Jesus said, ‘Because you have seen me you have found faith. Happy are they who never saw me and yet have found faith.’ John 20 v29
The creed is one of the oddest aspects of a church service. It’s wholly concerned with stating beliefs, and especially beliefs about the birth, death, resurrection and heavenly status of Jesus. Yet it makes no reference of any kind to his actual teaching about how to live well. Admittedly the prayer Jesus taught, the Our Father, also makes an appearance in the service, but it is the ability to sincerely recite the creed which defines the Christian ‘believer’. And indeed ‘believer’ is often used to characterise religious people of all religions; they are ‘believers’. That’s what they do: they believe things, and in particular they believe things that other people do not believe, and that they themselves might not be able to believe unless they had suspended the mental faculties by which they make judgements in their everyday lives as to what is or is not true. The ancient Christian writer Tertullian thought that the Resurrection was to be believed in because it was impossible; the Counter-Reformation catholic saint Ignatius Loyola told his followers that if the church said black was white they must believe it. There is in religion a powerful current that gives the certainty of belief primacy over knowledge of the truth.
There is a case for saying that this propensity to believe the ordinarily unbelievable is indeed a characteristic of religious people. This would help to explain why over the centuries religious institutions have continued to add to the store of things to believe. The medieval western church for example came up with a whole set of new beliefs about Jesus’s mother, and even today some parts of the church continue to find new things to believe. Belief of this kind gets pretty close to superstition; it was the Reformers who mocked medieval beliefs about relics by saying that there were in European reliquies enough bits of the True Cross to build a ship, and enough drops of the Virgin’s milk to float it on. This attack was one element in their drive to promote the importance of faith over against such superstitions. Ah, yes: Faith. Here’s another word that is used to define religious people: they are ‘the faithful’, and they are said to belong to different ‘faiths’, meaning different religions. I want to try here to rescue words like ‘believer’ and ‘faith’ from their religious entanglement. .
We all need faith because it allows us to believe vitally important things for which there is, and can be, no proof, including:
· that our life can be worth living and our misfortunes made sense of;
· that we can access the resources we need to deal with the problems we face;
· that love can get through to even the most spiritually damaged psyche, and heal it;
· that we can be reconciled with those we have let down;
· that blessedness is within our grasp;
· that we can live with the truth.
We may well have had experiences in the past when we have seen evidence of these things, but even so we sometimes struggle to believe that they will be true for us in the future. Today’s known and tomorrow’s unknown difficulties can seem to be so much bigger and more intractable than those we came through yesterday. If we do have such doubts, nothing can possibly prove them to be unfounded, yet while they persist, they can blight our lives. That is why we can live well only by faith, not by certainty. Yet, curiously, these crucial articles of faith, spelling out the unprovable – and un-disprovable – beliefs that are indispensable to living well, are nowhere articulated in church services, despite being repeatedly if sometimes elliptically expressed in the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. There is here no requirement to try to believe anything about an unseen world, or about the status of historical characters in this one, or about what will happen to us when we die, let alone about the institutional church and its religious practices.
I’m not qualified to say whether these and similar beliefs that are needed for us to be able to live well are to be found in other religions and philosophies. But I’d be surprised if they weren’t. Just as, for whatever mysterious reason, agriculture and cities appeared at very roughly the same time in unconnected communities across the globe, so I assume much the same basic and unprovable beliefs about living well are, broadly speaking, to be found within all modern human societies. No doubt they will often be attended there by similar religious accretions to those we find in our own community; no doubt the tendency to try to lay down rules for living well is not confined to our tradition; no doubt either that other societies, like our own, have fallen into the trap of defining ‘living well’ in unsustainable or self-serving ways. And just as the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth tackles each of these obstacles, no doubt other teachers have tackled them in other times and other places. Part of the challenge we face today is to see past the traditional kinds of religious creed that have served to divide people of good will who happen to have been brought up in different traditions, so that we can together promote the rather un-religious-looking beliefs that living well depends on.
That means among other things being willing to see past our own traditional Christian creeds. The beliefs they spell out are in the end simply not the ones that matter, not the ones that Jesus of Nazareth saw as critical and, indeed, increasingly, not even ones that we can seriously accept. That’s not to say that the creeds never had a valid purpose, never appropriately expressed anything important or were never sincerely believable. It is only to say that, now, any purpose, importance or credibility that may once have had has now been, or is now in the process of being, superseded. As Jesus of Nazareth well knew, things move on: ‘You have heard that it was said to them of old time, but I say to you…’