The Creeds II

So, in an earlier post I discussed some of the historical and exegetical issues surrounding the formation of the creeds. However, stating the origins of a thing and discussing its current applications are two different things. To summarize briefly, the creeds were developed to serve as a meta-narrative that located the key parts of the Faith by securing a literal meaning to select portions of biblical narrative, specifically parts in question by heretical groups. Fast-forward 2,000 years and here we are today… [One quick procedural point: When I think of the creeds my first thought is of the Apostles’ Creed rather than the Nicene. Thus, it’s the one I work off of instinctively.]

The creeds were formed in a different age with radically different philosophical conceptions and scientific notions. They are based in a foreign way of understanding literary documents and of conceptualizing religious communities. They functioned in certain ways then, how do we use them now? Have these categories changed too much for them to be useful?

Intellectually, the biggest problem that I can see with using the creeds in the modern church is a disconnect in worldviews, especially the understanding of the physical world. The modern American worldview is heavily conditioned by Western science and preeminently Newtonian physics. (As cool as quantum physics may be, it hasn’t penetrated to the daily assumptions of normal people yet and probably never will.) The two most important point of this belief system in relation to the creeds are these: 1) scientific theories are verified by observation of reproducible data and 2) reliable science is predictive, which follows logically from 1. That is to say, if I throw a quarter up in the air one hundred times, I can be confident that it will come back down. Furthermore, if I have a steady hand and a good eye, I can consistently throw it in such a way that I can more or less describe its arc by means of a mathematical equation. These assumptions form the bedrock of our understanding of reality.

What does this have to do with the creeds? Just this: the majority of the beliefs in the creed, especially those concerning the first two persons of the Trinity, deal specifically with completely non-reproducible, unpredictable events many of which contradict what we know from our quotidian experience of reproducible data. Once again, that’s to say, I know how babies are made and I know how dead bodies act. The creeds fly in the face of that knowledge. Or, to push a different edge, I don’t know how the world was created and will never have the opportunity to observe the whole process again. And I don’t know scientifically what it means to have a God-Man and how his body would or would not share the same biochemical structures as the rest of us. In other words, these events are not repeatable and we have no data to prove or disprove the creedal statements except by analogy to repeatable phenomena. We cannot directly access either the moment or acts of creation or the resurrection. At least with creation we can study what remains but even that can not answer questions of causes—it will only demonstrate mechanisms.

The problem, then, is a conflict of worldviews. A literal understanding of the creeds as they were originally intended to be understood is in conflict with a modern scientific worldview. Now we must ask what to do with this conflict.

In order to resolve the conflict and to achieve consistency of thought, one worldview must win and supplant the other. Thus on one hand we have those who pick the biblical/creedal worldview over the scientific worldview. Young Earth Creationism, Intelligent Design, a general suspicion that physical scientists are part of an atheistic conspiracy against God and the Family seem to be the fruits of this side. On the other hand are those who pick the scientific worldview over the biblical/creedal worldview. And yes, this view has a long and distinguished history in Western intellectual circles from the Deists on forward to the likes of Bishop Spong and clergy who say the creeds but confess to believing very little of them or taking them only in an allegorical sense. Many if not most of the people in the seminaries that I have attended or been around have been quite congenial to this second view. But are these really our only options?

One of my favorite conceits in the Science Fiction movies of yore was the preferred manner for the unarmed Space Hero to destroy the Killer Robot hard on his heels. It’s easy enough to do—just yell out some sort of conundrum (what rhymes with “orange”?)—and the Killer Robot would lurch to a halt, smoke pouring out of convenient orifices. Ever seen anyone try that when being pursued with a guy with a gun? Didn’t think so. He might think about it for a second, shrug, and start shooting…

My point is this: human beings live in a messy, contingent, incarnational world. Things are always more complicated than they seem. Humans are fully capable of working simultaneously within multiple and conflicting worldviews. This came home to me most strongly when I first read Bultmann’s classic Jesus Christ and Mythology as an undergrad; the same thought is expressed in his essay from this book. He writes:

Man’s knowledge and mastery of the world have advanced to such an extent through science and technology that it is no longer possible for anyone seriously to hold the New Testament view of the world-in fact, there is no one who does. What meaning, for instance, can we attach to such phrases in the creed as “descended into hell” or “ascended into heaven”? We no longer believe in the three-storied universe which the creeds take for granted. The only honest way of reciting the creeds is to strip the mythological framework from the truth they enshrine-that is, assuming that they contain any truth at all, which is just the question that theology has to ask. No one who is old enough to think for himself supposes that God lives in a local heaven. There is no longer any heaven in the traditional sense of the word. The same applies to hell in the sense of a mythical underworld beneath our feet. And if this is so, the story of Christ’s descent into hell and of his Ascension into heaven is done with. We can no longer look for the return of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven or hope that the faithful will meet him in the air (I Thess. 4:15ff.). …

It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.

My response on first reading the last line was to say…but we do. We do and can believe in contradictory things at the same time. Smoke doesn’t belch from anywhere—we may get confused in extreme cases of overlap, but we can live quite comfortably using insights from a pre-scientific Christian world view to those from a contradictory Newtonian physics perspective mingled with those from a contradictory quantum physics perspective to those of a Platonic universe. Specifically speaking as an American Pragmatist, I go with the worldview that works. When I’m in “installing computer components” mode, I’m all Newtonian physics. When I’m in “playing cards” mode, I’m all about quantum physics and probability mechanics [which with my pop-scientific knowledge may explain why I don’t play cards for money ;-D]. When I wonder about my salvation, I go pre-scientific all the way.

How does this make me neither schizophrenic nor intellectually inconsistent? Because I’m not hegemonic about any of my worldviews. I think that they are all models that serve to describe certain aspects of reality from certain perspectives. If I was wondering where a quarter would go if I threw it with a certain velocity at a certain trajectory, I feel confident that Newtonian physics could describe the arc for me and, furthermore, that chaos theory could give me the probability that the Newtonian equation would prove incorrect. These equations are not reality, though; they map it and offer a way to understand it especially when I approach it with certain questions. I don’t think that any of these worldviews offer all of the answers to any apprehension of reality and that gives me the freedom to switch between them when I need to.

So—where does that get me with the creeds? I believe the creeds literally. Scientifically, I can’t tell you how they work. I have no idea how to model the Ascension mathematically—which is the part that ties my logical brain into the worst knot. It also doesn’t bother me that much. As the only humanities guy in a family of hard scientists I take the sciences seriously. I also know their down-side when they are taken as a philosophical system; they offer only an empirical materialism of cause and effect. It’s the epicureans redivivus. I find them lacking in power. And maybe power is the point. In living between worldviews I have found a certain amount of power in a scientific worldview, the kind of power that confirms its truth. I can calculate events and have the events turn out a certain way. I have found the beauty of equations replicated in microscopic corners of the world. But the same is also true of the religious, pre-scientific worldview; I have experienced the power of the resurrection in my life, of the communion of the saints, and God as creator in ways that verify their truth. While the scientific worldview has power in its realm it cannot touch the spiritual side of my life the way that the creedal truths do. (And the same holds true the other way–science offers far more compelling arguments in the realm of things material.)

As a result when in the field of personal belief I experience a conflict between the creedal worldview and the scientific worldview, I go with the creeds. I cannot explain them scientifically, I cannot explain the mechanics of the Trinity but I believe it and I believe that it matters for how I live and move in the world. One of the reasons that I allow the creeds to trump science too is because of hope. I hope that there is more to life and existence than empirical materialism. Faith in the creeds allows a belief in the mundus plenior, a world where reality cannot be bounded only by what can be weighed and measured. There are wonders in the world that our science does not explain. Maybe some day it will but even if it does it will not diminish my belief in something beyond the purely physical.

In short, I’m proposing an active cognitive dissonance. Not an unthinking one that does not recognize the conflict between worldviews, but one that both notes it and appreciates that all of our worldviews are reductionistic models of a reality that we can never completely quantify or wrap our heads around. Call it a creative contradiction. So, what do you think? Does it work?

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About Derek Olsen

I'm a layman within the Episcopal Church with a PhD in New Testament and an interest in most things medieval, monastic, and liturgical. My chief job is keeping up with my priestly wife and our two awesome kids. In addition to that, I earn a living, run the St Bede's Breviary, listen to loud goth/industrial music, and do some stuff for the church. I currently serve as Secretary to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music where I'm also co-chair of the Calendar committee and chair of the Digital Publications committee.
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11 Responses to The Creeds II

  1. Joe says:

    Yes, I think that it works very well. One thing that I would caution against though, is assuming that those who do not recognize this cognitive dissonance are necessarily “unthinking.” You’ve laid out a very logical approach, but for many of us, such theological decisions are made on a more instinctual level. This is not to say that we haven’t thought about it…but rather that our postmodern (or maybe even premodern) wiring allows us to move more fluidly through the language of theological expression. Thus, the fact that “ascended” denotes a process of both physical and spiritual “movement” that may be beyond our limited ability to express ourselves linguistically is not so much a matter of creativity, but it just makes sense. So what is an important process of reconciling contradictory worldviews to a modern mind, can end up looking like a “duh” to a large segment of the Church.

    Grace and Peace,
    Joe

  2. Joe says:

    BTW…not “duh” in the sense that the more developed theological approach isn’t impressive or interesting, just that it is like asking someone for the time and being told how to build a clock. 😉

    Grace and Peace,
    Joe

  3. Derek the Ænglican says:

    I certainly understand your point and I’m not trying to be an intellectual snob. 🙂 I’m saying that it’s possible for thoughtful people to hold recognized cognitive tensions in contrast to a view that attempts to impose a rather artificial and unnecessary consistency. Yeah, many people don’t have to think about this issue and hold this kind of a position naturally. What I’m working with is for those people like me who do think about it and who want an option other than Spong…

  4. Joe says:

    Don’t worry, I don’t think you a snob…and I’m certainly not trying to sound like the mouthpiece for some sort of postmodern proletariat. 😉

    I do find it all very interesting…and I am glad to see such a well reasoned framework upon which to set my own more visceral approach to the Creeds.

    And anyway, any thing that offers an antidote to Spong’s nonsense is just fine with me!

    Grace and Peace,
    Joe

  5. Annie says:

    I dunno. I always saw that science hadn’t managed to lock down an explanation for everything. I’m even prone to think that they may actually be able to measure the presence of God in the universe, but call what they measure something else, more specifically, energy. I have a hard time believing that the formation of the world and everything that is in it could have been a random event or a series of random events and, if I did, I don’t think I’d be Christian. On the other hand, I am not a Biblical literalilst and do not believe the story of Creation in Genesis explains all, and if I did, I’d like to know which one to choose. I do not have a conflict between scientific evidence or theory and my faith. Just because we can find and date the beginnings of life does not tell me how that life actually came about.

    Now, for a more heretical explanation. I cannot deny, for example, that I have had moments when I experienced ESP, anticipating events (I had one of those moments yesterday) and even, weird as it may seem, kinetic energy/electrical energy. Pagans, and I hope you will forgive me for bringing this up, believe in something they refer to as planes and this manages to explain a great deal in my own mind as to the presence of heaven and hell and all sorts of phenomenon that are present, near to us, and all around us if we are aware of them. It makes me wonder just what the ancients did perceive and perhaps merely explained metaphorically rather than trying to explain literally. I’m not inclined to believe that Jesus was teaching that the kingdom of God was above. He taught that it was “upon,” “among” and “within.”

    Science cannot explain some of the things that happen to us. If they have never happened to an individual, I can see that the person might adhere more to scientific principals and ignore the spiritual. Scientists admit, for example, that there is empiricle data that suggests that prayer has an effect on patient recovery and that there are cases where the results confound the scientific community. The effect of prayer on the person praying can be measured. The electrical field can be measured that is emmitted by the hands of a healer. So, even science admits that there are things it cannot explain. As I said, I have experienced ESP. Science cannot explain it, but they can measure it, use it and even teach it. The USSR was doing a great deal of research on it, even to the point of piloting jets.

    Anyway, all of this is to say that science only explains a part of our reality and not all of it and there are corners where science hasn’t managed sweep.

    The mystery is what intrigues me. I say that I can say all the creeds but one. It is my personal wish at this time that people would attend better to what the creeds say about the Holy Spirit. 🙂

    A.

  6. bls says:

    Great post, Derek.

    Sometime I’m going to think this all out and try to understand what happened to me personally in re this topic. When I came to the Church in 2001, I found the Creeds incomprehensible and related to almost none of it.

    Now, I have little trouble with them, and can assent to almost everything, if not in a “literal” fashion. I find this quite strange, in fact, and think there must be something sort of interesting behind it.

    Good one. I think you’re right to bring this up, BTW. The people I’d like most to talk with and bring into the Church are the ones who have trouble with things like this.

  7. *Christopher says:

    Derek,

    I’m not sure I experience such a cognitive dissonance, but maybe it’s so finally tuned that I don’t notice the shifts. I see these models or worldviews as complemtary in some way but the creedal worldview grounds my thinking about life, interaction with others, ethics. Science can show me facts about something, how it works (at least to a degree) BTW Check out Damien’s Spot for a truly hilarious explanation of male development in the womb, but it cannot tell me what something means, though some physicists are amazing mystics as well.

    And an important part of the creeds for me is that they are actually rooted in a mystical bent as well that takes very seriously the entirety of Creation, not just soul or whatnot. So I guess I’m with you, when it comes to matters of salvation, I go to the Creeds, and I take them literally and more. And that is what often confounds the “literalists” (like Akinola) and “scientists” (like Spong), especially given certain of my condition.

    As for Annie’s comment about ESP. I don’t know what to think. Is it a natural gift, a gift of the mind, a gift of the Spirit? Regardless, how is it used. If it’s used to tell fortunes, that’s a problem IMHO. I ask this because I too have been known to know things before they happen from time to time–{ahem} a recent incident comes to mind. So does my mother and grandmother. My grandmother, a real piece of work, and retired Pentecostal pastor tells everyone this, that she knows things before they happen. My response: So what? So do I. The measure of spirituality in Christianity is how we love others. All of these other gifts without love are clanging cymbals.

  8. LutherPunk says:

    Merton is one of those who tried to hold this respect (some would say awe) of science in tension with faith. This is pretty clear in some of the pieces from _Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander_.

    I also like Huston Smith’s take on science and religion, where he distinguishes between science as a mode of knowing and scientism, which holds science as an exclusive worldview.

    With this said, I guess I am affirming what you have written here. We as the church need to be able to live with a sense of dissonance. I like to think of it (and have preached on) the need to live life in a grey zone.

  9. Annie says:

    *Christopher,
    (Shall I take this to a blog entry or go off topic here?)
    I would often agree that precognition could be the Holy Spirit although I believe also that it can have other sources, if you will. The dead have been known to play a part in it. I’ve heard of it being used for selfish gain and given for selfish pleasure. At any rate, how it should be used is important. Used unselfishly, I believe, it is a good thing, a thing meant to guide our choices and direct our lives. My son is headstrong and pushes against the the world rather than flowing along with it. I think it is a recipe for disaster. Accept what has been given, take direction and don’t do it for personal gain. Certainly, when it is a gift of the Spirit, it should be utilized to live a life dedicated to God.

    A.

  10. Derek the Ænglican says:

    Thanks for the comments. DC over at the Questioning Christian also posted a lengthy bit on it. (I’d do a trackback but I haven’t dabbled in those waters yet…)

    I believe in ESP or things like it and actually had a wierd message the about a month ago; it’s one of those things that will either be proven right or wrong so I’m withholding judgment as a means of “testing the spirits.” 😉

  11. LutheranChik says:

    Great post, Derek, and one that expresses (albeit much better than I could do it) my own way of processing the concepts found in the Creeds. I tend to have my left-brained days and right-brained days, LOL, but I have certainly experienced Christianity in ways that defy the rationalist/reductionist model. So I go with my gut, and live with the tension. “There are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

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