National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: My Credo

My commentaries assailing religious fundamentalism and intolerance in its various forms over the years, including the brand touted now by Nigerian Archbishop Akinola and other architects of the recent defections from the Episcopal Church, have provoked queries about my own beliefs arising from my graduate theological training.

It might be better if the word “believe” did not exist. Its very existence implies a disconnect between what’s in someone’s head and the observable world. When it comes to matters of ultimate things, I prefer to use the word, “perceive,” or “surmise,” over “believe.”

I find it better to say that I perceive God exists. There is, to me, ample evidence in the scheme of things. God is a substantial reality, not a person, but also not impersonal.

God is not a mental construct. God does not rely on professions of faith or words that someone wrote down thousands of years ago to exist or to be known.

This universe, with its internal adherence to a lawfulness that tends to evolve to the human mind, could not be created by something less than itself. Nothing about it causes me to conclude that it is governed by mindless, random chance.

Historically, the disconnect between the perceivable world and professions of faith in God came when advances in science and independent thinking began to challenge the authority of the church. This is true for the Western Christian tradition, which is what I studied in graduate seminary.

But there is nothing exclusive to any one religion concerning the perception of God. It is clear to me that God prefers that humankind overcome differences on all variety of matters and work in concord. Peace, justice, fairness and compassion are compatible with the evidences of God visible in this world through myriad cultural and religious traditions and forms.

In the West, the demand for “blind faith” was plainly an assertion of church authority over people’s lives against the rise of scientific thought. With the emergence of Protestantism, the demand for unquestioning faith over science and reason hopped over from Catholic Church hierarchy to thumpers of the Bible, itself. The purpose was the same. Burgeoning new institutional forms of religion sought their own form of authority over believers through such means.

To assert that the Bible is somehow the “inerrant word of God” plants authority in any demagogue who claims a special inspiration to interpret that book, and that person is effectively substituted for God.

Free and independent thinking and the pursuit of scientific knowledge were the enemies of all religious institutions.          

Prior to the rise of modern science in the Renaissance, and the religious reaction to it, the writings of Augustine, Anselm and others, culminating in Erasmus, often attempted to understand an interweaving of religious allegory and legend with the lawfulness of the perceived universe.

Anselm, for example, wrote a compelling tract on the Biblical account of the first six days of Creation, explaining how the power of love animated every step of the process. Every element of the known universe is, as he wrote, completely infused with the power of love.

Another assertion of the relationship of early Christian doctrine to the perceivable world came in the theological fight over the term, “filioque,” in the Nicene Creed.

Does the Holy Spirit originate with the Father, alone, or with the Father “and the Son” (the three words, “and the Son,” being the so-called “filioque”)? Leaders of the early church fought furiously over this question.

If the Holy Spirit comes only from the invisible Father, then an authoritative claim to identifying it can be asserted by any church or preacher. If the Holy Spirit comes from the Son, as well as the Father, then the life and teachings of Jesus Christ define, or set the parameters, for what is truly “in the Spirit,” against what may be arbitrary. It removes authority from the church or demagogue, and shifts it to the historical Jesus.

In the Christian context, the historical Jesus, himself, is the connection between the character of God and the universe as we know it. His life, his parables and his other teachings are the guideposts for identifying the evidences of God in this world.