Religion

Examining Tennyson’s thoughts on doubt, creeds

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, saw more faith in “honest doubt” than in “half the creeds.” Comment?

The Rev. Kevin Vogts, Trinity Lutheran Church, Paola: A fellow pastor of my denomination sings in a community chorus and one season sat next to a layman from another denomination. Like ours, this denomination historically confesses the Christian faith as summarized in the Apostle’s, Nicene and Athanasian creeds, called the “ecumenical” creeds because they are accepted by diverse Christian bodies.

But in this layman’s denomination over the years, such acceptance has become a mere formality, with the creeds’ teachings broadly rejected although incongruously recited still in their services.

When this layman learned that my friend is a pastor in what is considered a conservative denomination, he blurted out incredulously: “You mean you still believe all that stuff we say every week in the creed?”

Scholars disagree over what Tennyson meant by his comment “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” Reading the entire poem from which that quote is taken, it seems to me a critique not of the creeds themselves but (of) such hypocrisy. In the same vein, Scripture warns, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.”

A phony faith won’t save anyone. But the answer isn’t to jettison the historic creeds because some recite them hypocritically. Instead, the answer to such hypocrisy, which I believe Tennyson is rightly decrying, is found in Jesus’ words to Thomas: “Stop doubting and believe!” (John 20:26).

Paul is probably citing the earliest, simplest Christian creed – “Jesus is Lord” – when he explains that true, saving faith means not only confessing with your lips but also trusting in your heart: “If you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

The Rev. Roger Coleman, Pilgrim Chapel: Because God is not static, the revelation of God’s love cannot be contained in human statements of belief, no matter how often repeated.

God is alive. Our faith, therefore, must also be alive and open to new visions. Creeds (such as the Nicene Creed that defined early Christianity), as helpful as they may be in summarizing orthodoxy at a particular moment, must continually face challenge and re-interpretation.

Jesus’ attack on the self-righteous Pharisees is a reminder that the heart of faith is contained in one’s actions, not one’s words. “You blind guides who strain out a gnat but swallow a camel,” he says in anger. (Matthew 23:25).

Tennyson’s statement about “honest doubt” is another reminder that there are two sides to faith – the affirming and the questioning. Both are equally important. True faith allows room for the doubters and the skeptics – those who refuse to accept the status quo.

Without their challenges, faith soon becomes the drawing of smaller and smaller circles of believers and, over time, irrelevancy. It has been those who doubt, question and protest who have created the larger circles of living faith, those who push for the full acceptance of women, minorities and gay/lesbian relationships, for example.

Today, Pope Francis seems to be one of these questioning types of religious leaders.

In writing this, I find that I, too, have a creed. It is the wording from I John (4:7-8) that “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

Love has no limitations. It makes for larger circles.

No doubt some skeptic will soon question this statement.

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