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?