I grew up in a church that said a creed every Sunday. Sometimes it started with ‘I believe’, and sometimes with ‘We believe’. I learned though early on that actually very few of those sitting in pews literally believed the words they were saying. It would be closer to the truth to say that my fellow parishioners in the 70s believed in the Church, believed in reciting words that their ancestors had recited before them, and believed that reciting these – along with many other church words – was just ‘what you did’. You belonged, and the price of belonging was saying in unison words that had little resonance with your life.
In the 1980s I was the assistant minister in St Helier’s. And it befell to the assistant minister responsibility not only for the youth group but for preparing people for confirmation. One of the great things about the confirmation programme in that parish was that each young person being confirmed [and all confirmands were young in those days] was that they had to have a sponsor [usually a parent], and that sponsor had to attend the four week preparation programme. What that meant was that adults had to talk about their faith, or serious doubts about it, in the presence of inquisitive, convention-defying young people.
So instead of my own experience of confirmation preparation in the early 70s, where we rote learnt the so-called ‘faith’ [a set of belief statements] and parroted them back to the minister, these young people and their sponsors had to write their own creed. And instead of the pattern of traditional creeds – God, Jesus, Spirit, Church and the like – these confirmands began with their own experience.
Experience has had a difficult path to being taken seriously. Paramount in Protestant theology was Holy Scripture, also known as ‘the Word.’ Rather than seeing Scripture as a collection of human-inspired writings, reflecting individual and group experience, Scripture was given an off-the-planet divine imprimatur. It wasn’t until the 19th century brave scholars started questioning its supposedly divine authorship.
The questions of who wrote a text and why, important though they may be, are only part of the task of interpretation. We also need to take the text and play with it, turning it sideways and around. This is what the poem ‘Five Queens’ does with the Matthean story of the Magi. It plays with the ancient text to imaginatively express a dream, as the poem says, that “a baby’s birth could turn the world into a community where borders and violence were not needed and where bicycles, queens, and dogs roamed free.” It’s a belief in a world where prejudice will be overcome so that everyone can be who they are and who they wish to become. Isn’t this the sort of light that Jesus of the 21st century is about, and indeed the Jesus of the 1st century?
My view is that our strongest convictions emerge from our experience. They are matters of the heart and then the head. Beliefs emerge from the furnace of our personal experience and are tempered by interacting with the dreams and realities of others.
John Spong in his latest book Unbelievable: Why neither ancient creeds nor the Reformation can produce a living faith for today puts it like this: “God is an experience that is real. Creeds are, however, nothing more than attempted explanations of that God experience.” [p.62] He goes on: “While I am confident that human beings can experience the presence of God, I am utterly convinced it is beyond the realm of human competence to explain what it means to be God [p.70] Are not definitions of God always definitions of human experience? Theology is thus always about my understanding of God; it is not about God.” [p.73]
I’ve been pondering for the last month a piece by Joy Cowley called “A Personal Creed”.[i] Like most creeds it has a theme. In one sentence she says “I believe there is a spark of divine energy in every created thing”. She believes the nature of that ‘divine energy’ is love, and its name is God. She also talks about the visible and invisible worlds, and that experiences of prayer, love, compassion, beauty, awe and wonder can open the doors between them. She calls Jesus the bright light of God who shows us what it means to be fully human.
These metaphors of energy, love, and light also permeate much of my writing and sermons. But I would want to start with the word ‘grace’. I use ‘grace’ to describe my experience of when the ordinary becomes extraordinary while remaining ordinary. Grace is that smile that somehow magically reaches right inside of us and touches our depths. Grace is that everyday sight of sunlight through leaves which on this day evokes in us a sense of deep wonder and gratitude. Grace is that surreal moment when you see, with your eyes and heart, those around you as not only family, friends, and friends of friends, but as holy, precious, progeny of God capable of transforming the world.
Some years ago I wrote this list of ‘I believe’, a credo –
I believe in the midst of our lives grace finds us.
I believe something is good not because we’ve been told it is but because we’ve experienced it.
I believe in the power of imagination.
I believe in the miracle of life and the holiness of love.
I believe in a world where prejudice will be overcome so that everyone can be who they are and who they wish to become.
I believe in a God who speaks through the love of a community and is celebrated with laughter, lively banter, and wonderful coffee.
Each of these sentences has been shaped by a story.
When an infant is to be baptised I ask the parents why they want their child baptised. But I do not provide them with set answers. They must find their own words to express their own heart. And, more often than not, something beautiful happens. The love that is holy bursts forth showering all within earshot with its grace.
This is why I agree with John Spong that doctrines and creeds are secondary documents marking in time where passion and grace have been. They are not at the frontier of theology where experience and speech interact to give voice to holiness. No, doctrines and creeds are post-match pastimes, analysis after the event, dissecting the game that was.
Consider the virgin birth as expressed in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. For many Christians the literalness of God implanting a fertilized egg within the compliant Mary is pure nonsense. Further, such literalness divorces God from the potential holiness of sexual intercourse and the making of a new life.
Protestant biblical scholars have told us ‘virgin’ was a cultural 1st century way of expressing Jesus’ uniqueness. “It is not about Mary and anatomy, but Jesus and theology.” I’m not so sure. Behind the word ‘virgin’ there was Mary’s experience of conceiving, being pregnant, and giving birth. Maybe the word is pointing to the holiness of that whole experience: the holiness actually of each and every life ever conceived.
The making of a new life can be a holy moment. It can be a moment of miracle. Just like it can be when a new life emerges from the womb. It can be a moment of love and wonder. And so my little credo has the sentence ‘I believe in the miracle of new life and the holiness of love’.
Yes, this is imaginative theology. I choose imagination over the sterility of literalism and the rules of yesteryear. I believe in the power of imagination to enhance and expand our inhalation of God.
There is a 2004 movie called Love’s Brother. It’s an Italian-Australian love story. Though the real love in the story was between the two brothers.
I like the Catholic priest. It’s not often I like ministers in movies. This character was of course male and old, and was present at nearly every function in that community. Yet it was on the grand occasion of the arrival of one of the first espresso machines in Victoria, when with due solemnity he blessed it, that I knew this man was of my soul.
As you probably know I am a lover of a good coffee. But, putting that bias to one side, what I liked about the priest was that he was speaking the language of his people. His actions pointed to the holy not being shut up in the church, but among the life of the ordinary. The holy was present in the taste and aroma of coffee, and in all the connections past and present associated with it. If we believe in the doctrine of the incarnation, is it not possible that God is incarnated in coffee?
Here’s a little story about coffee. As you may be aware coffee originated in the Ethiopian highlands and became popular throughout the Arabic and Ottoman world. Christians were initially disdainful of “the hellish black brew.” However, Pope Clement VIII found it so pleasing to his tastes that he ‘christened’ it a Christian beverage saying, “Coffee is so delicious it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.”
Pope Clement did what any priest or minister worth of the title does – namely point to that which is good and say ‘there is the handwork of God in our midst’ - even if Pope Clement wasn’t exactly inclusive of other world faiths!
My reactions to the priest in Love’s Brother help me identify what I believe. So my little credo has the sentence: I believe in a God who speaks through the love of a community and is celebrated with laughter, lively banter, and wonderful coffee.
Whether we mean to or not, whether we use pen or not, we each write our own creeds. Our lives tell the stories of what we believe in. The starting place for a personal creed is not to say ‘I believe in God’ but to identify and ponder upon our experience of goodness and its genesis. It’s in the matrix of our ordinary lives that extraordinary grace can find us.
[i] Cowley, J. Veil Over the Light: Selected spiritual writings, p.14-15.