WHAT DO WE BELIEVE?

 

The Episcopal Church belongs to the Anglican Communion which is made up of 44 regional and national member churches in 160 countries with about 80 million members.  What all Anglicans share in common is the “three-legged stool” of scripture, tradition, and reason.  This uniquely Anglican approach to scripture, first formulated by Richard Hooker (1554-1600) is that scripture must be interpreted with an eye towards (1) how the tradition of the Church has understood it, and (2) using reason to understand the contexts and principles which the words of Scripture address.

 

Like the very first Christians, Episcopalians are incarnational.  We believe in a God Who is above all things and in all things and through all things (Eph 4:6).  We believe that we live and move and have our being in God and that all human beings are His children (Acts 17:28).  To quote the great Episcopalian theologian, William P. DuBose (1836-1918) we believe, "God in Christ is only half the truth and mystery of the incarnation. Christ in us is the full other half."

 

To really know what Episcopalians believe, you must experience how we worship -- basically, the same way the first Christians did.  You may be surprised to find that no two Episcopalians believe entirely the same things, nor are they expected to -- because faith grows as our relationship with God matures, and we all grow uniquely.  We worship using scriptures and liturgies as ancient as Christianity itself.  Common Prayer, the prayers we share in common, are what unite us with each other, with the ancient Church and with the Church yet to come.  Yet every time we worship, we are challenged to ask ourselves anew, “How do I understand this? In what way does this make sense to me?”  We depend upon our shared experience and upon the Holy Spirit (‘the Spirit of love between the Father and the Son,’ as St. Augustine put it) to guide us into truth as our faith deepens and grows.  And none of us expects to have a full and correct understanding, with heart and mind fully united, until we reach perfection ourselves.  As Paul says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.” (I Cor 13:12)

 

The great religious scholar, Joseph Campbell, once said that religious stories are not important because they happened, but because they are always happening.  That is certainly true of Christianity.  It means nothing at all that Christ was born in Bethlehem 2000 years ago if Christ is not also born in us today.  It means nothing at all that Jesus was crucified, died and rose again if we do not experience crucifixion, death and resurrection in our own lives.  That is the essence of incarnational Christianity: Christ lives in us, and we live in Christ.

 

HOW DO WE BELIEVE?

 

To paraphrase the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, there are two basic ways of looking at the universe. One way is to look at the world as an object to understand, in the same way one might look at an engine taken apart or a science experiment under study.  The other is to look at the world through the eyes of personal relationship and connection.  These two ways of looking at the world are not mutually exclusive.  Both are, in fact, necessary to a well-rounded life and each informs the other.  

 

Whether you are speaking in the language of physics or philosophy, or the specialized language of scripture and theology, God is necessarily incomprehensible and beyond human knowing or understanding. How can you hope to imagine that which IS before anything was? How do you understand that which is “above and in and through all things?”  In speaking of God, theology has a leg up on the other disciplines because theology is always rooted, not in discursive thought, but in the special relationship of prayer. The language of both scripture and theology is always self-consciously poetic rather than scientific or factual in nature, descriptive in a manner intended to draw the hearer or reader into the inward experience of that relationship. Intellectually, we may be able to say definitively what God is not; but we can only speak of what God is in any meaningful way by means of analogy or poetry. God may be beyond our comprehension, but God is never beyond the experience of an open heart.

 

Belief in God is not “beliefs about God”; it is belief in God.

 

The kind of belief that Christianity espouses, inherited from Judaism, is the belief that arises in relationship with God and, specifically, in prayer. It is not knowledge of facts about God. It is rather the knowing that comes from a living relationship with God. “Belief” has nothing to do with doctrine and everything to do with trust.  Indeed, the root meaning of the Greek word, πιστις, is “trust.”This inward knowing, or knowledge of the heart, not only applies to our relationship with God, it is also a hallmark of the most meaningful knowledge we have of one another. My intellect can say, “I believe that I have a wife,” but only my heart can say, “I believe in my wife.” My intellectual perceptions may or may not make a difference to my life, how I feel about my place in the world, or what I believe to be important. But the way my heart understands that relationship, rooted in mutual intimacy, transforms the whole of life.

 

We cannot really know anything about the nature of God except what is revealed to us through our relationships with God, both individually and collectively. Indeed, we understand holy scripture as the collective witness of past generations to that relationship within the contexts of their own times and cultures.  The essential claim of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that God is knowable and personable, if only we dare to enter a real relationship with God, to enter into a life of prayer. As Christians we affirm that we can enter such a relationship through the person of Jesus Christ, who is for us the ikon or image of the invisible God (Col 1:15).  The more meaningful that relationship becomes, the more meaningful and purposeful our lives as humans become.