Universalis is one of the world’s most widely used apps for praying the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours. It began as a hobby, its creator Martin Kochanski says, before suddenly taking off and becoming more or less his full-time job.
Kochanski is an eclectic creator: with an MA in mathematics and philosophy under his belt, he is best known for Universalis. However, he also has two books to his name. The first, The Snow Cow (2009), is a collection of ghost stories set in ski resorts, originally and playfully designed to scare his mother, who was afraid of cows, he says.
The other, The Creed in Slow Motion,* is more recent, published in June 2022. Comprised of short but meaty reflections, it patiently takes the reader on a journey through the Nicene Creed, the great statement of Christian belief through the ages.
This book is one of a number published on the Creed in recent times, perhaps speaking to a hunger that exists for something more solid than those books that fall into the category of ‘vague aromatherapy of the soul’, Kochanski says.
Kochanski’s book stands out among the rest, however, for its clarity of vision, its personal style and its courage in not shying away from the tough questions.
Martin Kochanski kindly joined Melbourne Catholic online from London for a thorough discussion of the book and its importance for our cultural moment.
Reflecting on the theology of the Creed is important, but so is how we go about it—hence the reference to ‘slow motion’ in the book’s title. When we rattle off the words every Sunday, it’s easy to forget the exciting and dramatic nature of what it is we are professing. So it’s helpful to take the time to think our way through the Creed bit by bit.
‘People are frightened to think,’ Kochanski says. ‘People are frightened to think because they might be wrong.’ The challenge of the Creed lies precisely in its demand on the individual, in the way it calls for our assent.
It’s not enough for us to say, ‘This is what Christians believe and I am one,’ he tells us; we are invited to actually plumb the depths of our belief and learn to speak in the first person, as the Creed asks us to. ‘I believe,’ is what the Creed says.
Kochanski suggests we ask ourselves: ‘Is there anything you believe because you’re a Christian, or do you believe it because it’s true?’
Our answers to this question are revealing, because if we believe something simply because we’re a Christian, Christianity becomes little more than a ‘lifestyle option’, he says. And ‘that is just another form of identity politics with no actual content.’ It’s the prizing of ‘belonging’ over real thought or sincere commitment. Thinking things through requires us to stick our necks out and make ourselves vulnerable:
I think one needs to develop an inner toughness, to the point where we can say, ‘This is who I am. This is different, but it is true.
And professing Christian faith is different. It does sometimes make us appear a bit odd. In the book, he writes that there is no such thing as a ‘compatible Christian’: the resurrection of Christ ‘disqualifies Christians from being normal people’.
In our day, embracing this difference is a special task, given how ‘scary’ it can be to observe the conformity around us. Despite the cultural revolution of the ’60s and ’70s—which promised a freer, more liberated society—we have ended up ‘terrifyingly conformist’, he says.
Kochanski believes that what distinguishes Christian orthodoxy from ‘adolescence’, however, is Christianity’s search for the truth. Adolescence is defined by the desire to be different, only to end up like everybody else, he says with a smile. We shouldn’t embrace difference for the sake of difference. First of all, we need to work out if something is true.
The idea that orthodoxy could be regarded as ‘different’ or ‘countercultural’ might seem strange, given how often our society paints the heretics as the heroes. Indeed, if we translate the word heresy (hairesis) as ‘choosing’, we can see how it might be framed in a better light than orthodoxy, with the heretic characterised as the liberated individual choosing for themselves.
But throughout the book, Kochanski chooses a more accurate meaning for the word heresy: ‘picking and choosing’. Picking and choosing is the easiest thing in the world and everybody does it. The problem, he says, is that when you start to pick apart the Creed, choosing some bits and leaving others, the whole thing falls apart: ‘The thing about heresy is that it unbalances. If you knock off one side, the other side takes over.’
For example, he says, ‘If you don’t have a sense of forgiveness of sin, then you can’t have a sense of sin,’ and vice versa. But if there’s no sense of sin, then everything we do must be good, or if it is bad, it’s because fundamentally we must be bad people. Here we can see how the removal of one element of the Creed ripples through and makes the whole thing unintelligible. Try it with any part of the Creed and you’ll get a similar result.
If this sounds a lot like G K Chesterton to you, it should: Kochanski says his inspirations are Chesterton and Dorothy L Sayers, two formidable Christian minds of the twentieth century. A great theme of their writings is that orthodoxy is an adventure, and that we should learn to take orthodoxy as a whole, not as our tastes would prefer it.
The Creed in Slow Motion does just this, not shying away from the challenging questions but offering an expansive vision that doesn’t leave any part of the Creed out.
The scope of the Creed is breathtaking, spanning the beginning of time to the end of time. Naturally, there is a lot to wrestle with, and it might be tempting for a writer to drift into the vague and ethereal, losing contact with the real substance of human life.
One striking feature of Kochanski’s book is how down to earth it is. You feel as though you have two feet firmly on the ground at all times, while somehow managing to reflect on some of the more challenging aspects of the Creed.
Partly, Kochanski says, this is because Catholicism itself is a very earthy religion. We’re fascinated by the simplest, one-syllable objects: wine, oil, fire, smoke, ash, leaves, salt, wax, bread, meat.
Often religion is seen as a dignified and ‘proper’ affair, one that leads us away from the ‘baser’ elements of this world. ‘If that is what proper religion is,’ he writes though, ‘Christianity is a most improper religion.’
We need only look at the liturgy of the Church to realise this. He includes in his book the story of a priest imprisoned in a Czech labour camp in the 1980s. This priest collected his rations of raisins and left them soaking in water for days until he could reasonably assume fermentation had taken place. Only then did he celebrate Mass. At no point, even in those brutal conditions, did he consider real wine unnecessary.
The incarnation also points us in this direction. It’s easy for us to over-spiritualise or turn to a Gnostic mentality of ‘spirit good, matter evil,’ Kochanski says. But what the incarnation reminds us of is that matter matters to God.
Throughout the book, rather than using the typical translation of God becoming ‘flesh’ (John 1:14), Kochanski uses the more confronting word ‘meat’. He wrote of God being ‘put into meat’ because he wanted to avoid ‘having this refined vocabulary of holy words for holy things,’ he says, and instead ‘slap the reader in the face to wake him up.’
Coming to understand that Jesus tied himself inextricably to the literal meat of human life is not just about getting our theology right. It also affects how we live. Sometimes, ‘it does seem as though all you need to do is tone down all your passions and not be too greedy or too desirous and then it’s all right,’ he says.
But it’s the opposite. It is all about passion. We’ve got these immense forces in us, and we can’t be carried away by them but we can direct them. They are there to give us life.
We see this in the Great Commandment itself, which is a call to love God with our heart, soul and mind, Jesus said (Matthew 22:37)—in other words, with our whole being. Kochanski’s new book is an invitation to consider, as Jesus implied, that ‘the mind is an organ of love’ as well, and putting it to work is a good thing, especially when it comes to our faith.
When asked what he would like readers to come away from the book with, he says:
I think they should come away with the feeling that they have minds because they’ve been given minds, that they’ve been given them to use them, that it’s a delight to use them, that it’s not about getting the right answer; it’s about engaging with the truth.
These days, our discourse is too public, he says. We’re bombarded with so many things we are expected to have an opinion on that something as forthright as the Creed might seem too demanding. Responding to the Creed requires patience and slow-motion thinking, qualities the modern age doesn’t always encourage. But if taken seriously, the Creed is also one of the most important statements you can make. Whether we believe it, and live it, has consequences for us and everyone around us.
If you would like to start thinking more deeply about the Creed and letting it work its way into your mind, heart and bones, Martin Kochanski’s The Creed in Slow Motion is an invaluable guide.
* Please note that Kochanski's book should not be confused with the collection of sermons by Ronald Arbuthnott Knox, first published by Sheed & Ward in 1948, also called The Creed in Slow Motion.
Melbourne Catholic20 September 2023
Christian Bergmann20 September 2023