Presbyterians love their creeds and confessions. So much so that we’ve collected them into a book that occupies half of our constitutional standards. Therefore, they hold authority.
I learned the Larger Catechism by memory when I was about 12. The first question and its answer are familiar to many Presbyterians: Q. “What is the chief end of man?” A. “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.” Most of us can forgive the pronoun “man” for we understand its inclusiveness. What I have difficulty with among those of us who are part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is our confusion about our allegiances and obligations. How can we both pledge our obedience to this creedal affirmation and allow its answer to become equal, or lesser than, the Declaration of Independence and its opening clause about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?
I have difficulty with this disparity since one rests in a context of community while the other is principally about individual rights. What follows with the catechism is largely about the church and the individual’s participation in a community of like values and purposes. The Declaration of Independence, of course, is also premised on such assumptions, but its driving principles are about the freedom of individuals. There’s a far divide between the two documents. One prescribes to “glorify God” as its first and foremost obligation. The catechism also lays claim of our hearts “fully to enjoy [God] forever.” There’s no promise inherent in committing to this affirmation that we will always experience “happiness.” Enjoyment and being happy, though similar, are not the same.
Yet we have a history of confusing these principles. Perhaps that’s why I find objection to flags in churches, or to saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the nation’s flag. This act seems idolatrous, even taking into account the symbolic nature of such items as flags or crosses.
Few people stop to contemplate these dissimilar documents, or what they require of us. Both serve a purpose and have a place, but when Christians oblige themselves to choosing country over church, or unconsciously do so, then there’s a blurring of the lines that are supposed to separate church and state — an inviolable element of the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment is clear and has a rich history with our founding fathers, who drew a line in the sand between a new nation that was distinctly driven by this separation in its rebellion against the throne of England, where the monarchy held authority over the church.
Some of us believe that because of the “separation of church and state” we are called upon to exercise a higher form of decision-making, speaking from the heart of the Gospels, and to hold up a mirror of social righteousness to the larger culture even when it’s an unpopular position. It is diametrically opposed to hold allegiance to the authority of nation over our obligation to “glorify God.” To “fully enjoy [God] forever” seems a more lasting and eternal value than the “pursuit of happiness,” whatever that may mean.
“Enjoying God forever” not only holds a higher promise but bears a higher obligation of following God’s son who advocates for mercy and justice above all else. It leads us to more than the affirmation of creeds; we must act on our beliefs that rise above public opinion, or even our concurrence within the confines of our comfortable pews.
I’m reminded of the words of Eric Liddell in the movie “Chariots of Fire”: “God made me for a purpose, and he made me fast. When I run, I run for his pleasure.” Movie buffs know this Scotsman refused to run his best race during the 1924 Olympics in Paris because it was run on Sunday — the Christian Sabbath. He was a “flyer” who excelled at the 100-yard dash, not a distance runner. He drew the outside lane for the 400 meters on Monday, given little chance of finishing in the top three, where the Americans held the edge. It is reputed that just before the race an American team masseur handed Liddell a note that held the verse from I Samuel 2:30: “Those who honor me I will honor.”
Liddell’s time in that race set a new Olympic record. It was the year in which a new Olympic motto was set in place that stands today: “Citius, altius, fortius — swifter, higher, stronger.” Perhaps we should add this “creed” alongside the ones we hold so dear.
PHILIP LEFTWICH is an honorably retired member of the Middle Tennessee Presbytery.