Websites for Episcopal congregations frequently include a “What We Believe” page. Some of these pages refer to or even reprint the Catechism found in The Book of Common Prayer. Others list central theological doctrines like the Trinity and the Incarnation. A few provide accessible explanations of the Creeds.
Articulating what we believe is an indispensable dimension of the spiritual life. A number of detractors have criticized us for failing to believe anything because many of us believe that theological ideas develop over time. We seem to them to be swapping out old beliefs for new ones.
The charge that we believe nothing is simply false. Instead, we mean something different by “believe” from what our critics seem to mean. So in what follows, I want to talk about how we believe.
Talking about how we believe is not meant to provide an account of the faith formation process or to explain how we offer evidence for our theological and moral concepts. To put it simply, we will spend some time considering what Episcopalians mean by the word “believe.”
To provide a sense of where this essay is headed, I will paraphrase Richard Rohr. The truth is eternal. How we grasp it, articulate it, and express it is not. In some Christian circles, there is only one form of believing. To believe means to assent to a fact. A belief-the content of what you believe-is a plain statement of fact. Something like this: the cat is on the mat. No interpretation is needed. What we say simply mirrors the reality in front of us.
Philosophers call this the correspondence theory of truth. The mind is a mirror. What we believe is true when the ideas we champion are an accurate reflection of the world around us. This concept of truth is perfectly workable for our everyday routines. For instance, the traffic light is red so I must stop (unless I am in Shreveport, in which case I must floor it). Or, only this key on my keyring will fit in the chapel door. How we believe spiritual truth differs from how we believe simple facts. Our finite minds cannot fully, perfectly, finally comprehend the infinite mystery that is God.
Take for instance the word “beautiful.” I have called sunsets and Mozart piano sonatas beautiful. We also say that God is beautiful. And yet we all recognize that the word as it applies to these finite things cannot adequately express the perfect, eternal beauty of the Holy.
As Thomas Aquinas put it, I use the same word to talk about finite sensual things and the infinite, spiritual character of God. The word cannot possibly mean precisely the same thing in each case. However, the word provides an analogy that helps us to draw closer to our Maker.
Jesus characterized his own human-divine nature with metaphors: Bread of Life, Light of the World, True Vine. He taught his disciples using parables. Metaphors and parables are not mental reflections of spiritual facts. We return to them again and again to find deeper meaning and to be stretched mentally and spiritually to receive ever more of God’s presence.
How we Episcopalians believe is appropriate to what we believe. Or to put it more accurately, how we believe is appropriate to who believes in us.
We are growing -always growing- in our knowledge and love of the eternal, infinite one who loves us first. Believing for us is not merely our assent to a set of unchanging spiritual facts. Believing is beloving, yielding to an unrelenting love.
How we articulate what we are learning about our beloved develops over time. Jesus does not change. But by His grace, over time, how we inhabit His love will grow.
Faithfully in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Jacob W. Owensby, PhD, DD
IV Bishop of Western Louisiana