What you believe matters.
In time, your creeds will shape your character and your actions. Perhaps this is why James Spiegal argues in his book “The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief,” that many who leave church and later forsake God do so for moral reasons and not intellectual ones.
I should be more clear. Your creeds will either shape your actions, or your actions will reinvent your creeds. In May of 1940 Dorothy Sayers delivered a lecture which she entitled Creed or Chaos. She later expanded this presentation into a book published in 1947. Sayers, as was one of the first female graduates from Oxford University, was closely watching Germany’s posture towards England. The Nazis had just invaded Poland on their mission to purge the human race and further Hitler’s reign.
Sayers took this opportunity to evaluate the underlying beliefs of the German leadership:
“The rulers of Germany have seen quite clearly that dogma and ethics are inextricably bound together. Having renounced the dogma, they have renounced the ethics as well – and from their point of view they are perfectly right. They have adopted an entirely different dogma, whose ethical scheme has no value for peace or truth, mercy or justice, faith or freedom; and they see no reason why they should practice a set of virtues incompatible with their dogma.”
In her speech Sayers said that Germany provided a “visible and and physical form which we cannot possibly overlook, the final consequences of a quarrel about dogma. A quarrel of that kind can go on for a very long time beneath the surface, and we can ignore it so long as disagreement about dogma is not translated into physical terms…But if that man goes on to translate his point of view into action, then, to our horror and surprise, the foundations of society are violently shaken, the crust of morality that looked so solid splits apart, and we see that it was only a thin bridge over an abyss in which two dogmas, incompatible as fire and water, are seething explosively together.”
Just five months after Sayers lecture, Hitler began bombing London in what would later be known as “The London Blitz.” The bombing lasted for 76 consecutive nights. Within just one year of her speech 43,000 British civilians were killed as a result of the bombing. This number pales in comparison to the millions of mass murders in other places like Auschwitz. Perhaps Sayers was right, we will either have a creed or we will have chaos.
If understanding the foundations of our beliefs, which clearly shape our morals and behavior, is truly this important, then there is no better place to look in all of the Bible than the Epistle of Romans. This is not to say that Christians are the only group to possess a basis for morality. America is said to have been founded upon a Judeo-Christian worldview, for example. Additionally, as a result of common grace and the Imago Dei (humans created in the image of God), all people possess a basic sense of God’s moral character. However, as Sayers points out, if we fail to understand the foundation of such beliefs we will be in jeopardy of losing them, what she calls chaos.
In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul doesn’t waste any time in getting down to business. After a brief greeting he uses the opening verses of Romans to remind his audience that Christianity’s basis for belief begins in the historical person of Jesus Christ. The Apostle shows how Jesus is worthy of the title Son of Man as a descendent of King David, and more importantly as the fulfillment to Old Testament prophecy. It is the bodily resurrection, Paul says, that declared Jesus to be the Son of God. Both titles are critical for our understanding of the person of Christ as fully man and fully God, what theologians call The Hypostatic Union.
Xenos Fellowship, an Ohio church, quotes Pulitzer prize winning historian Will Durant in emphasizing the historical evidence of Jesus. Durant, who was no Christian, refused readers the option of dismissing the historicity of Jesus:
“The denial of that existence seems never to have occurred even to the bitterest gentile or Jewish opponents of nascent Christianity…That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels.” (Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. 3, 555-557).
Of course the Christian makes much larger claims about Christ than his mere existence. As Son of Man, anyone can trace Jesus’ lineage to David. It is the resurrection that validated Jesus’ claim as the Son of God. While C.S. Lewis was an atheist teaching at Oxford he found support for the historicity of the gospels in an unlikely source, as he records in his autobiography:
“Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. “Rum thing,” he went on. “All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it really happened once. “… Was there no escape?”
by C. S. Lewis Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1942, 223-224)
Paul concludes his lengthy introduction with what could be considered the thesis to his entire letter:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.'”
If the resurrection is true, as Paul claims, then there could be no more appropriate statement. If Christ truly died in our place, how can we feel anything like shame in sharing his story. A fitting illustration to conclude with, like Sayers lecture, can be found in the midst of the turmoil of World War II.
His story is recounted on numerous websites devoted to preserving the history of Holocaust victims:
“In July 1941 a man from Kolbe’s barracks vanished, prompting SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, the deputy camp commander, to pick 10 men from the same barracks to be starved to death in Block 13 (notorious for torture), in order to deter further escape attempts. (The man who had disappeared was later found drowned in the camp latrine.) One of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, lamenting his family, and Kolbe volunteered to take his place.
During the time in the cell he led the men in songs and prayer. After three weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe and three others were still alive. Finally he was murdered with an injection of carbolic acid.”
Kolbe will forever be remembered for his selfless act of sacrifice. His statue stands among 19 others memorializing worldwide martyrdom above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey, London. The man he saved, Franciszek Gajowniczek, has spent his life retelling Kolbe’s story:
“I could only thank him with my eyes. I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me – a stranger. Is this some dream?
I was put back into my place without having had time to say anything to Maximilian Kolbe. I was saved. And I owe to him the fact that I could tell you all this. The news quickly spread all round the camp. It was the first and the last time that such an incident happened in the whole history of Auschwitz.”
Gajowniczek died in 1995. After one of his last US appearances, his translator Chaplain Thaddeus Horbowy remarked, “so long as he … has breath in his lungs, he would consider it his duty to tell people about the heroic act of love by Maximilian Kolbe.”
Gajowniczek was survived by his second wife who spoke not only of Franciszek’s gratitude, but also his guilt. He carried to his grave a sense of shame over allowing Kolbe to take his place. While there are clear parallels between the selflessness of Kolbe and that of Christ, the natural result of the gospel is not shame at all. As Paul concluded, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God. It is here, in the gospel of Christ, that our creed begins.