Thursday, September 4, 2008

A word about creeds

Those who've been in regular dialog with me for some time now know that I have a long-running issue with creeds or statements of faith. To some extent my issue is with the concept itself--that a creed seems often to be used to define who's "in," or more particularly who's "out" of fellowship with a group, a deity, a religion. While I freely acknowledge my own inconsistencies here, it seems to me a proper understanding of the sovereignty of God would necessitate a certain humility of the sort that would say "this is what I believe I understand to be true, but the final arbiter of faith and faithfulness can be God alone." Not content with that, humans seem to have expended a lot of effort over the years trying to draw clear "lines in the sand" delineating who's got it and who's not.

The word "creed," of course, comes from the Latin "credo" which simply means "I believe." So at its simplest a creed is simply a summary of those things an individual or group believes to be true. Depending on what follows the "I believe" statement, however, a creed can--and often has--become a list of what is important to the particular believer(s) to the effectual exclusion of those things not on the list. At its worst, then (and here I'm speaking strictly of Christianity, though I am sure similar things can be said in and of other faiths), subscribing to a creed may tend toward a form of reductionism whereby any concerns not on the list--however relevant or scriptural--are excluded as of lesser (or no) import.

Creeds need not be reductionist. The only creed that we have recorded in the Gospels as being endorsed by Jesus himself is simple, yet all-encompassing:

Hear, o Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one!
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. . .and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Mark 12:29-31

I have represented this as a creed, and yet that's not entirely accurate. Jesus actually spoke these words (quoting from the Hebrew scriptures), not in terms of "what should we believe?" but rather "what is the greatest commandment?" This difference is actually quite important, because particularly in our current definitions of faith, "believe" is something one does in one's head, while a "commandment" implies action. In fact, the love of God and neighbor are necessarily active things that cannot exist in an intellectual vacuum apart from deeds and lifestyle. This is vitally different from, for example, the statement of faith recently adopted by the denomination of the church I currently attend. Have a look at this fairly-typical evangelical statement of faith here. Interestingly, nearly all of the points in this statement, and certainly all of the specifics, involve propositions to which one must give intellectual assent to be a member in good standing. Very little is said about the way one might live as a believer, and what is said is in the most generic of terms. (To those who would suggest I'm selling the church short by oversimplifying its SOF I would add that in my personal experience, I have been excluded from certain opportunities to serve based solely upon my failure to give assent to points in that statement about which we can do nothing EXCEPT agree or disagree intellectually)

The history of creeds in the church needs far more detailed analysis than I shall attempt here, but I think it's interesting to note an unsubtle trend in the church's use of such statements. We begin, of course, with the concise, yet all-encompassing "Love God, love your neighbor" summary Jesus himself preached. The early church was similarly broad but simple with its revolutionary claim "Jesus is Lord," which could not have been mistaken by any first-century hearer--"Caesar is Lord" being both a theological and political pledge of allegiance in the Roman empire of the day (citations welcome; I don't have one readily at hand).

But by the time of the second century, looking at Iraneus' Rule of faith and the Apostles' Creed, we see something interesting has happened. Gone from Iraneus are any references to discipleship, lordship of Christ, or anything of the sort (the Apostle's Creed still calls Jesus "our Lord"), replaced entirely by things one either thinks are true, or not. The Nicene Creed, a hundred-plus years later, perpetuates this loss while further defining what must be believed, but it gets really interesting in the sixth century when we look at the Constantinople "anathemas," in which we are informed that (if I may crudely, but not inaccurately, paraphrase) "if you don't believe and say these things, you can go to hell, and if you aren't sure that certain people (names are listed!) are going to hell, you can go to hell, too!"

(Lest the reader fear that I am overdoing the sense of "anathema," have a look at this document which clarifies what the term means and meant in the time those anathemas were written. Consider this language from the anathematizing ritual: "...we declare him excommunicated and anathematized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate, so long as he will not burst the fetters of the demon, do penance and satisfy the Church...")

I am sad to say that this latter has pretty much become the standard. Sure, just what is on or off the list has varied somewhat through the centuries, but the core is still there: what counts is what you think and say, and if you don't think and say the right things, you can (and will!) go to hell.

How far we have strayed from Jesus' "Come to me!" And how many may we have driven FROM him with our creeds? Christe eleison (Christ, have mercy)!

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