Divine Thoughts? The Apostles' Creed: 'I believe'
What does "I believe" mean?
"I believe in God..." are the first words of the Apostles' Creed. Christians have used this simple statement of core Christian doctrines for many hundreds of years, particularly as an individual statement of faith at baptisms, or when renewing the promises that Christians make in baptism. It may seem a really basic question, but in a pluralistic and scientifically-informed society like our own, what does it mean to "believe"?
Looking at a document like the Creed, the answer seems obvious; "I believe" means "I agree with the following bullet list of propositions." In such a view of belief, the Creed provides the bare bones of orthodoxy, "right thinking or worship." Such "right thinking" is helpful in many circumstances, because it helps Christians make sure they are talking about the same basic realities. This definition of belief is called assensus, from which we get our word "assent" - agreement with a series of facts. This kind of belief is important in scientific disciplines, too; after all, one could hardly have a productive conversation with someone who stubbornly insisted that 2+2=3! Assensus alone is not the kind of faith of which the Creed speaks, though it is an important part of Christians' experience.
To illustrate, I invite you to think of a conversation with your best friend, or someone for whom you care deeply. If my friend said to me, "Two and two are four," my response (should one be required) would be, "I believe you." This is because I mentally assent to the truth of the proposition.
But imagine if my friend said to me, "I love you." Would mental assent be enough? Probably not. Something as powerful as real love goes beyond mental agreement; after all, I may not believe my friend, at least at first. Why not? Because belief in that kind of situation requires trust and vulnerability, honour and sacrifice. If I answer my friend with a shocked expression, "I believe you!" I am making a comment about his character. I am making a choice to receive something emotional and probably life-changing--something that changes who I am as a person.
There is one more aspect that may help us think more deeply about "I believe" in the Creed. Imagine if our friend came to us and said, "You know what? I think I've found what I want to do with my life, and the kind of person I want to be. What do you think?" The story comes pouring out, and then, trembling and silent, our friend waits to hear what we think. We can see the fear in her eyes. Thoughtfully and almost automatically, because we care about her and her story so much, we wrap our arms around her and say: "I believe in you." This goes beyond even the belief in the second example, because we are choosing to shore her up, invest ourselves in her well-being, and defend her against all the people who think she's crazy, has her head in the clouds, and should get a real job. This might be the riskiest belief of all, but don't we give it because it's actually possible, that our friend's dream is worth the risk?
Not only assent, but trust and deep investment and love, are what we strive to live when we say the "I believe" of the Creed. The propositions are important, certainly, but they go deeper than a checklist to our innermost thoughts and commitments. When Christians say, "I believe," we are investing ourselves in the One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and in the story we tell and live as the Church. In our belief, we trust that we are loved far more deeply than we could ever know by the God who believes in us. We respond by investing our lives in this amazing, risky, but completely possible story--possible because of the God who is the centre of our lives, and of the Creed.