This is an odd sort of prayer, the Apostles' Creed. It doesn't praise or give thanks to God. Nor does it ask for anything, not even forgiveness.
The Creed doesn't do the sorts of things we normally expect a prayer to do. Rather, it simply seems to asserts that a list of propositions is true. What sort of prayer is that?
Yet, the Creed is one of two prayers at the centre of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The other is the Lord's Prayer, the Our Father.
Together, exposition of the content of these two prayers makes up close to half of the church's chief reference book on the faith.
Moreover, the catechism puts great stock in the recitation of the Creed. "To say the Creed with faith is to enter into communion with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and also with the whole church" (no. 197).
Now, reciting a list of propositions is not what we normally think of when we recall instances of communion with God. When we think of such moments, many of us tend to think of experiences such as watching the sun rise over the Prairie horizon. When we think of communion with others, we might think of great conversation, aided by a few beers, with close friends around a campfire.
Reciting propositions pales in comparison with such experiences of oneness with God, nature and humanity.
The later British writer C.S. Lewis recalled giving a talk on Christianity to a group in the air force. An old hard-bitten officer got up and told him "'I've no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I'm a religious man too. I know there's a God. I've felt him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that's just why I don't believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about him. To anyone who's met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal.'"
Lewis admitted the man "probably had a real experience of God in the desert. And when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he really was turning from something real to something less real."
He compares the man's experience in the desert with sailing the ocean. Looking at a map of the ocean is far less real than sailing on it. But the map, he notes, "is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. . . . (And) if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary."
His conclusion: "Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map." What the man experienced in the desert "was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. . . . That is why a vague religion — all about feeling God in nature and so on — is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work" (Mere Christianity, pp. 131-32).
Lewis gives us a start in understanding the nature of the Creed. But when you get down to it, the Creed is more like a wedding vow than like a map. To call it a list of propositions does not do justice to the Creed. Maps and propositions aim to describe a reality outside of oneself. But while the Creed does that, it also makes a statement about the basic orientation of one's life.
The Creed does not begin "It is true that . . .". Rather, it begins with "I believe . . .". Thus, it describes both an objective and a subjective reality.
In marriage, we promise to live in a certain way, a way quite different than how we lived previously. The wedding vow makes a promise, rather than a prediction, about the future. Now, the vow is not the experience of communion which gave rise to these two people committing themselves to each other. But it is a promise to make a lasting communion — a communion of much greater importance than a mystical moment in the desert.
Baptism is our wedding with God and his people. It is a radical reorientation of our lives. No longer will our main focus in life be on what is visible and practical. We are now turned towards the invisible. We live in the visible world as pilgrims from another kingdom, pilgrims who will influence the visible world with the values of the invisible. Together, we Christians are wedded to the unseen God who became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ and who continues to be present among us today.
So, if the Creed presents us with doctrine — 12 articles of faith — that doctrine must always be at the service of spirituality — our drawing close to this God. This is a point particularly well appreciated in the Christian East.
Says Russian Orthodox Father George Florovsky: "The church gives us not a system, but a key; not a plan of God's city, but the means of entering it.
"Perhaps someone will lose his way because he has no plan. But all that he will see, he will see without a mediator, he will see it directly, it will be real for him; while he who has studied only the plan risks remaining outside and not really finding anything."
The Orthodox tend to resist the dogmatic formulations of the Christian West. Such resistance stems not from disagreement with the articles of faith, but from a fear of over-emphasizing the map and ignoring the spiritual communion between the individual and God.
But the Roman tradition has a response. It can point to the multitude of evils in the contemporary world and maintain that such evil runs rampant because society has cast aside all maps. A subjective communion not anchored in objective truth can run aground on the rock of relativism.
We need not choose between doctrine and spiritual communion. We need to choose both. We need to reorient our lives toward the invisible God. The Creed, like a wedding vow, is an essential step in that reorientation. But we do not carry out the reorientation by reciting these words; we do it through the decisions and actions of daily life.
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