The classical creeds of Christianity (Apostles, Nicean, Athanasian) are illustrations of ecumenism–not exclusively in terms of their content, but also in terms of their reminder that we come together in our affirmations, not in our interpretations. God’s new pentecost is about uniting around our affirmations, rather than separating because of our interpretations. The world is saved by affirmations (e.g. “Jesus is Lord”), not by interpretations (e.g. how he is Lord in every conceivable circumstance).
Interpretations have their role to play in the theological task, but they are not the starting point. Affirmation of faith always precedes the interpretations of it. The early Christians were wise enough to recognize that in their development of the creeds. We need to recognize it today (better than we do) in our representation of Christ and Christianity.
The fallen world views Christians as those who are divided by a hopeless array of differences. There is no attraction to a loving God through people who seem to dislike each other and perpetually try to “one up” them. We have greatly failed to calculate the damage done to the evangelistic task by our sectarianism and theological arrogance.
The fact is, the world does not know all our interpretations, and they are not trying to learn them. But everyone is made in the image of God–an image which creates a longing–one of which is to find a place where Christians really love each other.
Pope Francis rightly notes that the family unit is the first waystation on the journey to transmit faith in the world. Beginning with marriage and then possibly with children, people learn how to trust, form relationships, forgive, cooperate, and love.
A family faith is intended to follow us as we move into adulthood, and in some ways even to the time of our death. Family is an all-encompassing word.
That’s why the disolution of the family is so detrimental to the shining of the light of faith. That’s why single parents must be heralded for their courage and struggle to keep a sense of family alive. Family is one way we continue to believe and bear witness that faith is stronger than any weakness life can hurl our way.
We expend large amounts of time and energy trying to find our “it”–our theological position, our political stance, our church affiliation, our personality profile, etc, etc. Only later do we realize that God is more concerned about our “mix.”
On some things we are liberal, on others conservative. On some issues we prefer the Republican view, on others the Democratic. On some topics, we side with our chosen church, on others we find greater light outside our tradition. And in our general approach to life, we discover that no single personality type fully defines us.
The point is, God does everything possible to reveal the richness of our lives, showing us how we are a blend of beliefs, perspectives, and qualities. We are the ones who want to “camp out” in one place with one group. We are the ones who mistakenly believe that “middle C” and “piano” are the same thing.
As I have re-read Pope Francis’ first encyclical, I see not only its content, but also the way it serves as a model for doing theology about anything. The Pope moves from a consideration of the selected topic itself (the light of faith), to a look at how the Church is meant to embrace it (sacraments, prayer, morality, unity)–and now, to the indispensable need to manifest it in the world.
Chapter Four moves us into the world–into what Eugene Peterson and others are calling today “lived theology.” And the very first thing Pope Francis says about the light of faith is that it is meant to create “a place in which human beings can dwell together with one another.”
And so, the first sub-theme is “Faith and the Common Good.” As the Pope notes, faith does not only grant us interior firmness, it also enriches life for everyone. When it fails to do that, a profession of faith deteriorates into a “club membership” that requires allegiance for those who want to join.
But as Pope Francis rightly notes, the light of faith also shines into the world to dispel darkness–not only to strengthen the faithful, but also to strengthen the common good.
Faith does not move us away from the world into a religious community, it creates life together that stirs us to vocational discipleship–using our everyday roles and responsibilities to represent the way of Christ.
A meditation from Martin Copenhaver, pastor of Wellesly UCC, in Wellesley, Ma….
“In our already overcrowded lives, another space is being taken away.
When I was learning to type, I was taught that you should have two spaces after a period before starting a new sentence. Now we are told, by no less an arbiter than The Chicago Manual of Style, that one space is the norm. The primary reason they cite for preferring a single space is efficiency. Of course, it all comes down to efficiency, as so much seems to these days. They conclude that typing two spaces “is inefficient, requiring an extra keystroke for every sentence.” An extra keystroke? Well, that is simply too much to ask, don’t you think?
But I think we need to be fighting for more space, not less. Space gives us breathing room, which is another way of saying that space allows for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. J.R.R. Tolkien told the story of correcting student essays, when he came upon a blank page among the papers. He stared at it for a moment and then wrote upon it, “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.” It just came to him like a revelation. And that’s how he started his book, The Hobbit, the novel that leads into The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But for that inspiration, he needed that blank page, just a little space between all of those words.
Just a little space. The Holy Spirit can work with that.”
With so many denominations and parachurch organizations on the earth, even if we believe in Christian unity we cannot think of it the way the Church did until1054 a.d., when the Roman Church split dramatically for the first time. We come to the notion of unity from a different place.
The Pope provides three good reasons why the light of faith shines brightest when there is unity. Each bears pondering.
But the elements converge in a call to be “one” at the level of Creed. The farther we go into our institutional differences, the more difficult unity becomes. I think that is one reason why the Creeds do not nuance every doxtrine–and–one reason why God worked in the Church to create the Creeds before the schisms began. I doubt we would be able to produce Creeds today, given all the ways we are separated today.
But what we do have is the Creeds. Unity is possible there. We can profess a common faith there. And, like Pope Francis, I believe the light of faith shines brightest there. We are the ones who think the light increases when we “spell out” all our thoughts about everything. Instead, God thinks we shine brightest when we declare our faith without all the details.
I may not be allowed to join every Christian at the Communion rail, but we can all stand out in the congregation and say, “I believe in God the Father almighty…..”
I have decided to read Thomas Merton’s journals. They are available in a multi-volume edition. I have no timeline for completing this. It is more a meandering pace. So, it will take quite a while to finish. But that’s okay.
The first volume, entitled ‘Run to the Mountain,’ covers the years before Merton entered Gethsemani. It is the record of a young man full of life and interested in many things.
Besides revealing Merton’s ecclectic personality and his ability to reflect extensively on all sorts of ideas and events, his journals are reminders that the “present moment” is the doorway to discovery. Often, what seems to be insignificant turns out to yield “a treasure hidden in the field.” But if Merton had passed over the moment, he would not have found the treasure.
Similarly, our attentiveness to the simplest things is the precursor to wonder. In that sense we learn the sacredness of all of life. Every moment focuses us, and when blurriness becomes sight, insight is often just around the corner.
Merton’s journals are reminding me that there is nothing that I think, say, or do where God is not present, and sometimes I am attentive enough to see God jumping out from behind a tree of hiddenness to say, “Look over here!”