Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I have been pleased that in response to the first two Epistles to the Nevadans, people have suggested various topics I should attempt to elucidate. It is a mark that God has answered our baptismal payer that you should have “inquiring minds.” We will get to many topics in due course.
But in this Easter Season it seems good to consider the whole question of “belief.” Just want do we Episcopalians believe anyway? Joe once told his Baptist friend Fred he was an Episcopalian. Fred said, “Oh that’s the Church that believes in drinking.” “No,” Joe said, “Some of us drink but we believe in Jesus.”
Some “religions” – that’s actually a Western sort of a word. Many of the world’s spiritual systems and organizations wouldn’t necessarily have chosen that word for themselves. It’s just our Western way of categorizing them – some “religions” like to say they don’t have beliefs, just practices or disciplines. They equate “belief” with holding an opinion, usually one for which there is little or no evidence. They see beliefs as closing the mind, not opening it. So they regard us “believers” as narrow and unbright.
So permit me, if you will, to start by asking what we mean by “believe” before we get to the substance of “beliefs.” The New Testament word pistevo comes into the Church thorugh the Latin credo (from which we get Creed because the “I believe” was for centuries upon centuries pronounced “Credo.” Credo does not mean, “I hold the opinion that.” It means – are you ready? – “I give my heart.”
Now the second point about Creeds: they do not say, “I believe that.” They say, “I believe in” – as in the Don Williams country classic “I believe in you.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Biz5kBIAtic (if you get an ad at the beginning, it’s short, just avert your eyes]. To “believe in” is both more and less than to “believe that.” It isn’t so sure about details. But it invests trust. It is a deep statement. I place my life in your hands. I can believe in you without knowing everything about you. But obviously I must have some sense of you, some intuition of your heart and soul.
The Latin credo found its way into English as beleven, same root as beloved, and it means, “I give my love.” This is not just an emotional thing. It is a placing of ones life in the hands of someone else. It is the basket where we put the existential eggs of our life’s meaning. So let’s be clear on this up front, traditional Christian belief isn’t dogmatic opinions. It’s faith like that Don Williams song.
So where do we place our faith? I heard an NPR interview with an atheist this week – not one of those snide cynical atheists, but a decent, humble, intelligent guy trying to make sense of it all. He insisted that the reality we know is set in the vast context of a supra-cosmic Reality we cannot know, and that the meaning of everything must be found there and that authentic ethics must be grounded in that Reality. He just didn’t like the word “God.” I felt sure that atheist and I would disagree about a lot of things, but that we were closer in our hearts than I am to some theists. We don’t believe in an Old English word. We believe in the Reality. My difference with the atheist is that, for whatever reason, he rejects the narratives, the rituals, and sacred traditions that make up our way of reaching out toward the Mystery. But we agree about the Mystery.
The question of “belief” went off track in the 16th Century when Christians had a huge family fight including torturing and killing each other. The stakes having gotten mortally high, they needed to tie things down precisely so you could know whom to kill, whom to hide from, and whom you could hang out with. So they took the old Creeds, which had been essentially narratival love poems, and replaced them with rather ponderous and lengthy “Confessions” – hundreds of pages of them. If you believe the 350 page Augsburg Confession you can be a good Lutheran. If you believe the 550 page Westminster Confession, you can be a good Calvinist. And so on. The Catholics kept up at the Council of Trent turning all sorts of explanations that had once attempted to just help people understand what they were doing in Church into dogmas to be believed on pain of excommunication. It was a bad time for all of us. No one came out of that century with clean hands. And let me never deny that religion, my religion that I love, has plenty of sin of which to repent.
But since the days of Elizabeth I, we Anglicans have by and large not done much in the way of Confessions. We had the 39 articles but they only go for 2 pages, and don’t really get a lot of play except in our very most conservative churches. You will find them in the historical documents appendix of the Book of Common Prayer. We are still a Creedal Church, but not a Confessional Church.
So how does that work? Let’s take a question that might well be on our minds this Easter season. We say in the Creed “We believe in One Lord Jesus Christ . . .. On the third day he rose from the dead.” What do we mean by that? How does the Resurrection work?
I am just wading into a challenging but brilliant book by the physicist-theologian Robert John Russell, Time In Eternity. Early on he traces the modern teachings about the meaning of the Resurrection. One main line goes back to Rudolf Bultmann. For him the Empty Tomb is irrelevant. The appearances to the disciples are everything because the Resurrection means Jesus lives on in the memories, hearts, minds, and actions of his followers. No problem with science there. It puts science in one world; faith in another. Bultmann taught a subjective resurrection.
But Karl Barth taught an objective Resurrection. Something actually happened. When we say Jesus rose from the dead, we don’t mean we thought of him fondly and acted accordingly. We mean something earthshaking (literally) happened.
Ok, but what was it? The Barth objective resurrection has two forms. Number one is from Arthur Peacock: the Personal Resurrection. The Jesus who rose was his spirit or soul. It really is Jesus, but Jesus is not identified with the protoplasm that made up his body at the moment of his death (our protoplasm pretty much changes out every few years anyway so we should not over-identify with it.) For him the Empty Tomb doesn’t matter, but the Resurrection appearances do – but they matter differently than for Bultmann. For Peacock, the real Jesus actually appeared.
Option two: the Bodily Resurrection. This would go back to a modern theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and – stop and take this in – the physicist-theologian Russell is arguing in support of this one. Yep, the material flesh and blood body of Jesus of Nazareth climbed out of that tomb. It may not have been the same. Something happened, something way more mysterious and miraculous than a mere resuscitation. But it was of this earth, not just of this spirit.
Now when I first came back to the Church, the Bultmann resurrection worked for me. It was as far as I could have gone then. Somewhere around the time I was ordained or maybe a little later, I came to believe in the Peacock version of Barth’s objective Resurrection. It was my encounters with the Risen Lord through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola that took me there.
These days, with fear and trembling, I sign up with Pannenberg and Russell. I hold with the bodily Resurrection even though I don’t pretend to have a clue how it happened. It wasn’t visiting the elegantly appointed tomb in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher that changed my mind, though it was moving. It was the other tomb, the unmarked rarely visited one way off in the corner of the Church, the one some archaeologists think is more likely to be where Jesus was buried. It was crouching, nearly crawling into that dank hole, finding my way by the flashlight app on my smart phone. It was personally experiencing the emptiness of death in that empty stone niche that made me feel and believe that it had no power over any part of him.
So, like Luther, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” But unlike Luther, I do not insist that you stand with me. That’s the difference between doctrines and dogmas. We can have inconsistent doctrines that remain part of the conversation. They keep it interesting. Dogmas end the conversation.
You see because we worship an infinitely mysterious God, we are a religion of questioning, a religion of more questions than answers. In her winsome new book, Plato At The Googleplex, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein says,
The thing about Plato is that he rarely presents
himself as giving us the final answers. What he insists
upon is the recalcitrance of the questions in the face
of shallow attempts to make them go away.
The same might be said of Job who wasn’t buying the Proverbs or of Jesus whose parables were zingers that undid the expectations of his listeners. Followers of Jesus aren’t too sure of their answers. They are free to love the questions precisely because they trust the Mystery. As Rainer Maria Rilke so famously said:
Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very
foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers which
will not be given to you because you would not now
be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything.
Live the questions now. Perhaps, then you will gradually
without noticing it, live along some distant day into
To believe in this way is to love the questions trusting the Mystery to lead us deeper into truth and hope and love.
I am not there yet. For example, I don’t know that my opinion about the nature of the Resurrection is more right than it was when I first began this journey so long ago. At first I experienced the wild absurd leap of subjective faith taken by my fellow believers. Then I met the Resurrected Lord in prayer, though not his physical self. Then I felt the emptiness of death in what may have been his very tomb. And so my experiences changed my opinions. I hold this opinion now. It is even a conviction. But it isn’t what I “believe in.” I believe in Jesus. The Resurrection is part of his story, part of who he is. But I do not pretend to understand it or to claim my views on it are better than someone else’s. Others believe too. Others trust the Mystery. Even that fellow on NPR who fancies himself an atheist trusts the Mystery, believes in the transcendent meaning and value of this whole fragile place we call earth, even hopes and trusts that the oft absurd chapters of this story we call history cohere into a never ending story we call eternity.