Creeds, Deeds and Principles

October 27, 2013
Rev. Dr. Leonard DeRoche

Today I have chosen to mix religion and politics. Well, not exactly. I have chosen to talk about the some political happenings from a religious perspective.  Some of you may feel that is not right. I contend that religion and politics are inseparable. It is politics that professes to tell me whom I may marry, which I maintain is a religious rite. The church as sanctuary has been at odds with the state going back to the Middle Ages. But the most convincing argument I can make that the politics and religion are really married is over morality. As long as the state wants to legislate morality, they can expect us in religious organizations to be involved in the political process. On the other hand, our separation has to be somewhat financial. As a non-profit organization we cannot support or encourage individual candidates or their particular parties.

The issues that the political process places before us are valid for religions' consideration and in fact I maintain are essential to our functioning as people of faith.  This functioning has been a theological discussion since the start of state religion as an organization under the Roman Empire.  The primary polemic in the early church is whether faith or deed are the more essential to be of a particular faith or other.  One argument is that faith leads to deed; the other that deeds are the visible recognition of faith.  I don't know quite where Unitarian Universalism appears along this spectrum, maybe both camps.   Principles are values or moralities. These should underlay actions. Our seven principles should function in this manner but more times than we would like to admit they display our hypocrisies' to these principles. As a universal our principles are really a goal.  Principles relate to action and I maintain that deeds are our principles at work.

I have heard it said that our principles are just creeds by another name. I believe that couldn't be further from the truth. Creeds have a more vague association with deeds; throughout history, creeds have led to many horrific deeds, from the Crusades, through the Inquisition to the hanging of Quakers in Massachusetts in the 1600's, to the banning of native religions up to the 1970's .   Creeds are an attempt to put essential ideas of religion or a particular religion into words.  The great Harvard psychologist of the last century William James defined creeds this way, "Our faith is faith in someone else's faith, and in the greatest matters this is mostly the case". Said again, "Our faith (or creeds) is faith in someone else's faith".  His thought becomes a natural transition from the "will to believe" to "the need for creed"and the need for tradition.

David Brooks tells us in his op-ed column that "many Americans have always admired the style of belief that is spiritual, but not doctrinal, pluralistic and not exclusive, which offers tools for serving the greater good but is not marred by intolerant theological judgments...  Vague, uplifting, non-doctrinal religiosity doesn't actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False".  The religions that thrive have exactly what "The Book of Mormon" ridicules: communal theologies, doctrines and codes of conduct rooted in claims of absolute truth." Incidentally, I had a member in one of my congregations who was an evangelical missionary to Peruvian Indians until they converted her by their humanity, so the theme of the Book of Mormon isn't that outlandish.

All religion relies on certain thoughts to establish its authority. Generally the thoughts establish the four sources of authority for all belief structures.  They are scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Protestant belief is primarily based on scripture; Catholicism, tradition; reason and experience underpin our denomination as most liberal faiths including liberal Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam. Creeds are rooted in Tradition; principles are engrained partly in Scripture, but mostly in the experience and reason.  Experience includes our species history of psychology, science and philosophy. 

Creeds further establish those who are inside a particular religion and those who are outside the religion. This insider and outsider mentality led to words like "crusade", "pogrom" and "jihad". These words have entered our vocabulary because of the prevalence of conflict of creeds. Creeds may well conflict with reason and certainly clash with our experience of humanity's exploration and explanations of our world the past few thousand years.  Probably the first creed recorded came from the fourth verse of the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy, "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is One". The Shema is an affirmation of Judaism and a declaration of faith in one God. It is the essence of what is celebrated in the Jewish high holy days. The observant Jew considers it an obligation to say the Shema twice a day, once in the morning and once at night. In Reformed and Conservative congregationms this creed is said while standing, but sitting in Orthodox since they see the statement as scripture therefore an object for study which is done while sitting.  

The creed of Islam, the shahada, the Muslim profession of faith: "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger". It is the first of the five pillars of Islam that proclaims the uniqueness of Allah. By sincerely pronouncing these words, one implies acceptance of Islam; it is considered the only formal requirement for entry into the faith community and is the first and only test of membership.  This creed starts every Muslim prayer and binds Muslims to each other. With these words the individual is bound to every other Muslim regardless of nationality or race.

Christianity has been riddled with creeds and probably starts with the Apostles' Creed, which was drawn up in the first or second century and deals with the humanity of Jesus. This points out the errors or heresies of groups like the Gnostics and the Manicheans as both groups had larger followings then the sect that became Christianity.
The Apostles' Creed is as follows:

I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of Heaven and Earth

This is similar to both the shema of Judaism and what became the shahada several centuries later in Islam. This statement denies the Gnostic belief that the physical world is evil and was not therefore a product of divine intervention.

It goes on to state the belief in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord who was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary. This statement denies the Gnostic belief that Jesus only became God at his baptism. Anyway, this creed goes on to affirm the Christian thought as opposed to other religious Christian thought. It ends with the statement that Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into Hades. On the third day he rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Thus this creed established a certain divinity of Jesus.

The Nicene Creed, drawn up in the fourth century, during the first council of Nicaea in 325 CE,  when the Emperor Constantine urged the bishops to develop a statement that he could use to unite Christendom and consequently his empire. This is maybe the first use of a creed in a political arena.  It became a profession of faith 56 years later at the Council of Constantinople. It is emphatic in affirming the Deity of Christ, since it is directed against the Arians, or the first Unitarians who denied that Christ was fully God. This Nicene Creed is either sung or chanted. It states that "We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen". Likewise, similar to both Judaism and Islam. However, the Nicene Creed was crafted to exclude ideas rather than be inclusive. It adds on to the Apostles' Creed of two centuries earlier. I will spare you hearing the rest of the creed except that portion which is meant to make Arianism or early Unitarian thought heresy.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father.

The history of Christian thought, both Catholic and Protestant, developed different creeds to separate and distinguish themselves from the pack that was Christendom. They became part of the literature that became the Christian tradition. Once again William James tells us that this "Tradition is the living faith of the dead; (Where as) traditionalism is the dead faith of the living". Let me repeat that since Creeds gain their authority in tradition, "Tradition is the living faith of the dead; (Where as) traditionalism is the dead faith of the living".

In this country, as a religion evolved it felt it needed a creed to give it identity and legitimacy. For example, at least partly because of pressure from other sects and denominations for evidence that they really were Christian, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) in 1842 and the Church of Christ, Scientist in 1879 both stated the distinctive tenets in statements of faith that ended up a creed that put them firmly in the camp of Christianity.  Even similarly, the Society of Friends or the Quakers who thoroughly eliminated  sacraments than in dispensing with creeds, and produced a spate of confessions of faith leading up to the Richmond Declaration of Faith of 1887. Even this contrasts Emerson and the transcendentalists like Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and others. 
Ralph Waldo Emerson "asserted that the intuitive depth of a person's spirituality exists within each individual and transcends the empirical and measurable. Moreover, the divine could exist in other human beings and not only in an imposing, untouchable God." In his divinity school address he presented "by trusting your own heart" and "you must be yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Spirit and sing it out"  as a source of authority. This directly contrasted creeds.  But in our own tradition, the Unitarian General Convention of 1935 concluded that "Neither this nor any other statement shall be imposed as a creedal test, (but) provided that the faith thus indicated be professed".  This to me sounds very much like a creedal test. 

Even the humanists, not to be left out, drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Stating "We hold these truths", if affirmed, "We cannot know anything for sure". Paraphrasing the warning in a fragment attributed to Aristotle about why it is impossible to escape philosophizing: "You say that one must confess one's faith; then you need to confess your faith. You say that one must not confess; to say that, you will need to issue a confession! Either way, creeds and confessions are unavoidable".  This is true I believe even with us non-creedals and is tied to tradition but also culture. Here's an example of a cultural adaptions. The Masai creed from East Africa in the 1960s:  "The motto underlying this simple and yet profound Masai creed is: "We must Africanize Christianity, not Christianize Africa".  But all these creeds including our own are an intellectualization that is designed to be more exclusive than inclusive.

There has always been another facet of all religion and that I would call its real essence. It's covenants.   Saint John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople in the close of the 3rd century warned that the outcome and expression of authentic orthodoxy, excludes the second "great commandment", which "You shall love your neighbor as yourself". Through the centuries this warning and other warning have favored creeds or beliefs over the religion of actions or deeds. Buddhists talk about action or right living as more important than cognitive beliefs. Yet the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom introduces the changing of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed with the formula: "Let us confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that we may love one another".  This comes from John where Jesus says "A new commandment I give you,  that you love one another".  This creed belongs only to those who live it and expresses the Orthodox attitude to Tradition. If we do not love one another, we cannot love God; and if we do not love God, we cannot make a true confession of faith and cannot enter into the inner spirit of Tradition, for there is no other way of knowing God than to love him."

This is why as a denomination we are attempting to look at ourselves through many lenses like right relation task forces. This is difference between exclusive creedal or intellectual religion and experiential covenantal religion. It approaches using principles to determine actions.  It is what the Muslim Sufi dervish taught the grocer "Nothing causes more trouble than the human habit of judging things by their appearance, because what might look the same on the surface may not be the same in essence. Take the example of the honeybee and the bumblebee: they look alike, but from one comes honey, while from the other comes pain!"