Frederica Mathewes-Green on What We Believe
My young nephew Thomas had been attending an Orthodox church with his dad for several months, and must have been impressed by an exclamation the priest makes at the turning point of the service. When the Scripture readings and sermon are concluded, the priest says, “The doors! The doors! In wisdom, let us attend!” In the ancient Church this signaled the deacon to shut the church doors behind departing nonmembers. From this point forward, the faithful would be entering into the holy mystery of the Eucharist. Only the baptized were allowed to remain.
In today’s Orthodox churches no doors are shut and no one is scooted out of the building, but it still makes for a dramatic moment. So when Thomas saw a bumper sticker commemorating the rock band “The Doors,” he told his dad, “That guy must be Orthodox!”
But after the doors are announced shut, we don’t go immediately into the Eucharistic prayers. First we chant the Nicene Creed. This may initially seem surprising; the Creed, we tend to think, is our bold witness to the world of what we believe. But early Christians had reasons to conceal it. They believed that only committed members of the faith were able to handle its details; what’s more, distorted versions of those details had too often led to persecution. So creeds were said behind closed doors, taught by word of mouth to catechumens, and not written down.
Today Christians often feel abashed about exhibiting their faith publicly, and prefer to shut the doors first, but for a different reason. It sounds kind of rude in our society to say that you believe specific things. The governing social philosophy calls for us to believe, in a general way, in almost everything, as if strolling happily through a garden of boundless blooms. The very diversity is delightful, we’re taught to think, and we should not want to limit it in any way. We want to sample and celebrate it all.
Well, not all of it, of course. Some ancient faiths sacrificed children or commanded the slaughter of unbelievers. Some forbade sex and marriage. We can’t affirm that. Some faiths taught a view of women that by today’s standards would be called sexist. Can’t have that, either.
Watch closely, now. What is the principle by which we accept some elements, and reject others? How can we feel confident accepting a faith’s view of the ecology, for example, while dismissing its view of women? What’s our authority for choosing one teaching and not the other? From inside that faith, the teachings about men and women might appear just as necessary, profound, and sacred truths unfolding the sacramental mystery of sex and gender. How do we know they’re wrong about this, especially if we think they’re right about something else? What’s our principle for making these judgments?
Well, um, it’s us. Our principle for accepting or rejecting elements is simply what we like or dislike and what fits our sense of true and untrue. How do we know our worldview is more accurate than that of the original believers who accepted all elements of this faith, both what’s currently appealing and what isn’t? How do we know we’re smarter than they were? Where does our authority to judge them come from?
Do we respond, “I look deep inside and find it”? As with the bottom kitchen drawer, people can look deep inside and find a number of things, some useful and some downright harmful, and the latter occasionally masquerading as the former. We can look inside and find noble truths and selfishness, an urge to rescue children and an urge to seduce one’s neighbor, and an urge to just get a can of beer and flip around the channels for awhile. All of this can be influenced by elements as discouragingly ordinary as how much sleep you got last night and whether those deep-fried peppers are settling the way they should. There’s lots of stuff deep inside, and not all of it can be taken at face value.
Where does this rattling drawerful of deep-inside come from? The humbling truth is that we’re not nearly as original or intellectually liberated as we fancy. We are heavily formed by our surrounding culture, and subliminally adopt attitudes and values that we can’t even see are there, so automatically are they acquired. What’s more, we’re the targets of an entire consumer economy aggressively trying to stuff us with fashionable ideas like a pâté goose, in the hope that we’ll want to buy the emblematic products to show our participation in the ideas. We take communion in the sacrament of Nike.
It is foolish to think we’re immune to this. Eighth-graders know that peer pressure is the most powerful force in forming their worldview and shaping their decisions. Grown-ups don’t know it.
We look at the garden of spirituality as citizens of our class, culture, and century. We are fish in a fishbowl, squinting out into the living room, trying to make out what’s there, and unable to measure just how much the water and the curve of glass distort our view. We should at a minimum acknowledge that the view is distorted. We look at reality as the fish looks at the sofa, a dark green bulge with stubby feet curving together.
One of the best pieces of spiritual advice I ever received was one I fortunately gained early, while still in college. It was that I should give up the project of assembling my own private faith out of the greatest hits of the ages. I encountered this idea while reading Ramakrishna, the nineteenth-century Hindu mystic. He taught that it was important to respect the integrity of each great path, and said that, for example, when he wanted to explore Christianity, he would take down his images of the Great Mother and substitute images of Jesus and Mary. Strangely enough, it was the teaching of a Hindu that broke my confidence in my ability to construct my own homemade faith. That feat of deconstruction was the initial step in my eventual journey to Christ.
I grasped then that we are so indoctrinated by our culture that we can’t trust our standards of evaluation. We can only gain wisdom that transcends time by exiting our time and entering an ancient path, and accepting it on its own terms; we only learn by submitting to something bigger than we are. The faith I was building out of my prejudices and preconceptions could never be bigger than I was. I was constructing a safe, tidy, unsurprising God who could never transform me, but would only confirm my residence in that familiar bog I called home. I had to have more than that.
It is not too scandalous to urge people to choose one of the ancient paths and stick to it. What is more awkward is the next thing that happens: people begin to perceive that different paths teach different things about reality, and some of these teachings are mutually exclusive. If Christianity teaches that Jesus is the only Son of God, and Islam teaches that he is a prophet among other prophets, both cannot be true.
This is akin to having one group of historians teach that George Washington was our first president, and another teach that he was the third. Both groups may be sincere, and both perceive that Washington was president at some time, but one group has come to a mistaken conclusion. (At least one, that is. A third group might argue that both of them are wrong, and Washington was never president at all. Similarly, a third faith, Judaism say, could argue that Jesus was neither the Son nor a prophet.)
This is a discovery that makes citizens of our time and culture feel distressed, because it violates one of our cherished presumptions, namely, that all religions are the same underneath. There’s a kernel of accuracy here: Truth is indeed One, and all sincere spiritual paths are questing toward that one truth, and all grasp some aspects of the light.
Our culture is inclined to extend this insight to a fallacious conclusion: that where religions agree with us is truth, and where they disagree is falsehood. This belief is a modern invention, a quirk of our culture, and though innocently well-meaning, is finally imperialistic. We are likely to perceive and approve those “points of agreement” that accord with our popular idea of what religion ought to be, and dismiss, or simply miss, those that confuse us or violate our imagined universal faith.
Worse, in the process of pursuing this notion we fail to get at the heart of what committed spiritual faith is like: it is commitment to something specific. It is not vague, good-neighborly sentiments that prompt a pleasant smile. There is currently popular reluctance to forming any particular ideas about spiritual reality; the journey is deemed more important than the destination.
Yet the journey must be going somewhere, it must be aiming to arrive sometime and somewhere, or it’s mere idle wandering. If we prefer uncertainty to conclusions, our questing is insincere. We’re playing a game rather than truly seeking. A person may seek long years for a spouse, but on the wedding day we rejoice with him that the search is at an end. We don’t deplore the decision to stop seeking.
Making a faith commitment is similarly specific, not vague. This makes it offensive to those outside; the Christian faith in a crucified Messiah was described by St. Paul as “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). The experience of living a specific faith is often challenging and humbling; it confronts the follower with a grid for reality that can shake up his previous assumptions. It may require profound life changes, perhaps even willingness to sacrifice one’s life. People don’t undertake such obligations for the sake of general good feelings. Only the demands of a specific faith can elicit such fervor.
Our current culture mistrusts fervor; we think it means danger to those following other paths. It is true that some faiths teach war against unbelievers, while others teach love of enemies. No matter what the teaching, followers of nearly every faith have been persecutors of those on other paths, and followers of nearly every faith have been victims.
But this is not inevitable; in many lands people hold different beliefs about a number of issues without killing each other. In fact, most “religious wars” through history are actually wars over property or power, with religion as an excuse. Even where strong faith is present, if the desire for conquest is absent, violence doesn’t arise. In my neighborhood people of all faiths live side by side, and no one invokes the Deity to forcibly seize his neighbor’s shrubbery.
It is possible to believe strongly that smoking tobacco is wrong without rounding up and executing smokers. It is possible to believe that one’s faith is the most right one, and that others must logically fall short in comparison, while intending no ill to those who follow other faiths. In fact, intending them good, you might wish that they would look into your faith and perhaps be persuaded to join you.
A committed follower of any faith could believe that the spiritual food he has found is the most nutritious of all, and wish to share it. Open-minded followers of other faiths can sample it and draw their own conclusions. Nobody has to kill anybody. Killing has been historically demonstrated to be an ineffective tactic for gaining conversions.
When I was a spiritual seeker, I wasn’t persuaded to become a Christian by the Nicene Creed. It took a spiritual encounter with Christ to accomplish that, over my stubborn resistance. But once I became a follower of Jesus, helplessly in love with him, I recognized that the Creed was an explanatory summary that other addicts before me had arrived at. The Creed was the consensus of a group of previous pilgrims on this same journey, about sixteen hundred years ago. They had written it down and passed it along, and each succeeding generation in every nation has been able to agree, “I believe.”
I had a choice: I could trust myself, or I could trust all these generations of pilgrims. Put that way, the answer became clear: I had to trust this vast community of other believers, so I gradually began to be able to say the Creed. Not all at once; at first I just had to be silent at some phrases. But I was willing to listen, willing to believe that I didn’t know everything already. Gradually the fullness of the Creed became my prayer too. This morning I can stand in the community and sing it loud, awed at the beauty entrusted to me, the ringing truths that I Believe.
Frederica Mathewes-Green is a columnist for Beliefnet.com and a contributor to the Christian Millennial History Project multi-volume series. Her books include At the Corner of East and Now (Putnam), The Illumined Heart (Paraclete Press), and The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer (Paraclete Press). She lives in Linthicum, Maryland, with her husband Fr. Gregory, pastor of Holy Cross Orthodox Church. They have three children and three grandchildren.
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