Originally written – Tuesday, August 4, 2015
This is the third post in the series “Getting Our Bearings.”
One of the gifts of the Episcopal Church is that we do not require conformity in all things theological and moral. On the contrary, we recognize the value of active, honest disagreement. We believe that we grow spiritually through freedom of thought and lively exchange. Our openness to reflection and critical thinking invites some outside our denomination and some within it to charge that we stand for nothing. This is either a misunderstanding or a blatant slur.
Here is one way to think about how we strive to live harmoniously amid sometimes very serious disagreements. Truth, we believe, emerges from faithful, honest, patient, respectful intellectual wrestling. Disagreements arise from the differing perspectives of a community of people with finite minds. To borrow an image from Hans Georg Gadamer, we inhabit different horizons. In honest dialogue and debate, we strive to fuse our separate horizons into a broader horizon. That broader horizon incorporates these differing perspectives while also correcting their limitations and distortions.
The genius of how we do theology is the humility of the claims we make. We are hesitant to make very many theological doctrines into dogmas. People throw the word dogma around fairly carelessly, and in most cases that’s fine. But in this context, we will be best served by precision. A dogma is a theological doctrine on which the Church-the whole Church gathered in Council-has spoken authoritatively. A dogma is a theological matter that has been settled once and for all. Depending on how catholic you are, such councils have only occurred five or seven times in our history.
The Episcopal Church recognizes the two dogmas articulated by these Councils: the Trinity and the nature of Christ as fully human and fully divine. This is not to say that we have found the final and only way to articulate the nature of God as three in one. Neither do we claim to have found the one simple formula that will best convey to generations to come what it means for Jesus to have been divine and also human in every respect. However, we are committed to speaking these enduring truths in every successive era.
Many other doctrines and teachings are important. We from time to time will disagree passionately about non-dogmatic doctrines and teachings. However, those who disagree with us are neither heretics nor apostates nor blasphemers. They are sisters and brothers in Christ.
Let me say an additional word about how we believe these two essential doctrines. We pray them together. The Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed are not confessional statements that we sign in order to gain membership in the community. They are articulations of the faith handed down to us by the community and proclaimed in the context of the community’s worship.
This is crucial. We pray what we believe, but that does not mean that we first formulate a clear statement of belief and then recite it when we gather to worship. On the contrary, we pray these ancient words to be stretched by them. People have often asked me why we pray those same prayers in The Book of Common Prayer over and over. Those prayers are the gift to us of the wisdom of our community. They offer us depths of insight into and intimacy with the Holy God that we are stumbling and scooching toward. As we say those prayers over and over with our lips, our hearts, souls, and minds grow into what those words say.
So it is with our Creeds. Praying them over and over in community we come to inhabit them. The Creeds are not a litmus test by which we decide who is in and who is out. They are, instead, the community’s articulation of the mystery who holds us together as that mystery’s very own. We can live in harmony amid our differences precisely because we are held together by a common, deeper mystery.
Faithfully in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Jacob W. Owensby, PhD, DD
IV Bishop of Western Louisiana