Someone once asked an old hermit, “Is Jesus your personal Lord and Savior?” “No,” he said. “I prefer to share him with others.”
There is wisdom in the hermit’s words. The Christian life is not about “me and my Jesus.” That’s too small, too easy, and too risky. It can quickly degenerate into “Sheilaism.” In his book, Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah writes of a woman, Sheila, who had taken various beliefs from here and there and constructed a private religion she named Sheilaism. It left her isolated from a community of faith, outside a sacred Tradition, and free to believe a thousand different things before lunchtime on any given day.
Individualism is one of the great dangers and idols in today’s society. It’s not just about Sheila. It is also about you, me, and the Church. It is the antithesis of the Church’s mission “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (“An Outline of the Faith,” The Book of Common Prayer, p. 855). The Creeds stand against the danger of individualism.
Why then do we sometimes confess “I believe” (The Apostles’ Creed) and other times we confess “We believe” (The Nicene Creed)? The very fact that we do, declares that it is not one or the other, it is both at the same time. My believing is not in opposition to, but in need of our believing. My believing is what allows me to stand next to you and, together, say, “We believe.” Likewise our believing is what strengthens and sustains my believing.
Believing begins with and has its origin in the community. The community’s believing precedes and welcomes the individual’s believing. Even as the individual adds to, enhances, and makes the community more fully itself, the community shapes and forms the individual more fully into her or himself.
When an individual is baptized, initiated into the communal life of the Holy Trinity, the liturgy does not begin with the individual but with the community:
Celebrant There is one Body and one Spirit;
People There is one hope in God’s call to us;
Celebrant One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism;
People One God and Father of all.
Individual believing happens in the context of the community, even when we say, “I believe.” In the Apostles’ Creed, for example, we say, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord” (emphasis added), not “my Lord.” The structure of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed both have three major parts, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This structure reminds us that our confession of faith, whether “I believe” or “We believe,” is grounded in and leading us into communal life, communal believing. The one and the many exist not in spite of but because of each other.
Sometimes the communal belief of the Church is all we have. When life falls apart and we don’t know what to say the Church speaks for us. When we are confused and lost the Church guides us. When we don’t know what to believe, the Church knows. When we don’t or can’t believe, the Church does. The Church’s belief strengthens and sustains our own believing and sometimes protects us from our self, our Sheilaism. “The Church always believes more and better than any one its members” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed, p. 46).
To pray “We believe in one God …” is to join our voice to the Church’s voice, to step into something larger than our own ideas, doubts, fears, and questions, “in the hope that our individual ‘I believe’ someday approaches the strength of the church’s ‘We believe’” (Ibid.).
Questions for Reflection:
- Chances are that we know Sheila. She is a part of most of us. What are your “Sheilaisms?”
- What in the Nicene Creed is difficult for you to say and believe? Why?
- While the Creeds do set boundaries on what we are to believe, they also call us into a larger and more complete belief. How does the Nicene Creed challenge you and call you into a larger believing?
- When has the Church praying “We believe” strengthened and carried you? Consider that there is someone who was sustained by your praying, “We believe.”
This is the third article in a series of articles about the Nicene Creed. It was originally written for Reflections Online and published by the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas.