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July 25, 2012

Why I can still say the Nicene Creed without believing all the words

In trying to articulate my understanding of my relationship to God or to ask, “Who is Jesus?” in modern, non-traditional terms that I can embrace, I am confronted with words and terms and ideas that no longer seem to be relevant in our modern understanding of the world. Certainly we recognize that the three-tiered cosmology of Bible times has been replaced with our new understanding of our universe of space-time, evolution, DNA, etc. But our Christian vocabulary is full of terms like Incarnation, Atonement, Son of God, Resurrection, Trinity, Salvation, Grace, and so on – terms that John Shelby Spong describes, “like church furniture – monuments in place around which one walks with respect. They do not demand to be understood nor do they require more than a proud salute.”

We tend to forget that these words are from other times and from other contexts. They were meaningful religious terms that thoughtful men and women found useful in their attempt to describe their very real experiences of God and Jesus in their own historical times. For example, the first generation of “Christians” were Jews, and they worshiped in their Synagogues, and the first Gospels were written to tell the story of Jesus as the Messiah of  the Jewish scriptures but in a new context.  As such they took the stories of the Old Testament and recast them with Jesus as the participant. For the Jews, this was not an attempt to use the Old Testament as prophesy foretelling the New Testament, but was a common way of telling their stories (e.g., in the Old Testament there are three “parting of the waters” stories: first for Moses, then for Joshua, and then for Elijah). It was the later church that reinterpreted the stories of the Old Testament as all pointing to Jesus. For the early “Followers of the Way”, they were simply telling the story of Jesus in the contexts of the familiar stories read in the Synagogues.

[What follows is mostly quoted from an essay by Bishop John Shelby Spong from his web site. It articulates my own thoughts and understandings as they have developed over the years.]

In this way the early Christians (quoting Spong) “looked at Jesus through Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when the sacrificial lamb was offered for the sins of the people. They also described Jesus as the Paschal Lamb of the Passover celebration, slain to spare the Jewish homes from a visit from the angel of death. The Jewish families celebrated their redemption and freedom by reenacting annually these two sacrifices: the lamb of Yom Kippur and the lamb of Passover. In time these two images created a lens through which they began to look at Jesus. The death of Jesus thus came to be seen as analogous to the deaths of these two sacrificed lambs, the one creating atonement and the other breaking the power of death. That was why Jesus began to be called ‘The Lamb of God.’ This imagery dominated that book we call the Epistle to the Hebrews. The popular evangelical phrase, ‘Jesus died for my sins,’ also arose directly out of these original interpretations of the cross.

“Other early Jewish images . . . were incorporated into the church’s growing understanding of Jesus. There was the ‘servant of the Lord’ image drawn from II Isaiah, the ‘shepherd king’ image drawn from II Zechariah, and the ‘Son of Man’ image, drawn from the writings of Daniel. In this way the early supernatural interpretations, so prevalent in first century Judaism, began to fasten themselves onto the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

“Then as the Christian Church separated itself from its Jewish roots, it developed its own understandings and interpretations of Jesus and what it meant to be his follower. And we today are a part of that long historical process, which means that we “walk in the company of Peter, Paul, Mary Magdalene, Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Whitehead, Tillich, Kung, John Robinson, and James Pike, just to name a few of those who built that tradition. Those heroic, spiritual ancestors of [ours] created tension within Christianity and wrestled openly with its substance. Their goal was to enable their faith tradition and their Christ to be heard through the ages in new accents and in contemporary thought forms. These leaders lived in that stretching between a particular pathway of faith received in a particular historical context and the ever-changing understanding of the faith that was required as the years and centuries rolled by and as the human context changed dramatically. The temptation in all religion is to freeze the faith story in some literal and time-bound form and then to make ultimate claims for that interpretation [italics mine].

“Every Christian generation must sing the Lord’s song in the accents of its day and inside the bounds of knowledge available in its generation. For that song to have depth and intensity, however, it mst be sung in tension and harmony, not with the words of the past, but with the experience of the past. I feel no great need to preserve the words of my religious past, but I never want to reject the experience of the past that caused the words of my faith to come into being.

“As a Christian I seek to separate the experience of God, which I regard as eternal, from the traditional words used to explain that experience, which I always regard as time-bound and transitory. When I reject the traditional interpretation I do not reject the experience that I am certain created the interpretive words. I must, as Solomon did when he built the Temple, take the treasures of the past into the new temple with me. I refuse to turn away either from the hard questions of my day or to ignore the classical Christian symbols of the past. I will wrestle with the scriptures, but I will never abandon the scriptures. I will seek to break open the creeds, but I will never reject the creeds. I will fight with doctrines like Incarnation and the Trinity, but I will never dismiss the truth that people were pointing to when these doctrines were first formed. . . . I walk a fine theological line. I see it as necessary to enable me to ‘sing the Lord’s song in the strange land’ of the 21st Century.”

And so in Spong’s words, I too still “sing the Lord’s song” even using the familiar old words and tunes because they point to the eternal experience we humans can sense as we grow into oneness with that ineffable mystery we call God.

Loren Bullock
May 16, 2009

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