Monday, March 14, 2011

Theology: Confessing the Creed with Wittgenstein

In the year 390, St. Augustine of Hippo wrote On True Religion. Thinking of the true beliefs of religion was a part of Christianity from the start. However, it was a new thing for the Roman world. For the Romans, and the Greeks who so strongly influenced them, religion was a matter of cult. That is, it was not so much what you believed about the god, but what you did in worship to that god which mattered. Bring your fire offerings to Zeus, it matters not what you say about him. But Christianity had grown out of Judaism. While orthopraxy mattered for the Jews, that praxis existed within a covenant built around affirmations about God ("The Lord our God, the Lord is One") and His holy word.

Thus, as Christianity spread to the Gentile world, it brought with it this notion of orthopraxy within a covenant that affirmed an orthodoxy. This orthodoxy would eventually develop into the words of the Christian creeds, such as the Nicene:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
This creed affirms the fundamentals of what it is to be a Christian. If you can say the words of this Creed, then you are a member of the covenant, if not, then you are a heretic. It is the words of this Creed that bind the catholic Church together, from the Roman Catholic Church to the emerging house church.

Very well, but what does that mean? How does this creed bind, and what exactly does it mean? Once you get past the stage of "I affirm these words" things get very muddled, both in their meaning and their practice.

Take "is seated at the right hand of the Father" for example. The Son, Jesus Christ, became flesh and was resurrected. He exists as a man eternally, and the Creed tells us He is in Heaven with the Father. Yet, the Father is Spirit. How does one sit at the right hand of one who does not haven a hand, who exists outside of time and space?

On the practice side, look at baptism. Surely, we affirm "one baptism for the forgiveness of sins," but is it infant baptism? adult? sprinkling? immersion?

Such examples make it clear how difficult it is to see how the Creed unites the Church.

I contend that it is the submission to the language of the creed that is this catholicity. At first, it might be puzzling how this is even an orthodoxy. If the language of the creed is left "blank" isn't it open to just any interpretation? This is where Wittgenstein comes in.

Wittgenstein was a philosopher of language, but he did not think language was simply a matter of conveyed definitions (at least in his later period). Language, Wittgenstein would say, is something like a tool. Just as I can take a hammer and drive in a nail, I can ask you to bring me the hammer and you will (if you are kind). Words have genuine meaning - that they can be used in this way shows this. Yet, defining words is extremely difficult, if not impossible. One of Wittgenstein's favorite examples was that of "game." We talk about games all the time, but try to come up with a definition and you will end up excluding things that are definitely games. By what definition are chess, soccer and solitaire all games? Yet, at the same time, there are definitely things that are not games. If you called napping a game (in anything but a metaphorical sense) people would simply not understand what you meant. Wittgenstein referred to that which bound the different uses of a term together a "family resemblance."

I find this understanding of language quite compelling, and I think it provides a good way of understanding the creed. Catholic Christianity affirms the words of the creed, yet we often have different content we lend to those words. At the same time, not just any content can be given to these words. The creed, in many ways, is not a fence, but a clearing. Those who submit to the creed enter into a common bond of language that allows them to be part of the same covenant, even as their praxis and their propositional beliefs differ widely. The creed creates a language and a place for orthodox theology to occur, and that space is the orthodox catholic Christian church.