on belief and doubt

May 6, 2005

In Amazing Grace, by Kathleen Norris, she writes:

I recently read an article that depicted a heated exchange between a seminary student and an Orthodox theologian at Yale Divinity School. The theologian had given a talk on the history of the development of the Christian creeds.

The student's original question was centered on belief: “What can one do,” he asked, “when one finds it impossible to affirm certain tenets of the Creed?”

The priest responded, “Well, you just say it. It's not that hard to master. With a little effort, most can learn it by heart.”

To learn something by heart is a concept more in tune with the ancient world than with our own, and the student, apparently feeling that he had been misunderstood, asked with some exasperation, “What am I to do… when I have difficulting affirming parts of the Creed – like the Virgin Birth?”

And he got the same response: “You just say it. Particularly when you have difficulty believing it. You juts keep saying it. It will come to you eventually.”

The student raised his voice: “How can I with integrity affirm a creed in which I do not believe?”

And the priest replied, “It's not your creed, it's our creed,” meaning the Creed of the entire Christian church. I can picture the theologian shrugging, as only the Orthodox can shrug, carrying so lightly the thousand-plus years of their liturgical tradition: “Eventually it may come to you,” he told the student. “For some, it takes longer than for others…”

What the Orthodox theologian had said made sense to me. It reflected my own experience in the years when I had been trying to make my way back to church, and I felt fortunate to have my process of conversion conveyed so well and succinctly: the years of anguishing over creeds and the language of belief, a struggle that I had endured only because I dared hope that eventually the words wouldn't seem like “theirs” but also “mine.” It was the boring repetition of worship language, and even the dense, seemingly imponderable, words of the creeds that had pushed me into belief. And, yes, it had taken a very long time.

I was saddened and a bit surprised, then, to find that the article elicited mostly angry letters to the editor. One writer equated the Orthodox theologian's advice with “just keep repeating, 'the earth is flat, the earth is flat'”; others read his remarks as suggesting that people not think for themselves. Clearly his statements had hit a nerve. He had directly challenged the notion of Christian faith as a bona fide intellectual endeavor. (It is an incarnational one, and there is a big difference; the flesh consists of not head alone but heart as well.)

[Andrew here. I have to keep reminding myself that my Christian faith is not an intellectual endeavor. The question I'm busy trying to answer: does that make it an inferior mode of existence? inferior to a mode in which one relies only on the intellect, without giving any quarter to intuition / tradition / emotion / fantasy / subjective knowledge? The challenge I've been given: if you answer the question by reference to your religious paradigm, or invoking in any way the intuitive, the traditional, the emotional, the fantastic, or the subjective, your answer does not merit any consideration. The only answer that will be considered is one expressed solely in logical terms, with reference only to the empirically verifiable. I know from the outset that the Xian faith cannot be articulated in those terms. So I am NOT trying to give an account of myself as a Xian that will be intelligible to a logical-empiricist. What is the goal, then? I think to find out whether there are any limits to life in that strict intellectual mode – have I turned away from a way of life that is more loyal to the truth than my own? or will I find that its commitment to the truth is actually conditional, that it relativizes the truth in favor of one of those subjective values it claims to have dispensed with?]

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