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“How Am I supposed to Believe That?” Our Beliefs, Our Worship, and Our Everyday Life
-Fr. Michael

Think of all the people you encounter every day. Maybe they’re in line ahead of you to pay for gas, maybe you cross paths in the street, maybe you catch eyes while waiting next to each other at a red light, but the vast majority of them you know nothing about. Sure, there are first impressions, and we can guess at what another person’s life might be like, but we know from experience that our first impressions are often wrong. It’s only after spending time with someone and having conversations that we begin to really know anything about them; and it’s really only after we’ve been friends or acquaintances with someone for some time that we confidently make any statement about who or what kind of person they are. This seems to be the normal and natural progression of events, doesn’t it?

Yet, most of us try to do the exact opposite with God. We try to say what we think of Him before we know Him. We think we have to know or believe something or another about God before we can start to pray, or come to worship. It is a sort of strange way of doing things, backward from our normal experience of establishing a relationship; and so, many people don’t bother with Christianity: they have too much trouble believing some of the articles of our faith. They say, ‘I just can’t believe those things, so how can I even start?’ But, Jesus shows us a way to engage personally with God, and because of His teaching, we call God ‘Father’. If we take that seriously, we see that this approach is sort of the wrong way around. First comes trust, and a willingness to explore and learn who God is; knowledge and the love of Him follow from that trust.

This can be a stumbling block, even for those who have gone to church every Sunday for years. There are people who don’t join in saying certain phrases in the Creed, because there are parts they can’t believe. When we do that, we are expecting the wrong thing from the Creed. People who get married are in the dark about what it will mean over the rest of their lives; parenthood is even more so. Even in our families, we remain mysteries to each other, to some ex-tent. There is always more to learn about the other, and our relationships are always changing. If the behavior of our family members can be beyond our understanding, then it seems reasonable to expect that God’s behavior will take some understanding, too. If knowing other people depended on knowing or believing something about them from the outset, then we would never get to know anybody.

Certainly, believing things is important, but maybe it isn’t the best starting place. If being a Christian is only about believing certain things, then it seems like nothing more than jumping through hoops. There is plenty of religion like this being offered all around us, where members are asked to leave their common sense behind to swallow something that is pretty far-fetched without questioning or doubting. Looking at that approach, it’s easy to see why so many people can’t take Christianity seriously. They’re put off by that kind of demand, and they often come to the conclusion that all religion is the same.

Mainstream Christianity has always taken common sense seriously. We do not believe that God asks us to turn our brains off, we do not believe that we should seek to escape from reality. It doesn’t deal with some dream world, Christianity deals with reality as we encounter it in daily life. The reality we live in, and the minds with which we perceive that reality are both gifts from God.

Perhaps the great confusion here comes from the fact that the word ‘belief’, that we use so often, actually means two different things. Most of the time when we say ‘belief’, we mean that we believe something to be true: we say, ‘I believe the earth is round’ and when someone asks us if an event actually occurred, we say, ‘I believe so.’ But the other meaning of the word is the one the Christianity is more concerned with, to believe in someone or in an ideal, and to trust: we say, ‘I believe in honesty’, or to someone, ‘I believe in you.’ For Christians, believing that certain facts about God are true is impossible without the other sort of belief. Being a Christian has to do with knowing a person, in just the same way that friendship is about knowing a person. If we look at our family and friends, what is the most important thing about them—that we know things about them, or that we know them? The answer is obvious; and just so, it is more important to know God than to know certain things about Him.

So, when we say the Creed in church, are all these beliefs a waste of time? Don’t we need to believe these teachings of the Church? Yes, of course, we do. They are at the heart of our life together as Christians. But it is not simply a matter of believing that certain things happened, like the Resurrection, or the Virgin Birth (although it is that, too). It is a matter of taking that story and making it our own, of realizing how all those events resonate in our life together as a Christian community. We are encouraged to ‘make friends’ with that story because in it, as with people we want to make friends with, we sense something we can trust.

As an example, when we say together ‘He ascended into heaven’, you may think to yourself, ‘I don’t really believe that, so I’ll just keep quiet here.’ If so, then there is a mistake about what this point of the Creed is about. The Church isn’t attempting to get us to swallow some strange thing on a spoon, for our health or otherwise. This is an invitation to strike up a conversation with the faith of everyone who stands around you and everyone who has come before you. It’s an invitation to step into the Church’s great treasure-house to explore things that make silver and gold seem dull and flat, and ultimately to realize that these treasures belong to you, too. If we see our beliefs as trusted friends rather than as pills to swallow, then something different can happen. Then, we can say, ‘Mystery of the Ascension, I don’t understand you at all, but maybe we can have a conversation some-time.’ We need to put on one side for now the fact that maybe we can’t believe it happened as it is told in the story. Instead, we immerse ourselves in the story and gradually get to know it. If we do that, then we see that the story says many, many things; and that it speaks not only to our minds, but to our hearts, our guts, our bones.

The longer we get to know these stories and beliefs, the more we see that they are like photos in a family album. What is most real is the family and the people in it, not the photos. Some photos are well-composed portraits, some are candid shots, some are funny snaps, some are blurry action shots, some are out-of-focus, some show scenes the family might rather forget. But none of them will show us everything, they don’t show how a person walks and talks, much less what their character is, or what their sense of humor is like. For people who know the family, the pictures in the album can be very entertaining or nostalgic, but to someone who doesn’t know the family, the photo album will be meaningless, boring, and remote. It is like that with belief. Trying to believe all of the Creed, which is kind of the photo album of Christian life, only means something after long experience and relationship. And just as you shouldn’t stop getting to know a family because you don’t like one or even a few photos of them that you’ve been shown, you shouldn’t avoid your Church family because you aren’t at ease with all of it.

There is a problem with this photo album metaphor, though. Families can continue to live quite well without photos and albums. Most families in the past, and even most families alive now get along quite well without them. The Church, on the other hand, needs to say something about what it believes. Of all families, the Church is the largest and most extended one. And with any large family, people drift out of touch and start to do their own thing. The Church is so old that memories of what made us one family in the first place can start to fade. So we have to keep a check on whether we’re all still going the same way together. There is a hitch here, and it is that in the end, our belief requires some sort of assent, some sort of acceptance. In the end, we will have to put our trust in some things that we cannot fully see or understand. The doctrines of the Christian faith are much more than mere photographs. They are more like the people in the photographs, they are there to be befriended, trusted, embraced, and relied upon. But we shouldn’t worry too much about how long it takes to get there. All that is asked of us while we are struggling is that we look on them, as we look on the people in our church, with good will and open-mindedness.

Our first impressions are almost always off target; so we shouldn’t be put off by our first impressions of God or of the Church. We need to persevere, and God will be faithful to us and make Himself known.