Belief matters….

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks: Trinity Sunday—Year C; Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

Oh, it’s Trinity Sunday. What pops in your mind when I say, “trinity”? C’mon, word association. Give it to me. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. One in three and three in one—kind of a three musketeers of divinity. Impossible, nonsensical math. Abstract theology. Nicea. Doctrine. THE CREED. Belief writ large.

Yes, discussion of the trinity usually leads us right into a discussion about belief and the creed. So, it’s time for a little congregational exercise. Some of you in the Friday class have done this, but even if you have done it before, you may find yourself in a different place this time. So, please stand. Here’s how this works. I am going to recite the Nicene Creed slowly, very slowly. Stand if you believe what is being said and sit if you don’t. You may go half way in between if you are not quite sure. You may go up and down as much as you wish. So, here we go.

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

So, what do learn from this? Well, there were very few times when everyone was standing, and there were no times when no one was standing. We learn that the community, as community, can proclaim this. And if we have done this before, or if we were to do this 6 months from now, we would probably learn that these beliefs are fluid. The what of what we believe changes over time; the that we believe does not. We also learn that we can be playful with articulating our faith, and the sky won’t fall—indeed, nobody was struck by lightning as they sat down.

Diana Butler Bass in her book Christianity After Religion has an excellent chapter on believing. She walks us through how we get way hung up on what we believe, when the much more important question is how we believe. The important question, Butler Bass says, is How would believing this make my life different?” or “How would this change the world?” She says, How is the interrogator of direction, of doing, of curiosity, of process, of learning, of living. When we ask how, we are not asking for a fact, conclusion, or opinion. Rather, we are seeking a hands-on deeper knowledge of the thing.” Butler Bass continues, “From what to how is a shift from information about to experience of. What is a conventional religious question, one of dogma and doctrine; how is an emerging spiritual question, one of experience and connection.”

So, here’s the deal—when we come to the creed, are we bringing a what perspective, or a how perspective? Are we arguing with its precepts because the what doesn’t make sense, or are we plumbing its depths as a source of meaning?

Belief has come on hard times lately. With all this talk about the collapse of Christendom, with the proclamation by Harvey Cox that the Age of Belief has ended and the Age of the Spirit begun, as we have begun to talk again of Christianity as the Way we are to live and the practices that make up our life as followers of Jesus, instead of Christianity as a set of beliefs to which we must adhere, with all of these shifts, it has become quite fashionable to bash belief.

But belief matters. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that we have to be in lock-step about the particulars of Christian belief. I’m not saying that we can’t challenge beliefs. I am certainly not saying that we can’t question our beliefs—I have questioned my beliefs throughout my whole adult life. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make a stab at giving a fresh articulation of our beliefs. What I am saying is that belief matters. What we believe matters because what we believe drives our action.

Take God. If you believe that God is a judgmental Father, then fear is going to be a huge part of how you view God and the world. If you believe that God is the Father who looks toward the west, who waits and yearns for the prodigal to return, then you are going to have a deep sense of being beloved, and an even deeper freedom to take risks. If you believe that God is a nagging Mother, then either you will constantly be looking over your shoulder having internalized that critical voice, or you will be in open rebellion constantly asserting your independence. If you believe that God is the Mother who, as Hosea says, just can’t give up on that wayward child Ephraim (which was another name for the people of Israel) because she had nursed him as a child and taught him to walk, then you will have a deep sense of security that you are loved even when, especially when, you really mess up.

The question is not whether we have beliefs. Every human being has beliefs that drive his or her actions. The Boston bombers had beliefs that drove their actions. People that have stores of guns in the hopes of being secure are operating out of beliefs that are driving their actions. Beliefs about superiority based on the color of skin or gender or class or sexual orientation have historically kept, and still have to power to keep, peoples apart. So, beliefs matter; they matter a lot.

So, back to the creed and the trinity. Does the creed matter? Does the trinity matter? Yes, to both. Again, do we have to cling to the formulation written in Nicea in 325 and refined over the next 100 years? No—to say that that is the only articulation of faith for all time would make that vision of God into an idol. That cheapens the creed making something into a litmus test that was always meant to be an icon holding layers of beauty and truth. But understanding the need for fresh articulations doesn’t let us off the hook. In fact, it puts us squarely on the hook. We need to come to grips with how we understand this God who creates and this God revealed so vividly in the person and way of Jesus and this God who sustains us still because how we understand these things will drive how we treat creation and how we practice the way of Jesus and how we understand God’s relentless love that pulses through the world still.

As Butler Bass notes, the creed is a profession of love—believe—credo in Latin—I set my heart upon; it is a profession of trust and loyalty. In the original languages, it was never meant to assert an intellectual opinion; to believe was to belove.

Trinity as belief is an icon; it is to stake our life on the sense that God’s nature, in the core of God’s being, is relational—always giving, always receiving; always receiving, always passing it on. If you believe that the foundational matter of the universe is relationship governed by love, then you can’t barricade yourself from your neighbor, then you can’t hoard resources, then you can’t hoard love, then you can’t withhold forgiveness. If your security rests in this web of relationships, then you don’t need stores of guns. If your security rests in this web of relationships, then you can’t set off bombs in the midst of innocents because those human beings are an extension of your being.

So, in the end, I am not quite where Diana Butler Bass and other cutting edge thinkers, are. I still believe that belief matters because from that space, from that world view, from that frame is where our actions are born. To what, to whom, will you give your trust? To what, to whom will you give your loyalty? To what, to whom will you give your energy? Upon what, upon whom do you set your heart? What, who do you belove? Answer these questions, and the actions of your life will follow. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
May 26, 2013