Sunday, May 29, 2011

Theological Tap Dancing? (or dancing around the center)

One of the skills I developed after being ordained was theological tap dancing. It happens when you have to preach about something that you yourself may not hold to be true, and rather than share your truth, which might be upsetting to others, you tap dance around it. You don’t exactly tell the truth, but you don’t exactly lie about it either. As I started to question the teachings and practices of my denomination, I found myself tap dancing on Sunday mornings more and more. And let me tell you, it wore me out.

When I came to Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Charlotte, I put away my tap shoes. I put them so far away that I don’t think I could find them now if I tried. The love I have known within this faith community has actually freed me to do that. I trust that they will continue to love me, even when I might say things that disturb them. That’s not only liberating for me as their pastor, but it’s liberating for them as well. For my role is not to make good little Lutherans out of them or to tell them what to believe or how to think. I’m here to mess with their minds so they don’t stay stuck in a place of comfort with easy, pat answers but move forward in their faith journeys. You might say my role within our faith community is to be an irritant.

That being said, I’m going to be honest with you about a part of our traditional Lutheran worship that makes me squirm like a worm on a hot skillet. It's the Nicene Creed. Historically, it's been the definitive word on how we Christians are supposed to understand God. My discomfort with saying the Creed in public worship increases with each passing year. It feels like a different flavor of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists have the definitive answer to every question. Fundamentalists must have certainty and they can’t deal with ambiguity. Fundamentalists tell us that there is only one right way to believe. Reciting a creed feels that way to me. It feels like we’re saying, “Here’s what you gotta believe about God.”

Creeds are not about faith; they are clusters of beliefs. There’s a big difference between belief and faith, although most people seem to use those words interchangeably. In Harvey Cox’s book, The Future of Faith, he does an excellent job of making the distinction. He cites a story by the Spanish writer Miguel Unamuno, that goes like this…
A young man returns from the city to his native village in Spain because his mother is dying. In the presence of the local priest she clutches his hand and asks him to pray for her. The son doesn’t answer, but as they leave the room, he tells the priest that, much as he would like to, he cannot pray for his mother because he does not believe in God. “That’s nonsense,” the priest replies. “You don’t have to believe in God to pray.”

The priest in the story recognizes the difference between faith and belief. Faith is more at the core of our being than belief. Beliefs, you can argue about. But not faith. Faith is putting your trust in something or someone. It’s a way of life. It’s a relationship. It’s of the heart. It’s fluid. It grows. A belief is more like an opinion. It’s of the head. It’s concrete. It’s possible that it may one day be discarded, but it never changes.

In his book, Cox separates Christian history into three eras. First, there was the Age of Faith which stretched from Jesus to the time of Constantine in the fourth century. Then, from the time of Constantine until now, we’ve been in an Age of Belief. The history of how that happened is too complicated to get into here, but it’s fascinating and I would recommend that you pick up a copy of Cox’s book to read about it. In a nutshell, there was a shady collusion between Constantine and the bishops that was all about power. Each wanted to use Christianity for their own purposes and it culminated at the Council of Nicea, which gave us the Nicene Creed.

The original purpose of the Creed was to unify the empire by weeding out anyone who didn’t agree. It became the law that led thousands of heretics to be tortured and burned at the stake. Over the next 1500 years, although most Christians quit executing those who disagreed with them, Christianity became all about believing in the right way.

Most of us lifelong Lutherans were educated in the faith by memorizing the right answers handed down to us from Luther himself in the Catechism. We weren’t nurtured into the life of faith so much as told what to believe. Our Lutheran way of indoctrinating children hasn’t served the church well. Is it any wonder that so many people ran from the Lutheran church as soon as they were confirmed? Should it surprise us to see the mess our denomination is in today when we continue to come at the life of faith as if it’s all about rooting out who’s right and who’s wrong?

But now, Cox says, we’re entering a new age, the Age of the Spirit. Much like the early church, it’s an age of faith. We’re returning to a time when doctrinal questions aren’t all that important. There were lots of different beliefs about God floating around in the first centuries of Christianity, and no need to agree on every point. The important thing was not belief, it was faith. Not identifying correct doctrines, but experiencing a relationship with God. In the early church there was never a single Christianity. There were many. It wasn’t until the time of Constantine that we got so hung up on rooting out heretics.

The fact is, despite the church’s attempts to root out heretics, they have always been with us. Thank God! For without them, where would we be? Heresy is healthy for the church. It’s always been the heretics, the ones traveling on the fringes, who have moved the Christian church to a new place. Those are the ones who have been God’s agents of transformation.

It seems to me that if there is any purpose for the Nicene Creed, it is that it gives us a center. We don’t have to agree about everything. But the Creed reminds us where the center has been for the Christian church over the past 1600 years or so. That center remains significant for us as we find our way on the journey of faith. We may be far from the center, but there’s value in knowing where the center is because, in some way, I suspect it’s that center that holds us in community even as it holds us in God’s presence.

My favorite definition of God is: God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. Our Trinitarian understanding of God isn’t the only way God is experienced in the world. For us Christians, it is our center, but there are other centers for other peoples. And while our centers may be different, often our circles overlap so that those of us who have moved far from the center may find ourselves in more than one circle at the same time.

Way back before the Nicene Creed told us what we have to believe about God, the metaphor of the dance was used to describe the Triune God. It’s a dynamic faith image. It’s relational, it moves, it grows, it includes. Father, Son, and Spirit are inviting us to dance with them. And maybe, that’s the key to saying the Creed together on a Sunday morning. It’s not to trap us so we’re forced to tap dance around the truth. But it invites us into a circle dance. Perhaps it’s something like dancing around a maypole. None of us is required to stand in the center and make a statement of belief that is a litmus test for God’s people. But we can dance around that center, some close to it, some way out on the fringes, some weaving in and out. The important thing is that we’re all in the circle; we’re all in the dance.

I so prefer a circle dance to tap dancing.


Shirley K. said...

I used to belong to the Flat-earth Society. They were a wonderful group of caring people for the most part. I would go to their dances and when the lyrics of the main dance song liltingly stated belief in a flat earth, many would say it's just "poetry" or it's "just a dance" or it's just "tradition." Then I became increasingly suspicious that out there, somewhere, there must be other dances where the dance would include EVERYONE, but that the dancers could be so much more honest and authentic and more able to grow and learn new dances. I love many of the people in my former Flat-earth Society, but now I feel so light on my feet, and dancing to other tunes is so liberating.

PrSBlake1 said...

Nancy, I recently went to a presentation given by Diana Butler Bass. She spent some time talking about this - actually a lot of time. If I may I will try to share the essence of what she said briefly (BTW - Marcus Borg also deals with the same issue in a slightly different way in his new book "Speaking Christian"). Bass suggested, like you do, that seeing the Nicene Creed as a list of what you HAVE to believe in order to be IN is not helpful nor does it have to be the only way to see the creed. The problem is the word "believe." The Latin word "credo" actually means "I trust." But more than that - where did the word "believe" come from? It is a Germanic word - rendered in Old English as "be louf" and in the original early German (using modern spelling) as "belieben." The meaning is "belove." If we replace the word "believe" with the word "belove" how does this change the way we experience the creed? "We belove God, the Father.... etc..." It becomes less a statement of propositions you HAVE to mentally assent to - and it returns to being a statement of trust and commitment, which recognizes that we cannot "believe" in anything without the Spirit anyway. I found her insight to be really fantastic and am looking for a way to share this with my congregation. Blessings....

Nancy said...

Have never heard that before Blake. Yes, it changes the meaning and it's something I find much more liveable. Thanks!