Deeper Than Words by Br. David Steindl-Rast

There is something a bit jarring about seeing the words “Apostles’ Creed” and “Foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama” printed on the cover of a book, but the name of the author reassures us that somehow it will end up making a great deal of sense.

That’s because the author is Brother David Steindl-Rast, an Austrian-born Benedictine monk, who is one of the great teachers in our Church. He has been a leading figure in the Church’s dialog with Buddhism, a tradition for which he has developed considerable sympathies. He describes in the introduction how he came to write this book at the urging of the Dalai Lama, and why he chose the Apostles’ Creed, of all things:

In interreligious dialogue we tend to quote from our respective traditions those passages that the others are most likely to find acceptable. But increasingly this had begun to seem a bit superficial to me. I had come to feel that for genuine agreement we would have to go deeper; we would have to test whether even the least likely texts—say, a creed—could help deepen interreligious understanding. Wars have been fought even among co-religionists over these succinct summaries of essential beliefs. A creed would thus make the perfect touchstone for the possibility of interreligious agreement on that deep level where it matters. That’s why I chose the Apostles’ Creed—the oldest of the Christian creeds—and thus this book came about.

The Creed basically provides Brother David with his Table of Contents: there are twenty four chapters, each devoted to one line (or in a couple of cases, part of a line) of the Creed.

Each chapter is divided into four sections. Referring to the line in the Creed that serves as the title of the chapter, he asks, “What does this really mean?” and he offers an interpretation of the line. Then he asks, “How do we know this is so?” and explains his answer to the first question. He then asks, “Why make such a point of this?” which he answers by explaining why this matters to us today. Finally, he ends each chapter with his personal reflections.

There wasn’t a single chapter in this book that I didn’t find deeply thought provoking. Brother David takes the familiar words of the Creed—words that for many people have become stale and lifeless, if the droning recitation one hears in Church is any indication—and reveals unfamiliar depths of meaning, reading the Creed as a faith proclamation in poetry, rather than a prosaic checklist of beliefs.

His non-literal interpretation of the Creed will probably not endear him to the mythic membership crowd. Anyone looking for a reflection on a literal virgin birth or ascension into heaven will be disappointed. But even the events Brother David acknowledges as historical—suffering under Pontius Pilate, crucifixion, death and burial, etc.—are here interpreted as having a deep and enduring significance, well beyond their historical facticity.

Readers of Brother David’s previous works will not be surprised to find frequent quotations of poetry. He quotes from Gerard Manley Hopkins, Theodore Roethke, Jessica Powers, Mary Oliver, Kabir, and Patricia Campbell Carlson, among others. I often get a little impatient when writers quote poetry, but in Brother David’s work poetry is never used as mere ornamentation or for showing off.

After reading the introduction (and the foreword by the Dalai Lama) I expected there would be more frequent references to Buddhism than there actually were. But this is quite thoroughly a Christian book, in a very catholic, which is to say “all-embracing,” way. Indeed, his rather generous interpretations of the Creed’s “Holy Catholic Church” and “Communion of Saints” will leave exclusivists shaking their heads in indignation. (This is not a criticism, just an observation.)

So how, then, does Brother David further the cause of interreligious understanding? He does not do this by suggesting that the Christian beliefs expressed in the Apostles’ Creed are the same as those expressed by Buddhists or Hindus. Rather, he shows that the essential Christian message is a universal message of faith and love, of belonging and sharing, that transcends the boundary lines we draw around ourselves in the name of religion.

The great scholar of religion Huston Smith wrote of this book:

I have always felt that in endorsing a book I was honoring the book and its author. Brother David’s Deeper Than Words, however, brought a new and startling sensation: I found myself sensing that the book was honoring me by allowing me to endorse it. Never before have I felt this way about a book.

I feel much the same way. This is truly a very special book.

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