Deeper Than Words: Living the Apostles’ Creed

In this book, Brother David Seindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, unpacks each line of the Apostles’ Creed,  one of the oldest and least disputed of the Christian creeds. (The Nicene Creed, which my own Episcopal church recites each week, is a subject of more debate.) The book grew out of Brother David’s work with Christian-Buddhist dialogue, and in it, he attempts to explain how this statement of specifically Christian beliefs points toward a deeper faith that unites all people:

The creed expresses basic human faith in Christian terms, just as Buddhists’ beliefs are an expression of that same basic human faith common to all. Faith—courageous trust in the mystery of Life—makes us human; and each culture, each period of history gives this faith new expressions in beliefs that are determined by historic and cultural circumstances. Beliefs divide, but the faith from which they spring is one and the same. The task of interreligious dialogue is to make our divergent beliefs transparent to the one faith we share.

In each chapter of Deeper Than Words, Brother David starts with an explanation of what a specific line of the creed means and then goes on to discuss how we might know that statement is true and why it is important. Then he closes with a personal reflection inspired by that line of the creed. It’s a good, clear structure that makes an otherwise difficult book somewhat easier to follow.

I loved a lot of what Brother David had to say about the importance of the various lines of the creed, and many of his personal reflections are stirring. The chapters on “The Father” and on “The Almighty” were among my favorites. Here, he perfectly juxtaposes the idea that God is personal and intimate with us with the idea that God’s love is almighty. This loving God has empowered and affirmed us. Brother David also recognizes the value of the image of God as Father without denying the tension inherent in the image and how it can too easily lead people to perceive God as masculine.

Another wonderful section was the one on Jesus as Lord. This passage in particular stood out:

Faith in Jesus Christ as Our Lord finds expression in one’s commitment to the ultimate authority of Love to which he bears witness in the world. Without this commitment, Lord is an empty title, but to make this faith commitment has vast practical implications. If divine love embodied in Jesus Christ is our ultimate authority, we will have to question the claims of all other authorities—respectfully, but no less radically.

So as you can see, I found a lot in this book to like, but I also found a lot of it vexing. If you were to look at my copy of the book, you’d see lots of underlines, arrows, and explanation points indicating passages I wanted to take to heart, but you’d see just about as many question marks and argumentative marginal notes. I often found that I couldn’t follow Brother David’s train of thought from what the line of the creed means to why it’s important. And I sometimes thought he was making big leaps that simply couldn’t be supported by the text of the creed or of scripture.

There were other times, too, when I thought he was too quick to dismiss more literal or traditional readings of certain lines of the creed. I’m all for non-literal readings of scripture and for recognizing the mythic truth embedded in the creed. The difficulty, of course, is determining what we are to take literally and what we are to read metaphorically. I found some of Brother David’s statements to come down too categorically on the mythic and metaphorical side, particularly when dealing with more controversial ideas, such as the virgin birth.

Many of my biggest questions circle around the view of Jesus presented here. It would not be hard to carry away from this book the idea that Jesus only became divine because of his obedience or his anointing by the Holy Spirit. As followers of Jesus, it is implied, we can have the same experience. Jesus is unique, but only in the sense of being first. As a lover of the doctrine of the Incarnation, I couldn’t help but raise my eyebrows at this. The divinity of Jesus is definitely one of the more contentious Christian beliefs, but I felt that Brother David was dancing around the issue in an effort to be inclusive.

Brother David suggests that we are “to go beyond the beliefs that divide us and appeal to the faith that unites us.” That sounds really nice, but I find that, in the end, I’m somewhat skeptical about the project of using a statement of belief to point toward “the faith that unites us.” I’m left with the question of Faith in what? Faith in whom? I fully support the idea of finding common ground and learning from those with different beliefs or those with no religious faith (a group that’s pretty much left out of this book). Still, the differences remain. How important those differences are, I’m not prepared to say—that’s a task I’m happy to leave in God’s hands! I’m just not sure that sidestepping our differences is the best or most honest path to understanding.

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