Belief Cannot Make Us One

Belief Cannot Make Us One June 29, 2016

There is no universal human expression of timeless truth. Humans can neither think nor articulate their beliefs without language. And language is relational, temporal, and culture bound. Yet we also find, across all languages and cultures, that human minds seek to know Transcendence. Language is continually pushed to its limits in order to think the unknowable, speak what it finds, and hear what cannot be spoken. What we have in common as humans is a mind shaped by God for conversation about God.


I was getting nervous. The Orthodox priest was 25 minutes into his presentation on the Orthodox church and he was just introducing the Council of Chalcedon. My group had to board a bus in 5 minutes, and I was preoccupied with how I would politely cut him off and get moving. Then suddenly he was finished. “Question?” A group member asked, “what happened after Chalcedon?” To which the priest replied, “To the Church, nothing, to the people in the church much more than I have time to tell you.” And we got up and left.

Father B. summed up rather nicely an attitude found not only in Orthodoxy, but also among Protestants. The only difference is that most evangelical Christians wouldn’t need to trace out the theological travails of early Christianity as far as Chalcedon. For them religious evolution stopped with Paul in prison in Rome. “Gimme that old time religion . . . It was good for Paul and Silas, its good enough for me.” New Testament Christianity is their watchword, and their greatest longing is to live in that timeless world of encounter with Jesus Christ.

If these romantic fantasies seem a bit a-historical for a modern person I would suggest that a word more faithful to this Orthodox, NT Christian, perspective is transcendent. It is a desire to live in the higher times of God, above the vagaries of history. “Leave to thy God to order and provide” so that “When change and tears are past, All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.”  They can be assured that “the waves and wind sill know His voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.”

The New Testament world clearly seems to be a place where those higher times decisively  intersected human history. The period of the church fathers in which the creeds were written and  the one, true, holy, and apostolic church was fully formed can seem like another. In either case these times seem to be in sharp contrast with the slow degradation that continues to follow until such time as wheat and tares are harvested together and one burned while the other is gathered into God’s eternal storehouse.

If this focus on the past seems like escapism the orthodox would argue that it is actually the embrace of reality, while focusing on this world of change and tears is clinging to a fantasy.

In one sense this is the classically religious position. God, or the Transcendent, is the measure of what is real. It is the source of all value. The human world, the world of historical change and transformation has value only to the extent that it provides bridges from human experience into that real world of God. History is simply the litany of human successes, and more often failures to live both within and out of the perfect, transcendent order of God.

Yet what was missing in the talk of Father B. wasn’t human history. After all, his presentation begins with just that place where history intersects the transcendent in the person of Jesus Christ. True, there is a strong a-historical strain in some Christian thought and expression. But this cannot be said of orthodox theology. It values human history as the realm in which God makes God’s self know to human creatures. Orthodox Christianity accepts history as a realm of value since God gives value to history through revelation.

No, what was missing in the talk of Father B was culture and its bounded nature. He assumed that discussions carried on 1800 years ago, entirely in ancient Greek, could be translated directly and exactly into English. And this is the assumption at the root of much Protestant Christian thinking as well. Among those churches making use of the creeds there is the widespread assumption that if someone says a creed in English they actually believe the same thing as the church fathers meant when they said those words in Greek. Just as among the so-called non-creedal churches there is the assumption that a modern reader of the New Testament in English is believing right alongside first century Christians reading it in Koine Greek.

This is untenable. Belief is bound to the language in which we articulate it to ourselves and others. To believe in God is to talk to one’s self and others about God. Yet accurate word by word translation from any language to any other language is impossible. And even more so when the languages are both different and arise out of substantially different cultural contexts. Even when words in the two languages are rough equivalents they will have substantially different semantic fields: that cloud of meanings that surrounds every word or phrase.

Consider the phrase from the Nicene Creed: οὐρανοῦ καὶ γῆς ὁρατῶν τε πάντων καὶ ἀοράτων in Greek, translated heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible in English, and coeli et terrae, visibilium omnium et invisibilium in Latin. In the worldview of 3rd century Greeks and Latins this phrase specified the entirety of reality in the language of a particular worldview, and usefully distinguished Christian belief about the relationship of God and creation from other extant philosophies in which one entity created earth and another heaven.

However, in the modern context, and in English, the words heaven and earth do not serve to designate the totality of creation. At the center of their semantic fields one word refers to a religious idea and the other word refers to a specific planet among many in the solar system. Similarly the words visible and invisible in contemporary English refer primarily to physical properties rather than making a distinction between physical and spiritual properties. And contemporary conflicts over creation do not relate to competing concepts of the creator, but over whether there is a creator or not. (Although, of course, this isn’t true in every contemporary culture.)

In other words it would be false to assume that modern persons reading the creed as a statement of their belief will be affirming the same things that 3rd century persons believed, because the languages and the cultures in which they are embedded are different.

It is possible to seek out more accurate translations, to work toward a stronger convergence between the centers of the semantic fields in words and phrases. One could study the ancient Greek worldview to comprehend just what these words meant 1800 years ago. But even this study cannot create a convergence of worldviews. We can learn about and describe worldviews other than our own, including that of the early Greek speaking Christians. But we cannot inhabit those world-views in order to believe alongside those of other cultures, even with a complete mastery of their language – something which is vanishingly rare in any case. All we can do is engage in a dialogue with the past. And recognize that the result must be articulated within the bounds of our present culture.

What makes a convergence of belief possible across cultural differences isn’t the human work of translation, as important as it is in mediating cross cultural dialogue. Nor is it engagement in higher criticism that explores the history and culture bound meanings of texts. It is, rather, the continual conversation across cultures in which Christians engage, or should engage.

But to carry on this conversation we must accept that Christian belief neither fully determines, nor is fully expressive of, Christian faith.

Although we cannot share a common belief, it seems to me that we can share a common faith in God. Scripture and the creeds, which are the source of our beliefs, play a different role in the formation of Christian faith. They mediate the movement of the Holy Spirit bringing our hearts and minds into relationship with God. And in doing so the Holy Spirit creates a shared faith across the multiple cultures of the Christian world.

So, to be clear, our mutual reading of scripture and study of the canonical witness in the creeds, mediated by translation and the historical critical method, allows us to engage in an ongoing cross cultural dialogue about what we as Christians believe. These beliefs can never fully converge because of the limits of language and culture. However, through the work of the Holy Spirit we are led into a common faith in Christ.

This is the sense in which we can speak of a universal Christianity. Christians across multiple cultures have always managed, through their shared experience of reading scripture and participating in the canonically guided worship (including the creeds) under the influence of the Holy Spirit, to discover that they share a common experience of faith in Christ.

As I write I’m attending the annual meeting of a society made up of Pentecostals, Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, and Roman Catholics. Our members come from dozens of different cultures, and virtually all have working in other cultures and are multi-lingual.

We work on theological issues together, we worship together, and we never question that we share a single faith and are part of a single religion. Yet because we are all deeply engaged with precisely the problems of cultural diversity, and come from a variety of linguistic and cultural backgrounds, none of us naively imagine that we believe the same thing just because we say the same words, or that we share a common worldview. In knowing the same Christ, we do not imagine that we know him in the same way. Which is the only thing that makes our conversations interesting.

Unity doesn’t come from saying the creed together or even studying it together. Unity comes from a shared faith that leads us to engage in a continual conversation in which a common articulation of our common faith, our belief, is always just beyond the capacity of language, ritual, or polity. And that is good. It means that, like the kingdoms of the earth that will continually bring their distinctive gifts into the New Jerusalem, the unique insights into the meaning of the gospel found in each culture are never subsumed into a single, and ultimately misleading and insufficient, cultural form.

Put another way, we have discovered that there is a single, global, indeed universal Christianity. Yet precisely to be global and universal we have discovered that timeless belief must remain a transcendent ideal to be realized in an ever receding eschaton. God’s people strive together to discover an ever emerging truth out of a continual cross-cultural conversation that of course includes our ancestors in the faith.

This is critical to our growth as Christians, and the growth of the Body of Christ. Each culture and language is limited, finite in its ability to allow persons to think about reality and in its ability to express what is or can be known of God. Yet if there is a lesson that emerges from the scriptural accounts of the spread of the gospel, it is that language as such is unlimited, over time and an endless array of emerging cultures, in its capacity as a tool for understanding Transcendence.

As a result the language that Christians deploy both to think about God and to articulate their understanding of God should continue to grow as we engage in cross cultural conversations about faith, particularly since by definition the object of our conversation exceeds the capacity for language to fully explore or articulate its nature.

This, in closing, has implications for interreligious dialogue as well. If the human mind is made to engage in conversation about God, then a meaningful and rich conversation should extend across other belief systems as well.

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