Thursday, December 26, 2013

Faith and Superstition

In a well established tradition the German magazine
Der Spiegel treats a religious topic every year around
Christmas. The theological complications of our
Christian faith form the hook in the editorial:
What is it that man believes in? (©Der Spiegel)
As a young man Red Baron reduced his Christian belief to two essential messages: Christ taught us that God is not the punishing God of Abraham, Isaac und Jacob, but He loves his children. Yes, we shall call Him our Father in heaven. The other essential that I have already mentioned several times before is a text in Saint Paul's letter to the Corinthians, 13-12: Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

What about all those bible stories? At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century Protestant theologians pursued the demythology of the New Testament. It was Rudolf Bultmann who contended that only faith in the kerygma, or proclamation, of the New Testament was necessary for Christian faith, not any particular facts regarding the historical Jesus. The Christian faith stripped down to its bare essentials as formulated in the Nicene Creed?

The Roman Emperor Constantine looking for peace in his vast empire was disgusted by the disputes in the Christian Church about the "right" faith. So he summoned a synod in the Asian Minor city of Nicaea in 325. When the dispute about the nature of Christ between the followers of Bishop Arius and those of Bishop Alexander came to nothing Constantine, himself present in Nicaea, became fed up. Angrily the pagan emperor decided in a Christian synod against the Arians whom he subsequently banned. Constantine's decision explains the content of the last paragraph of the Nicene Creed that the assembled bishops eventually adopted:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance (consubstantialem) with the Father. By whom all things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth. Who for us men and for our salvation came down [from heaven] and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered and the third day he rose again, and ascended into heaven. And he shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead. And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost.

And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not, or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion - all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.

Nowadays all? Christians confess the Apostles' Creed with important additions to the Nicene Creed. The Apostles' Creed originated around the year 390 and is given here in its modern ecumenical version:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic* Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
*Note that here catholic means the universal and not the Catholic Church.

Is the faith we Christians confess in the Apostles' Creed not rather complicated? God's Son conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a Virgin, the Catholic Church proclaims this a mystery of faith.

Although superstition is considered as sin in the Christian Church psychologists found out that even modern man (woman) is more driven by superstition than guided by his (her) Christian faith. It is a known fact that everybody lives his (her) own belief. The theological teaching of the Church will at best guide our personal belief that however remains full of atavistic feelings. The Catholic Church took this into account in its catechism when as a boy I learned two ways how to repent my sins. Although it was sufficient to repent out of fear of punishment it was nobler to admit and regret that you had disappointed the love of God, your Father. Not only for a child the fear of punishment is easier to understand. That theologians must defend the pure doctrine against popular belief and thereby are becoming more abstract and boring, the French anthropologist Pascal Boyer called the tragedy of the theologian. We learn about the Holy Trinity but we feel with Mary as a mother.

The communication between theologians and laymen deteriorates altogether when the former argue about religious truth. As early as the 16th century common folks had a feel for the ongoing disputes. A typical example is the understanding of the Holy Communion. The following picture called Geistlicher Rauffhandel (religious brawl) taken from a wood carving of 1590 shows the Pope, Luther and Calvin in dispute. The author of the flyer asks the pertinent question: Wo das Christentum dann sey (Where does Christendom come in)?


More than 2000 years ago Christendom came into the world with a boy born in Bethlehem.

Christmas crib in Sankt Johanniskirche in Freiburg on the first day of Christmas 2013

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