Christmas is behind us and the last leftovers have made their way from fridge to waist. Which means it is another 11 ½ months until we get to hear that festive wonder – of believers, agnostics and atheists belting out Charles Wesley’s exuberant Hark the Herald-Angels Sing: “Hail! the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, Risen with healing in his wings…”
Such lines have for me cast a shadow over other familiar words that inhabit our churches – the Creed. Every time I recite it, I feel more frustrated by it.
The Creed is clearly important in marking in stone the edges of Christian belief – what it is, and what it is not. Like a thick wall, it serves to safeguard the flock from non-Christian beliefs and distinguish Christianity from other belief systems.
But in all the times I have listened to Christians explaining their journey to faith, I have never heard anyone say, misty-eyed, they were attracted by Jesus’ being “begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father”. Instead they often talk about the help, comfort and hope they derive from their relationship with Him.
The Nicene Creed, adopted in the fourth century, or the older Apostles’ Creed, make sense when situated in the bustling marketplace of pagan and polytheistic beliefs of their day, and the Arian heresy that claimed Christ was effectively lesser than God the Father. But after centuries of monotheistic belief, our Western default setting hovers between Christianity and atheism, and the arguments against religion have changed.
As Rupert Shortt points out in his new book Outgrowing Dawkins, “by far the strongest argument against faith in a benign, all-powerful providence [is] the problem of evil and suffering.” Sometimes, underneath sophisticated arguments against the existence of God are highly personal ones about unmet expectations or unanswered prayers, leading to a conclusion that God either does not care or does not exist.
Another recent challenge to the idea of a loving God – possibly also borne out of grievance – has come from fundamentalist Islam. Muslims are the first to say that violent jihadists distort their religion; Christians likewise do well to reiterate that portraying God as murderous and petty is a modern-day heresy.
It is these cris de coeur I wish the Creed would address. My problem isn’t so much with what it contains as what it leaves out. God is creator, we are told, but his character – of mercy and generosity – are not mentioned. Much is implicit in a short phrase such as “for us men, and for our salvation, [He] came down from heaven,” but today that benefits from being unpacked. Could it not spell out that Christ came to bind up the broken-hearted, forgive sins, redeem mankind and destroy evil?
The Creed may have been written to fend off heresies but today its adversaries come in different forms. Maybe a new millennium warrants a revised version. I know we’re 20 years in already, but there are 980 left and these things can take a few centuries to agree. So I argue for a revision that is pastoral and poetic as well as didactic, to inspire and encourage, to engage heart and well as mind. The stone wall, if you like, muralled in enticing full colour interrupted only by a welcoming open door.