Each Sunday at Mass we stand to recite the Creed with perhaps the most dominant feeling one of relief that the homily is over and that the mass is moving on. The words “I believe in God” are often lost in the noise of people still standing up. What does it mean for the Christian to say “I believe in God”?
Let’s take the “I believe” part first, and then move on to talk about God.
The Latin for “I believe” is Credo, and it comes from two Latin words which together literally mean “I give my heart to”. Thus, when we Christians say “I believe in God” we are doing far more than affirming belief in God’s existence. The very fact that we stand to say the Creed should signal that we are making a promise and a commitment rather than just a statement. We are renewing not just our belief in God’s existence, but in God’s presence and activity in our lives, and our commitment to and trust in God as the very ground upon which we daily seek to build our lives.
Arguably, all of us have our hearts set on something. In a sense we are all worshippers. Some years ago when walking on the Inca trail in Peru I was struck at seeing the shrines to the false gods that people worshipped, gods that very often demanded human sacrifices. Similarly, we think it quite odd that Hindus have so many strange deities. But it is much easier to identify the false gods of cultures other than our own. A Brazilian liberation theologian, Frei Betto, remarked some time ago that western culture is not so much secular as pagan. God has not been so much banished as replaced and this by very familiar objects of worship such as our wealth, achievements, possessions, intelligence, apparent successes in personal or business life, and so on.
I remember one time hearing the late Cardinal Tomás O’Fiaich give a homily in which he recited this little rhyme: “Johnny Murphy went to mass/ never missed a Sunday / but Johnny Murphy went to hell for what he did on Monday”. Similarly, the theologian Karl Rahner alerted us to the fact that we can consider ourselves to be believers in God and on the surface of our lives apparently fulfil all the appropriate and necessary religious duties. Yet God may not really be that upon which we ultimately rely and upon which we have truly set our hearts. Deep within us, whether because of stubborn and proud desire to be self-made men and women, or fear of the vulnerability that comes from recognising ourselves as dependent creatures, or because of a sense of hurt that has left us wounded and suspicious of God’s trustworthiness, there can be a deep resistance which contradicts the words of our weekly Credo. The statement “I believe” might affirm our belief in God’s existence but not necessarily our submission, our gentle letting-ourselves-go into the mystery of God.
The authenticity of our Sunday Credo is always a work in progress. Ultimately, and this is both disturbing and consoling, we cannot really know ourselves sufficiently to judge whether we are genuine believers or not, and even the desire to know this must become part of what we surrender and let go of into the mystery of God’s mercy and love, all the while vigilantly seeking to unmask the potential false deities that invite our worship and adoration.
Vigilance regarding language about God
Our vigilance might well begin with consideration of the language we use and the images we employ in relating to God. For very good reasons St Thomas Aquinas cautioned that it is easier to say what God is not than who God is. We have to speak, and when we do, as the English Dominican, Herbert McCabe put it, “we always have to speak … with borrowed words”, that is, with words, images and concepts borrowed from the world of created realities. As he says, “God is always dressed verbally in second-hand clothes that don’t fit him very well”. It was for this reason, for instance, that the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), taught that limited human beings cannot assert anything of a positive nature about God without at the same time insisting upon the radical inadequacy of such affirmative statements.
As children inevitably we take on language and images that might (or indeed might not) have been helpful to us as children, but which are woefully inadequate and perhaps even damaging to us as adults in our relationship with God.
We are in a relationship with God
We have to emphasise here that faith is mainly a relationship. If any relationship is static, then it is actually stagnating. Just as with human relationships, and bearing in mind what we have just said above about the weakness of our analogies, it must nonetheless be the case that our relationship with God, just as with our human relationships, is something which is (hopefully) growing, but could be decaying. And also, with God, just as in human relationships, we can refuse to allow our understanding and appreciation to grow and to change. Parents can resist relating to their grown up children as adults; spouses can try to “freeze frame” each other in an image of how they once were at the beginning of their relationship. Similarly, we can “freeze frame” God in an image or understanding we adopted at one stage of our lives but which is now inappropriate to and incapable of nourishing our relationship as it is today.
God is not a piece of this world
Because our language is borrowed from everyday encounter, one of the most serious ways in which it can mislead us is by causing us to identify God as one existing “thing”, albeit a kind of “super” thing existing alongside all the other things in our world. But as Karl Rahner said, God is not a piece of this world but rather its presupposition. God is that which enables all that is to be, rather than just another one of the things we encounter along with everything else in our world. If we don’t get this right then we search for God in all the wrong places and in all the wrong ways. For instance, we fail to realise that we have the potential to encounter and to respond to God in every encounter with God’s creatures. But our fellow creatures do not have to be got out of the way or set aside so that we can encounter God. In experiencing and responding to God’s creation we also experience and respond to God as the One who has brought them into being and is their ground and origin.
The poverty and fragility of our images
Rahner also remarked that it is characteristic of mystics that they recognise the poverty and fragility of their images of God. This is not a bad rule of thumb for any relationship. We can know people, and hopefully love them and delight in them, without really comprehending and understanding them, without them ceasing to be mysteries to us. In fact, if they cease to be mysterious to us it is hard to see how the relationship can survive. Similarly, the Christian tradition warns us repeatedly that if we think we have comprehended God, then it is not God we are relating to but an idolatrous creation of our own imagination.
Certainty is a poor substitute for faith
For various reasons it is a real challenge to accept seeing God as in a mirror dimly (St Paul), to let God be a mystery to us, and to surrender ourselves to God precisely as the One who remains incalculable and incomprehensible. Yet it is characteristic of true faith that it takes this risk. Think of Abraham, whom we call “our father in faith”, who had to leave behind all that was familiar to him for an unknown and uncertain future. It is our fallen, less than human nature that seeks certainties. Certainty is not the same as truth; one can be certain and certainly wrong or misguided. The opposite of genuine faith can take the form of a clinging to certainties, even certainties about God, in an effort to avoid, out of fear, the reality that as creatures, we journey as though by night towards God, hoping, trusting, not asking “to see the distant scene / one step enough for me” (Newman). Timothy Radcliffe OP has described fundamentalism as offering “the false hope of a faith without ambiguity”. Perhaps the first lesson we have to learn with regard to our relationship with God is to embrace the ambiguity; live with the confusion; risk sitting painfully in the dark that often shadows our relationship with God, rather than switching on artificial lights that can only offer temporary illumination. TS Eliot expresses this well in East Coker :
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings…
Jesus revealing God’s unconditional love
Christians have encountered, in Jesus Christ, on behalf of the whole of humankind and creation, God’s own ultimate Word about God’s self. He is the definitive reference point in terms of understanding and relating to God. As the Preface of Christmas 1 expresses it:
In the wonder of the incarnation your eternal Word has brought to the eyes of faith a new and radiant vision of your glory. In him we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.
This new and radiant vision is of God who, in the words of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, exists solely in dispensing self, who is like a flowing wellspring with no trough beneath. It is of a God as embarrassed at the prospect of possession going about the universe determined to hold on to nothing (Brendan Kennelly).
It takes a lifetime of journeying in faith to understand fully, and even more challenging, to accept what is revealed to us about God in Jesus Christ. Helpful in this regard is the following passage from Sebastian Moore:
In the crucifixion and death of Jesus) God obeys the deepest psychological law of acceptance: to be convinced of my acceptance, I must know that I am accepted at my worst. God shows me to myself as worse than I had ever conceived in order to leave me no possible room for doubt – that is to say no possible further experience of evil that might create doubt – that he loves and accepts me.
We all have in us this hunger to experience absolute, unconditional love, acceptance and affirmation, and the absence of this in our lives is often the root cause of behaviour that is destructive of ourselves and of others. God understands this desire in us responds to in Jesus Christ. The human race literally does its damnedest, so to speak, by crucifying the one who bears God’s ultimate word of acceptance and love. What is God’s retribution? It is the resurrection! Nothing, not even death itself, separates us from the love of God.
It is time to check, then, that our lived and living understanding of God is one of a God that loves us unconditionally. If we fragile and sinful creatures at least aspire to love one another unconditionally, how much more can God love in this way? St John of the Cross, in a letter to Sr Maria of the Incarnation, urged “where there is no love, put love, and you will draw out love”. As sinful humans this is at best difficult. Where we do not find love we tend to withdraw to protect ourselves from further hurt. What is difficult for us is God’s very nature: putting in love in order to draw out love.
There are resistances in us to this understanding of God. If God loves me anyway, then why should I avoid sin? Why bother practising my faith? If being good is an effort on our part to win God’s approval it is in vain. God cannot not love us, so if we are doing good in order to please God then we have not really grasped that we are loved and accepted unconditionally. Thus, we have an understanding of God unworthy of God’s love for us. Aquinas urged us to do the good because it is good, not because it pleases God. Only then are we really free. If we really grasp what it means to be loved unconditionally by God, and make this the ground upon which we daily stand, our behaviour ceases to be an attempt to win or hold God’s affection, as if in any case we could ever do anything that would render us of ourselves worthy of God’s unmerited and eternal delight in us. Instead, our life and our worship become free and generous responses to God’s love, an articulate Credo, from the depths of our hearts, a daily “Amen” that authenticates the “Amen” we say as we receive the Eucharist each Sunday.
The sin of pride can also be a source of resistance in us, the so-called Original Sin, by which we desire to earn our own eternal keep. As the late John Moriarty used to quip, we can be generous givers but damn mean receivers.
Credo, I believe
Our lives are inevitably shaped by our images of God and reflect the God in whom we really believe. When we are being calculating, grasping, fearfully holding on or back, when clenched rather than open fists embody the attitude of our hearts, then regardless of what we profess with our lips, we have not yet come to believe in the God of Jesus Christ. But when trust, generosity and graciousness characterise our daily interactions, then we are most fully human, most truly ourselves, because we resemble as best humans can the God in whose image and likeness we are made.
Father Eamonn Conway is professor and head of theology at Mary Immaculate College – University of Limerick -.