Monday 5 August 2019

What we believe: ‘I believe…. in One God.’ Reflections on the Creed by Fr Luke Goymour

Humans are religious beings. The modern world likes to reduce humanity to the level of an animal. Some people seem to think that humans are just one animal among many, a sophisticated animal perhaps, but an animal none-the-less. This narrative is at odds with the Catholic understanding of the human person and is in fact at odds with established facts. Humans are not mere animals. We are spiritual and intellectual beings.  We have the capacity for love, for reflective thought, for art and creativity. We can debate questions about the meaning of life and the nature of the universe’s existence. We have political views and opinions and have the capacity for complex argument and discussion. Even the most sophisticated of species in the animal kingdom cannot compare to the majesty, dignity and complexity of the human person. Christian belief teaches us that humans are made in the image of God: this means that humans are more than animals - our very nature images that of God himself. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) puts it like this:

The divine image is present in every human being… Endowed with "a spiritual and immortal" soul, the human person is "the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake." From his/her conception, he/she is destined for eternal beatitude.[1]

Human beings, then, are more than mere animals. We are spiritual and physical, we have a mortal body and an immortal soul. Furthermore, a constant theme in the history of the humanity is religious belief – humans have the capacity for religious belief and faith:

Humans are created spiritual beings; it is as if we are hard wired for God. Cars are made for humans to drive on roads, boats are made for humans to float on water and we are made to be loved by God - we are created for God. It is interesting that throughout human experience we can see that almost universally humanity has tried to grapple with the great spiritual questions.  Archaeological evidence points to belief in an afterlife almost from the first moments of civilised humanity. The cave paintings at Lascaux in France are understood by many to have been an interpretation of the star charts and part of a religious ritual. The burial practices of the ancients both in our own country with burial places like Avebury and West Kennet Long Barrow, to the great pyramids of the Egyptians points to a widely held belief in an existence which is greater than this one.[2]

To profess a religious belief is not irrational or stupid, it is in fact a very human thing to do.  Only relatively recently in the history of humanity has atheism become a mainstream, normative world view. Christian faith, however, is more than simply religious belief. It starts, as we say in our creed, with belief in One God. In fact, this belief is only really possible because God has revealed himself to us. God shows himself to be One and that He desires a friendship, a real relationship with us his creatures.  Christian faith then, is ultimately about relationship. It is the difference between knowing all the biographical details about someone but never meeting them, and knowing someone intimately and personally.

Having said this then, we should ask, what does it mean when we say that we believe in One God? The Catechism can help us with this:

The confession of God's oneness, which has its roots in the divine revelation of the Old Covenant, is inseparable from the profession of God's existence and is equally fundamental. God is unique; there is only one God…At the same time Jesus gives us to understand that he himself is "the Lord".7 To confess that Jesus is Lord is distinctive of Christian faith. This is not contrary to belief in the One God. Nor does believing in the Holy Spirit as "Lord and giver of life" introduce any division into the One God:[3]

There is a lot in this passage, more than we can adequately cover in one article. That said, it is worth drawing out several points. Firstly, God’s oneness is something that has been divinely revealed to us. This means that God has shown us who He is and that He is One. In the ancient world, religious belief was common as were multiple creation myths and legends. In very broad terms Ancient religions were an attempt for human beings to ‘attain god’. In other words, god’s and the world of the god’s, were so far removed from human life that through ritual, story and sacrifice humans tried to please, appease and get themselves up to the level of gods. This in many ways was to be expected, human beings, as religious beings will always try and meet that spiritual need – on our own though it is not enough. In the ancient world, this desire was articulated through belief in multiple gods who vied for control of the cosmos but they had little care for puny humanity. Through religious acts, it was hoped that humans perhaps could win the favour of these divine beings. Then, however, something remarkable happened: amongst all these competing and sometimes strange beliefs, God showed Himself to the people of Israel. The Catechism teaches:

God revealed himself to his people Israel by making his name known to them…God revealed himself progressively and under different names to his people, but the revelation that proved to be the fundamental one for both the Old and the New Covenants was the revelation of the divine name to Moses in the theophany of the burning bush, on the threshold of the Exodus and of the covenant on Sinai.[4]

God showed himself as The One God: The Source of all things, furthermore, he showed that he desired to enter into a relationship with this people. And so, in a remote part of what now is called the middle-east, the knowledge of One God, a God who cared and was interested in the world emerged, monotheistic belief began, and it was not the work of humans – it was the work of God!

The Christian faith teaches in fact, that God has made us for himself, as St Augustine writes, “you have made us for yourself O Lord and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”[5] As we have noted, there is a natural and human thirst for God which can be seen across history and cultures. This thirst manifests itself in every epoch of human history and if it is not quenched by God then people try and quench it with other things. Bernard Levin, perhaps the greatest newspaper columnist of the 20th century put it like this:

"Countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire, together with such non material blessings as a happy family, and yet lead lives of quiet, and at times noisy desperation, understanding nothing but the fact that there is a hole inside them, and that however much food and drink they pour into it, however many motor cars and TV sets they stuff it with, however many well balanced children and loyal friends they parade around the edges of aches."[6]

Put simply: we need God so that we can be the people we have been created to be. Things of this world are not bad in and of themselves but nothing and nobody can truly answer the deepest longing of the human heart. Only God can do that.

The Christian faith reveals how the God of love, the God who we are all searching for, desired so much to be in a relationship with us that he entered our world and became one of us. The incarnation and the oneness of God in the communion of persons that we refer to as the Holy Trinity, will be reflected on later. For now, let us remember that God has shown himself to us: God has a face, God is knowable, God is Jesus Christ. The Christian Faith is not about knowing facts about Jesus, it is about knowing Jesus personally, as a friend, as saviour, as the only person who gives the ultimate meaning to our lives. This is what is ultimately meant when, as Catholic Christians we say, ‘I believe in One God’.

[1] CCC 1702 and 1703
[2] Goymour, Luke, p.40, Intelligent Faith, 2015, Verbum Publications, London.
[3] CCC 200 and 202
[4] CCC 203/204
[5] Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions, I,1. accessed 22-04-15
[6] Levin, Bernard: accessed 23-3-14


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