That Doesn't Quite Add Up

I realise this will be a “well, duh!” for many of you, but this struck me this week, listening to comments on the Pope’s visit to England and Scotland.

So on the radio and TV here, the media have been doing a reasonable job of giving voice both to the faithful and to skeptics and opponents of the catholic church. And, of course, to those who want to go further and rebut the skeptics. Overall I think people of faith have acquitted themselves well in this.

But one thing that I heard, over and over, was a justification of belief in God that goes something like “I believe in something beyond myself”, or “in a creative force behind the universe” or “in the ground of all being”, or “a higher power”. These are interesting, and I don’t know about you, but I can also believe in those things (though I wouldn’t assign them any supernatural qualities). But isn’t this a total bait and switch? You see, Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, and so on, subscribe to this:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, and born of the Father before all ages. God of God, light of light, true God of true God. Begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven. And was incarnate of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary and was made man; was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried; and the third day rose again according to the Scriptures. And ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of the Father, and shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, of whose Kingdom there shall be no end. And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who together with the Father and the Son is to be adored and glorified, who spoke by the Prophets. And one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. I confess one baptism for the remission of sins. And I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.

But this week I haven’t heard a single person defending this. Not one. Not one spirited rational defence of the virginal conception, or baptism for the remission of sins, of the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father, or of biblical prophecy.

I understand that many (maybe even most) adherents to Christianity don’t actually believe the creed, not in its prima facia sense, anyway. But still, I think the incongruity needs to be pointed out ever more strongly: Christians, when challenged, defend something quite different from Christianity. They defend something that even an atheist like me can accept.

The quote is a translation of the Nicene creed, in the form that it was amended and extended in 381 at the council of Constantinople. It is the creed that almost all trinitarian forms of Christianity share in common.



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9 responses to “That Doesn't Quite Add Up

  1. John Clavin

    Growing up Catholic near Chicago in the 1950s, we said the Apostles Creed, so later in life when I heard about the Nicene Creed I was confused. To me they say the same thing, but I guess some will point out important differences.
    Your point here reminds me of my struggle to profess Alcoholics Anonymous as a secular program. I will deconstruct the 12 Steps to have a secular meaning, and many AA members agree with that, but the fundamental members say that I am no longer an AA member because I have changed the literal religious meaning of the AA literature. Even some anti-AA atheist complain about me trying to secularize the religious program. I think this is because if AA became secular they wouldn’t have anything to complain about.
    Even though you point out that there are many liberal christians, I think the fundamental christians and the liberal christians have a long and hard struggle ahead of them.
    Can you imagine being a liberal thinking Islamic person.

  2. Ian

    but the fundamental members say that I am no longer an AA member because I have changed the literal religious meaning of the AA literature

    This is a really important point, I think. I certainly know a fair few “Christans” who are not really “Christian” in the doctrinal sense – they have changed the literal religious meaning of their faith. But they want to be called “Christian”, because that is shorthand for a whole slew of important connections. Access to a community being part of that. That sounds like what you are trying to do with AA too: to leverage the good work and community of the movement, but fundamentally re-engineering the underlying truths. Or maybe that’s too strong, maybe it is fundamentally re-discovering the underlying truths.

    Hmm… Put like that I find it more difficult to be annoyed 🙂

  3. John Clavin

    “But isn’t this a total bait and switch?”
    Rereading your original post I should comment on this. My anti-AA acquaintances accuse me of bait and switch also because I tell them that you can work an atheist AA program and they go to a meeting and hear someone say you must find god to get sober and so much for that.
    So I identify with liberal christians that want their religion to be different, but this brings up a point; Should society try to change religions or start new ones? My last name is Clavin, not Calvin!

  4. I think your well-illustrated point is that “Most Christians aren’t Christians”!
    So then we get to definitions. The Credalists are probably a minority though they may make up a disproportionate number of theologians, pastors and Christian bloggers.

    Most people who call themselves “Christians” are club members, denizens of the Christian cafeteria, cultural latch-ons and such — I am experimenting with phrases.

    If we had an inquisition to test orthodoxy, we could probably easily whittle the Christian population down to a cute, manageable impotent size.

  5. …Christians, when challenged, defend something quite different from Christianity.

    …they want to be called “Christian”, because that is shorthand for a whole slew of important connections.

    I think that is at least somewhat correct. Which makes me think, it is not a matter of belief, but of tolerating cognitive dissonance. Instead of “Believe and be saved,” in would be “Tolerate cognitive dissonance and you’re in.”

    I think I am speaking from personal experience though, I really can’t imagine anyone really believes the premises of the creeds. At least looking back I don’t think I really did. Or maybe that is convenient revisionism. :^) But the premise of your post would show that is generally true of most Christians.

  6. Ian

    attr – I’m with you – I’m not sure I believed the creeds in that sense either. Certainly when I tried to defend my faith, I drove hard and fast for the abstract. It is an interesting phenomena. Not terribly surprising I guess. But my last point I stand by, that this inconsistency and lack of belief does need to be pointed out.

  7. Back in the day I had to recite that Creed. Didn't make sense then and it doesn't now. I believe in the light of light? Wtf.

    Now this comes to me from the other direction. Having argued against the Creed's god, atheists leap to conclude there are no gods of any sort. They can be as smug and self-righteous as the Biblicans. It's exasperating, particularly when they are ignorant of Buddhist or Taoist thought, let alone anything obscure.

    One can reject virtually every thing in the Creed and still be left with a 'god', sorta, creative force. Followers never believe every point of their dogma, so the question for me was never “is god real?” it was “what is god like?” Accepting those other attributes, to close the gap between these two positions, that's hard.

    You've inspired a a blog post. I’ve love to hear your view on it (hint, hint, plug, plug).

    [edit by Ian – I’ve corrected the mangling Uzza refers to in the comment below]

  8. Crap. See, this is why I believe there is a god. It’s up there, screwing up our comments.

  9. Ian

    Thanks Uzza – I’ve corrected the mangling – something to do with an unclosed “a” tag, I think… I’ll head on over to your blog now. Don’t worry about plugging, I think most folks who come here would be interested in your stuff too.

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