About six years ago, I spent a week at the Chautauqua Institute in Western New York, soaking in music, books, and religious thought — a spiritually inebriating experience indeed. I laugh to myself at that choice of adjective, “inebriating,” since Chautauqua, at its founding, was a very dry community, established to offer spiritual and intellectual riches to Sunday-School teachers during their summer vacation.
This was not my first stay at this mind-enriching, auto-free community on Lake Chautauqua. In the decades between this and my first stay, the place had grown in popularity and had even been cloned elsewhere in the country. It still remains an educational gem, but happily has become more ecumenical in its offerings of spiritual thought and practices from all religions, branching out from the standard Protestant fare at its inception. For example, celebration of the weekend Catholic Mass is no longer relegated to the movie theater, but has been promoted to the Hall of Philosophy.
Checking over the schedule after my arrival there, I was interested to find a lecture/discussion on the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I picked it up on a Wednesday afternoon when Christianity was the subject.
Handouts from the presenter summarized the major tenets of these three religions. The page on Christianity featured the Nicene Creed, first composed in the 4th century to settle a variety of heresies.*
Being a Catholic for most of my life, I thought I knew what Christianity was. Perhaps naively, I didn’t realize that people of other religions considered that the Creed was what made us what we are. So I raised my hand and stood up, a pale version of St. Paul at the Areopagus in Athens.
“The Creed,” I said, “is not what Christianity is about. It’s about the teachings of Christ, which is why it’s called Christianity! At the heart of this religion is Christ’s Gospel of the Kingdom and his command to love God with all our being and our neighbor as ourselves — finally, in fact, to love one another as he loved us. The Gospels detail how we are to do this. Important as the Creed may have been at the time it was written, it makes no mention of the Gospel. Therefore, I would suggest that the Creed is not what makes us truly Christians.”
My experience in that Chautauqua classroom was my first realization of the great disconnect between faith as a triumph over reason and the intellect, and Faith as a reliance on the teachings of Christ. Prior to that day of epiphany, much time had passed since my childhood Catechism classes, my empty status as a lapsed Catholic, and my return to Christ and the Gospel as the central truth of my religion. In short, my faith had simply matured.
I confess that before this epiphany, I had been troubled by certain articles of faith found in the Creed, certainly because they are difficult to understand. Because of the way most of us have been raised, failure to accept an article of faith is to risk our very salvation. But just as we can’t wrap our head around these doctrines, we can’t wrap our heart around them either.
This was a troubling state of affairs, to say the least. Now that I’m back (I thought), what was happening to my faith?
Eventually, I found the filter through which I passed any questions or doubts. I looked for Christ not in the icy Creed but in the heart-warming attraction of the Gospel. There I found all I truly needed.
It is the person of Jesus Christ that continues to draw me to the practice of my faith. It is the beauty of his teachings, the appeal of his goodness, the intoxicating addiction to a holiness that I can no longer live without. In the Gospel . . .
I see Jesus pardoning the woman caught in adultery.
I hear Jesus teaching the Beatitudes to the throngs on the hillside.
I shudder to see Jesus touching lepers to heal them.
I am among the sinners dining with Jesus.
I listen to Jesus’ parables about the kingdom: the forgiving father, the compassionate Samaritan.
Little by little, I find that my efforts to follow Christ bring about a different kind of understanding. In those difficult acts of forgiving, of making peace, of encouraging the sad, of uplifting the sorrowful, — these grace-filled efforts to live by the Gospel shed a kind of illumination upon the Creed which now falls way behind the Gospel in importance. Rational understanding and acceptance don’t seem so important. The brilliance of the Gospel and the attraction of Jesus Christ have somehow introduced a different kind of light into my life that has totally overcome the coldness of the Creed and my difficulty in understanding it.
The more I’ve tried to live the Gospel, the less important has been my need to understand the tenets of the Creed. It seems that a different kind of understanding is being given to me, a more perfect understanding from the heart, in a heart-to-heart relationship with Christ.
Of course I still stumble through difficulties common to us all: people who rub us the wrong way, disagreements within a family, financial problems, etc, etc. ad nauseam. It’s not the Creed that helps me through these situations. It’s Christ in the Gospel who is with me, steering me onto the right path by his side, and showing me how to endure and grow.
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For more on this topic, check Fr. Richard Rohr’s meditation at https://cac.org/the-creeds-2019-01-23/
*For the complete Creed, see the USCCB website, http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/ “Catholic belief is succinctly expressed in the profession of faith or credo called the Nicene Creed.”