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The Transitory Nature of Beliefs, Part I

 

A pdf copy of this commentary to read and print is here.

Preface

Nowadays we talk about what’s real and unreal as real (news) or fake (news). It’s all based on establishing some set of principles or criteria that one can assert is credible, or not.  But when the ground shifts beneath what one once considered solid conviction, what’s left? Are there any underlying facts, principles or life experiences upon which one can still say, “This I believe. Always have, and always will?”

Where once I may have believed something to be true, but no longer do, even that is a belief that is all the more important because I believe it. In a word, one cannot not believe.

This kind of question is more than an intellectual exercise on the one hand, or blind faith proclamation on the other; because it goes straight to the core of our individual, personal identity. Because who we are is defined by what we value and believe to be most important and meaningful. In a word, we are what we believe.

The Well-Known Intransigence of Beliefs

In the political realm, blind believers are now described by the familiar term, “The Base.” Verifiable facts or incontrovertible evidence to the contrary don’t matter and are of little consequence.   In the religious realm the “base” can be described as those who stubbornly cling to a blind faith. It’s the Rock of Ages, cleft for thee, it is believed. But such belief is self-created, arising out of a longing for permanence in a world of impermanence.

The uneasy and precarious nature of our mortal life is a primary example. No starker example of this impermanence was the dual observance recently of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday on the same day.

The latest mass shooting in a Florida high school provided the tragic venue for people of faith to express their beliefs. “By the grace of a loving God,” one parent testified to the news cameras, “my child was spared.”

The obvious question that would only pose a disturbing contradiction with regard to the seventeen victims or the perpetrator was not explored further; beyond the standard confessional statement of religious belief.

It is a popular point among progressive thinkers in the Christian faith tradition to make the distinction between what one says they believe, and what one actually does about it. Robin Meyer’s once made this distinction between faith as being, not believing.

Jesus of Nazareth was not the first Christian, nor did he come bearing a list of theological propositions. … (but) Ask almost any Christian on the street today what it means to have “faith,” and that person will surely recite a list of things that he or she believes about Christ. … The only problem with this idea is that it’s false, and no amount of “faith” can make it true. … (Yet) we take this definition (of faith as belief) so much for granted that when people first learn that the early Church had no creeds and followers referred to the early Christian movement as “The Way” or to its disciples as those following “the path”, they suspect that this is the fiction – a secular humanist plot to destroy “the faith.”  (Saving Jesus from the Church, pp.35-36)

 

Truly, I No Longer Believe What I Once Truly Believed

From the time I was a boy, growing up in a mid-West town in mid-Century America, I have an imprinted memory of my father, the preacher, standing in the raised pulpit that loomed out over the congregation. Routinely, he would shout out his conviction of faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ. With a red-flushed face, he would pound his fists on the wooden rail to drive home the point.

“Wow,” I remember thinking to myself, even as a child, “this guy really believes what he’s talking about!”  Then as a college student of the sixties, the impression left on me as a child became a question. Why does he believe all this stuff? It was that question, in part, that compelled me to pursue theological studies; as I sought to shape my own adult identity and framework for my own world view.

Upon reflection now, I realize that my father’s world of the fifties was also reflective of the kind of Christian orthodoxy espoused and exemplified in the preaching crusades of someone like the recently-departed Billy Graham. Once dubbed “America’s Preacher,” the death of the 99-year old Graham represents the final death knell and passing of an era for a vast majority of folks who have simply moved on.

By contrast — and, despite his ecclesiastical credentials as a (retired) Episcopal bishop — Jack Spong is generally considered a progressive thinker in the Christian faith tradition. His most recent book, entitled Unbelievable: Why ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today, chronicles both a tradition of defining orthodoxy from heresy that has evolved historically; as well as his own belief “system.”

Now in the twilight of his life, Spong begins what he claims will be his last of numerous published books by relating a remark his highly-educated daughter once told him: “Dad,” she said, “the questions the church keeps trying to answer, we don’t even ask anymore.”  The cryptic comment startled Spong enough to ask if his life’s vocation and work had any remaining credibility – let alone relevance — at all. From my own vantage point that bears some similarity to Spong’s own professional journey in the faith, this is what occurs to me.

A two thousand year old religious tradition had once been constructed upon a spiritual experience that became the catalyst for a movement. The life and teachings of a Galilean spirit-sage initiated what was by its very nature a journey whose path became more narrowly defined with what became a fixed destination soon afterward. This quickly took the form of the establishment of a religious institution, an ecclesiastical hierarchy, and set of doctrines intended to separate right belief (orthodoxy) from errant apostasy (heresy).  Try as it might have liked to believe it were possible, the established church would quickly learn fixity was not possible.

The Multiplicity of Creeds

The well-know historical account is worth noting here. In the 4th century, the Roman Emperor Constantine, a Christian convert, sought to unite his earthy kingdom by the establishment of – and conformity to — a state religion. In 325 CE, he sequestered all the bishops of the realm to convene a council in the town of Niceaa (now part of Turkey), and compose a creedal statement for all time.

For nearly 1,700 years since, Christian faith communities in the West have regularly recited the Nicene Creed as an integral part of their regular worship. A recitation by the faithful of what is considered “right belief” is deemed sufficient by the authority claimed by the established church.

17th-century Russian icon illustrating the articles of the Creed

What is often overlooked is that it only took a half century after the Nicene Creed was codified for the continued theological squabbles to draft the Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed of 381.  The disputes would hardly end there with subsequent reformations and denominational divisions.  While heretics are hardly burned at the stake anymore, the whole question over the particular tenets of what to believe raises the more essential question regarding the transitory nature of whatever one believes at any given moment in time.

The Transitory Nature of Beliefs

If one doubts the transitory nature of beliefs consider this: In his previously cited book, Jack Spong takes on the most familiar of the ancient creeds of the Christian faith tradition; stating his “12 Theses” in a chapter he calls “Stating the Problem.” I’ve provided the familiar creedal statement alongside a portion of Spong’s own responses, as follows:

The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

Spong’s Theses 1. God: “Understanding God in theistic terms as “a being,” supernatural in power … is no longer believable. What we must do is find the meaning to which the word “God” points.”

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.

Spong’s Theses 2. Jesus Christ: “If God can no longer be thought of in theistic terms, then conceiving of Jesus as the incarnation of a theistic deity has also become a bankrupt concept. Can we place the experience of “the Christ” into words that have meaning?”

For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.

Spong’s Theses 4. The Virgin Birth: “… understood as literal biology is totally unbelievable.”

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;

Spong’s Theses 7. Easter: “The Easter event gave birth to the Christian movement and continues to transform it, but that does not mean that Easter was the physical resuscitation of Jesus’ deceased body … the earliest biblical records state that “God raised him.” Into what, we need to ask? The reality of the experience of resurrection must be separated from later mythological explanations.”

he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

Spong’s Theses 8. The Ascension: “… assumes a 3-tiered universe, a concept that was dismissed some five hundred years ago.”

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

Spong’s Theses 6. Atonement Theology: “… especially in its most bizarre “substitutionary” form, presents us with a God who is barbaric … The phrase, “Jesus died for my sins” is not just dangerous, it is absurd.”

We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Spong’s Theses 11: Life After Death: “If we are to talk about eternal life with any degree of intellectual integrity, we must explore it as a dimension of transcendent reality and infinite love …”

Spong’s remaining five Theses that do not directly correspond to the ancient creedal statement of belief, but concern central tenets of Christian beliefs:

Spong’s Theses 3. Original Sin: “… is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.”

Spong’s Theses 5. Miracles: “In a post-Newtonian world, supernatural invasions of the natural order, performed by god … are simply not a viable explanation … Miracles do not imply magic.”

Spong’s Theses 9. Ethics: “The ability to define and separate good from evil can no longer be achieved with appeals to ancient codes such as the Ten Commandments or even the Sermon on the Mount. Contemporary moral standards must be hammered out in the juxtaposition between life-affirming moral principles and external situations. No modern person has any choice but to be a “situationist.” (Spong’s word)

Spong’s Theses 10. Prayer: “… as understood as a request made to an external theistic deity to act in human history, is little more than an hysterical attempt to turn the Holy into the service of the human.”

Spong’s Theses 12. Universalism: “We are called by this new faith into radical connectedness.  … there can be no reason … for excusing or even forgiving discriminatory practices.”

While Spong’s twelve theses have been arrived at only recently, it should come as no surprise that over the years since being consecrated a bishop of the Episcopal church by “the power of the Holy Spirit” conferred by the apostolic succession of the other bishops, that more than one attempt has been made to charge Jack Spong with heresy. If nothing else, his theses are a testament to the transitory nature of one believer’s beliefs!

The Question of Impermanence, and What – If Anything — Remains

An old friend and colleague of mine was recently questioned by a fellow worshipper who noted he barely recited any portion of the ancient creed still practiced in the church he occasionally attends.

“I only recite the part I still believe,” he remarked.

“And which part is that?” she asked.

“He suffered, died and was buried,” my friend replied!

With so much of what is either rejected outright, or modified so extensively so as to meet so much as even a minimal standard of credibility in today’s world, one might understandably ask what’s left to believe about anything “religious?”  And furthermore, is there anything one might say they always believed, still believes and believe they always will?

Our word for creed comes from the Latin, credo. But the Greek word for creed is symbolon; a word that meant half of a broken object which, when placed together with the other half, verified the bearer’s identity. The creed was therefore the outward sign or symbol for something that only tried to represent what was of greatest value.

Ancients ascribed such value to gods or – in the monotheistic traditions – to “God.” Nowadays, theologians will coin phrases like “Ground of Being,” or “Ultimate Concern” (Tillich). Spong concludes his last book with his own creedal statement, referring to the “Source of All.”  While I understand such attempts to come up with an acceptable or credible alternative, still they remain alternative replacements. Such terms remain self-expressive. They connote an end, in and of themselves. They are not representations of something other, something more.

Personally, I have always believed in, and ascribed to, the power of myths to describe the symbolon; the outward, visible and finite way we choose to live our lives. There are true myths, and there are false myths; just as there are true “gods” and false “gods.” And, we learn to distinguish which are which as we journey through the impermanence of our lives.

Within the living-out of those universal mythic life stories, I believe there are representations and expressions — borne of human experiences — to which we can affix the evolution our transitory beliefs. This is not easy, since our human desire is always for fixity.

But when the grass withers and the flowers fade away, what remains are these credible myths in which we can live, and move, and have our being most authentically. This is what will be explored in the next commentary: “Transitory Beliefs, Part II: More Than For or Against”

© 2018 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved. This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit. More commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of a Christian progressive are found here.

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