I read and reread the Apostles’ Creed the other morning. That’s not something I do regularly, but I felt a nudge to check in with it, see how it’s doing, and, well, to see how I’m doing with it.
The Apostles’ Creed is one thing when encountered alone, and quite another when encountered in the company of others. In church services, the “I believe” statements of the Creed—I believe in God the Father … I believe in the Holy Spirit …—play more like “We believe” statements. Or even something narrower, like: “Together, we are saying we believe this.” In group settings, I say those things without worrying too much about whether I can actually assent to each thing I’m saying. I’m participating in a joint confession, more like singing at a concert than speaking from a witness stand. We may all be standing and looking forward from our place in the pews, but I tend to imagine us glancing around at one another, giving half-nods, saying, “This is right, right? This stuff is kinda strange, but we’re allowing it.”
But when I read the Apostles’ Creed alone, in the company of no one, I have a harder time getting past the strangeness. What a bizarre story the Creed tells—a Father creates everything and then has one son, only he has it with a woman who has never had sex. We then get a series of past-tense events that happened to that son: he “suffered,” then “was crucified, died, and was buried.” Then he “descended,” “rose,” and “ascended.” Then we get one present tense action—he “is seated”—and one future tense—”will come again.”
After the story, we end with a series of increasingly outlandish claims. I’m not sure if it’s intended to feel like we’re climbing a ladder of faith, but I find that my sense of conceptual risk increases with every line: “I believe in…
- “the Holy Spirit” — sure, given the story the Creed just told
- “the holy catholic church” — not sure how “holy” or “catholic” (universal, inclusive) it is, but yes, there is a church
- “the communion of saints” — such a lovely idea
- “the forgiveness of sins” — yes, please
- “the resurrection of the body” — um
- “the life everlasting” — I mean, we’ve said all the other things, so why not this, too?
Oh, and let’s not pass too quickly by poor ol’ Pontius Pilate, who is presented here as the kind of inverse of Mary—one said yes to god, and the other killed god. Almost nothing is known about the man except that he had Jesus killed, yet umpteen millions of people have been saying his name on the regular for ~1500 years. Leadership has consequences.
Saying the Creed solo is like holding my faith tradition at arm’s length. It’s like a museum piece, something abstract and ornate. The “I believe” feels almost playful, like I’m side-eyeing a gap between what I’m saying and what I’m actually assenting to. I used to tell people that I had to cross my fingers at certain lines of the Creed, but it’s more like part of me is confessing faith, and another part of me is confessing doubt, acknowledging that there is an almost comical amount of trust involved to cross the divide between what the creed is saying and what I can actually know to be true.
With the front of my mind, I’m saying the Creed. With the back of my mind, I’m thinking: Given all that’s happening throughout the world everyday, all that’s happened throughout the history of the cosmos, is it really possible that this is at the center of everything? Of all possibilities, it’s THIS?
I shared a version of these thoughts with a priest pal of mine the other day. He texted me this in response: “As I lead worship, or preach, or pray, or read, and delve, or try, into the triune God, I realize that many of my friends and family would think that I am totally delusional. That just on the face of it what I do and say is almost too much.”
Yes. I’m glad we’re on the same page.
Obviously there’s more to say about why, in spite of all this, I want to keep saying the Creed, and why I expect that I always will. But my 30 minutes is up, so for now I’ll just make another confession, which is that when I was younger I found all these doubtful thoughts scary, but now I just see them as unavoidable, necessary, and even a bit delightful. As Tom Sizemore puts it in Heat, “The action is the juice.” (IOW: The joy is not in winning—or being 100% right—but in playing.)