Is a Creed an It? Thinking about the Nicene Creed in Light of Martin Buber's I and Thou

By Fr. Wesley Walker

John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “The Preacher” summarizes a common derogatory attitude concerning creeds: “From the death of the old the new proceeds, And the life of truth from the rot of creeds.” Many moderns frequently assume that creeds restrain intellectual freedom and are prisons of rigid dogmatism. This view lacks nuance because it fails to adequately grapple with what creeds are. The work of German philosopher Martin Buber in his book I and Thou provides a framework for us to better understand the significance of creeds, which are not conversation enders but rather dialogues where Romano Guardini’s observation is proven true: “he who holds to the truth holds to God.”

Martin Buber’s I and Thou is a profound book. In it, he distinguishes between two modes of relating to the other: I-it and I-thou. The I-it modality consists of a subject acting on an object. This precludes real relationship because the object’s significance lies not within itself but in its use; the subject commodifies the object which exists exclusively to satiate a desire in the subject. The I-it is inherently dehumanizing for both the I and the it. When we reduce a being, like a tree, to be an object of scientific discovery, then we reduce ourselves to be just scientists...but as human beings, we are more than that. Instead of conversing with Scripture, the biblical scholar becomes the reader of just another text. Buber summarizes the I-it mode by saying, “I perceive something. I am sensible of something. I imagine something. I will something. I feel something. I think something. The life of human beings does not consist of all this and the like alone” (4).

On the opposite end of the relational spectrum is the I-thou relationship which stands in fundamental contradistinction to the I-it modality. Where the I-it relation is filled with assertions, the thou cannot be boxed in so easily. I-thou is a humanizing mode of relation for both parties: “When thou is spoken, the speaker has no thing for his object. For where there is a thing there is another thing. Every It is bounded by others; It exists only through being bounded by others. But when Thou is spoken, there is no thing. Thou has no bounds. When Thou is spoken, the speaker has no thing; he has indeed nothing. But he takes his stand in relation” (4). I-it implies distance between the subject and object but I-thou is based on an unseen yet tangible unity between parties where both constantly participate in the other.

In Buber’s thought, the I-thou relationship is not only humanizing for the thou but also the I. As one encounters the other, the I emerges: “The ‘I’ emerges as a single element out of the primal experiences, out of the vital primal words I-affecting-Thou and Thou-affecting-I, only after they have been split asunder and the participle has been given eminence as an object” (21-22). This has been demonstrated by the work of modern neuroscience, particularly child development where it has been discovered that children develop into social persons based on their engagement with their parents. (For an interesting conversation using Buberian terminology between Paul, modern neuroscience, and ancient Stoicism, see Susan Grove-Eastman’s Paul and the Person: Reframing Paul’s Anthropology.) Self-consciousness occurs only through relationship.

Martin Buber (1963)

While Buber’s framework is largely helpful, his mysticism is not rooted in the classical Christian tradition and therefore needs some adjustment, particularly as it pertains to creeds. In Rev. Ronald Gregor Smith's “Translator’s Introduction” at the beginning of his translation of I and Thou, he observes that for Buber, our encounters with God should be conceived as I-Thou—Buber repeatedly refers to God as “the eternal Thou”—and not reduced to the I-it modality. Smith adds, “For faith is a meeting: it is not a trust in the world of It, of creeds or other forms which are objects, and have their life in the past” (ix). In Smith's Buberian framework, a creed is an artifact, a thing which impedes an authentic encounter with the Thou. The iconoclastic impulse imagines a creed as an it because a sense of propositionality furtively subverts faith. It raises the question: is this the right way to think about creeds? Maybe in a de-sacralized context; however, in the Mass of the Church Catholic (which includes Orthodox, Roman, and Anglican rites) the Creed is more dynamic. The speakers should not conceive of the Creed as an it at all; rather, it is a dialogue occurring between the I and Thou.

The priest stands in persona Christi during the Mass. What the priest does, Christ does (and vice-versa). The priest and Christ find themselves in the I-thou relationship. In Christ, the Christian, and the Church, E.L. Mascall explains that “The Bishop [the mother of the priesthood] is not merely the organ of the earthly Church, whether of the past or of the present, but of the Church of Christ, here and beyond the grave. And the sinful man on whom priestly character is conferred in ordination receives the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a priest ‘in the Church of God’…Just as Baptism takes a man or woman up into an already existing unity, so consecration takes a man up into an already existing unity which exists within and for the sake of the former one” (123-4). The priest finds his own sacerdotal identity in the immolation of the Altar where his life becomes merged with the victimhood of the crucified Christ. The priestly I emerges in the context of the Christic Thou.

There is no purely systematic theology, only liturgical theology (lex orandi, lex credendi). In the liturgy, theology is not purely propositional (I-it) but a lived experience, an encounter with the Other (I-Thou). The Mass is full of these encounters. The bread is not the it of bread nor the wine the it of wine; they are loci of experiences with the divine. More than that, they are what they signify: the precious Body and Blood of our Lord. In the Eucharistic encounter, a sacrificial dialectic emerges: Christ’s sacrifice for the remission of sins and our response of self-immolation: “Here we offer and present not thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.” The I who emerges from the encounter is cruciform by virtue of participation with Christ in his sacrifice. This is the milieu in which the Creed is said—one in which the I and eternal Thou are in relationship.

Contrary to Smith’s assertion, the Nicene Creed is not just a set of propositions. The Greek and Latin liturgical forms of the Nicene Creed both use the first person singular, “I believe” (pisteuo/credo). While modern liturgies have shifted to the first person plural “We believe” to highlight the ecclesiological function of the Creed as a corporate identity marker, something is lost in this transition from singular to plural. Liturgically, the priest begins the Creed and invites the congregation to join him by extending and then joining his hands. But the priest stands in persona Christi; he speaks not as Fr. So-and-So, but Christ. The Creed speaks the Word back to the Father. In Buberian terms, the Creed exists not as an I-it monologue of objectifying propositions but an I-thou dialogue between Christ and his Church. The Creed facilitates a relation in which the Church finds itself becoming who She is much like the vows at a wedding contribute to the bride’s self-awareness of her marital identity. The Creed invites us to see the world through the eternal Thou where our relationship with Him constitutes the bearings by which we understand everything around us. The Creed is not a list of a priori conditions which arrogantly place God in a box; instead, it is a result of the Father and Son’s relationship and the Church’s sustained dialogue with her Creator. There is an ecclesiological layer to this, as well. The Creed unites members of the Church separated by time and space but bound by Christ, creating a coherent self-consciousness.

The iconoclastic impulse in Smith’s introduction—and Buber’s own thinking, for that matter—should be resisted when it comes to creedal statements, particularly the Nicene Creed. Creeds can only be reduced to propositions outside of sacral contexts. In the Mass, propositionality and relationally are merged via participation in the Sacraments. The Nicene Creed springs forth from dialogue between Christ and his Church.

Fr. Wesley is the Curate at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Crownsville, Maryland, co-host of The Sacramentalists podcast, and editor at Conciliar Post and The North American Anglican