creeds and criticism :: history lessons (part II)

It is the task of history, once the other world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world.

Here, Karl Marx raises his disdain for any story that focuses its attention on an “other world” to ground the meaning of the life we experience. The truth of this world, as Marx sees it, is made of the power relationships expressed through money and control. The truth of this world is the subjugation of the working classes by means of ideology, coercion, and religion – that great opiate by which the masses are kept from demanding all that they deserve in this life.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of man is a demand for their real happiness…. Religion is only the illusory sun about which man revolves so long as he does not revolve around himself.

Properly then, according to Marx, history’s task is to write the real story of what goes on in the world, without reference to “higher” realities or other worlds. The task of history is to set down the meaning of the only world we know in concrete political and economic terms, cutting through all the bourgeois cultural accretions that obscure the real power relationships.

I do not want to pick on Marx here, my brother likes him and I have not read enough to puff myself up as any sort of authority. However, he exemplifies presuppositions that drive modern culture to cut ties with tradition as a relic of superstition, and refuse to acknowledge anything but what can be empirically verified. Marx is not interested in the history of another world, he sees religion as a advertising package meant to satisfy us with paltry rations so that we tolerate injustice perpetrated on us in this life in hope of a better portion in the next.

Martin Luther King Jr. says no less:

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: ‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’ And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, unbiblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I am working toward talking about the creeds of Christian faith. “Pious irrelevancy” would seem to apply to the Apostles’ creed as much as anything. Mumbling ancient confessions while the world burns outside is the stuff that church-critics (myself occasionally included) eat up by the bowlful. So why start off an entry about the importance and relevance of the creeds with thoughts that seems to contradict it?

In my estimation, we should take Marx seriously where he sounds like MLK Jr. and take him a bit less seriously where he doesn’t. What Marx has right is that the history of this world is the only history we have. There is no creation other than the particular creation that God has made. If we devalue creation in anticipation of another one, we cast scorn on the world God loves.

The creeds are important because Christianity is a historical faith – it is the story of this world, not another one. The singular distinguishing mark of Christian faith – what separates it from all other “religious” belief is the conviction that one certain first-century Nazarene Jew was God. If the creator participates in creation, then however incapable we may be of assimilating that truth, truth exists in history. Finitum capax infiniti (“the finite bears the infinite”). If God enters history and teaches us a few things, it becomes important to remember what he says, what he does, and what he teaches (to understate things a bit). The creeds preserve a continuity of teaching that is indispensable for a faith with a historical foundation. Memory is not optional for Christians.

From this standpoint, the creeds function as the church’s memory. The creeds tell the story as best our ancestors knew how. The creeds respresent centuries of struggle agonizing over just the right words to encapsulate God’s action in history. Learning the creeds grounds us in this history, in the history of this world. The creeds negate that unbiblical distinction between body and soul, sacred and secular, because they insist that God has a historical body. Is Christ’s body sacred or secular? What is yours? The distinction disappears in the silliness of the question.

This is not to agree with Marx that the only meaningful history is that which can be expressed in political-economic terms. It is not to reduce history to the bodily and secular. Rather, it is to say that the natural and supernatural are not mutually exclusive. It is not a question of “this world” vs. the “other world,” but of the history of God and his creation. One history. Marx, and most Enlightenment figures do not miss the mark because they insist on the importance of this world’s history, they miss the mark because they reduce that history to what they can assimilate into their system for understanding it. Anything that lies beyond the directly discernable is meaningless.

The creeds belong to the church – they are a matter of faith. The first words are “we believe.” As such, the creeds are not meant to be universally acceptable, they do not intend to prove that which they state. Rather they intend to state that which the church believes is true. Approaching the creeds with an attempt to uncover history and get behind them (whether to prove or disprove them) is a dubious project. It circumvents the history of the community of faith, separating the creeds from their context in an attempt to establish an absolute truth (whether affirmation or denial) on the basis of historical accidents. The church is a historical community, and there is no identity apart from history, but there is no history apart from trust. The scandal of Jesus’ particularity is a mountain that does not move except by faith. We must either trust those who pass on the story or distrust them – it is impossible to ignore them and attempt to find the real story by other means.

All thinking is traditional thinking – it’s a question of which tradition you stand in. Faith and history are inseparable.

Apart from the validity of the creeds, the claim to see God at work in history and the church becomes arbitrary. An irrational bias for the present is disrespectful. To claim that God is at work in this teaching ministry, in this healing ministry, in this interpretation of scripture, and simultaneously to deny that God was reliably guiding the people who gave us that ministry, that scripture, that teaching in the first place is short sighted and erosive. If you undermine God’s faithful presence in history preserving the church’s teaching despite an awful lot of fallen, flawed teachers, it seems to me that you also undermine your own claim to see God at work in your own local setting. This cuts the body of Christ into pieces.

I want to enter into thinking more about the creeds and matters of justice and liberation in a later post (I think that the creeds are an invaluable source in this regard), but a quick comment here might help. If we are talking about historical liberation and justice in God’s name, by God’s power, how can we ignore God’s presence in the history that lies behind us? Salvation offered by Jesus Christ is always salvation within history, not salvation from (i.e. out of) history. But that very claim means that we need to study history very seriously in order to learn what that salvation looks like, what God’s liberation entails. And Christian history (insofar as it is more than an academic discipline) enters the consciousness of the congregation from week to week in the words of the creeds.

More to come…

Quotes from Marx (“Early Writings”) and MLK (“Letter from a Birmingham Jail”) were lifted from an article I read for my thesis: James B. Gould, “Bonhoeffer and the False Dilemma of German Atheism,” Toronto Journal of Theology 14, no. 1 (1998): 19-34.

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