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Creed
4 min read

Beyond cold certainties

The Creeds set out a vision of reality – a vision that cannot be proved to be true, but which was found to be true by a community of people.

Alister McGrath retired as Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University in 2022.

A red shutter door bears a large painted message reading 'io ci credo'
'I believe it.'
Paolo Gregotti on Unsplash.

“I believe.” For many, the opening words of the Christian Creeds are self-defeating. Why read any further, when all they offer is opinions, rather than certainties? Faith is just a lower form of knowledge – a kind of hesitant half-truth, which seems out of place in today’s more sophisticated world, informed by science and philosophy rather than outdated worldviews inherited from a credulous past. 

It’s a fair point. We cannot believe anything we like; there has to be reason to believe it, evidence in its support. For those wedded to a hard rationalism, we can only believe what can be proved to be true. Yet the problem is that the secure truths of logic and mathematics are existentially inadequate. We seem unable to escape the lure of “ultimate questions”, to use Karl Popper’s term for truths about meaning and value in life that frustratingly lie beyond the scope of science to confirm. 

We can prove shallow truths. Yet the truths that really matter to us seem to lie beyond rational confirmation.

When it comes to the really important things in life, we are confronted with a rationalist dilemma. We can prove shallow truths. Yet the truths that really matter to us seem to lie beyond rational confirmation, often leading us into vicious argumentative circles rather than offering clear and persuasive proof. Bertrand Russell made this point in his famous defence of philosophy: “To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.” 

Albert Einstein was fond of using mental experiments to open up some fundamental scientific questions, finding that they combined imaginative reflection with rational analysis. Here is a useful mental experiment. Suppose we limit ourselves to a mental and imaginative world in which we only accept what can be proved to be true. What sort of world would that be? It would, obviously, be a world from which Christianity was absent. Yet, perhaps less obviously, it would be a world from which all beliefs – moral, political, social and religious – are excluded. It would be a world without moral values, which remain obstinately resistant to rational or scientific verification. My suggestion is that this mental experiment indicates that this world would be existentially, morally and personally uninhabitable. 

The human quest for wisdom, goodness and meaning takes us beyond the cold certainties of logic.

The opening words of the Creeds need to be seen in this context. The human quest for wisdom, goodness and meaning takes us beyond the cold certainties of logic into a world in which we believe or trust certain things to be true, life-changing and live-giving – but cannot prove them to be true. The Latin word credo – traditionally translated into English as “I believe” – is better rendered as “I trust,” invoking the world of relationships rather than mere beliefs. 

The Creeds set out a vision of reality – a vision that cannot be proved to be true, but which was found to be true by a community of people, who have passed down in the Creeds their collective witness to what they discovered. As C. S. Lewis remarked, “the one really adequate instrument for learning about God is the Christian community.” This vision is affirmed to be trustworthy – not merely something that is transformative and liberating, but something that can be lived, not merely thought.  

Getting the bigger picture 

Faith is thus not a half-hearted hope that there might be a God. For Christians, it is a broad recognition that we live in a world in which certainty is not possible, save in closed mental domains that have little relevance to the serious business of living well and authentically. It is about “getting” what things are all about in an epiphanic moment of putting everything together and seeing a bigger picture within which we realize we belong and can flourish. There are other big pictures, of course – but all of them lie beyond proof. In choosing any of these, we are making an informed judgement that goes beyond the available evidence. We may believe (and have good reasons to believe) that it is the best big picture; yet we cannot show that it is true. What we do know, however, is that others have grasped this vision in the past, and transmitted this way of thinking and living to us. 

‘Decentring’ 

The Creeds are thus not a demand to believe, but a description of what has been found, an affirmation of its capacity to satisfy and sustain, and an invitation to explore, discover and inhabit this new world. The Creeds provoke us into looking beyond the world of familiar banalities, and being prepared to be receptive to strange truths, which others have found to be life-changing. The vision of reality that we find articulated in the Creeds might be described as “decentring” – a term used by Iris Murdoch to describe the process of breaking free from our worrying obsession to make everything focus on us. As Plato suggested in his famous analogy of the Cave, there is a greater world that lies beyond us which, once grasped, makes us see things in a very different way. For Christians, faith is about the discernment of this vision of reality, and deciding to act as if it were true, in the firm belief that it can be trusted – and living meaningfully and authentically as a result. 

Article
Creed
4 min read

No mercy on the Megabus

Why is sin such a sickly, sticky thing in the human heart?

Jenny is training to be a priest in the Church of England. She holds a PhD in law and previously researched human rights issues in extractive industries.

An upset man holds his hands on his head as he misses a bus.
Nick Jones/Midjourney.ai

“I’m begging you, I’m begging you,” pleaded the passenger. His two large suitcases lying around him, the Nigerian man knelt on the pavement outside the Megabus station. The bus driver stood surly-faced, arms crossed. The passenger’s jacket was ripped where the driver had shoved him off the bus. The passenger had one too many bags; he had not read the Terms and Conditions on his ticket.  

The man groaned – “I must get to Heathrow, I have a flight to catch! I’m willing to do anything – to pay for an extra ticket, to pay the extra bag fee, I have money, see?” He showed the driver his wallet pleadingly, demonstrating his possession of several bank cards.  

A few concerned passengers stepped off the bus. “We don’t have a bag in the hold; we’re happy for this man to have our space.” Another person said, “I booked a ticket but my friend didn’t come – there’s a whole seat’s worth of luggage space available in the hold.” Yet the bus driver would not budge. Even though Megabus has an excess baggage policy, it was down to the driver’s discretion. The driver alone had the power of life and death, to say “yay” or “nay” – to restore a man’s dignity or completely ruin it, along with his jacket.  

As the minutes ticked on, other passengers began to get irate with the Nigerian man – “just buzz off mate, you’re making us late!” “You should have read the rules!” “You’re making the bairns on the bus cry!” Stony faces pressed against the window as the man knelt on the pavement. Even those who had tried to help him left him in the harsh hands of the bus driver and his colleagues, tiny kings in a kangaroo court For the bus driver, there was no backing down – he was pacing, sweating and red-faced, repeating over and over again to himself his side of the story. And in the end, we left the Nigerian passenger in the heartless hands of bus bureaucracy, wiping our hands of the injury done to him – “we tried.”  

How mucky and murky the human heart can be. 

The whole experience on the Megabus that day left me feeling sick. We all like to think of ourselves as decent folks, as long as we do our “bit”. But on that bus I realized the difficulty: what is “my bit”? Who decides what is “enough”? How quickly a petty issue of baggage can descend into a power play. How quickly do ordinary nice people become a mob when they are outraged or inconvenienced. How mucky and murky the human heart can be. 

The only word that feels strong enough to me to describe this condition is “sin”. This word may sound like a relic of a bygone Britain, but I think it’s as relevant as ever. It’s a serious word, loaded with a sense that the things we do mean more than we know. Sin suggests that I am accountable for how I treat people – not just to my own perception but some higher standard that safeguards the dignity of all human beings. Christians believe that it is God who safeguards our humanity, who sets the standard for how we should and should not treat others. We are accountable “vertically” – to God – as well as “horizontally” to each other.  

It seems to me that “sin” is not a laundry-list of rules but more like a tangled knot of slippery threads – I can’t see where it begins and where it ends, in my own heart or in the world at large. The Christian Eastern Orthodox tradition often likens sin to sickness or a dis-ease of the soul; it infects our reasoning, our emotions and our actions. And that’s why the hurt and pain we cause each other is so “sticky” – no one is left untouched by the effects of the damage we cause each other.  

It was quite clear to me that there were some “sins of deliberate fault” on the Megabus that day – the bus driver’s behaviour was patently unfair and verging on abuse. But I would say sin also flourished in the self-defending logic of the passengers who just wanted to stay in their lane, and for the Nigerian chap to stay in his. Don’t bother me, with your problems. I look after me, you look after you. There were sins of ignorance too – I felt this sick sense in my stomach as the bus pulled out of the station that there was more I could have done, but I didn’t quite know what. All I know is that every person needed mercy on that Megabus, whether we knew it or not. Ironically, the Nigerian man was the most innocent of all.