In a time of great change, the question of identity becomes critical. There was a time when it was assumed (often wrongly) that being a Presbyterian or a Methodist or a Baptist meant certain things. You could extrapolate from denominational affiliation certain doctrines, worship styles, and, to a greater or lesser degree, political affiliations and social status. Whether it was right or wrong to do so, and regardless of how accurate the assumptions were, there was a certain safety and security in knowing your identity, a security embodied in the name of the denomination on the church sign. If you ever forgot what it meant to be, say, a Presbyterian, there were curriculum resources, books, and people in Louisville ready to help you remember.
In every congregation I have served, there are people who always clamor for a class on “What Presbyterians Believe.” As Diana Butler Bass writes in her new book, “Christianity After Religion,” such classes are the model from an era that is fast fading away. Locating identity, whether it is personal identity or the identity of a congregation or a denomination, in questions of dogma is answering a set of questions that fewer and fewer people are asking. Bass writes, “It is not only the case that the Western world has grown weary of doctrine, but Christianity itself is changing – shifting away from being a belief-centered religion toward an experiential faith.” People do not want to “believe in God;” they want to “experience God.”
Bass quotes a conversation she had with a young Christian, the only young and single member of her large university town Lutheran Church: “I love this congregation. The people have become my family.” She paused, and her voice dropped to a confessional whisper. “But I don’t know what to say to my classmates when they ask me what I believe. Whenever I say ‘I believe in Christianity,’ they look at me as if I’m crazy. Besides, I don’t even know if I believe ‘in’ Christianity or Lutheran doctrine or anything like that. I just experience how to love God and how God loves me through these people, by learning how to…sing those hymns. I don’t know what to call it, but it is less about believing and more about living. Does that still count as being Christian?”
I have a number of people in the church I serve who cannot say the creed. They have come to me at various times to let me know that they find it impossible to say words they cannot affirm rationally. The virgin birth makes no sense to them; nor does the idea of ascension. For a few of them, resurrection is problematic. I ask them, “Why do you still come to church, if you cannot affirm these things?” All of them respond with variations on this theme: “I experience God here.” The God they experience in this community is a God bigger than all the categories, including doctrinal categories, we may try to impose.
We may think the folks who take a pass on the Creed in worship are in the minority, and for now we might be right, though I suspect there are many who say the words while harboring their own unspoken questions. But the trend lines are clear and unequivocal – their number is increasing. The church of the 21st century will increasingly have to share its hospitality not only in its open doors but also in its openness to questioners and doubters.
I am not advocating that we dispense with doctrine or with educating our people on the meaning and value of the creeds and confessions of the church. I am not a fan of the question, “What’s the least I can believe and still be a Christian?” But I do think we miss the meaning of the creeds of the church if we see them as asking “what” we believe about God instead of “how” we experience God. Douglas John Hall encourages us to retrieve the root meaning of the words “faith” and “believe,” which are a matter of trust, of giving one’s heart to someone – of love.
Perhaps we should stop saying “I believe” and start saying “I trust…”
I trust in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…
And I give my heart to Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…
I trust in the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
This is what it means to believe, to have faith. It reclaims these words from a western culture that is too eager to make belief a question of rational assent. If we begin with this basis for belief, it will enable us to move more deeply into doctrinal matters without the literalism and fundamentalism that becomes very tempting for all churches – whether they are more liberal or more conservative in nature.
Where is your faith centered – in ideas or doctrines about God, or in experiences of God, or in something else entirely? What is your relationship to the Creed or the confessions of the church? Do you say the Creed without a doubt? Do you say it reluctantly? Partially? Not at all? What about the people around you – family, friends, co-workers? What are the faith questions you hear them asking? Are they the “what do you believe about God?” questions or the “how do you experience God?” ones. And do you find your congregation (if you are part of one) open to questions, merely tolerant of them, or actively discouraging?
There is no doubt that we are entering a time of unprecedented change in the church in the United States. Though it is a time of some anxiety for those of us who try and help lead the church, I am grateful to have conversation partners like you on the journey. Peace and blessings to you as we learn together how to believe, how to trust, in the faith, hope, and love of God.