This I believe – the place of ‘credo’ in a life of faith

The timing today of Cardinal Ratzinger’s appointment as the new Pope – Benedict XVI- and his subsequent speech – seems an apt time to reflect on ‘credo‘ – what is it we truly ‘believe.’ Recently, NPR (national public radio) has reinstated a regular series asking both prominent and commonplace Americans to respond, via essay format, to the question “This I believe.” The last essay was done my novelist/essayist John Updike. As I was listening to him read his essay – his personal ‘credo’ – I was taken by his last statement regarding the place of religious faith:

“Cosmically, I seem to be of two minds. The power of materialist science to explain everything — from the behavior of the galaxies to that of molecules, atoms and their sub-microscopic components — seems to be inarguable and the principle glory of the modern mind. On the other hand, the reality of subjective sensations, desires and — may we even say — illusions, composes the basic substance of our existence, and religion alone, in its many forms, attempts to address, organize and placate these. I believe, then, that religious faith will continue to be an essential part of being human, as it has been for me.”

Will religious faith continue “to be an essential part of the being human?” Has “religion” out stayed its welcome? Certainly, as one looks into the future vis a vis Sci Fi, ‘religion’ qua religion seems to morph and twist in its importance and, frankly, relevence. On the one hand, you have the religious migration of the ‘Star Trek’ series – moving from a moralistic a-religious universe of humanistic potential forged in Kirk and Spock in the 1960’s original series, through the self divination and existential angst of Betazoids (“I feel… great pain…”) and Androids like Data in “Next Generation”, to the fundementalist fervor of radical Islamist deism in that great shopping mall in space – “Deep Space Nine”. When one turns to the recent re-imagining of “Battlestar Gallactica” on the Sci Fi channel, we find that it is machines (the Cyclons) who has a deep and abiding belief in God – not just some transcendental ideal, but the Hebraic God who is calling forth a new eschaton – and not humanity. It is the Cyclons who live by faith… humans left this “opiate for the masses” long ago it seems.

How do we answer “this I believe” today? Is this too ‘reductionistic’, too ‘foundational’, too ‘essentialist’, too ‘fundementalist’ in the worst sense of the word? Or is this merely the question we have become too sophisticated to honestly answer?

This I believe…?

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  1. I’m not sure it’s “the question we’ve become too sophistocated to honestly answer” so much as…hmmm…maybe too humble to answer. Maybe too honest to honestly answer. Maybe too human to honestly answer. Maybe we’re just convinced that our (old) faith in God doesn’t make sense in light of our (new) faith in science and technology, and we’re not all as good as John Updike at living within that tension.

    If I’m honest, most days I’m not sure what I believe…what to believe (in). But I keep praying “Our Father in heaven…” and saying the Creeds, and singing the hymns, in hopes that, somehow, one day, I’ll be able to say I really do believe it.

    Maybe belief isn’t the most important thing, in the end. Maybe it’s time to stop saying what we believe (or, what we don’t believe, as is our usual tendency – definition by negation), and to begin saying with James, ‘I will show you what I believe by what I do.’

  2. Frankly (not to be too provocative, mind you…) I find the Jamesian response (“I will ‘show’ you what I believe”)is (1) incredibly unsatisfying and (2) a big cop-out. Granted, the ‘word became flesh’ and whatnot… but conversely, the word is still part and parcel of how we ‘know’ what we believe. Also, stating some ‘credo’ is how we move the faith forward to the next generation as a corrective and channel for our deeds.

    If praying the ‘Our father’ isnt enough alongside the traditions/creeds of the church in line with the worshipping practice and acts of service above self… then where are we?

    I dont think we should shy away from the exercise of at least trying to establish our ‘credo’ in word that can point to our actions. This doesnt delimit nor negate action… it can (and should) provoke it.

    In short, Brannon, I value your integrity and intellect too much and therefore must question an easy out through some hogwash like “Maybe [I’m] too honest to honestly answer. Maybe too human to honestly answer”…

    You are more ‘honest’ than that…

  3. No, I’m really not more honest than that, per your formulation.

    I DO think that establishing and stating not just ‘some’ credo, but ‘the’ credo(s), the ones Christians have been saying for centuries, is important, vitally important, if we’re going to ‘move the faith forward’ and still keep it true to itself. I’m not at all opposed to what you’re saying, or to the formalization of our statements of faith. I’m just saying that I’M certainly not prepared to make up any credo of/on my own. I’m happy to recite the ones given me and willingly suspend my disbelief in hopes, as I said before, that someday it won’t be so hard to believe the things I say.

    This is paradigmatic of the synonymity of faith and action – reciting the Creed. By saying the Creed, my belief is made real by my action, and my action is legitimated by my belief. This is precisely why I keep praying and singing and reciting these things – because they are the actions that shape my life into one of faith, and because they require a level of faith/belief to even submit to saying them, they are actions that essentially generate my belief.

    I don’t think that echoing James’ admonition is a cop-out or unsatisfying at all. I’m not quite sure where you’re at with that critique. I appreciate your vote of confidence, though, and all I’m trying to clarify or defend is that I don’t think what I wrote before is a cop-out (along the lines of ‘Don’t ask me to lay out some definitive, concrete precis of what I believe’) so much as an honest declaration that I will not, because I cannot, come up with such a credo on my own. If I am to be honest, I must say that I am too human to do this. It’s not sophistocation or intellectual snobbery (e.g. an intellectual abandonment of faith in preference to reason), it’s an anti-intellectual deference to the traditioned community called Church, which, thank God, is there to tell me, ‘Brannon, this is what you believe.’

    That’s not a cop-out. It’s the hardest damn thing I’ve ever been called to do.

  4. It is a hard thing to do in some senses for sure, but it IS also a cop-out. Why is it that we are so afraid of doing this – of stating what we believe. That is what theology is…and you do that every day (theology). If we stop re stating and re realizing what it is we believe than we have simply let religion (and/or theology) become outdated. Someone wrote the apostles creed…someone wrote the hymns that you still sing. That person was just as human and honest and humble as you and I. I don’t mean to advocate doing away with the credos that exist in our tradition….simply to suggest that we should not be afraid of truly LIVING them to the extent that we become able (or at least have the courage to attempt) to re state them as well as re realize them in our lives

  5. I think you’ve said, in part, what I’ve been trying to say, Karla. Namely, how can I begin to formulate some kind of personal credo [realize, of course, that I’m talking about theological statement(s) of belief, not general statements of belief like “I believe U2 writes great pop songs” or “I believe women are essentially more exquisite creatures than men”] until I have learned to say the ones that have been given me by the Church? I’m just confessing (in a somewhat Catholic sense) that I’m still learning to do this, learning to say what I believe, learning to believe what I say.

    Also, I agree, and applaud your reminder, that the great “shapers” of our Faith were all-too-human themselves (speaking of which, I’m currently reading Gary Wills’ bio of Augustine), and probably would be astonished by the way their humble work has influenced Christianity over the years, and appalled at our (post)modern reluctance to stand for anything. (Ergo the old adage about “if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything” – who said that? Oh, Google just told me it was Alexander Hamilton.) This is good to keep in mind – Wesley, Luther, Augustine…even Erasmus (sissy that he was – see ‘great theologians’ post) – all humans, all sinners saved by grace. And if they hadn’t taken the leap of faith enough to write what they wrote, preach what they preached, or hammer what they hammered, we’d not have them to thank for the tradition we have now… again, I’m just admitting that I still have no idea how to walk in their footsteps. God knows I want to.

    On a final note, though, I’m not sure I’m fully on board with your definition of theology. Not because I don’t agree with what you’ve said, just that it might be out of order – maybe theology isn’t so much stating what we believe as learning how to ask the right questions, even about what we believe.

    Could you clarify what you mean by “re-state” and “re-realize”? I’m totally on board if you mean this in terms of repetition (i.e. this is something we continue to do, over and over), and even if you mean something like re-vision or re-envision – re-imagine – these tenets of our Faith. But I’m uneasy with the idea of re-writing or re-inventing them.

  6. i’m hopping on the James bandwagon and coming down strongly agains the “creeds” as “credo”.

    Jeff, yer wrong. Brannon is right. “I’ll show you what I believe by what I do” is the ONLY answer. It may be formulated incorrectly, but it is the only answer. IE, you will know what I believe by seeing what I do.

    Creeeds are great and fantastic (and that video where he looks Jesus on the cross is SO cool) – BUT, they pervert belief from a spiritual/actual reality into an intellectual concept. We do NOT believe with our minds. “I believe in Jesus Christ, begotten of the Father…. blah blah blah”. According to Jesus, some people in hell are gonna belive the same thing.

    Please don’t tkae this to the appropriate universalist end, but I am really beginning to think (because of what JESUS says) that it doesn’t matter what you believe intellectually. Who are my brothers and sisters? Did you visit the prisoner in prison? etc etc.

    The credo formula isn’t THIS is what I believe, and THIS is how I live it out. The real formulation is “this is my life and my existence – go ahead and guess what I beleive in based on how I live” a la James and Brannon (i just gave you HUGE props).

    And, just to get things realllly going. Possibly, the notion of credo is “sin” because it reinforces (the all too Presbyterian notion) that a statement of faith is more important or a priori to (did I use that correctly?) our actions.

    Belive in whatever the fuck you want to – but love your neighbor as yourself and love God with everything you are.

  7. Thanks for the props, jimmy jimmy. I really appreciate it (especially in light of our ongoing discussion of art, which, by the way, I am ready for the ass-whoopin’ you’re cooking up for us all in the forthcoming post). I’m not trying to get around the creeds (well, I AM re: the band Creed, but otherwise), and in fact, I think they’re quite necessary in terms of the way they shape my life and give me something to believe (in) that I simply cannot, on my own, accept or believe (in). Most days I feel like the guy in Mark 9, who says to Jesus, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” Both seem to be ever-present in the walking paradox that is me, and that I suspect we all are (someone convince me otherwise).

  8. hey there gang – just jumpin in the pool after the past 48 hours in the hospital while Miriam grace joined our clan… a great reason to be off-line!

    Now… the matter at hand… a couple of things here. First off, Jimmy… dont play that ‘anti-intellectual’ card at this poker table and not expect that I wouldnt call that bluff (“Jeff, yer wrong. Brannon is right. “I’ll show you what I believe by what I do” is the ONLY answer. It may be formulated incorrectly, but it is the only answer. IE, you will know what I believe by seeing what I do”.) Granted, ‘faith without works in nutin’ honey’… but we people created in the image of God – the Imago Dei… not Opus Dei – and as such reflect on the practice of our actions past, present, and future (Augustine’s Confessions, book X) in order to situate ourselves within the shape of God’s grace – our reflection on action and intention gives form to believe. In short, our lives continually ‘confess’ our belief and part of that – an essential part – is the reason we use to ‘live and move and have our being’ arises as a ‘credo’ – ‘I believe’. In this way, christian faith is more ‘confessional’ than ‘convictional’ – and certainly John Wesley knew that more than anyone even though his followers (first-person present company included) can forget that from time to time. I will not back off from the notion of ‘credo’ as essential to Christian faith, Sam I am – not with a box… and not with a… fox šŸ™‚

  9. sesnei flip flopped to agree with me – all while tryin to diss me.

    Yes, you are right you ng pdowin – belief follows action, not the other way around.

  10. okay, but we must all be saying ostensibly the same thing (except for jimmy saying creedalization is of the devil and our noble sensei saying they are absolutely necessary – and yes, I am waiting eagerly to see how these two extremes can come to terms…) – namely, that we confess so that we might “acquire” (or “be filled with”?) conviction.

    Again, note my saying: I am not anti-creed (anti- the band, yes, but that’s the limit!!). I owe my life, spiritual and otherwise, to the creeds. And what I’m trying to express is this: if I hadn’t learned to “confess” (just a fancy word for “say”) them, I’d never have been able to begin learning what “belief” (just a common-place word for “conviction”) means.

    Again – the synonymity of word and action, confession and conviction.

  11. Hold the phone…I think I just realized, determinatively, that our sensei has been on the same page with us all along.

    He wrote: “In short, our lives continually ‘confess’ our belief and part of that – an essential part – is the reason we use to ‘live and move and have our being’ arises as a ‘credo’ – ‘I believe’.”

    This is precisely it – you said it just there – the “credo” arises from the lived life of faith.

    Wait…wasn’t I previously making the case for the other way around…? What happened…?

    So…I can only believe because I confess what I believe. And I can only confess “credo” because “credo” arises from the life of faith I live in the world, in community with Christ’s Body called Church. And the life of faith I live in the world is ultimately a product of my participation in (and redemption through) the Body of Christ, called Church, which provides me with the “credo” I confess, which shapes who I am, allows me to believe, teaches me how to live…

    So, what were we talking about again?

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