Dissection of a creed


In the current issue of The Fourth R, a magazine published by the Westar Institute, Patricia Williams provides an introduction to many of the elements of the Quaker faith, which she believes are consistent with the work of the Jesus Seminar. One of the points she discusses is the subject of creeds. She writes:

The emphasis on experience results in the rejection of creeds. Quakerism has none. Quakers mistrust rational argument divorced from experience.
This is a part of my Quaker background that I still carry with me. I don't like creeds, and I remain silent when I attend worship services that include them as part of the program. By the same token, I am always a little curious to see what kinds of creeds are included in church programs--in particular, those that attempt to broaden the appeal and move away from insisting on stricter interpretations of Christianity.

Last Wednesday evening, while attending Taizé services at a local progressive church, I saw some copies of the previous Sunday morning service program, so I picked one up so I could take a look at when I got home.

I was curious about the "Affirmation of Faith", which seemed like a modified version of the Apostles' Creed--and, quite frankly, an improvement over it as well. I tried Googling some of the phrases in this affirmation and could not find them, so I don't know if this particular creed is unique to this church or not. I thought it might be interesting to dissect this creed a bit and analyze what parts of it I could agree with, and which ones I have trouble with or could not accept at all.

The creed begins:
We believe in the Creator God, universal and just, who made the world and abides with us.
For the most part, I like this opening statement. In a nutshell it summarizes what I think are three important Divine attributes: creativity, immanence, and justice. A fourth attribute, transcendence, is also implied, I believe, by asserting both that God is universal and that God "made" the world. The part about "making" the world is where it might get a little tricky, however, because it can suggest Divine omnipotence, which I would take issue with. I prefer to think of God as the most important participant in the creative processes of the world, rather than as One who simply "made" the world. But I think it is possible to give that statement a broad enough interpretation that people with diverse views of God's creative power and role can probably affirm it. Missing from this statement about the Divine nature, curiously enough, is the word "love", although in 1 John it is asserted that God is none other than love itself.

What I particularly find interesting about this section of this creed is that it begins with an assertion, not about God the Father, but simply about God. It is possible that one reason for this may have been to avoid using gender-specific language. In any case, though, it also has for me the added benefit that it has essentially broken this creed free from a strictly imposed Trinitarianism. This opening statement says nothing in itself that would be objectionable to unitarian monotheists, since, from my perspective, it simply seems to be making assertions about God as a whole, without reference to one of the three Divine "persons" or "hypostases" or whatever term you want to use for it.

The creed continues,
We believe in Jesus, his Son, the redeemer, who was conceived by the Spirit, born of a woman, traveled among nations, healed, taught and suffered, and raised up disciples to follow him.

We believe that he challenged the principalities and powers of the world, was crucified, died and was buried;
This section corrects one of the glaring flaws in the historic creeds--it actually talks about what Jesus did in his life! Moreover, I particularly like that it says that he "challenged the principalities and powers of this world", which I think is a key point of his ministry.

Some of the other wording is more traditional and orthodox--in particular, the bits about being the redeemer and being conceived by the Spirit, and the proclamation that he is God's Son. Both of those can be interpreted in different ways, of course, and in fact were interpreted in various ways at various times in Christian history. To assert that he is God's Son says nothing about his alleged role in the Godhead; nor is there is an assertion of eternal pre-existence contained in that statement. Certainly Trinitarians would agree that Jesus was God's Son, of course. I found it interesting as well that it says that Jesus was conceived by the "Spirit", rather than the more formal Christian title "Holy Spirit", as if to further loosen the strictly orthodox Trinitarian straitjacket a bit.

Personally, I think that Jesus was conceived not by any Spirit, but by a man and a woman, like the rest of us were--but I also think that he was what Marcus Borg calls a "Spirit person", so if one wanted to recite this creed, I suppose that one could argue that, metaphorically speaking, he was conceived by the Spirit. I'm not sure, to be honest, that I am comfortable with calling him the Son of God, however; to me, that title carries with it a lot of Trinitarian baggage, even though of course it goes all the way back to the Gospels and precedes the development of full fledged Trinitarianism. I also think that all of us are, in our own ways, children of God, and in that sense, Jesus was like the rest of us.

The creed continues,
and on the the third day that he rose again, offered hope to his companions, rejoined the Creator and will be forever our guide and our light.
Now we are getting into definite metaphorical territory. I don't believe that Jesus was literally, physically resurrected, on the third day or any other day, although one could again give this a broad interpretation by saying that his disciples experienced him in some fashion after he died, and in that capacity he offered hope to those who experienced him. The business about "rejoining" the Creator does seem to allude to Jesus having pre-existed in some fashion with God. Admittedly, this idea of his pre-existence can be found in the prologue to the Gospel of John, but I see that as a later development of an evolving Christology, and more mythical than something that I would literally believe.

The creed finishes in this way:
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the church unified, the fellowship of humanity, the communion of saints, the resurrection of all, and life everlasting. Amen.
This section, like its antecedent in the equivalent section of the Apostles' Creed, addresses several topics, and almost seems a little disjointed. First it talks about the Holy Spirit and its relationship to the church and the world, but then it quickly goes on to talk about the afterlife. I am in agreement with the part about the the fellowship of humanity, of course. On the other hand, I am an agnostic about the afterlife. I don't think I could honestly affirm that last bit about life everlasting, even with the broadest of interpretations. Not only do I not know what to believe about life after death, but I just think it isn't that important.

Ultimately, like all creeds, I think this one is problematic. Still, I also think, as creeds go, it is better than most, and given that the church in question is a creedal church, some kind of creedal affirmation is probably to be expected.

Ultimately, though, I think that creeds are as much a hindrance as a help, insofar as they can be a means of excluding or gatekeeping. If people have to cross their fingers while they recite a creed, or if they have to undergo mental gymnastics in order to justify in their own minds what they are affirming, then what's the point? As a record of people's historical attempts at wrapping their minds around the Christian faith, I can see that they have value; but, in my view, they should never serve as a test of faith.


Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks for posting this particular creed. I especially appreciated your thoughts and reflections on it, and found myself resonating with much of what you shared.



Jan said...

Thank you for sharing this creed with us. Your thoughts about it are some I have pondered, also. I do like the description of Jesus. Thank you for writing.

Cynthia said...

As usual, the Holy Spirit gets the short shrift--no mention at all of the work of the Spirit, its part in the genesis of the church, etc.

Just a glorified sperm donor!