Irish Catholic interview

If you are rich enough, you can read an interview with Martin Kochanski, the author of The Creed in Slow Motion, on the Irish Catholic website. The Irish Catholic deserves your support, especially as it is still, defiantly and successfully, a physical newspaper and has not retreated into the clouds of the Web.

Meanwhile, for the rest of us, here are the author’s thoughts on the theme.

Reciting the Creed risks becoming formulaic. Instead of “I believe in one God,” it becomes “I believe… that I need to keep in step with everyone else, that I mustn’t think about what I’m saying because I might fall behind and it will all be a mess.”

It is wonderful to be there in church, to be together and asserting our shared faith. But at the same time, the mechanics of what we are doing pull in exactly the opposite way. Suppose you suddenly pause for a moment and think, he became incarnate because of us – and that opens out vistas in all sorts of directions, because how is it that we can cause omnipotence to do something? Surely the causing is all the other way? – these are good and constructive thoughts with the potential to change your life; but all the while you are thinking them, you are dreaming and getting out of step with everyone else.

So as with all liturgy, it is a good idea, just sometimes, to approach the words as if we were coming across them for the first time.

A creed is a definition of who we are. And it is also an assertion of the non-negotiable core of our belief. It is possible to get the periphery confused with the core, but it is the core that counts. Thus a friend of mine who was having a turbulent time with religion and the Church in general met a wise confessor who told her, “It doesn’t matter who you disagree with or what idiots you think other people are. It doesn’t matter. Look at the Creed and that is the structure. It is the bones on which it’s all built. Stick to that and you are all right and you can argue with anyone you want to argue with.”

St Paul likes to use athletic metaphors, so here is one from the gym. You may go to the gym from vanity, to get bigger here or slimmer there, but if you forget what your bones and your tendons are telling you, if you forget the laws behind your shape, then you end up crippling yourself and making money for the physiotherapists. But get your core structure right and everything else will, sooner or later, work. So it is with the Creed and our faith.

The answer to “What do I do if I don’t believe this or that doctrine?” is always to look deeper. Nothing is true just because “It says so here.” It is true because it is true; and we can move towards seeing it is true by seeing what sense it makes; and if we think we disagree with it, that is just a cue to look deeper still to see what that sense might be. And that is how the Creed can be approached. Disagreement is just a call to look deeper.

After all, creeds are designed to be a list not of obvious truths but disbelievable ones. If they weren’t at risk of being disbelieved by someone there wouldn’t be any point in putting them in a creed. No creed in the world commits itself to a belief that water is wet, because nobody at all could disagree with that.

So if a particular part of the Creed seems to you to be too obvious to be worth saying, look at it more deeply. Once you have seen how it could be (reasonably, understandably, even non-culpably) disbelieved, you will have a foundation on which to build true belief.

We get most of our Christian education when we’re children, and when we’re children, the dynamic tends to be, “This is true, so learn it.” And yet Christianity is meant for adults, for use in adult life. “It says here” is not enough of a ground for belief, so we need to look again. That means looking again at what you were taught, as an adult this time. And looking again is a liberation.

The Creed in Slow Motion is not just aimed at Catholics. It is impressive and rather humbling to see how widely the book has been welcomed, but for me the most outstanding example is also the first. I have a friend who (I found out gradually) is a member of an African Pentecostal church here in London. That sounds crazy to me but the craziness is moderated by the fact I know and respect him as a person – and I bet he would say exactly the same kinds of things about me. All in all I was rather shy about telling him I was working on a book on the Creed but in the end I told him and asked him what he would think of such a book and he said, without hesitation, “I’d get it at once!” And he has – he must have been one of the first purchasers – and it turns out that his pastor is starting a project to get everyone in the church to focus on the Creed and study it phrase by phrase. So I needn’t have worried. And my friend’s given his pastor a copy of the book and I’ve got my fingers crossed…

The thing is, as long as you know you’re both talking about the same thing, having disparate perspectives can actually make it appear more in 3D, like seeing with the left eye and the right eye. 

The same thing goes for non-Christians. Sometimes they just disbelieve vaguely, meaning “I am too lazy or scared to think,” and that is pretty hopeless. But sometimes they disbelieve in something that they think we believe but we don’t – and once that has been cleared up, the conversation can get very interesting indeed. For instance, they may think that we think that “God” means a kind of cosmic imp fiddling with the world and committing miracles here and there, which is absurd. Come to that, some of us think that that’s what it means. But have a good look at the Creed and you’ll see that when we say “God” we aren’t talking about a god at all – there are no gods – but about what you might call Being Itself.

Of course we still end up disagreeing, because we Christians claim that Being Itself has the quality of a person and we can relate to it as one person to another. That is an absolutely outrageous claim; and the atheist has helped by making us realise that that is what we do claim. And both we and the atheist can agree that the claim really is outrageous. He may say that it is outrageous and false while we say it is outrageous but true. Thus we agree on what we are disagreeing about, and each of us becomes, at the same time, a better and clearer Christian or a better and clearer atheist.

And in particular, as Christians, we come to see that in a deep sense the outrageous claims we make about Being, about our relation to it, disqualify us from ever being ordinary people with a few exotic beliefs. We can never be “just like normal people but that little bit nicer.”

The key to the method of the book is not doing high intellectual top-down theology but its opposite. “Low theology,” you might say: a sheep’s-eye view. The physicist Sir Ernest Rutherford said that no conclusion which he reached was ever of any use to him until he could put it into plain English, into language understood by the ordinary man. The same thing has to apply to theology and to the Creed: if you can’t do what Rutherford did then you aren’t really understanding the subject as you should.

This deserves an example. So think of one of the classic stumbling-blocks for a believer who has difficulty believing: the idea that a good God sent his Son on earth in order to be crucified for our own good. 

On a very superficial level that sounds horrible, even perverse. Clever people have shown paths to understanding it – paths based on justice, or on a debt which needed repaying. But justice for us means highly paid lawyers and debt for us means credit cards. It is as if former generations had cleared paths to the top of a hill from which one could see and understand the whole thing, but with time those paths have become choked with brambles. The hill is still there, and the top of it is still the right place to be, but we need to find a different way up.

But digging in, and looking at the word “atonement” and taking it to pieces, it isn’t one of those grand Latin words that theology is so full of. It is good and old and English. It is at-one-ment, it is the process of making us at one with God and God at one with us. The more you look into this, the more it makes sense, climbing the hill by another route.

The Creed in Slow Motion is full of little exercises like this. They are worth trying. If I am right, that is great. If I am wrong, that is in a way even better, because you, seeing that, will have seen what is right. You will have thought about it and found it.