The Heart of Christianity

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-we/
*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.”

What Is “the Church”?

The current state of the Church is, to put it mildly, troubling. The realization of how sin is possible for even the most devout, has led me to ponder and to examine what is my personal attitude toward what we call “Church.”

For me, answers about the nature of Church have come mostly through the writings of St. Paul. I lean on him since he is responsible for the initial conversion of thousands of gentiles, now grown to billions, as he taught about Jesus and Jesus’ message. He most often refers to him not as “Jesus of Nazareth,” but as the Christ. Surely this is because “Jesus of Nazareth” associates him with only one small community, whereas Christ signifies the one anointed to teach the Gospel of the Kingdom to all people everywhere.

“Church” might be thought of as a building or parish as, for example, “I attend St. Mary’s Church.” Or it might be a kind of organization or institution as, for example, “the Pope is the head of the Church.” I believe these narrow meanings are far from St. Paul’s. He plunges us into his mystical understanding of the word “church” as nothing less than “the body of Christ.” He details this concept especially in his letters quoted below, where we learn that the Church has these spiritual characteristics:

  1. It is one: For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. (1 Cor. 12:13)
  2. It is diverse but egalitarian: Whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, … we were all given to drink of one Spirit.
    Unity does not mean conformity!

    Diversity is necessary to serve a variety of needs, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry  for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God. . . so that living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ. (Ephesians 4:16)
  3. Christ is the head of the Church and our model. His teachings must be at the root of our actions. All authority is his. The rest of us (even the least, even the self-proclaimed greatest) must be servants to one another, and through this service, we “grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ.”
  4. Since St. Paul refers to the Church as the Body of Christ, we know it is neither an institution nor an exclusive organization. We fall in love with a Person, not an institution. The Body, the Person is Christ, Jesus of Nazareth who brought hope to the oppressed and an open invitation to sinners of all stripes; who invited all of us to share a heavenly feast.
  5. Just as a body is a living organism, the Church is a growing entity, changing and developing as the current age needs and understands. It grows and is built up by love. The proper functioning of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love.
  6. Individual responsibility. The Church is made up of individuals with unique gifts for evangelization. Christ is in each of us. Each of us is, in a way, the Church.

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body . . . the church, of which I (individually) am a minister in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past. . . it is Christ in you. (Colossians 1:24-27)

The Church, Christ’s Body, is composed of individuals. Each of us, no matter what our position or “title,” has a unique responsibility to bring Christ to both believers and non-believers.  I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible. We who have been given to know Christ must bring Christ to all. In fact, we must be Christ to all. Each of us claiming to be Christian is uniquely responsible for living the commands of the Kingdom, not just for our own salvation but also for the sake of others.

Just as St. Paul imitated the life of Christ, including his afflictions, so  are we called to do the same. Because Christ lives in us, he is seen through us, and every generation of disciples must re-experience in some way the afflictions of Christ.  

Christ invites us to show others how our life is the continuation of Christ on this earth. He is visible to others only through what our life reveals. This is the mystery of Christ in us as we offer the world its hope for glory.