Bounds of belief

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After getting a little feedback on Twitter, I realized my previous post could be read as dismissing the importance of shared beliefs–about the Resurrection or anything else. This wasn’t my intention. While I do worry about how “orthodoxy” can be (and has been) weaponized (see the recent UMC general conference, e.g.), that doesn’t mean that the church should dispense with common standards of belief.

So what does that look like? Well, the creeds are a pretty good example. The Apostles’ Creed in particular offers a pithy summary of the essentials of Christian belief. As pastor and spiritual writer Addison Hodges Hart put it in a good recent book:

It is truly worth emphasizing how spare the Apostles’ Creed is, how economical, and how much space is left for thought about each one of its assertions. It isn’t complicated, nor is it unintelligent. It strikes just the right note, neither too high nor too low. . . . Each line is short enough to provide definition and set bounds, but large enough to allow for spiritual exploration and even creativity. It is a “system,” but not a stifling one. (Hart, Strangers and Pilgrims Once More: Being Disciples of Jesus in a Post-Christendom World, pp. 32-33)

Hart reminds us that when the church began to elaborate (over-elaborate?) its creeds it ran into the temptation of enforcing increasingly esoteric formulations of belief. And when the church entered into an alliance with the imperial state, that enforcement took a very real, very physical form. Discussing the so-called Athanasian Creed (not written by St. Athanasius), he notes that

its multitude of abstract assertions regarding the Trinity and the two natures of Christ are a masterpiece of obsessive fine-tuning mixed with threat. It is difficult for anyone acquainted with the church’s history not to recall, when reading this belligerent exercise in dogmatism, that many human beings–those “for whom Christ died” (Rom. 14:15)–were in fact tortured and killed for failing to acknowledge just such doctrinal obscurities. Perhaps more strikingly, it might be noted that there is a total absence in this text of anything deriving from Jesus himself, either in word or in spirit. (p. 41)

Most mainline churches (excepting the explicitly non-creedal ones) affirm the Apostles Creed (and the Nicene) as standards of faith. But those both leave a lot of room for different understandings of their central propositions. For instance, they don’t prescribe a particular view of the nature of God (classical theist or open theist?), predestination (Calvinist or Arminian?), the atonement (satisfaction, penal substitution, Christus Victor, or moral exemplar?), the church, the sacraments, etc., etc.

Hart calls the dogmas of the creed

signposts on the way each of us must walk. They aren’t restraining fences, but point us outward toward our journey, in the direction of wide-open possibilities. As Rabbi [Abraham Joshua] Heschel said, they are “indications” of what “cannot be adequately expressed.” We need the simple directions Jesus laid out for us, leading us on toward the Father, Son, and Spirit, toward community with one another and life with God, toward a way of living that is real and winsome. (pp. 54-55)

So to return to the topic at hand, what about the Resurrection? Well, the Apostles’ Creed addresses it in two places: “On the third day [Jesus] rose again” and “I believe in . . . the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” The latter presumably refers also to our resurrection, not just Jesus’.

Again, it’s noteworthy what’s left unsaid. There is no detailed discussion of the Resurrection (or even a mention of the empty tomb for that matter), the precise form of the resurrection body, etc. What is emphasized is that Jesus was raised to new life, reigns with the Father, and will come again as judge. The last line simply says that we (or at least some of us!) will be raised bodily and live everlastingly. (Interestingly, the Nicene Creed refers to the resurrection of “the dead” instead of “the body.”)

Now, we don’t live by creeds alone. We have, first and foremost, the Scriptures, along with 2,000 years of interpretation and reflection on the central mysteries of the faith. Not to mention, prayers, liturgies, hymns and other elements of the church’s living tradition. But the tradition hasn’t yielded a unanimously agreed-upon understanding of the nature of the Resurrection. Origen, Tertullian, and Augustine didn’t agree on all the particulars; neither did Aquinas, Luther, Schleiermacher, and Barth–to pick some names somewhat at random.

Clearly there are limit cases. Someone who flat-out denies the existence of any kind of God or that Jesus of Nazareth ever lived is outside any recognizable boundary of creedal Christianity. And there are also fuzzy, borderline cases. For instance, the late Marcus Borg, who was at one time the veritable poster-boy for popular progressive Christianity in the U.S., strongly objected to accusations that he denied the Resurrection. But was his understanding of it consistent with what the creeds say? I don’t know, and happily I don’t have to make that call. (And I trust that Professor Borg is resting in the Lord.)

Now, in the case of someone like Serene Jones, it’s not clear to me exactly what she would affirm or deny, at least based on her interview with Nick Kristof. Certainly she didn’t go out of her way to affirm the Resurrection as a reality independent of human feelings or response. Such a position, in my view, would put her outside the bounds of creedal Christianity. (Which is not the same as grounds for excluding someone from participation in the life of the church–much less salvation. That’s a whole other, though not unrelated, issue.)

In practice, it’s important for churches to have shared statements of belief (call it “orthodoxy” if you like). But those statements should be broad enough to encompass a diversity of viewpoints about what they mean. (Happily, the traditional creeds fit that bill pretty nicely.) And as I suggested in the previous post, they should always point us in the direction of living the kind of life Jesus calls us to. To return to Addison Hart again:

If faith–dogma–is dead without works, then the practical fruit of dogma must be seen as proof of its truth. If we believe in the creeds we profess, then our lives must be in alignment with what we affirm. We will find more than enough to live up to in just the three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel given to the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), not to mention everything else we read in the Gospels and the remainder of the New Testament. If something bears no fruit at all in our Christian lives, it is too barren to be a useful dogma. Belief in God the Father leads to love for all creation, belief in the Son leads to taking Jesus as our exemplar and redeemer, and belief in the Spirit leads to unbreakable communion with our fellow disciples. Dogma leads to changed perspectives, reformed minds, and daring new lives. (p. 56)

 

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