Wading through some of Rowan Williams’ academic writing is rather like trying to plow through a bad translation of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. I find myself constantly stopping and asking myself, “What in the world is he saying?”
That’s fortunately not the case with one of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s latest publications: Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007). Put together from talks given at Canterbury Cathedral in Holy Week 2005, Williams writes: “I have tried to keep some of the conversational style of the talks; and I have also tried not to take too much for granted about what readers might or might not know about the Bible or the Church’s history” (p. vii). I think that Williams succeeds admirably on both counts.
In the first chapter entitled, “Who Can We Trust?,” Williams describes what it means to articulate Christian belief using the classical creeds in a way that I find refreshingly helpful. Here’s what Williams writes:
We say, ‘I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.’ The form of words might initially remind us of questions like, ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ or ‘Do you believe in UFOs?’ – questions about something ‘out there’ whose existence is doubtful, where the evidence is hotly disputed.
But, although there are unfortunately many, both believers and unbelievers, who treat the words like this, this wasn’t at all what they originally meant. In John’s Gospel (the ninth chapter), Jesus asks the blind man he’s just cured whether he ‘believes’ in the Son of Man. He’s certainly not asking (as he might ask about the Loch Ness monster) whether the man is of the opinion that the Son of Man exists; he wants to know whether the former blind man is ready to trust the Son of Man – that is, Jesus in his role as representative of the human race before God. The man – naturally – wants to know who the ‘Son of Man’ is, and Jesus says that it is him; the man responds with the words, ‘I believe.’
He believes; he has confidence. That is, he doesn’t go off wondering whether the Son of Man is out to further his own ends and deceive him. He trusts Jesus to be working for him, not for any selfish goals and he believes that what he sees and hears when Jesus is around is the truth. Hence the radical difference from ‘believing’ in UFOs or the Loch Ness monster. To believe in these doesn’t make that much difference to how I feel about myself and the world in general, and it has nothing to do with whether the Loch Ness monster is reliable or not. If it existed, it would undoubtedly be useful to know if it was a creature of dependable and regular habits, but that isn’t what we have in mind when we talk about believing in it.
The words at the beginning of the Creed, in contrast, do make a difference in how the world feels and you feel. They are closer to the formula used by Buddhists when they make a statement of faith: ‘I take refuge in the Buddha’ – the Buddha is where I belong, the Buddha is what I have confidence in to keep me safe. And the Creed begins to sound a little different if we begin here.
‘I believe in God the Father almighty’ isn’t the first in a set of answers to the question, ‘How many ideas or pictures have I inside my head?’ as if God were the name of one more doubtful thing like UFOs or ghosts to add to the list of statements about the furniture of my imagination. It is the beginning of a series of statements about where I find the anchorage of my life, where I find solid ground, home (pp. 5-6).
If Williams is right, then this is the heart of what we’re saying when we affirm 'belief' in God and in Jesus Christ using the words of the Creed:
Credo in Deum.
I believe in God.
I take refuge in God.
God is where I belong.
God is the One whom I have confidence in to keep me safe.
God is the anchorage of my life.
God is where I find solid ground, home.
Credo in Jesum Christum.
I believe in Jesus Christ.
I take refuge in Jesus.
Jesus is where I belong.
Jesus is the One whom I have confidence in to keep me safe.
Jesus is the anchorage of my life.
Jesus is where I find solid ground, home.