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BOOK BLOG | What Do We Believe? (Sayers - Letter 2)

“In ordinary times we get along surprisingly well, on the whole, without ever discovering what our faith really is.”

In this second essay in the Letters to a Diminishing Church collection, Sayers moves past the initial observation that “doctrine is not dull” and begins now to clarify what some of the doctrines are. If these doctrines are essentially statements which encapsulate and/or articulate belief, then it is perhaps worthwhile to clarify and articulate what those statements are up front. Doctrines are extrinsic: they impose truth from the outside, and thus require conformity. It is about God, about Christ, about the Church, about the life we’re supposed to be living together. They are not devotional; that is, about our own personal spiritual application. Such applications must extend from, and be subordinate to, the doctrine. We shall do well, therefore, “to reply boldly that a faith is not primarily a comfort, but a truth about ourselves”.

For source material Sayers draws from the Apostles’ Creed, which she appears to deliver in a concise, abbreviated form. It may be that this so-called abbreviated language was common to Sayers' mid-20th century English Catholicism, and therefore part of their actual catechism (but not being Catholic, I lack the context to know for sure). I welcome any Catholic (or other) readers to leave a helpful clarifying comment about the particular creedal language, and whether it may have changed over the past century.

This brings us to what I regard as one of Sayres' ongoing struggles; namely, how to address matters theological though she herself is not, strictly speaking, a theologian. And significantly, within the Roman Catholic context, a woman without a vocation. C.S. Lewis had a similar challenge, though perhaps his Anglican context permitted him to accomplish it more successfully. Sayers, for her part, seems conscious of this difficult line. This is probably why her work seems to emphasize “the creative aspect” of God. As a writer, poet, playwright, and scholar, she saw this particular analogy was safely within her reach, and indeed perhaps more within her grasp even than most clergy.

Like much of Sayers' writing, it comes down to formal argument. She basically stipulates that the Creed sets forth a “Creative Proof” of sorts for the nature of both God and man. I'll use use her own words here to show it propositionally. The additional commentary is hers as well.

P1: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things. That is the thundering assertion with which we start; that the great fundamental quality that makes God, and us with him, what we are is creative activity…”

P2: “And in the only-begotten Son of God, by whom all things were made. He was incarnate; crucified, dead, and buried; and rose again. The second statement warns us what to expect when the creative energy is manifested in a world subject to the forces of destruction. It makes things and manifests itself in time and matter, and can do no other because it is begotten of the creative will…”

P3: “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the lord and life-giver. In this odd and difficult phrase, the Christian affirms that the life in him proceeds from the eternal creativeness; and that therefore so far as he is moved by that creativeness, and so far only, he is truly alive…”

P4: “And I believe in one Church and baptism, in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. The final clauses define what Christians believe about man and matter…”

Sayers does not attempt to make this “argument for creative will” the sole interpretation of the text. Yet it does seem clear that the first and primary function of the creedal text is to convey that God, who or whatever that is, is essentially creative; and that any legitimate attempt we make to comprehend this God must take this into effect.

One sees in this analogy (where God is understood as “the creative will”) an early glimpse of an idea which will be more fully worked out in her Mind of the Maker (a work which I recommend to every serious student of literature, artistic or musical criticism, or theology - and I specifically recommend an edition which includes Madeleine L'Engle's introduction). However, here she simply introduces the idea of “creative” as being at the heart of the natures of both God and man.

This is God: the creative Will, known generally as the Father, manifested particularly in the Son, through whose creative energy all created things exist, being bound together both physically and spiritually in the Church through baptism forever. “This is the Christian faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.”

Why cannot he not be saved without this belief?

He cannot be saved without this belief because to be saved one must recognize one’s own inability to save his own skin (given that not one of us can ultimately slip from the iron grip of death) and then place one’s trust in something greater and more capable of saving him. Christ Himself even made it explicit: "Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6 KJV).

This is not because God needs anything, but rather because we require it, for “…how can anyone make anything of life if there is no belief in life?”

The creeds – that is, our doctrines – lead us to life by encapsulating the Scriptures and articulating summarily not only the source of creation, but also the nature of that creation and our relationship to it; bringing us to true awareness of, and connecting us with, a Creator who exists outside of direct experience.

“After this, we can scarcely pretend that there is anything negative, static, or sedative about the Christian religion.”

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