As you might imagine, I’ve had one or two ‘religious’ conversations with people down the years! I find it both engaging and humbling to hear people wrestling with matters of faith and belief; and it’s an enormous privilege. But crudely generalising, it’s interesting to see how often people seem to fall into one of two camps.
On the one hand, there are those who effectively leave their brains at the door. These are the ones who perhaps pick up on an illustration I might have used one Sunday morning and then thank me for speaking on “their level”.
Either that, or they moan that I was too `high-brow` for them that morning; and would I mind toning things down in future? Now, I wouldn`t have a problem with that if it wasn`t for the fact that when I get into a discussion with them, for instance, about what they have done for a living; all too often I discover that they are far from being unintelligent people. Often as not, they`re highly professional; people who have spent many years studying and bearing huge responsibility but somehow, when it comes to faith it seems illegitimate for them to use their critical faculties. Which is a shame.
But then, on the other hand, perhaps at the other extreme(?), there are those who frankly, over-think things. These are the people who constantly come to me with questions; which is very good, by the way. I relish that kind of thing. If it wasn`t for the fact that somehow you know they`ll never, in the end be satisfied. It`s almost as if they wear their questions like a badge of identity. “I`m a doubting Thomas” they say but here`s the issue; they have located the whole faith `thing` in the mind. Simply put, they`ve little room for imagination, mystery or paradox. Faith is confined to what sounds reasonable and plausible to them. As I said recently, God, for them resembles a `problem to be solved`.
Now one of the things which hinders us in all of this matter, I think, is our intellectual insecurity. It`s not just whether we did well or badly at school. No, what I mean is that we effectively belong to perhaps the oldest intellectual tradition in the world; we founded the universities; built most of the nation`s schools. But in recent generations we have allowed ourselves to get into a position where we have to justify ourselves and what we believe in terms that are acceptable to a narrow and fundamentally atheist, western, intellectual tradition. You see, our `thinking` culture today, is (I use the words advisedly) `hell-bent` on making us translate our faith in more acceptable terms. That`s what`s going on when you hear people talk about the Church `keeping up with modern times`.
In the same way, this culture insists that we dumb things down. Insists that people will `get it` all straight away. That you don`t have to enrol in the school of Christ, wrestle or `learn` to speak Christian. Yes, I know, the Lord says that we need to become as children. But that doesn`t mean `childish`. That doesn`t mean `simplistic`. It has much more to do with trusting him and his agenda for living. More of that in a moment. In other words, most tragic of all, this way of looking at the world has infected the way many of us think `believing` is supposed to work.
So, I constantly hear people say, “I can`t be Christian because I can`t believe (by which they mean `completely understand`) such and such a doctrine in the Creed or whatever”. But this, of course neglects the fundamental humility which goes with faith. Yes, how we think matters but we cannot by our words and formulas entirely `explain` our God. And it is not intellectually slippery to say so. So, my point this morning is to get us thinking about the disposition or attitude with which we come to these things and to what extent we have a `thinking faith`.
Many years ago, during my training, I was sitting in a New Testament lecture and listening to my teacher point out some of the finer points of New Testament Greek. Now, by coincidence, we were looking at part of the First Letter of John which we heard a few moments ago. And I remember thinking how valuable and helpful it can sometimes be to study these texts in great detail. But I realised, as that reading we`ve just heard makes extremely clear; that in the end it all boils down to a matter of trust. What I mean, is that what we have before us are not dry and dusty manuscripts. No, as that first reading we heard this morning shows us, we are being addressed by those who have gone before us.
Did you notice? St. John is passing on news of “What we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands”. In other words, I found myself thinking, yes, there`s a great deal that`s positive in stretching our critical faculties and engaging with these texts. After all, theology is best defined as `faith seeking understanding`. That`s good. But there`s more. In the end, it boils down to whether I trust that those who have gone before me are telling me the truth; and whether, through them, I`m encountering the living God. So, if this is a helpful lense through which to view things let`s look briefly, at the Creed which we will say in a few moments. I mean this is a pressure point for many of us isn`t it?
The first thing to say is that when we join in reciting the Creed, we don`t believe in the words of the Creed. The point is that we affirm faith in God through the words of the Creed. Simply put, this is our way of articulating the great mystery of God and the story of his dealings with us. Yes, there are intellectual propositions here. But much, much more. Secondly, let`s be clear that this is the faith of the Church. This is the tradition we have received, which is passed down the generations. This is the Church saying, (as St. John put it) “This is what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands”. Then thirdly, yes, of course we still have questions about these things. There are things we wonder about, don`t quite understand and so on. But the point is that we are constantly being encouraged to wonder; to go deeper. Because again, this is more than an intellectual exercise it`s about trust and what I will found my life on.
Perhaps romantically I`d like to suggest that we think of the various phrases in the Creed as rather like a trellis. To my way of thinking, it`s as if those who have gone before us are saying, “If you are going to believe; if you are going to join us in walking faithfully in friendship with Christ, then these things are a reliable trellis for your faith to grow. Neglect any one of them and you`ll wander off”. So, when we say, for example; “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth”; those who have gone before us are saying “you have to hold onto this essentially `relational` picture of God as `Father`”. We`re not talking “the force be with you”.
Equally, they tell us to persist in speaking of this God as Creator; as the origin of all things. Which makes us notice, for instance how readily we`ve substituted the word `nature` these days. Now that`s a mistake. No, we must speak of creation. We can discuss and explore and debate the `means` through which creation has come about but we hold onto `createdness` because if nothing else it speaks of the fundamental worth, value and purpose behind things. There are profound ethical matters here.
Then, we say, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary”. We`re reminded here that we know our God by looking at Jesus the Christ. So, notice, we`re speaking of a living breathing, historical person (not a myth); but one who “suffered under Pontius Pilate”. Yes, it`s intriguing that this, by all accounts obscure and boorish Roman Administrator should get a mention but that attested fact; these details remind us that our God and his purposes are played out in the real world. We don`t deal in mere philosophy and speculation. The Creed roots us in a sequence of historically verifiable events; all of which have led to our salvation. God`s new creation.
And our God`s entrance into all of this is by the one we call the “Virgin Mary”. Ah! The Virgin birth! There`s a hot potato, we say. And yes, just like Mary herself, we want to ask how can this be? But in a sense, that`s exactly the point. This is where we`re brought to the edge of wonder and the limits of our intellectual pride. We`re not going to explain it because it stands there as a dogged testimony to the otherness, yes, the `strangeness` of our God who will not be confined to the categories we create for him. No. Whatever happened; howsoever this happened, we`re being told by our forebears not to let go of the fully divine and the fully human in Jesus. As fully human he shares our lot. As fully God he could do something about our sin. We could go on. But let`s put it this way.
None of us have to be clever to be Christians. But how we think and what we think about are probably more important than we realise. Saint Paul tells us that we must be “transformed by the renewing of our minds”. The world has a great deal invested in marginalising us and (as I hear a lot these days) in using the word `theology` as if it referred to the ultimate in irrationality. That`s a slur that we have to resist. No, theology is `faith seeking understanding`; and God`s gifts of thought and enquiry are given to be used.
But as St. Paul reminds us, “Knowledge puffs up…Love Builds up”. The heart of it, is in the gift of humility. The thinking is the servant of deepening the relationship. Which is why I`ve landed on that word, trust. I have had to decide that I will trust those who penned the Scriptures. I will trust those who reported, “What (they) have heard, what (they) have seen with (their) eyes, what (they) have looked at and touched with (their) hands”. I`m learning to trust, as John says, that they are “writing these things so that (their) joy may be complete”. Because they are on our side.
But more importantly, what they have written has brought me to trust not so much in them as the one they are pointing to; our God made present in Jesus. So, don`t leave your brain at the door and equally, don`t imagine that you need to have all your questions answered in order to make the journey. In things like the Scriptures and the Creeds, listen out for the wisdom of those who have gone before you and let them lead you into a more trust filled walk with the Lord.