Protecting the Absolute Truth

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine & Life, March 2001

At about the time that Dominus Iesus hit the news I heard a woman friend say, in more than a little frustration: “I say the creed every Sunday – but I still don’t really know what it means for me!”

As Dominus Iesus begins by reciting what we call the Nicene Creed as the essence of the absolute truth it defends against ‘relativism’, I find this an interesting coincidence. If the creed is the closest we can come to a summary of the absolute core of our faith, yet that summary baffles and frustrates an intelligent person with a lifetime’s experience of listening to it, we have a problem. Especially in explaining and justifying that faith to a younger generation whose attention span is determined by television.

Thinking about this further I remembered an exchange I had once had with an enthusiastic opponent of the church. “If you believe you possess the absolute truth,” this chap insisted, “you will feel yourself entitled to impose it upon me at whatever cost. Religious faith is necessarily abusive.”

Before protesting in the name of the many gentle and faith-filled people we know, we would do well to ponder the historical context from which this perception comes. The Nicene Creed dates from the fourth century CE– which means that it was already seven centuries old when the first Crusade led directly to the slaughter of 40,000 Muslims and Jews by Christian knights in Jerusalem in 1099 CE. Presumably some of those knights could have recited a version of this formula if asked to do so. Certainly Pope Urban II, who inspired this first crusade, could have done so.

The point is that an ability to recite the Creed seems to be entirely compatible with an ability to disembowel someone who doesn’t accept it – as indeed some of these Christians did – in the search for the gold they believed their enemies to have swallowed.

This seems to mean that we can hold staunchly to ‘the faith’ while simultaneously associating Christ – its centre – with the most frenzied violence. A question follows inevitably: of what use in the end are verbal formulae, since even the greatest of them may be deprived by their staunchest adherents of any meaning? A second question follows for the creed specifically: what absolute truth does it relate that we must hold superior to the religious wisdom of the rest of humanity? This meaning cannot be immediately conveyed by the words in which it is expressed – for otherwise no Christian could have betrayed it. And my friend could not have been frustrated by her inability to catch its meaning for her personally. We are faced with a fundamental problem of meaning – the meaning of the events the creeds relate.

Starting with this second question, it is clear that both creeds are a kind of compressed narrative relating the relationship of the Trinity to human history and to human concerns. Centrally they relate the incarnation, condemnation, execution, resurrection and ultimate elevation of Jesus of Nazareth to the role of supreme King and Judge.

The meaning of any narrative cannot be determined in complete isolation. For example, we cannot fully interpret Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar or Macbeth unless we become somehow involved in the problem of political ambition as posed by western culture. When Cassius suborns Brutus we will fall asleep unless somehow engaged in the problem posed: how can male self-respect survive under an emerging tyranny and personality cult? The meaning of the narrative – that is, the truth conveyed dramatically by it – is that we have here a dilemma of real, general importance – especially in eras of politically concentrated power such as that of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

Yet we recite the creed as though its meaning were somehow contained within itself – in complete isolation from the rest of human history. And it is this that effectively deprives it of any meaning, any significance, for us. It becomes a formula that might be in Chinese for all the difference it makes to how we think about our dilemmas and fixations today. We may congratulate ourselves on not confusing the Nicene with the Apostles creed, but its meaning must be for God to interpret, as we leave it fully behind us when once this test of memory has been passed.

What happens if we do something that at first appears irreverent – juxtapose it with other well known texts and narratives – ‘stories’ – that might be comparable? The most obvious is the story of David as related in the Old Testament – as David was the model hero in the Jewish mind.

David’s story is again one of youthful recognition by God, and also youthful glory as the slayer of Goliath. This achievement sent the Philistines home straightaway, and rescued Saul, the first Jewish king, from military humiliation. But humiliation of another kind soon followed, for the women of Israel then made David supreme in their songs, to Saul’s chagrin. The result? The king whom David had rescued became his bitterest enemy – for kings were supposed to be the supreme military heroes of their people. The hero raised up by God necessarily humiliates the one who is not – and murderous violence follows, for a king cannot abide humiliation.

Further, when David finally succeeds to supreme leadership he cannot resist the temptation to possess the more beautiful wife of Uriah. What is the point of being king if someone else has precedence in this respect? Murder follows – disgracing even David. He is subject to the condemnation of the prophet Nathan. Later he witnesses his own son Absalom fall victim to envy of his own father.

How does the story of Jesus compare? He refuses to engage in a struggle for supremacy, accepts humiliation to the extreme of a felon’s death – but is then raised up by God to everlasting life and a supreme kingship.

The pattern is simple, affecting all three of the greatest kings of Israel: worldly ‘glory’ corrupted all three; early acceptance of the antithesis of worldly glory won for Jesus an everlasting kingship. We would be wise to meditate upon this.

If it is argued that Jesus, by virtue of his divinity, was incomparable with any other historical figure, Jewish or otherwise, why should Paul need to insist that the name of Jesus ‘is above every name’ (Phil 2:9)? Why should he also insist that the crucifixion was ‘foolishness to those who were perishing’ (1 Cor 1:18). Clearly the shame attached to being a Christian in Paul’s time was by virtue of comparisons made between the humiliation of the cross and the worldly enthronement awarded to the archetypal heroes and kings of Israel. The resurrection was important not simply because it represented victory over physical death, but because it awarded a supreme and timeless elevation above all the heroes of the ancient world – the essential proclamation of Stephen for which he too was murdered.

The creeds therefore are a narrative which associate ultimate divine acclaim with the acceptance of worldly humiliation – because this acceptance avoids the pitfalls of earthly enthronement – specifically the humiliation of others and the rivalry and conflict that follows. Blessed are the poor in spirit – i.e. those who accept humiliation – for their lives are indeed laid down prostrate before the ambition of others. Jesus’ end is the logical culmination of a life lived in rejection of the climb to religious and political power – the rejection narrated in his sojourn in the desert.

The creeds therefore occupy a dimension of human experience that lies between glory and disgrace – as awarded by ‘the world’ as it existed in ancient times. If this dimension does not exist today, then the kingdom of God has already been achieved, and we are all truly equal in dignity and justice. If it does exist today, it is of the utmost consequence that we relate the creeds to it – for otherwise they will remain mere totems – formulae that we can recite one moment and disgrace the next.

Worldly ‘glory’ in the ancient world is ‘celebrity’ in ours: the disgraced of the ancient world are the ‘losers’ in ours. The distinction is not essentially monetary: it is the dimension between those who are known and acclaimed in local or global terms, and those who are considered of no importance, and exploited or abused. Money happens to be a common benchmark of achievement and status – as well as the means by which we require the necessities of our physical survival, and that is why it is important. In one respect history remains fixed in one place: in awarding esteem unequally. In the kingdom of God – always present where Jesus is present, and always absent to the degree the world intrudes – people are equally esteemed. In that kingdom – which can never be achieved by violence – everyone is free of everyone else’s ambition and contempt, for no-one needs to climb above others to experience self-esteem. It is therefore the only kingdom in which genuine freedom and peace applies – for no-one needs to dominate to ‘keep order’.

Joseph Campbell somewhere relates the result of a poll which showed that most black teenagers in the US – the world standard for historical success – want above all to be celebrities – ‘rich and famous’. The pop diva Madonna intends to pursue her career (we are told) until she is ‘better known than God’. In a recent interview a young ‘lager lout’ insisted that he drank himself insensible once a week to forget that he had no ‘status’. Young men in Ireland routinely commit suicide out of self-condemnation – confirming the perceived verdict of the world. Daily the media recount the doings of people who are famous merely for being well known – and few in Ireland any longer want to be priests or nurses, for these roles have lost all ‘glamour’. ‘Glamour’ too is the need of a fifteen year old English girl who wants a breast implant, encouraged by her mother – and of millions of middle-aged women throughout the west terrified of growing old.

Common to all of these pathologies of modern life is the notion that we are the sum of what others think of us, that our self-esteem must be dependent upon the esteem of others.

Much violence is closely related. US teenagers carry guns – and often use them – to keep or earn ‘respect’. The Littleton massacre was planned by young men who insisted they were at the base of their school’s pyramid of esteem. David Copeland killed four people with nail bombs in England recently because ‘if no one remembers who you were, you never existed’. Alexander’s, Napoleon’s and Hitler’s problems were remarkably similar.

It is precisely because the creeds relate directly to these pathologies that they are of unique and global importance – for ‘celebrity’ on western lines is now a global phenomenon. So are the media, creating another global phenomenon – the ‘wannabe’ who can’t be, at least not on Hollywood terms. For if we are all esteem-seekers we must nearly all be esteem-poor – only those whose self-esteem is secure can actually award esteem to others.

What are the implications of all of this for ‘absolute truth’ and its protection? The elevation of verbal formulae per se as totems is clearly inadequate. The source of the ‘sin’ overcome by the crucifixion is not the experimental insights of daring theologians, but history’s pyramids of esteem of which the church itself is still, sadly, one. A church structured in this way cannot explain the creeds because it denies in practice the principle they proclaim – that Christian leadership demands humility above all else.

When asked ‘what is truth’ by his final earthly judge, Jesus offered no Catechism, no creed – simply the witness of his integrity. An ultra-verbose and remote ecclesiastical leadership bankrupts the creeds by depriving them of witness, and thus of meaning. It is time to let love – the absolute truth and the great gift of many of the church’s least educated people – lead it towards that kingdom in which all are equally esteemed. Foolishness may sometimes be spoken there, but it will do far less damage than an absolutism of the word that imposes silence while itself betraying the Word, who never silenced anyone, and who fled from celebrity rather than seek it.

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