Core beliefs are a “creed.” In Christianity that would be the Nicene Creed dating from 325 A.D. and the derivative Apostle’s Creed dating from about one hundred years later. These Creeds, nearly identical in content, define Christianity, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. Christians, like myself, have memorized these lines and recited them in liturgy for nearly 1,800 years, but this familiarity may have bred a certain thoughtlessness about the implications of each word and phrase.
Over the next several weeks I hope to go through each phrase of the Apostle’s Creed with a personal reflection to claim, along with my spiritual forebears, the essence of my faith. I invite you to share with me.
The Apostle’s Creed
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
“I Believe in God…”
My father’s father never went to church. I did not know him very well. He died when I was nine and his last years were marked by hearing loss, which made it hard for him to understand, and Parkinson’s disease which, made it hard for him to be understood. But by all reports he was a good man: hard-working, honest, loyal to family and friends, a good husband, a good father, a good farmer. I don’t know exactly what he believed, probably nobody did. He never complained and he never explained. He lived as if he believed that a small corner of a cold, unfeeling world could be brought to heel with diligence and luck, and a better world would be left behind for his wife and children.
And yet on his death bed, after his wife and children had gathered and prayed, he had a few moments alone with his son, my father, and he said, “Do you think there could be something to all that?”
It’s a good question, better asked earlier in a lifetime, because it might make a difference not only in how you spend eternity but in how you live your life. Yet, the belief in God is often difficult for highly practical, self-reliant men like my grandfather who distrusted superstition. So, men like my grandfather don’t talk about it. They let others (like my grandmother) worship and pray while they go about their business, possibly entertaining but never answering that deathbed question. Could there be anything to all that?
The answer is Yes. I want you to know that I know and that and you can, too.
I want to tell you about the logic and evidence behind a belief in God. I want to point out that superstition is belief in something without evidence and faith is belief in something with evidence. I want to point out that our most cherished ideals–Beauty, Justice, Truth, for example–must come from holy source; they are not something that can be proven, but we all know them and treat them as self-evident and real. I want to point out that every culture known to history had a religion that believed in God; we are at the end of a chain of wisdom tens of thousands of years old that believes in God. I want to point out the transcendent experience we all have when we witness any one of the three big life events: falling in love, the birth of your own child, the death of a loved one.
All those things are true and I could go into great detail about each sentence, and you may believe me and you may ponder what I say and you may think of counter arguments because there are always counter arguments. But the most important answer to “Could there be anything to all that?” is Yes, I have experienced the Something, I have tested it in my life and found it to be true; it is good, and I want that Something for you, too.
Knowledge is a tool, something that can grow or be modified by new information. On its own, knowledge is not personal, not foundational. It is used to solve a problem, or answer a question, or a way to ask another question, but knowledge only defines a framework in which we interpret reality. Experience defines reality.
My first experience with God was when I was fourteen. I say “experience” because I had already a “knowledge” of God in the Protestant Christian tradition through Sunday School, the Bible Story Book read to me by my mother before I could read myself, and confirmation classes that took three hours of every Saturday morning for two years before the ceremony to confirm my baptism vows and take responsibility for my own soul. Lots of knowledge; not much experience.
By this time in my young life I already knew enough to be skeptical, and it was then and it is now in my nature to be skeptical. The entire Christian tradition could be a myth no different from the myths of the Romans and the Greeks, and for that matter the myth of Santa Claus–constructs created by society to control the behavior of small children and gullible adults. Karl Marx called religion the “opiate of the masses.” Sigmund Freud speculated that God was a construct of our unconsciousness that represented our inner father figure, that part of our unconscious that makes us behave.
Maybe, maybe not, I thought. But on the other hand, all of those I loved and respected–with the exception of my grandfather–believed in this Christian myth.
Then I found myself walking alone in a cold, October rain on a deserted city street, severely underdressed in a tee shirt and blue jeans, wet through to my underwear. I still had a long way to go before I got home. I decided to put God to the test. I asked the Creator of the Universe to make me warm and dry, and since the request was de novo I thought it only fair that He should get a full ten seconds to fulfill my request. If He could do that, I told Him, I would believe the whole God, Jesus, Resurrection thing as true. If it didn’t happen, I would remain skeptical.
I counted down from ten to zero, and was about to embrace the life of an agnostic cynic. I had even formed the words in my mind, “See? There is no God.” At that moment, before I could embrace the words as a thought, much less speak them aloud, the family car pulled around the corner, driven by my brother who didn’t actually have a driver’s license. He popped open the door and yelled at me to get in, which I did, and found the car had already been warmed to about 900 F with the heater still blasting away. In a few minutes I was home, changing into dry clothes and eating fresh-baked bread at the kitchen table.
It seems like a trivial incident, a coincidence perhaps. But the unlikely circumstance of my “salvation” occurring at the exact moment I requested it, puts the experience beyond coincidental into miraculous. A small and very personal miracle perhaps, but still a miracle.
I would like to say that this experience made me a good person, but that would be a lie on so many levels. What it did do was convince me that whatever else I might be cynical about and whatever decisions I made or actions I took, I could not tell myself that God was not real. As I have looked back on this watershed experience, my personal testimony, I think that God may have been laughing at how trivial my request had been.
But now when I think about this story–a kid being alone, cold, wet, and a long way from home, I see it as a metaphor. That’s where God finds us, or more accurately since He hasn’t lost track of any of us at all, where we are open to finding God. Like my grandfather. In pain, certain he would not be going home, and uncertain of what lay ahead.
My dad told my grandfather, “Yes, there is something to all that.” And my grandfather listened, and a few hours later he died.
For months afterward, my dad grieved over the loss of his father. He sat with his own mother every night for several weeks then called her every evening for the next six months or more. But he remained troubled, slept poorly, and grieved until one night he saw his father in a dream. Grandfather didn’t say anything that Dad could repeat later, but only indicated that everything was all right, he was at peace and my dad could be at peace, too.
So…I believe in God…for lots of reasons, but mostly because He shows Himself to lonely, cold, wet boys a long way from home, and old men on their deathbeds.