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Intellect, belief, faith and spiritual life

By Stephen Crabbe - posted Wednesday, 15 December 2010

So which am I: liar, hypocrite, or confused fool? Being what many call “an unbeliever”, how can I retain any integrity as a member of a church regularly reciting with the congregation the Apostles’ Creed?

As explained in a previous article, while convinced that God does not exist I am equally convinced that God is real - the ground of my being, in fact. In this I am part of a growing tide that is steadily transforming the church world-wide. I pondered for years my position in relation to the Creed and have come to a conclusion. To explain my view I invite you to consider the notions of intellect, belief, faith and spiritual life.

The nature of intellect

It is often said that the 21st century is the age of science - thought and enquiry based on logic and empirical data (observations verifiable through the five senses). Science is enormously valuable to the well-being and betterment of humankind, but there is a tendency for “scientism” to hold sway in public discourse. This is an attitude that demands the use of no cognitive modes other than logical empiricism when exploring reality. Enquiry, thought and communication not satisfying this criterion are dubbed “irrational” and hence inadmissible and even dangerous. Much of the recent harsh critique of religions and their practices has come from this position. The critics in this camp decry “belief” and “faith” - usually treated as identical - and want to completely displace them by logic and empirical testing. But what are “belief” and “faith”?


Belief: a barrier to growth of the spirit?

The word “believe” is the source of much misunderstanding in discussion of spiritual and religious matters. To say “I believe you” indicates that I give my intellectual assent to what you have stated. The meaning is very different if I say “I believe in you”: I am now indicating a relationship that is not purely intellectual or objective; indeed, it may be neither. I am saying I accept or trust you as a person. It is different from saying “I believe that” such-and-such happened, which purports to present a belief of the first, more empirical and intellectual sort. And so when people in debates over religion speak of “believers” we need to consider which sort of “belief” they have in mind.

David Tacey has written extensively on what he sees as a widespread but largely private spiritual hunger in Australians that is not being satisfied by religious institutions. In a radio interview some years ago he said: “We've got to throw out a great deal in religion, and get back to experience, that's the Australian need, the Australian hunger, is to begin with experience, not to begin with belief.”

As I understand Tacey, he is referring to the intellectual sort of belief. I agree wholeheartedly with him that this inability to simply adopt “beliefs” deters most people from religious participation in our society today. After centuries of scientific advances and mass education, saying the Creed as an intellectual statement is anathema to the contemporary mind. We should not treat it as a set of “beliefs”. Nevertheless, note that the Creed begins with “I believe in ...”

Why say the creed?

Apprehension of the reality of the Divine can come through various channels and practices offered by the great religious traditions of the world. In traditional Christian churches one way is liturgical worship, which includes a congregational recitation of either the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed, beginning with the words “I believe in …”.

The Latin original creed began with the Latin word “credo”, translated into English as “I believe”. Etymology indicates that those who used the word in the days of the Roman Empire and early Christendom did not do so in the objective intellectual sense. The origin of “credo” was a combination of two ancient words for “give” and “heart”. “Credo” thus meant “I give my heart to”. The heart was - and even today still is in many linguistic contexts - the core of one’s being. In this sense, to say “Credo in unum Deum ...” is a passionate utterance about your identity in relation to the Other, about who you are “in your heart” and how you intend to live.

We should say the Creed as metaphor: a doorway or lens which can lead us to a worldview embracing more than is encompassed by space and time. The Creed can then be what Celtic Christians called a “thin place”: a context in which material reality is so frail that non-material reality - the Divine - breaks through to us.



The Celts were panentheists (not “pantheists”). They perceived God as both transcendental and immanent - not only more than us, but also utterly with us. They spoke of many other “thin places”, such as certain forest glades, streams, and mountains. But they can also be non-geographical contexts like singing a special song, the birth of a child, or a particular graveyard. Many Christians today are re-discovering the panentheistic worldview. Recognition of the value of “thin places” in spiritual life, along with much less acceptance of dogma and literal truth of scriptures, is making a considerable impact on the practices of many modern churches. This direction could lead to what Tacey calls the “re-enchantment” that so many Australians hunger for.

As Marcus Borg explains, thin places like congregational recitation of the Creed can be where we know profoundly, like the Celts, that God dwells in us and we in God.

“These words that we know by heart can become a thin place as we join ourselves in the sound of the community saying these words together. As we do so, we also join ourselves with a community that transcends time, all of those centuries of Christians who have heard and said these words. We become part of the communion of saints, together in a thin place.” [Borg, p.159, see below.]

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About the Author

Stephen Crabbe is a teacher, writer, musician and practising member of the Anglican Church. He has had many years of active involvement in community and political issues.

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