Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Greater Ignorance: Contemplating the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed

"The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation." —Simone Weil

It can still sometimes take me by surprise when it arrives, as it does, in the Divine Liturgy just before the anaphora, even though I’ve heard it in that context for so many years. It changes the tone of the service. Up until that point, we’ve addressed God in terms of repentance, praise, or entreaty. Then, suddenly, we make this declaration that has the uneasy feel of a loyalty statement.

            I recited the creed aloud when I was received into the Church by chrismation as part of that rite, and for a lot of years I said it daily (it was among the morning prayers in the book I used—I wouldn’t have thought to add it to a rule of prayer I came up with on my own).  But though I aimed to say it with conviction, that conviction had less to do with understanding exactly what it meant than it did with my mostly sincere and reasonable desire to adhere to what the Orthodox Church taught me. The fact is, almost every statement in it raised more questions for me than it answered.  The further understanding of its various elements I got through reading and later in seminary did nothing to cure the sense of the ineffable that surrounded it. “Knowing” served only to emphasize the impression of mystery.

            Which is why it always strikes me as odd when I hear the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed used as an easy answer to a casual question along the lines of, “What do you guys believe, anyway?” More than once I’ve heard the creed rattled off in response to such a query with a kind of pride that the answer can be so succinctly expressed. As though the speaker (most often one of us converts to the Orthodox faith) is blithely certain of what he’s talking about, which I believe simply cannot be true.  Though spouting off the creed is certainly a good way to end the conversation.

            A quick trip through the creed can’t do justice to my own complex relationship to it, but it can provide some random examples of the kinds of impressions of truth and paradox that come up for me when I say it.  If you’re not interested in these personal impressions, you can skip ahead to right after the “amen” on page eight, where my conclusions begin.


I believe in one God, the Father Almighty,


“Believe,” per Webster’s 10th: “to accept as true, genuine, or real.”  When I say I accept as true, genuine, or real “one God,” is that a guard against the notion that more than one such entity might exist?  As soon as I ask that question, I come up against the notion of “exist.”  A creaturely category that even the some of the church fathers reasonably declare God to be above or beyond.  And God. A word for something (by no means some “thing”) that is, as we continually declare, ineffable, inconceivable; a word that stands in for this non-this.  The word, of course, does stand for something in itself, but we  have to admit this “something” can’t be described, and that it’s betrayed as soon as we open our mouths to say “he,” “she,” or “it.” Negative terms are the least inaccurate: not evil, not circumscribed.  Positive terms are often almost pathetic. Like almighty. The thought of declaring God “almighty” makes me want to chuckle. It’s like screaming that the sky’s blue.  Apart from that, the language problem continues. Wouldn’t this something also be above or beyond the category of “might”?

            In the midst of these paradoxes, I find it striking and touching to encounter the simple, comforting-yet-radical image of God as “Father.”


Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.


God-as-creator ensures that the creation is good, not some material evil in which we’re all trapped. But creation is another difficult thing to get my head around. All things were made from a preexisting…nothing? Was there only God and then God made something that was not God?  Then God is no longer “eternally the same,” as we assert in the Liturgy. Or if he is indeed eternally the same, then his creation must be coeternal or he would at some point have to have become Creator. I really do begin to come down on the side of Origen, who got in trouble for reasoning something very much like that.


And in One Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God


With these words, we take our first steps into the realm of the Trinity, that glorious, partially cataphatic notion by which we mean that when we say the God-word, we’re not speaking of monad. Having just spoken the word Father, we recognize that we’re not going to be able to think of God as a supreme loving male parent and leave it at that.

            We confess here the second person of the Trinity, calling this person “Son,” though this sonhood doesn’t resemble any sonhood we’re familiar with in our created existence.  Though we identify the Son as a person of the Trinity, we have to admit that the truth of “Father” and “Son” here again points to something ineffable.

            We identify this second person of the Trinity with the man named Jesus, born around 4 BC in the Roman province of Judea. It was this second person of the Trinity who became a human being, rather than the others. I understand this to safeguard the notion that each person of the Trinity is separate enitity, even though each one reveals the other in some way, so that to know one is to know something about the whole godhead.

            This One Lord Jesus is Christ, the one anointed by God—“anointed,” meaning designated for a special purpose, of which his is probably the most special purpose there ever was. And he is confessed as “Lord,” a weird feudal term, it seems to me, but an admission of our complete dependence upon him.  We’ll declare so much more about him in the lines ahead.


The Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all ages,  Light of Light, True God of True God, Begotten not made, of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made;


Is this where I’m supposed to sign and date?  Now we’re getting into the part that really does feel like a loyalty statement. This basically makes the person reciting completely identify Jesus as God in every way, in case there was any question, as there so often has been.


Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary and became man.


The Virgin Mary is important because we can see in her all the human race; she stands as its culmination. Perhaps she was the first person who was really up to the task of bringing God into the world, I don’t know. In any case, it’s a subtle declaration that this incarnation was an act of cooperation between humanity and Divinity.  Why the Holy Spirit has to be the person of the Trinity involved in this can be added to the list of things I don’t get.


And was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate and suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.


So, in the time of this particular historical figure (noted, I take it, to make sure we confess this to be in real time and not some fairy tale) Jesus was executed in a horrible way, though he was presumably the most innocent person there ever was. It’s almost like such a death was inevitable when ultimate good met a world headed the other direction.  In any case, it’s an image of God’s kenosis, self-emptying, which is indeed a critically important thing to say about God. To me, it seems the most important thing of all.

            Then, on the third day after his death, Jesus was discovered not to be in the tomb where he’d been placed.  Why the “third day” thing has to be in the symbol of faith baffles me.  As though the number of days between burial and discovery of evidence of his resurrection has to be an article of faith.  If I claimed it was two days or fifty would it make any difference?

“According to the scriptures.” This means that the whole thing was predicted throughout the history of Israel, though this is basically 20/20 hindsight. If you look closely at the verses in the Old Testament that are referred to in the New as predicting the events of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, you mostly end up scratching your head. This is another thing I don’t understand the necessity of confessing.  Prophecies don’t make the Christ event any more wonderful to me.


And ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end.


Here’s the part that’s hardest for me to take literally, and I suspect there are a range of ways people perceive it:  “Ascent,” “right hand,” and such.  Is it all symbolic?  I certainly hope so. When it comes to saying he will come again in glory, I start getting to the point where I can say, “I don’t need him to do that.” What’s the point? Is there something else that needs to be accomplished? 

Here’s where I start to realize I prefer the glory of this moment, whatever that glory is, rather than some glory in a time yet-to-come. The idea that Christ is coming to judge me makes me angry.  Not because he’d not be the perfect sort of judge, but because I don’t want to live my life in fear of judgment.  The reward and judgment is right here as I type these words and drink my coffee. The notion of living in hope of future reward—or in hope of avoiding punishment--feels horribly misguided to me.

 It’s hard to come up with an image of a last judgment that doesn’t feel a little ridiculous (Jesus sitting at the Father’s prestigious right hand included. Where’s the Holy Spirit in this?  Hovering?  He/she/it unfortunately doesn’t fit in any sort of image), and even if I can let go of any image, I still find the concept difficult:  God, waiting till some future date to call us all before him and let us know if our actions result in salvation or damnation.  If there’s a judgment of God, I perceive it to be something that happens moment-to-moment.


And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the prophets.


            Here the Holy Trinity is now fully expressed in three-ness  (though St. Basil told us not to count…). The feudal “Lord” language continues.  “Proceeds from the Father”:  here’s the point where a lot of Orthodox swell from pride of correctness, knowing that the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father, not from both Father and Son, as other Christians came to say it.  The idea is, I believe, that the relationship between each person of the Trinity is unique, thus you can’t use the same word to refer to the relationship between each of them. That seems reasonable, I suppose, but to consider believing it a requirement for salvation seems a lot less reasonable. This gets to the point where I’d prefer the creed to say something like: “I believe in the urgent necessity of putting oneself before others,” or something else that seems more important.


And in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.


This is part of the creed that’s easiest to unpack for a church school class.  “Apostolic” means that this goes back to the apostles, and it means that the Church takes on the role of apostle (one who is sent) to the world. Does the “one” mean what we identify today as the Orthodox Church, and if so, does it include all jurisdictions?  Or can I dare to think of “church” as something not so easy to point at, as a virtual community of Christians of good will, and then, perhaps,  of all people of good will?  And aren’t we all.  The boundaries of this One Holy Catholic and Apostolic church are difficult for me to locate.


I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.


This may be the hardest statement for me of all, the one I can agree with least at face value, and then after face value as well. Even if you assert that the rite of entry into the Christian community makes sins go away (which I don’t believe), everyone admits that sins happen every moment after this baptism and that repentance is possible.  And “sin” is referred to as if we all know what that means.


I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.


Anyone who denies the multiplicity of possibilities inherent in that last statement is a liar.




The Creed contains no unambiguous statement, no declaration that doesn’t raise more questions than it answers.  The parts of it that resonate with truth for me are balanced against the parts that don’t. But then, it seems appropriate that a handful of words can’t contain the experience of God.  I’m compelled to marvel at it, to look beyond or within it (or both)—but not to swell with confidence that I’ve somehow pronounced a definition that’s completely satisfying and that does away with any need to go further.  The practice of rattling it off as a shorthand version of “what we believe” is revealed to be absurd the moment I consider doing it, and the Simone Weil quote I used for an epigraph starts to make great sense: I’m led to regard the creed as an object of contemplation.

            The creed contains some of our basic agreements of things that can be said about God, but I can’t imagine any of the fathers who worked to formulate it took it to be  a comprehensive explanation of reality.  Surely they understood the experience of God to be beyond or above any word or concept, and that words or concepts would naturally be transcended by anyone who approached God with sincerity.  Yet, paradoxically, they found that words mattered, and mattered urgently. That the words were meant to be transcended made them more rather than less important.  If words can’t describe God, they are still powerful symbols capable of setting us in God’s direction, like a rudder guides a boat.  And there can be words that purport to point us toward God but that don’t do so at all, and which can thus be considered untrue.  I take the creed to be a corrective to that most pernicious species of untrue words, providing us with a configuration of words truly capable of setting us on the infinite path that leads God’s direction--words that can, in that sense, be considered true. It must have been a daunting task for the fathers, not only because the language had to be so carefully considered, but because no matter  how careful they were with them, there was no way to prevent the words  from being perceived in ways that compromised their truth.  They probably knew the words could become quite untrue if clung to as ends in themselves.

            St. Isaac of Syria, writing several centuries after the creed was finalized, said that “One can only have a simple knowledge of God, beyond all words, ideas, colors, pictures, or names, and this ignorance is greater than all knowledge.”  Yet he probably said the creed as often as any of us do today, and I’m sure he found no contradiction in doing so.  I have to suspect he’d have found himself in agreement with Simone Weil. When the words of the creed are regarded as definitions beyond which one need look no further, they become, ironically, like idols that stand in the way of God.  But when they are regarded as objects of contemplation, as gateways to the paradox appropriate to experiencing God, they vibrate with life. To transcend the words is neither to reject nor to surpass them.  In transcending them, we can only regard them with greater gratitude and awe.  They are capable of leading us to that experience of God that St. Isaac so wonderfully called “ignorance,” but they can do that only if the temptation to make idols of them is avoided.

            “The great sin remains idolatry,” Thomas Merton once wrote, “and there is an idolatry of concepts as well as of graven images.”  It’s a truth I come up against in myself every day.  The tendency toward idolatry hovers around words and concepts of every kind, but potent words like those of the creed are particularly susceptible to it.  It’s just so much easier to stop at words, pretending that the words themselves tell us everything we need, than it is to live with the paradoxes that inevitably arise from them. It’s easier to do that than it is to come up against the fact that truth leads to paradox. The problem with the kind of  idolatry that arises from taking this easy way out is that it can seem quite innocent, both to those of us guilty of it and those of us who observe it. It masquerades as “faith” or as humble trust in a greater wisdom, but it is neither of those things, and its effects are pervasive. It closes our eyes and hardens our hearts toward any truth we perceive to be a challenge to the words to which we’ve attached ourselves. And maybe worse, to regard with pity, fear, or suspicion our brothers and sisters who might seem to present a challenge to them.  I see this kind of idolatry as the explanation for every form of fundamentalism in every realm of life, “religious” and otherwise. It’s a mental compromise that infects our hearts and flows into our acts. I would go so far as to say that idolatry cuts off the compassion that arises naturally, virtually unconsciously, from the honest encounter with the other, and replaces it with conscious acts that imitate compassion.  I’m of one mind with Merton in identifying idolatry as the great sin.

Idolatry surrounded the creed from the beginning—contemporary accounts reveal the population getting worked up over some of its finer points as passionately as football fans for their teams.  There was never a golden age when everyone was immune to the trap of words. And idolatry is of course not limited to the creed; it arises any time we put a concept in the place of God.  But our relationship to the potent words of the creed is a particularly useful place to observe it.  For me, the good news is that when I understand and acknowledge the limitations of words and the ease with which they can be taken as ends in themselves, I can begin to see their genuine utility: they truly can lead us toward God.  Seeing that, gratitude arises in me for the creed, and for the other such light-bearing words all around us. And gratitude arises for the fathers who struggled to come up with the words.  Though I must suspect the participation in the process of that aspect of God to which we’ve assigned the words Holy Spirit. It’s hard to imagine we’d have been able to come up with the creed all on our own.

            The creed stops me in my tracks. None of its words provide a resting place for my mind or heart, but I’m compelled to remain there with them, neither “solving” the paradoxes that arise from them nor retreating from them either, confronted by the fact that the pursuit of truth inevitably leads to  paradox, and that the embrace of the paradox is where God is met.  By setting me in that God-ward direction, the creed leads me toward the kind of knowledge of God that St. Isaac saw and could only describe as ignorance.  I’m rendered speechless, as is appropriate.  If it weren’t for the fact that I see the proclivity toward idolatry within me and all around me, there would be no need to say another word about it.


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