist Robert Bellah tells of his interview with a young nurse named Sheila. Articulating her religious belief, Sheila said that she was more or less indifferent to the dogmas and doctrines of traditional Christianity. She explained how she had cobbled her belief system together from a number of sources and that finally it was her "own little voice" that mattered. Summing up her faith, she said, "I guess I would call it ‘Sheila-ism.'"
Bellah concludes that "Sheila-ism"-individualistic, relativistic, determined by personal experience-is perhaps the distinctive American religion. After all, our culture tells us in a thousand ways that truth-especially religious truth-is relative and that consequently the ultimate moral value is acceptance of diversity. Each person has his or her "spirituality," and intolerance of anyone's personal conviction emerges as the only finally intolerable sin.
But none of this squares with the Bible, whose ultimate value is not tolerance but love. Love, which is the act of willing the good of the other as other, is much harder-edged than bland tolerance. If I truly love you, I want your good-I'm not the least bit satisfied that you are living in falsehood; I want you to know the truth. This truth is that there is only one Holy Spirit, who compels us to proclaim not our own private religion but the lordship of Jesus Christ.
Another reason our culture tends toward relativism in spiritual matters is our prejudice toward a privatization of religion. During the 16th and 17th centuries, wars between Catholics and Protestants ravaged Europe. Since they could not settle their doctrinal disputes rationally, both sides resorted to violence. This led many philosophers and political reformers of the period to advocate a kind of peace treaty with religion: The state would tolerate religious faith as long as it remained private, removed from the public square.
Most of us probably barely notice how thoroughly we've been shaped by this modern idea. We don't like "wearing religion on our sleeves," and we instinctively avoid talking in public about our faith. The result of this privatization is a political and cultural arena stripped of religious values and insights.
But the Holy Spirit is that force that pushes people out of the narrow confines of their private convictions into the world, into the public square, in order to proclaim the lordship of Jesus. In its still fresh and surprising teaching on the universal call to holiness, Vatican II speaks of the obligation of the laity to be a gospel leaven in society, becoming great Catholic lawyers, physicians, teachers, writers, parents, and politicians. It summons them, in short, to get rid of the modern peace treaty that has effectively defanged and domesticated religion.
We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church
The final great statement of the Creed might be the hardest of all to believe. So far the Creed has asked us to state our faith in the three persons of God, but finally it invites us to proclaim our faith in the church.
What blocks many of us from doing so is our deep cultural prejudice against any and all institutions. America, after all, was born in a great act of rebellion against a corrupt institution, and modern democracies in general were movements in favor of individual liberty against institutional oppression. So how can we be expected to believe in the human institution of the church?
This natural aversion has of course in recent years only been exacerbated by the clergy sex-abuse scandal. A culturally perceptive friend of mine commented recently, "The church has for some time been seen as irrelevant; now it's seen as irrelevant and corrupt."
To respond to these objections, we have to point out that the church in which we place our faith is not primarily an institution. It is instead a body. In accord with Paul's great metaphor, the church is a living organism composed of interdependent cells, molecules, and organs, whose head is Christ himself and whose lifeblood is the divine life flowing from the sacraments. This "Mystical Body" is Christ's manner of being present to the world; it is his eyes, his ears, his hands, and his feet.
Just as you can't possibly know me apart from my body-my physical presence, my voice, my gestures-so you can't know Christ apart from his church. This is why when Catholics evangelize they don't simply invite people to come into a personal relationship with Jesus; they invite people into the life of the church.
The church is a way of life. In the ancient world, when an apprentice came to Plato or Aristotle for education, he was not seeking "classes" in philosophy; he was entering into a form of life, involving a whole series of practices and disciplines. When the young Gregory Thaumaturgos came to Origen seeking Christian wisdom, the great church leader said to him, "First you must become our friend and live our life; then you will understand our doctrine."
So it goes in the body of the church. We believe in the church in the measure that we give ourselves to it, surrendering to its rhythms of life. To be sure, the church has an institutional and all-too-human dimension, and this must always be called to greater fidelity and integrity. Ecclesia semper reformanda (the church must always be reformed) is a good Catholic principle, which predates even the Reformation. However, if we allow our suspicions of institutions to block our entry into the Mystical Body, we never fully participate in Jesus Christ and his life.
Passing on this faith
How can we pass on, express, live out the subversive truths expressed in the Creed? Just a few practical suggestions: Be radical in the expression of your faith. These doctrines of the Creed are wonderful, mysterious, and challenging, so don't settle for a weak, hand-wringing Catholicism. No one, after all, follows an uncertain trumpet. These beliefs of ours are dynamite (from dynamis, power) but we must be willing, as Catholic Worker cofounder Peter Maurin put it, "to blow up some of the dynamite of the church."
Second, be public in your faith. Resist the cultural prejudice toward the privatization of religion. Let the language of faith be readily on your lips and let a sign of the faith appear on your person or in your place of work. Allow your Catholic beliefs to inform your professional life and your political decision-making.
Finally and most important, be joyful in your Catholicism. The whole point of the spiritual and moral life is to find happiness. If we forget that, the faith collapses into fussiness and prudishness. Let people sense the joy that flows from believing in the true God, in Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit, and in the church.
About 10 years ago, a rather despondent man was walking in front of Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago on a Sunday morning. He spotted the charismatic pastor of the cathedral, Father Robert McLaughlin, laughing and conversing with parishioners after Mass. The priest's joy was contagious, obvious, and unaffected. Though he didn't know McLaughlin from Adam, this man walked up to him and said quite simply, "What you've got, I want." "OK," said the priest, "let's sit down next week and have a beer." They did, and six years later, that despondent man was ordained to the priesthood and serves now with remarkable effectiveness and joy.
How do you pass on our marvelous, challenging, and multifaceted faith? Become radiant with its properly subversive power.
This article appeared in the May 2007 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 72, No. 5, pages 12-17).