There are times, even in polite company, when a believer can feel like the last duck left in hunting season, flapping past the blind in a bulls-eye patterned sweater.
In such circumstances, I will occasionally describe myself as a liturgical agnostic.
Despite the apparent cheek, it’s not a joke. The phrase means something important to me that is, I suggest, consonant with a point made by Benedict XVI, writing as Joseph Ratzinger, in 1967.
In his signal Introduction To Christianity, he proposes that for believers and secularists, doubt is common ground—fertile and largely untilled. Certitude, however, is a very different thing. Despite the appeal of its show room gloss and near-aerodynamic neatness, it’s a lemon of an epistemic disposition. Sharing with nature only the abhorrence of vacuums, it seeks to fill them with the self-reference of ideology, draped in robes of righteousness.
Unfortunately, the common ground identified by Ratzinger is getting harder to spot. At a time when certain cultures are said to be experiencing “spring,” the West is well into a frostier season, caught in a front of bamboozlement whose gusts would sweep the common square of all but a fading echo of religious wisdom.
In an interview with Sally Quinn, a certain uber-atheist professor traced his familiar views on religion, reserving special outrage for “the arrogance of Christians who claim to know—not only that there is a God, but that it’s this God . . . ” I bring it up because the way he frames the issue exposes a key component of the current bamboozlement—one to which many of us, at times tacitly, subscribe.
What lifts his hackles can be observed each Sunday in most churches throughout the world. It is the Creed. And, it is in some sense a startlingly agnostic manifesto. The first of its twelve articles is, in fact, an action—rooted in the performative language of the first person. Rendered either singular or plural , it reads, “I believe . . . ” Contrary to the charge, the term is unambiguous. It can’t be construed as, “I know.” This is not a minor point. It goes to that which is not merely important to knowing—but is its very matrix.
Later in the interview the professor appears to exercise a moment of epistemological chastity: “I can’t say I’m convinced God doesn’t exist.” Those bracing for a coy, “but,” are not kept waiting. For, in the next breath he adds, “ . . . I’m not convinced unicorns don’t exist either.” Rascal.
To explain why this is grievously disingenuous would involve an excursion into the most intriguing issues of philosophy, and the reader has far abler guides available. But, our coy brother ought at least be aware that the Nicene Creed is the result of a struggle, undertaken in urgent circumstances, to forge expressions resonant with experience. In this case, the experience of God as disclosed in Jesus and realized by the community he engendered.
Maybe I cut class the day it was explained how the experience of unicorns—or flying spaghetti monsters—flowered into the likes of, say, the Mass in C Minor and the Pieta. Does it turn out that Mozart was a covert Monocerophile—Michaelangelo a Pastafarian?
Recently, I directed a film for First Things that is a consideration of the Nicene Creed. The process of making it opened my eyes to how—in the words of participant Luke Timothy Johnson—“under-examined, under-appreciated and under-utilized” an instrument it is.
I heard people speak candidly about their relationships to the Creed. More than a few expressed concern that they don’t always fire on all twelve cylinders; that perhaps it is dishonest to stand up on any given Sunday, and struggle to give equal emphasis to all twelve articles. We might respond to this concern with the parallel of how our bodies work. When a particular part is injured or otherwise impaired, others often hasten to assume the workload until the affected part is restored. It would seem that St. Paul points to this in what is perhaps the most powerful and provocative image we have of the Church: the Body of Christ.
Since its origins in baptismal liturgies, the Creed has taken its place within the liturgy of the Eucharist. The eminent Robert Taft, S.J. reminds us that the Eucharist is God’s gift to us, not the reverse. And, it is in this gathering that what is professed in the Creed is incarnated as that Body of Christ. Orthodox theologian and bishop John Zizioulas offers insights into the nature of the relationships involved here: “I-We,” the inter-personalism of the Trinity itself , and by implication, the ontological kinship of these parties. Of the first, he writes, “All being is, by necessity, inter-being.” Of the second, “Love, as God’s mode of existence, ‘hypostasizes’ God.”
As the purpose of a body part is realized most fully through its union with the whole, likewise for members of Christ’s body. Each I is most fully realized in the communal, We, transfigured ultimately into the I AM of Christ, in the Father, made manifest in the Holy Spirit. This is a clunky way of describing the Church’s role within the context of theosis, the doctrine rendered so elegantly by St Athanasius, “God became human so that humans can become God.” It is a breathtaking view of the dignity with which humans are endowed. Against it, the worst that can be leveled is the protest that it’s just too good to be true.
Ironically, it’s hard to deny that we Catholics are especially susceptible to what might be called dogmatic fundamentalism, i.e., “I don’t need to think or work my way through these questions—the Church has done it for me.” By way of illustration, a brief return to Joseph Ratzinger on the issue of doubt may be useful.
In the face of doubt, fundamentalism of this kind appeals to dogma for a resolution. This, I suspect, lies somewhere on the subtle end of the temptation scale. For dogma is about something far more thrilling. As the fruit of deep struggle with the mysteries of grace—planted and harvested by the community in due season—its purpose is to facilitate faith capable of experiencing the living God. In this, doubt is not resolved, but dissolved. There is a world of difference. One risks being reduced to a talisman or bludgeon, the other, being opened to the intimacy of relationship. Only the latter can set heart and world ablaze.
In these chilly days, far too much possibility falls needlessly into the widening gaps between bulwarks such as, secular and sacred, atheism and faith. The present pope has proposed an alternative that is wise and impressively pragmatic.
We will be reminded that no matter how lofty it may sound, what we profess in the Creed depends upon on an Entity that, like all things metaphysical, is conveniently invisible. Like unicorns, critics will say. Like love, we will say—that invisible, irreducibly metaphysical gift that makes life well worth its slings and arrows.
Tim Kelleher is the new media editor for First Things.
Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction To Christianity
The Creed: What Christians Profess, And Why It Ought To Matter
John Zizioulas, Being As Communion
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