Sitting in church yesterday morning, I started to think about how I would explain what I believe to my friends and family who are not Christians. The obvious place to start would seem to be the creed, that is, the trinitarian description of God as the creator who became incarnate, died and rose again for the salvation of humanity and then sent His Holy Spirit upon those who believed in Him, but this is rather like describing the point of fencing as hitting one's opponent with the tip of a metal stick. It is true, but almost laughably inadequate as an account of everything that makes attempting that action meaningful and worth years, perhaps even a lifetime, of practice.

Yes, from the outside, all that seems to be happening in fencing is that two people are moving backwards and forwards along a narrow strip of ground, taking turns extending their arms towards each other while holding said sticks, sometimes hitting those sticks together, at other times landing the points of the sticks on each other's bodies. Likewise, what one sees in a church (at least, a church like the one I attend) is a number of people sitting or standing, sometimes singing, sometimes listening to someone else read or talk, and, towards the end of the hour, gathering around a table in the center of the hall to receive small pieces of bread and a sip of sweet wine. And yet, just as every encounter on the strip is at the same time of a piece with every other encounter that has come before it and yet utterly unique, so every worship service, while following a liturgy that in its basic structure and texts is hundreds, in some respects, thousands of years old, is nevertheless a novelty, a rupture in space and time during which God may become present to human hearts and minds.

How is it possible to explain such an experience in words that do justice to its full complexity? This is much the same thing that I am struggling with in my research, although there I am focused on a particular form of prayer (the little office of the Virgin Mary) rather than the whole scope of the Christian tradition. But the tension between definition and experience is just as acute. Nor it is a difficulty to which scholars typically have an answer. As C.H. Lawrence once said of the monastic office: "It is impossible for the modern student to assess the psychological impact upon the individual of these interminable hours spent daily in communal vocal prayer and liturgical rituals."[1] On the one hand, he is, of course, right: there is no way for those of us living today to appreciate fully what the life of prayer in an 11th-century Benedictine monastery was like, even those who live the life of a monk or nun today. But, on the other hand, what is at stake here is the description of any absorbing activity that one practices over a lifetime. One might just as easily say, "it is impossible for the non-fencer to assess the psychological impact on the individual of these interminable hours spent daily (or weekly) in footwork and bouting." And yet, how quickly those who are not fencers (or Christians) seem ready to judge whether the activity is worthwhile.

"But," you will say, "going to church is not the same thing as fencing. You have to believe something specific in order to worship; you don't have to believe anything about the universe in order to fence." This is why I am hesitant to begin with the creed as an explanation of what it means for me to be a Christian: taken as something that one either accepts intellectually as true or not, the creed is not terribly good as an introduction to Christian worship. It is a mystery, arrived at after years of questioning and prayer; a summary, as it were, of the encounter of humanity with God. But it is more or less meaningless to those who have not practiced worshiping--praising, paying attention to--God for a considerable amount of time.

One might take as a comparison the advice that practiced fencers give beginners: "Watch your distance. Look for the opening. Finish your action." None of these things are particularly useful as descriptions of what it means to be able to land a touch if you don't know how to hold your foil, extend your arm, move your feet, and keep your balance while advancing and retreating, never mind how to make a feint, keep point in line, do a beat-advance, and so forth. Likewise, understanding God as creator or historically incarnate or indwelling spirit is more than a matter of simply stabbing at the universe with a stick. To be sure, it helps to be told at the outset, as everyone at baptism is, that to be Christian is to accept the truth of God's self-revelation through creation, incarnation and inspiration, but it may be years--if ever--before the full force of this description becomes accessible intellectually.

Nor, even when it does, is this understanding something that can be subjected, scientifically, as it were, to objective proof. To do so would be rather like saying, "I don't believe in sport," or "I don't believe in beauty," and then expecting an answer. At least, this is the way I feel when someone says to me, "I don't believe in God." The implication is usually, "I don't believe that God exists as a person in the way that I exist as a person or in the way that the sun exists as a star," but this is surely to say no more than, "There is no place in my mind for God" or "God cannot be measured objectively like an object." The former is a problem of attention: there are plenty of things that I have never thought about which, for all intents and purposes, do not exist for me; likewise, if I have never thought about God, He cannot exist for me either, at least, insofar as I am aware of Him. The latter is a problem of revelation because, of course, God cannot be measured objectively like an object; the only things humanity knows about God are those things which He has revealed to us. This is why we need His revelation, after all: He is beyond our ability to reason, although we can use our reason to understand better that which He has revealed. Nor can we assume, as theologian Aidan Nichols has put it, "that divine revelation tells us everything there is to know about God's being and purposes.... Behind historic revelation there lie the unknown depths of the divine essence."[2]

Just as it would be rash to assume, even after years of fencing, that one had discovered everything that the practice could reveal about oneself and one's relationship to others, so it would be rash to assume that even now, after a lifetime of going to church, I have anything other than a rudimentary understanding of God. But this, for me, is precisely the point: I have faith in God not because I claim to understand Him, but because I trust the practice of devotion and praise to lead me to Him, insofar as He is willing to reveal Himself to me. And, yes, this is worth a lifetime of practice.

[1] Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, 3rd ed. (2001), p. 110.
[2] The Shape of Catholic Theology (1991), pp. 94-95.


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