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In Search of Belief by Joan Chittister, Liguori/Triumph, 1999, 217 pp.

This is the third of five book reviews on the Christian creeds (and a book in heresy), which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.

In Search of BeliefJoan Chittister is in a category all her own. While everyone else approaches the creeds with an attempt to explain or expound, to offer background or argument or enhancement, Chittister approaches the creeds with her self, her questions, her wonderings, and her mysticism. What emerges is a spiritual conversation–sometimes argumentative, sometimes comfortable–musing on the Apostles’ Creed.

Chittister breaks the creed into more pieces than any other author, with 27 separate chapters, each one devoted to just a word or short phrase from the creed. This approach leads to more of a devotional resource than a reference book. Chittister’s meditations range far and wide from the creed itself, and she wanders about to expand the basic ideas more than clarifying them. In that expansive wandering, the reader stumbles into moments of beauty and insight that are beyond the words of the creeds, but true to its mysteries. For example, her short second chapter on “In God” contains these reflections:

God is the mystery nobody wants. What people covet in God is not mystery but certainty. (18)

In the long light of human history, then, it is not belief in God that sets us apart. It is the kind of God in which we choose to believe that in the end makes all the difference. (20)

God is both what we cannot think and what we cannot not think at the same time. (21)

Her fourth chapter, “Almighty,” follows this path:

We want interventions from God, in other words, to make the world what we want the world to be rather than to change ourselves so the world can become what it ought to be. We want someone else to do something, rather than face the need to become something other ourselves. We want a God who does physical miracles rather than spiritual ones. (35)

To see the Almighty God we must wrest ourselves open to the almightiness of God in us, around us, beneath us, before us, in every possibility that impels us to be more than we are. (37)

God is being as almighty in me as I have finally mustered the courage to allow and been given the opportunity to attempt. (38)

Her spiritual paths invite a depth and richness in our contemplation of the creed, word by word, that cannot be hurried but must be pondered. As the creed unfolds, Chittister’s Roman Catholicism and feminism show through boldly in the chapters on Mary and the church, which offer searing critiques of the Roman church’s refusal to ordain women, denial of feminine language of God and closed-minded teaches on sexuality. I also found her Catholicism evident in the chapter on judgment, which included a wonderful insight into “healthy guilt,” which she identifies as a guilt that is felt for the right things (like ways we harm others), is not exaggerated, and can be acted upon to change our behavior and situation. There are lots of jokes about Catholic guilt, but this is an insightful understanding of the purpose of this emotion.

One of my favorite chapters was her reflection on the communion of the saints. She writes,

Belief in the communion of saints is a call to immersion in the holy-making project of living out the life of Christ ourselves as so many have done before us. … We are bound to the unfinished work of bringing the world to the beatitudes. (178)

The Creed is not a call to believe in the Church. The Creed is a call to follow the Christ. Believing in a church that makes us feel holy ourselves by keeping in good repair a checklist of private devotions is easy. Believing in the Christ who demands our sanctity be measured by our relationships to the rest of the human race is the real measure of the holy life. (179)

As always, Joan Chittister goes deep and invites us to engage not just in the work of thinking, but of connecting and living in a relationship with Christ, in this embodied world and in the realm of the heart. This book was well worth a slower, more dedicated read than I gave it. There is much beauty and wisdom contained in it.

Joan Chittister, The Ten Commandments: Laws of the Heart, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis books, 2006, 152 pp.

This is the second in a series of four books about the Ten Commandments, which I purchased and read simultaneously, week by week, while I was preaching a sermon series on that topic. The sermons can be found here, June 22 through July 27. The rest of the book reviews will be posted sequentially here. 

Laws of the HeartJoan Chittister’s subtitle to her book on the ten commandments suits her style and contribution. Chittister, as always, speaks to the issues of the heart and soul, looking at the commandments with an eye on the spiritual dimension and attention to the call for justice in the world.

In the introduction, she writes:

The Ten Commandments are laws of the heart, not laws of the commonwealth. They are laws that are intended to lead to the fullness of life, not simply to the well-ordered life. … The Ten Commandments are, then, an adventure in human growth. We are not so much convicted by them as we are to be transformed by them. (10-11)

Chapter by chapter, commandment by commandment, Chittister examines each in three ways: historically, examining what it meant in the context of early Judaism; in application, imagining how it applies to life today; and reflectively, proposing ways that we can reflect on what it means for each of us to follow the commandments today.

For example, in the first commandment, she explains that the ban on material images was a part of making God bigger than every before, because this Yahweh God was “more than matter, above matter, beyond matter.”(18) She then applies the commandment: “This is the commandment that decides the orientation of our whole lives. This one asks us who or what we are making God now.” (20) Finally, she provokes with a question:

Whatever it is that you give your life to is the shrine at which you adore. The question is, Is this a big enough god for anyone to spend a life on? (22)

I found this book among the most helpful I read in transforming the commandments from exhortative sermons of “Thou shalt not!” into probing questions about the depths of human relationships. Here are some examples:

The fourth commandment reminds us that we are not worlds unto ourselves. We all came from somebody somewhere and we owe them the gratitude that comes with those gifts, however limited they may at first sight be. It is the requirement of this commandment that saves us from the terminal disease of immediacy. This commandment demands we respect the past. (54-55)

“You shall not steal” has been reduced to mean no shoplifting, no pilfering, no pickpockets, no burglary, no petty theft. It has become the province of poor people, sick people, immature people. But the stealing the Decalogue really has in mind, is really concerned about, has actually become the sin of rich people, powerful people, people in a position to say, “take it or leave it” to those who seek a living wage or subsidized housing or medical benefits and pensions. (92)

If I had only one book of these four to recommend to preachers, Chittister’s would be the one. She helps unlock the fixed nature of the commandments and open them to new ways of illuminating our sins and our possibilities.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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