In the Trump era of endless controversies, the nationally televised moment was quickly analyzed, debated, criticized and defended during the 24-hour news cycle. While already off the mental radar for most Americans, the incident is worth revisiting, especially for those of us who consider ourselves progressive Christians.
While the Clintons, Obamas, Bushes and Carters dutifully recited the ancient words of the Apostles’ Creed, the lips of Donald Trump did not move. He just stood there stone-faced.
In nanoseconds, social media was on fire.
“What do white evangelicals think of their man now?”
“Is Trump a closet atheist?”
“The words were printed in the program, for God’s sake!”
So why did the president remain silent for the creed? I can think of lots of reasons.
After being snubbed by the families of John McCain and Barbara Bush, Trump was feeling a bit testy. After ridiculing Crooked Hillary, Low Energy Jeb, and denying the citizenship of Barack Obama, he must now sit down with these people.
Our president doesn’t play well with others. To properly recite the Apostles’ Creed is to surrender to the current of an ancient river that will go on flowing long after we are gone. Trump doesn’t like playing a bit part in a drama that’s infinitely bigger than he is.
Trump grew up listening to Norman Vincent Peale, a pro-business buddy of Senator Joe McCarthy who preached the power of positive thinking. Peale was all about believing in yourself. That kind of religion resonates with Trump.
But that wasn’t the kind of religion on display in the cathedral. The funeral was all about George H. W. Bush. The Apostles’ Creed was all about Jesus. Trump is only happy when it’s all about Trump (and, these days, it almost always is). By refusing to recite the Apostles’ Creed Trump made the funeral all about himself.
“Whatever the president’s rationale, my progressive Christian friends didn’t join the chorus of outrage.”
Whatever the president’s rationale, my progressive Christian friends didn’t join the chorus of outrage.
Why, they asked, should anyone be forced to recite words they don’t believe? And since America has “no law respecting an establishment of religion” should anyone recite a Christian creed at a presidential funeral?
But the biggest beef was with the Apostles’ Creed itself. Progressive Christians took to Facebook to register their disdain for an antiquated text that reifies patriarchy, imperialism and an outmoded cosmology. The most controversial line of the Apostles’ Creed asserts that Jesus “descended into hell.” For progressive Christians, eternal conscious torment is a non-starter. So hell is out.
This barrage of negative tweets, Facebook screeds and blog posts hurt my feelings. I love the Apostles’ Creed.
Growing up Baptist in western Canada, I didn’t encounter this ancient text until I was in my 20s. But I was hooked from the first recitation.
In my early 40s I was asked to lead a small town Methodist Church north of Wichita, Kansas, where every Sunday we recited the Apostles’ Creed. Everyone but me seemed to know it by heart. I set the words to music as a memory aid but mostly because I loved the quirky cadence of the text. Phrases like “from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead” set my heart racing.
The thought that myriads of Christians from every tribe and tongue on this terrestrial ball were reciting the same words together set the phrase “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church” on fire.
More to the point, I believe the Apostles’ Creed. Every word. I wish it didn’t bounce from Christmas to Good Friday as if the life and teaching of Jesus didn’t matter, but I endorse every syllable of what it does say.
“Most of the progressive Christians in my orbit grew up born-again and are still reeling from the trauma.”
The Creed says Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit,” and “born of the Virgin Mary.” That’s what Luke’s Christmas story says and I read that story with the innocence of a child. The story sweeps me along and I don’t quibble with the details.
You want to know why so many progressive Christians take issue with the Apostles Creed? Because it ain’t natural. Jesus is born of a virgin, raised from the dead, ascends to the right hand of God the Father Almighty and “from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”
Neither the scientific method nor the canons of historical criticism make room for this stuff. It appears that we must side with the science-denying fundamentalists or content ourselves with the ethics of a first century Galilean. Jesus possessed a wonderful God-consciousness, we say, but he was just a gifted human being like the rest of us. So, no virgin birth, no descent into hell, no ascension to heaven and no return to earth to judge the quick and the dead.
Most of the progressive Christians in my orbit grew up born-again and are still reeling from the trauma. We can give you 70-times-7 reasons why fundamentalism can’t possibly work, each more convincing than the last. Since most of us have never encountered a real live liberal Christian it rarely occurs to us that fundamentalism isn’t the only ditch we must avoid.
Let me introduce you to Gretta Vosper, a pastor in good standing with the United Church of Canada. Gretta claims to be an atheist. She once called herself a non-theist, but now the gloves are all the way off. Since God is merely a metaphor for love, justice and mercy, she says, we might as well throw out the metaphysical bathwater and keep the ethical baby.
The Reverend Gretta Vosper thinks Jesus is terrific. Considering that he came of age in a barbarous and superstitious culture, he was amazingly woke.
“The evangelistic task can’t wait until we’ve worked all the bugs out of our theology and all our questions are laid to rest.”
Of course everybody wants to know why an atheist would want to be a Christian pastor. Gretta Vosper stays in the church because she is convinced that her pastoral colleagues in the United Church of Canada are too hypocritical to admit that they agree with her.
I am not arguing that progressive Christians agree with Gretta Vosper’s radical conclusions, but many of us have been deeply influenced by the de facto atheism of the academy and tend to limit our belief system to what can be known for sure. We are clear about the great moral issues of the day but like to keep our religion fuzzy and ill-defined.
But can we keep the morality of Jesus if we see him as nothing more than a moral genius? “Christian morality is a command,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “its origin is transcendental . . . it possesses truth only if God is truth – it stands or falls with the belief in God.” Or, in the words Dostoevsky placed on the lips of Ivan Karamazov, if there is no God “everything is permitted.”
The ethics of Jesus won’t survive a generation if we are offended by the swaddling clothes in which they are delivered to us. The grit and glory of the gospel story are inseparable.
Progressive Christians tend to think and believe in glorious isolation. If we know community it is generally found on the internet. Don’t get me wrong, it takes genuine courage and deep suffering to wrench yourself away from the very community that nourished your faith, and most of us suffer horribly in the process. But once free of the nest, the very idea of sharing our stripped-down faith with anyone else appears unthinkable.
Not only do we cast scorn on the Apostles’ Creed, we have no interest in cobbling together an alternative. The concept of publically declaring a shared faith in bold, simple terms has become foreign to us. It’s okay to have a theology, but it’s a private thing.
I sometimes find myself falling into the toxic mindset skewered in C.S. Lewis’s The Magicians Nephew: “Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures,” the magician tells his young protégé. “Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.”
The evangelistic task can’t wait until we’ve worked all the bugs out of our theology and all our questions are laid to rest. “If we insist on being as sure as is conceivable,” John Henry Newman warned his students, “we must be content to creep along the ground, and can never soar.”
If our faith is worth sharing, it must be packaged in terms that people without a theological education can grasp. “The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “but how the coming generation shall continue to live.”
My parents were born into a world where people didn’t ask if you attended church, they asked which church you attended. My children’s children will inherit a world in which religion is, at best, optional. The coming generation will have no morality apart from a stout belief in God. We can’t afford to trash the Apostles’ Creed unless we’ve come up with a fitting substitute.