Reverence, a kind of humility, corrects belief’s tendency to warp or harden.
By Marilynne Robinson
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Credo—”I believe”—is the first word in creeds intended to establish a uniformity and commonality of belief. I am not aware that any religion other than Christianity has created creedal statements to establish standards of orthodoxy, though the idea of orthodoxy itself is very widespread. The creeds seem to me to be, all in all, an elegant solution to the problems of volatility and syncretism all religions deal with. They do not proscribe other beliefs or enforce behaviors as evidence of orthodoxy, but instead implicitly define orthodoxy as the affirming of essential elements of sacred narrative, briefly interpreted. “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.” Thus Earth is rescued from the ancient opprobrium of dualism, the notion that creation was the work of an evil god, a demiurge, and is itself evil. This is a great deal to have accomplished in 12 words. It did not by any means put an end to the temptations of dualism, which are with us yet, but it anchored Christian doctrine in Hebrew monotheism, and this was crucial. I have received and I enjoy the belief that this world is secure in the love of God, and in every way profound, as an expression of divine intent can only be profound.
So, at some point in early Christian antiquity, this statement was composed that I find authoritative and beautiful, which permitted me to look at the world with reverence. And at some point in the evolution of Protestant through, an unease developed, which I share, about the defining, insofar as it meant the enforcing, of standards of orthodoxy. I understand that my thought has a history, and that I am disposed toward the acceptance of some beliefs and the rejection of others by accidents of descent and education. This is an inescapable condition—if I were to reject the mind I have received in favor of another one, that choice would also be historically determined. So I have chosen not to linger over the problem. I am happily at home on the mental terrain circumstance has chosen for me. Except for that descent into hell, which I don’t find in scripture, there is nothing in the Apostles’ Creed I am not ready to affirm.
However, I do not consider it either necessary or meritorious in me or in anyone else to be able to affirm it. History up to the present moment tells us again and again that a narrow understanding of faith very readily turns to bitterness and coerciveness. There is something about certainty that makes Christianity un-Christian. Instances of this are only too numerous and familiar. Therefore, because I would be a good Christian, I have cultivated uncertainty, which I consider a form of reverence. You will notice how often I fall short of it. Therefore I will make frequent use of the first person singular. I will venture on those broad statements to which I am so prone, with that pronoun as caveat. And I am theologically committed to the -o in credo, to the “I” in “I believe,” since I am impressed by the fact that religion can only be a highly individual experience for the very good reason that God in his wisdom has made us all highly individual.
So this is what I believe. More precisely, this is some small part of what I believe, or rather of the way in which I believe, at this point in my life, allowing for the certainty that I am in error in ways that are significant and unknown to me—there is a special Calvinist peace that comes with learning to make that concession. I am confident that I have been and will be instructed, knowing that instruction means correction, the discovery of error.
My habit for a long time has been to consider disputed and in some cases discarded doctrines on the theory that if in the past thoughtful people have found them meaningful, they might in fact be meaningful, though, of course, meaningful is not the same as wholly sufficient or correct. Take for example the two terms in that venerable controversy, free will versus predestination. There are problems associated with both of them, but in such great matters problems are to be expected, and problems have their own interest and their own implications. In the universe that is the knowledge of God, opposed beliefs can be equally true, and equally false, and, at the same time, complementary, because contradiction and anomaly are the effect of our very limited understanding. As a writer it is important to me to remember always, or as often as I can, that we inhabit a reality far larger and more complex than our conception of it can in any way reflect. I am speaking not only of time and causality, but also of the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts. . . .
Marilynne Robinson teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa. Her novel Gilead was published in 2004. Her third novel, Home, will be published in September by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.