Saturday, March 22, 2008

Creeds: Are they outdated?






Is there any place for "creedal Christianity in the post-Christendom, late modern world of the West?" This is a question our adult Sunday school will be entertaining in another week, as we study what happened "after Acts." It is also the question Jaroslav Pelikan entertained in the eighth decade of his life. Krista Tippett writes, "Pelikan, who died on May 13, 2006, was a scholar who devoted his life to exploring the vitality of ancient theology and creeds. He insisted that even modern pluralists need strong statements of belief."

This is a controversial position. Much of postmodern theology, with its re-discovery of "intellectus," an immediate, non-discursive way of knowing, is apt to dismiss creedal Christianity as "stiff" if not "dead." Indeed, the biggest criticisms might be summarized this way:

1) Creeds are power plays, which marginalize minority opinion.

2) Creeds, as unchanging, are no longer suitable to match the diversity and change of life in the 21st century.

2) Creeds, as propositional, violate the mystery of God and Christian experience.

Brad has an important link here, to help deal with those criticisms.

"Jaroslav Pelikan understood what a difficult thing unchanging creeds can be for modern people. He knew as well as anyone that historically creeds were employed in part to consolidate power — both of church authority and of Christian empire. But he insisted on capturing a sense of the profound and positive reasons Christianity, alone among the major traditions, seemed to require creeds. The global spread of Christianity and of the translation of the Bible into now more than 2000 languages, as Pelikan described it, "is the history of how one sought in a new setting not to speak the same thing but to say the same thing."

"And creeds, he believed, also meet a deep human need — one that is not diminished but intensified by pluralism. Pluralism, he reiterates during this conversation, is not the same as relativism; the singing of a creed, in fact, is a way of indicating a universality of the faith across space and time. Pelikan's own generous sense of space and time, I think, helped him internalize the original impulse of creeds and communicate their meaning to the rest of us. Every time he recited or sang the creeds, he tangibly experienced the fact that these same words were sung in the Philippines that same morning and recited by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century and Thomas Aquinas in the 13th and intoned by his own grandfather in the 20th century. I have been struck by the number and diversity of people who have told me over the years that this program touched them in a special way. Among them have been more than a few Unitarians, whose faith tradition was formed in part in reaction against the very idea of creeds.

"Attempts to make creeds modern and contemporary often seem to sacrifice something in depth and grace. Jaroslav Pelikan compared this, interestingly, to the language of love. We can try to be creative and unconventional but there aren't terribly many ways to say "I love you." Again and again most of us fall back on well-worn words and find that they more than suffice.

"Having noted that, in one of the most poignant moments of this program, Jaroslav Pelikan recites one of the newest creeds he discovered — a creed written by the Maasai people of Africa. In 1960, they took the bare-bones summaries the great creeds represent, and enlivened them with the vocabulary of their lives. Pelikan reads this Maasai creed, which includes mention of hyenas and safari, with reverent passion and an almost child-like delight.

"And isn't religion at heart about mystery, I had to ask Jaroslav Pelikan, that can never be captured in words? Can creeds ever be sufficient as a statement of faith? He left me with a wonderful statement of St. Augustine, who apparently struggled with this same question in his own theologizing as well. We resolve to speak of these things nevertheless, Augustine concluded — inspiring Jaroslav Pelikan centuries later — not in order to say something, but in order not to remain altogether silent.
I am not Augustinian enough to fully agree that we are not saying anything while not remaining silent. Neither am I Reformed enough to affirm that all we ever can (and must ) do is speak. For Christians, religion is not at heart about mystery. Neither is it at heart about complete comprehnsion. It is about knowing and loving the God Who is Three in One, who reveals Himself in Jesus Christ, and invites us into His infinite, endless life of love, truth and beauty.
But I think Pelikan is on to something here. Creeds are not sufficient, but they are necessary. Belief matters. "For as (a person) thinks within himself, so he is." (Proverbs 23:7)



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40 comments:

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