Over the past quarter century, since leaving seminary, friends, family, colleagues, and students have on more than one occasion taken issue with how I could both be an active member of a Christian church and also describe myself as a metaphysical non-theist or a-theist.
Since when asked what they believe, it is common for Christians to answer with some version, synopsis of, or commentary on the Apostles Creed, I have decided to provide my own short version of the latter below.
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Although I believe that there is no reason why Christians should not embrace natural scientific and social scientific explanations for the natural world and for social action in that world, I also believe that these explanations are not always the most necessary or helpful. This is because mere descriptions of the world—social, natural or otherwise—often overlook what some have called the “dialogical” nature of how we live in and grasp the world around us. The first article of the Creed reminds us (1) that our world is composed, made, constructed, that it is not a mere given datum; and (2) that we, either individually or collectively, are not its maker, composer, or builder. This maker, composer, or builder—what the Creed calls God, the Father Almighty—is that after which we might seek in order to better understand the world in which we live.
But I also believe that the God whom Christians might know is neither a theological nor a philosophical abstraction. Every human community and every individual comes to know God through specific disclosures. Who God is in God’s very essence is for Christians not a mystery. God in God’s very essence is “Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.” The mystery, hidden from the world, but now revealed to members of the community of faith (Colossians 1:26; I Corinthians 2:7) is God incarnate. I therefore do not believe that it is helpful to look for the “real” or “deeper” or “invisible” or “disincarnate” God “behind” or “above” or “beyond” this mere appearance of a God.
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
Although Christians welcome further elaboration of the process through which God incarnate becomes and remains incarnate for us and for the world, the second article of the Creed impresses us from beginning to end with the physical character of this process. Here, again, I believe that it is no more helpful to emphasize the immaterial, spiritual, unseen character of Jesus’s conception or birth by a virgin than to emphasize the immaterial, spiritual, unseen character of his suffering under Pontius Pilate, his crucifixion, his death, his burial, or his descent into hell. Insofar as we are inclined leap at every opportunity to disincarnate our God, Docetism may be the theological error of contemporary communities of faith and nowhere might this error be in greater evidence than in our reflection on the birth, life, death, and resurrection of the incarnate God.
The holy or sacred character of Jesus’s entrance into the world cannot therefore be lost in a general or universal doctrine of reproduction. Notwithstanding two centuries of annually celebrating the wonder of birth and the birth of babies—as though Christianity were some kind of fertility cult—we are interested in this specific woman, Mary, and this specific birth of Jesus, and this specific conception by the sacred or holy Spirit of God; here in Palestine, under Roman rule, to a family whose members were not above suspicion. Christians believe that there is a direct line connecting these specific circumstances and the train of events leading from birth to suffering, suffering to crucifixion, death, burial, and descent into hell.
Christians also believe that this Jesus and the fateful train of events set in motion by his incarnation do not draw to a close upon his burial. This incarnate God and these events have a future after the third day. Here, again, contemporary Christians are inclined to rush quickly onto dis-incarnation and thus to Docetism. But this is not yet the place to reflect on the Holy Catholic Church. Rather, in this second article, we are invited to reflect on a physical ascension into heaven—a place different from the place where we are, but a place nonetheless—and thus to the fact that this incarnate God is no longer here, but elsewhere. But we are also invited to reflect on how this departure of the incarnate God does not diminish his claim upon those whom he calls his brothers and sisters; as though his departure in some way set our theology on its feet again, removing the offense, and restoring God the Father Almighty to his rightful place. That the incarnate God “sitteth on the right hand of God” instead authorizes us to contemplate the ongoing authority of the Crucified God, whose resurrection and ascension do not abrogate, but rather authenticate, what has gone before.
It is then this Crucified God—and not some other, “higher,” “bigger,” “badder,” “better,” because “immaterial” deity—who “shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
the Holy Catholic Church;
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and the life everlasting.
In this third and final article, Christians are invited to contemplate the ongoing presence of the Crucified God. Therefore, instead of stumbling over one another in our race to disincarnate not only God, but also the community of faith, we should here again reflect on the tangible, palpable, presence of this “Holy Ghost” in a Holy Catholic Church and Communion of Saints. As a historian, I must confess a special fondness for the third article, because it invites us to find the incarnate God in the horizontally extended and immanent community of faith. But, again, we must resist the temptation to idealize this community, to de-temporalize it, and thereby protect it from the actual historical process of divine revelation and guidance such as, for example, is brought to light in First Corinthians 12-15. We are authorized to trust this actual historical process not because God has erected protective barriers around it, thus inviting thoughtless, uncritical, assent to a divine witness that is everywhere and always shaped by sin and death, but rather because the incarnate judge of Article Two is also the One Who forgives sin, resurrects bodies, and grants everlasting life. Sacred history, therefore, is not history stripped of sin and death, and therefore history rendered “safe for saints”—the “hidden history” of the “true Church”—but rather is the history of a community which everywhere displays its need for forgiveness and for the healing of a body whose corruption is not synonymous with its materiality.
(In this respect, I am afraid those of us within the Worldwide Anglican Communion may have admitted too much when we rejected the Roman “Holy Catholic” and replaced it with the Protestant “holy catholic”—because no human institution deserved the dignity, or authority, or respect signified by upper case letters. Note that this did not prevent us from venerating saints, who, presumably, are saintly not because they are free from sin, but because they display God’s grace in their lives.)
Friends, family-members, colleagues, and students have on occasion objected to my self-identification as a “non-theist” or “a-theist.” My guess is that this brief commentary on the Apostles Creed will neither satisfy their curiosity nor adequately respond to their objections. My aim here has been to show how I have found it possible to reject metaphysical theism while embracing the incarnate God and the community of faith—the Church—which is His Body in the world. Here, the Third Article might be taken as a summation of this faith. When I say that I believe in the Holy Ghost, I mean the Holy Ghost as displayed in and through the ongoing divine incarnation visible in and through the Holy Catholic Church. For me, this entails actually listening to, learning from, and engaging with the words and beliefs of the communion of saints—and not simply the communion of saints here and now, in my small corner of the world, but throughout time. So engaging with this communion, I have become aware of its everywhere evident need for the forgiveness of sins, of which there are many; but, also, therefore, of our own need for forgiveness. What makes us a Holy Catholic Church is not our sinlessness; even less the sinlessness of our Creed or Confession. For, were “sinlessness” our criteria, we could well dismiss and forget the communion of saints, which from top to bottom and east to west is deeply incomplete and terribly flawed. So dismissed and forgotten, we could then stamp “DEAD” on the seal above our so-called communion of saints.
Only as forgiven and re-membered can we participate in this communion that stretches from the beginning to the end of time; which is what I take to be the meaning of “life everlasting”: namely, to be re-membered and so counted a member of His Body among the living.