So I’m defending, briefly, the Episcopal Church, our so-called “relativism” and our misunderstood insistence that the creeds are sufficient statements of the faith.
Again, all of this sprang from some attacks made in a long discussion thread at Leila Miller’s Little Catholic Bubble. And, again, Leila is right: my church allows for disparate interpretations, even—yes—metaphorical ones, of the doctrines stated in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.
In Part 1, I worked on correcting some misconceptions about our approach. The main point I was trying to make is that what is taken by some as a denial of the existence of absolute truth is actually a recognition of the complexity of religious truth, and a refusal to reduce that complexity. As the Reverend David Simmons writes, “I believe that there is an absolute truth, and that truth is God. However, I am convinced that human beings cannot encompass all of the truth of God.” That’s a characteristically Episcopalian understanding. (It’s also a characteristically Catholic understanding—the one Thomas Aquinas himself espoused—even if the Catholic Right doesn’t recognize it)
This isn’t to say that we can’t work towards understanding that truth—the Episcopal Church encourages study in the faith, and insists that study should take place in the light of tradition. In practice, though, our approach acts as a curb on personal certainty, on the notion that we’ve got it where others don’t.
Today I want to explain why this approach is good and how it works. Here goes:
“Complete religious certainty is, in fact, the real blasphemy.” -Andrew Sullivan
“The blasphemy that attaches to monotheism is the blasphemy of certainty. If God is on our side, we must be right. We are right because we believe in god. We must defend God against the godless.”-Richard Rodriguez
In our discussion, Miller, incredulous, pointed out that people died for the Creeds, and asked what good it is to say the Creeds if they’re not understood literally.
Specifically, she asked: “[W]ho would die in defense of a ‘metaphorical’ resurrection? Better yet, who would kill Christians for believing in a ‘metaphorical’ risen Christ?”
Let’s take those questions in turn.
First: “Who would die in defense of a ‘metaphorical’ resurrection?”
I don’t know.
Second: “Who would kill Christians for believing in a ‘metaphorical’ risen Christ?”
That‘s easy. People who are certain they possess the whole truth.
In his famous “Culture of Encounter” homily, Pope Francis described the disciples in Mark 9 as “‘a little intolerant,’ closed off by the idea of possessing the truth, convinced that ‘those who do not have the truth, cannot do good.’”
Then he said, “[T]his ‘closing off’ that imagines that those outside, everyone, cannot do good is a wall that leads to war and also to what some people throughout history have conceived of: killing in the name of God. That we can kill in the name of God. And that, simply, is blasphemy. To say that you can kill in the name of God is blasphemy.”
To be clear, Francis isn’t just condemning killing here; he’s condemning the attitude that leadsto it. As he said elsewhere, “If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself.”
This isn’t Francis being a relativist. He knows there’s absolute truth. He knows the Church possesses it and teaches it. But he also knows that believing with certainty that you (an individual, not the Church) possess that truth, and have apprehended it correctly, while the person next to you has not, leads to blasphemy.
And with that, you start to approach the logic of my church.
“We can say that in the creed believers are invited to enter into the mystery which they profess and to be transformed by it. … He or she cannot truthfully recite the words of the creed without being changed, without becoming part of that history of love which embraces us and expands our being, making it part of a great fellowship, the ultimate subject which recites the creed, namely, the Church.” -Pope Francis, Lumen fidei
But even that doesn’t justify the Episcopal Church’s tolerance of diverse interpretations of its doctrine. Because Leila’s right: a Church’s responsibility is to teach the truth. The problem is that the truth we’re talking about is a truth that’s bigger than words. How do you teach something like that?
One more reason I love the “Culture of Encounter” sermon is its emphasis on practice. Just dogood, Pope Francis says. By doing good we learn to be good. And we teach good.
That’s what we mean as Episcopalians when we call The Book of Common Prayer a defining document of our faith. Yes, The Book of Common Prayer contains some of the most beautiful writing in the English language, but we don’t just like it for its pretty words. It’s a practical guide, a manual for how to worship. We teach (and learn) the faith throughthat worship.
Or, to put it another way, worship for us isn’t the practical application of truths already learned; it’s our instruction in those truths. And saying the Creeds is part of that. So to say that you have to understand the Creeds correctly before you assent to them is, for me, like saying that you have to already know how to swim before you get in the water. The Creeds are the swimming lessons.
Again, this is something that Pope Francis understands. In Lumen fidei, he writes: “He or she cannot truthfully recite the words of the creed without being changed, without becoming part of that history of love which embraces us and expands our being, making it part of a great fellowship, the ultimate subject which recites the creed, namely, the Church.” (emphasis added)
In assenting to the Creed, you’re assenting to the Church’s truth, even if you don’t know it. Even if you don’t know how.
Another way of saying it is this: The objection to the Episcopal Church’s way of doing things is that it gives too much leeway to individuals. But the Creeds, the Eucharist, and all the elements of our practice outlined in the Book of Common Prayer are the means through which an individual joins with the community, understood as the whole tradition of the Church. So it’s an irrelevant concern.
“A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it. The modernist … need not be called a fool or hypocrite because he obstinately retains, even in the midst of his intellectual atheism, the language, rites, sacraments, and story of the Christians. The poor man may be clinging (with a wisdom he himself by no means understands) to that which is his life.” -C.S. Lewis
There’s something else in Pope Francis’ “Culture of Encounter” homily that resonates with Episcopalian teaching: his understanding that all good comes from God. Francis says:
And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
Notice there’s nothing about correcting the atheist in there. Just an understanding that, in doing good, the atheist is coming closer to God. For Francis, the “culture of encounter” is a practical evangelical tool, through which, by acknowledging the goodness (the truth) of others, you show them your goodness and thereby allow them to see that goodness, truth and Christ are one. Do good, he says: that’s enough.
The thing about the man who says the Creed without literally believing it, who maybe understands the resurrection metaphorically, is that this is good, too. The metaphor of the cross, the symbol of the Eucharist—these are tremendous, life-sustaining goods. This is what C.S. Lewis is getting at in the quote at the head of this section: “The modernist… need not be called a fool or hypocrite because he obstinately retains, even in the midst of his intellectual atheism, the language, rites, sacraments, and story of the Christians. The poor man may be clinging (with a wisdom he himself by no means understands) to that which is his life.”
When it comes to Communion, another way to think about this is in terms of Francis’ notion that the Eucharist is “not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
So let’s look back at Leila’s hypothetical secularist who comes to an Episcopal Church and doesn’t get told he’s wrong. Maybe he’s the weak guy Francis is talking about, or the modernist Lewis says is clinging for his very life.
Let’s say he figures out a way to “assent” to all of the Nicene Creed, maybe by a process of mental reservation, adding an “if” clause to the end of every statement (“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty…” If by that we mean a general abstract concept of good; “And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures…” If by that we mean a metaphorical resurrection.) And let’s say he prays with the congregation, and confesses his sins (Why not?) and steps forward to receive communion, thinking It’s just a symbol anyway.
The more he does that, the more the “if” is going to fall away.
Eventually he’s going to realize that he would die for what he’s getting in church, and that’s going to lead him back to the question that started this post: Who would die for a metaphorical resurrection?
And that’s the way the Episcopal Church teaches the truth.
Next, in Part 3: How the Creeds are like 12-bar blues.