Nina Brock from Ovando, Montana, writes:
Your comment in a recent column about Paul not being able to say the Nicene Creed prompts a question. We attended your week long seminar in Berkeley, CA, last summer on “Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World” in which you remarked that a creed is “not a girdle into which we force our flabby faith.” Later, you said that you viewed the creed as a love song and would perhaps reword it. My question is how would you restate the creed to make it not only palatable but meaningful in the 21st century?
I am glad you were with me in Berkeley last summer. That was a vigorous week for both me and the class. The schedule of five days – Monday-Friday – and four hours each day, 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., makes it the hardest week I ever do, but the response of those who attended that Pacific School of Religion course made it worth while.
Let me restate what I believe I said in regard to the creeds. After describing them as “love songs that my religious ancestors sang to God in the 4th century of the Christian Era,” I stated that if Christians, including me, were to have the opportunity to compose the creeds in 2013, none of us would use the language of the 4th century. What I seek to get people to understand is that the creeds are an explanation of a life-changing religious experience and that explanations always reflect the time in which they are composed. No explanation ever endures forever. Every explanation is, therefore, subjective not objective, time bound and not eternal. No time-warped human creation can actually capture the ultimate reality we call God and any claim that they can or have is nothing less than ecclesiastical idolatry. So any attempt to impose the 4th century creeds on today’s world is an act of violence. Our task is, rather, to try to lead people into the Christ experience that created the creeds in the first place. How do we put the reality of that experience into our words and our 21st century frame of reference? This is what a creed is designed to do and no 4th century document can do that for those of us who live in the 21st century.
A contemporary expression of the Christian Faith requires us to define the God experience we claim in a very new and different way. I do not think we can continue to view God as a supernatural, miracle-working deity who lives above the sky. That definition of God died in the 17th century as a direct result of the work of such people as Galileo and Isaac Newton. It also requires that we redefine how we believe the meaning of God was found in the life of Jesus. The language of such creedal doctrines as the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity makes assumptions that 21st century people cannot make. It requires that we stop talking in pre-Darwinian terms of a perfect creation from which human beings fell into original sin, necessitating a rescue operation that Jesus accomplished by dying on the cross. That kind of language makes no sense in a post-Darwinian world. The task of writing a modern creed means that we release the words of our creedal past, while we cling to the reality of the Jesus experience that ancient creeds sought to explain and we assert that there was something about Jesus that expanded life beyond every boundary including the boundary of creeds.
I do not know what a 21st century creed would look like, but I do know two things about it. One, it would not be the same as the creeds we now recite in Christian Churches and, two, it would no more be eternally true than the creeds that it replaced. Why don’t you and the members of your congregation have a go at rewriting the creed for our time?
Enjoy your life in Montana. I loved our time in Helena this past September. It is beautiful country and filled with great people.
~John Shelby Spong