Creeds and Deeds

It was the Sunday after a two-day regional event where I had been the keynote speaker and workshop leader. I do six to eight of these a year. As I often do, I had offered to preach for the Sunday services and was therefore sitting up in the chancel area with the pastor and worship leader. This was a wonderful, active mid-size church of maybe 250 people who had taken their commitment seriously to be a progressive church. After a lovely musical opening everyone stood up, and prompted by the worship leader began to recite the 8 Points. My heart almost leaped out of my chest. I quickly looked at the program and realized that 8 Points had been printed for everyone to follow.

My first thought was that this was something special, possibly to acknowledge my presence. Or maybe they were doing this to commemorate what had been a very big weekend for this church. But as I slowly looked around the room, I noticed some people were barely looking at their bulletins as they recited the 8 Points in unison. I even noticed a couple of people with their eyes closed as they spoke these familiar words with apparent feelings.

I was very glad there were several other things that had to happen before it was my time to speak. I realized I was having very conflicting feelings about what had just happened. On one hand, I felt very moved that here were some dedicated people who, every Sunday, apparently recited words I had helped craft. This meant a great deal to me.

On the other hand if you have followed my concerns about religious belief systems over the years, you know I am very wary of anything that approaches a creed or an orthodox belief system. I would argue that all creeds, or beliefs deemed Orthodox have been put forth by people far more concerned with power and influence than about spirituality or equality. Too often, they have been far more interested in being right than about being true.

The development of the Nicene Creed offers the perfect example. One does not have to read very much about Athanasius’ efforts to destroy the Arius movement in the early Fourth Century Church to know Athanasius was not a very nice man. Although, many would argue he did what was necessary to save the church. It was the brutal Constantine who called for the Council of Nicaea. And it was Athanasius who became the chief spokesman for the view that “the Son was fully God, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.” This decision, based on the vote of the Bishops, solidified the Roman church’s power to decide who was right and who was wrong, who was in and who was out. The consequences were often devastating.

There is little difference today except people now feel free to walk away from churches with creeds and beliefs that no longer make sense to them. I no longer feel these creeds can be explained away as metaphors or a way of connecting to the ancient fathers of the church. They are most often seen as anachronistic at best or misogynist at worst. Modern Fundamentalism is just another example of how belief systems can do harm and deny the things we often consider basic rights or freedoms.

Some scholars will argue that if the creeds had not been created in the fourth century the church would have collapsed. We have no way of knowing that of course. I tend to believe it is likely the teachings of Jesus would still have had a lot of positive value for people. Admittedly, I find it strange that some still take these ancient creeds so seriously. They were, after all, written by people who did not know where the sun went at night, what caused rain, or that women were more than incubators for birthing babies.

Having said that I must admit I see another challenge I need to raise. In a past article I referred to my visits to a couple of events sponsored by people who see themselves as part of what is called the emerging church movement. I found these gatherings fascinating. For one thing, I discovered many of these primarily young people had gone through some significant changes in their understanding of Christianity. I questioned whether these changes were the result of serious study or their social settings. However I did find these changes had little to do with substantive changes in their theology or Christology. And I did not find there to be much interest in discussing these issues.

I was told by two people who were part of the organizing body that my understanding of Jesus as a mystic teacher made them uncomfortable. This may explain why I have been invited and then uninvited to two of these events as a speaker.

While I welcome any change away from the fear-based, rules-oriented Christianity so many of these young people were apparently raised in, I believe more has to change than that it is OK to drink homemade beer and to welcome gays and lesbians into their communities. If we are going to nurse the Christian remnants back into vital communities, we will have to create a New Christianity for the 21st century.

It is hard for me to imagine gathering a healthy, vital community together as followers of Jesus when half the people believe Jesus was a teacher of a way of life and the other half still hold the view that “the Son was fully God, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.” How do you have a conversation with those opposing positions? In other words, if we cannot have dialogue, maybe we need some kind an Athanasius/Arias debate to see if we can get over that mountain. I am uncertain how that would go based on the experience of the Fourth Century Nicaea Council.

John Shelby Spong in his newest book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, writes that the creedal system “seems to have locked Jesus into a pre-modern world, to have defined God as an invasive miracle-working deity from outer space, and to have made the work of engaging the world in dialogue not only difficult but almost impossible.”(pg 5)

So if creeds and statements of faith turn into prisons for an Infinite Mystery, is there a way to express our current beliefs that does not end dialogue and the ability to change as our information changes? We posed those same questions to some of our readers and we were astounded by the response. We have been virtually overwhelmed with both articles and suggestions for open-ended affirmations and statements of faith. There were so many we could only post a small percentage in this month’s eBulletin. We found the interest so high we are looking for a way to share more of the results. We will post most of what we received on the website on a special page. I am also certain some articles and statements from our 10,000 readers will generate even more interest, comments and posts.

This kind of exchange is something we progressive Christians can do. We can have dialogue. We can exchange ideas. We can change and be changed for we accept it is all part of experiencing an unfathomable Mystery. This is one of the reasons we have changed the 8Points, our guiding principles, three times in the last 15 years and they most likely will be changed again.

As Gretta Vosper wrote in the forward for our new Study Guide: “Progressive Christianity cannot be nailed down to one thing. It lives in flux. It always will because that is its nature. It always will because it must. (pg 5 Study Guide for 8 Points)

Review & Commentary

  • Dr. Candace Benyei

    Hi Fred,

    I’m with you and have missed the conversation, too. Being a psychologist, my sense is that young folks tend to gravitate to fundamentalism or some sort of certainty because they are at a black and white, just versus unjust, developmental stage, that we can only pray they will grow through. They are developing their images, and not ready to shatter them yet.

    We both know that historically the church has hated mystics because, since we operate from internal, rather than vested, authority, we are difficult to control. An article in Time Magazine’s May 20th issue, entitled the “Me, Me, Me Generation” (the Millennials, currently teens and 20-somethings) describes these kids as disrespectful of authority (I agree.) But, as the author concluded, maybe narcissism and overconfidence aside, they will save the world….

  • Anthony L. Jacobs

    Hi Fred:

    A reader asked Bishop Spong to re-write the Nicene Creed which he attempted to do. How would you re-write the Nicene Creed that reflects Jesus in a New Universe in such a way that the modern Christians would be able to recite the new Modern Creed without being shocked or mentally tortured. It seems to me that the task at hand is for thinkers like you and Bishop Spong is to re-write creeds and liturgies that are more than Christian lite sermons given by TV Evangelists.