What are we doing when we come to church each week?
Last week, the parish in which I serve started a new worship service, one which combines the practice of yoga with reflection and conversation about provocative texts from Scripture and from other sources, like poetry. At the practice session, those reflections led us into a discussion of both our hunger to be intimate with God, and our fear of that intimacy.
It’s an important point, because I think that many of us are deeply ambivalent about this faith we practice -- not only about whether it’s true, how much of it is true, how it relates to other faiths -- but also about whether we really want it to be true, whether we really want what it offers. The writer Annie Dillard sums this up perfectly when she describes liturgy as “certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.” (Holy the Firm) She thinks of people as having this compulsion to try to address the Maker of the Universe, but of God as a fearsome and unpredictable power. Dillard continues, “in the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.”
Today is the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, who is one of the great theologians of the church. Aquinas wrote book after book, something on the order of an old Encyclopedia Brittanica, dictating to four secretaries at once, which was the only way to keep up with the pace of his thoughts. But at the end of his life, he had a vision of God, and after that, he laid down his pen, saying, “I can write no more. All that I have written seems to me as straw.” Compared to the experience of God, all our doctrine is as dust.
And yet, we need the doctrine to get us there. That’s the paradox.
The Rev. Sam Norton, a priest in the Church of England, recently wrote a post on the Creeds which I think is brilliant. He compares them to the instructions in a box of Legos: “They are a guide to how things fit together. In just the same way that Lego instructions, if followed carefully, allow for the particular toy to be built so that it looks like the picture on the front of the box, so too do the creeds, if followed carefully, allow us to look like the ‘picture’ on our boxes; that is, they enable us to look like children of God, to look like Jesus.” (Elizaphanian.com, Jan 9, 2014)
What I love about this is that Norton focuses not on the effect the Creeds have on our doctrine, but the effect that good theology has on us: good theology enables us to be transformed more and more clearly into the image of God. And the creeds do this in three ways:
- They are difficult to understand. This is a good thing. Our greatest temptation, I think, is to create God in our own image, making God a bigger projection of our own values, virtues, and faults. That’s where that violent God Dillard was speaking about comes from: he’s a blown-up-to-giant-size human being. But the creeds remind us that God is beyond our comprehension. They invite us onto the holy ground of Mystery, the place where all our conceptions fall away, and we can move toward God, not with our minds, but only in reverence and wonder and awe.
- They hold up the biggest image possible of both God and human beings. If you study the development of the Creeds, the first thing you notice is that they were not self-evident. The church fought to get these teachings, struggled to find words and concepts that could even begin to gesture toward the Almighty. The full equality of Jesus with God the Father took three centuries of struggle to understand. The full equality of the Spirit took still longer. And at each stage, there were other ideas, prevalent ideas. And those ideas shared one thing in common: every single one of them rested in the idea that human beings weren’t nearly good enough to encompass the divine. Jesus couldn’t really have been human, because the idea of God really being human was, somehow, revolting. But over and over, the champions of what became orthodoxy held up the contrary idea: however strange it may seem, Jesus really was one of us. It is hard to think of any greater statement of human potential: each one of us-- man, woman, child, gay, straight, old, young, black, white, brown, athletic or wheel-chair bound, Down’s syndrome or Einstein -- wears flesh that once housed the very Son of God. Accept that teaching, and our denigration of one another is revealed as the blasphemy that it is. Every one of us is a place where the human spirit reaches toward the face of God. Full stop.
- They show us we are bound in relationship with one another. The Trinity is a baffling thing, and I’m not going to try to explain it here, but if it means anything at all, it means that God is community, God is relationship, and so we must be in community, too. We are not meant to be isolated and lonely. We are not meant to be self-sufficient and omni-competent. We are meant to be dependable: people who depend on others, and upon whom others can depend. We need one another to be human. We give one another our humanity.
That’s what we are saying each week, when we stammer through those difficult words. We are not speaking academic prose, but the poetry of a lover: Your eyes are like the summer skies. Your heart is a gracious palace filled with light. Each of these images gestures toward a human truth that we cannot say outright, in plain language. Just so, the Creeds gesture toward the Mystery, nudging us beyond our small minds, beyond our small lives, until we can see the Face of God, and live.
Deborah Meister is the rector at St. Alban's parish.