by Rev. Dr. Ronald Ryan
“Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10)
Jesus said, “Go and figure it out yourself! ( )
You have a knowledge of God within you. ( )
I have been questioned, many times, about the Unitarian Christian claim that we have no creed. Some of my acquaintances have shook their heads in disbelief, saying something like, “Well, you have to believe something!” Some of them have quoted the old cliché: If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.”
Some people, seeming to appreciate some of the implications of being creedless, draw back in fear, recognizing the possibility that they, at least, would be “at sea” with no land in sight, nothing to assist them in determining direction, as if surrounded by a dense fog, confusion at every hand: no compass, no chronometer, no sextant, no pilot.
The analogy for Unitarian Christians is not a good one. In fact, we know that, for thousands of years, so-called primitive people navigated the oceans, even the vast Pacific, by learning to understand the ocean and its tides, and learning how to position themselves from the stars. Once that these people became confident that the stars were not capricious, that certain aspects of nature were almost invariable, then they knew that what they saw, knew that what they knew could be relied on, then they were able to navigate, and navigate they did! Even today, we still hear scientists say that it is not known how they did it, but there is no doubt that they did it!
I am not suggesting that people go out in boat on the ocean without compass and chart, but I am suggesting that the compass and chart will be useless if one doesn’t know how to use the navigation tools and if the person doesn’t have the sense to rely on what one knows instead of relying thoughtlessly on the tools.
I have to take my own advice, here, and realize and acknowledge that analogy can take one only so far. In times past, acquaintances has sometimes pointed out that my analogies are not perfect. These naïve people seem not to realize that if it were “perfect” in their sense of the word, then it would no longer be an analogy; it would be the thing itself. An analogy is never anything but a metaphor, much like Jesus saying, “It is like unto …” or “It is something like this…” when for example, Jesus told the story about the good Shepard or about the woman who had lost a coin, or when we learn about the widow’s mite. They are all parables, metaphors, analogies. It is something like this, says Jesus, it is like unto.
Thus with my analogies: It is something like this. If I build up enough analogies, as Professor Wilhoite taught we at the University of Toledo, then we can leave the brain to do its work and create the necessary concept.
The big problem in this, in religion, in faith, is that we do not trust our brains; we do not trust what we see; we do not trust our sensations, the information received from our senses. We want it simplified, broken down, spelled out to us. We don’t believe that it is as simple as simply listening to our beings, to be willing to be still and listen for God, whatever God is and however we conceive God.
For some reason, we want a compendium of beliefs laid out for us. We want a creed, a simple statement of simple beliefs, regardless whether it is based on anything specific at all, just as long as somebody, somebody smarter than me, someone closer to God than me, someone with more education than me, will give me a simple listing of things to believe. We are willing to hand over our own analytic abilities and accept what someone else tells us. The renowned psychologist, psychotherapist, and psychiatrist Erik Fromm has explained the propensity of people to do just that, and the inherent dangers, particularly in his book, “Escape From Freedom.”
For Christians, we contradict the Bible in our efforts to pretend to ourselves, I suppose, that we believe something, a set of beliefs that somebody else will give us and which we are willing to mindlessly accept. Take for example, the many creeds in almost all Christian churches. They all proclaim a Trinity that is not in the Bible! They proclaim a laying on of hands as condition for ordination, a ritual that is not Biblical! They mis-translate the statement of Jesus saying that Peter was the rock on which the church would be founded, immediately after Jesus and Peter quarreled and after Jesus told Peter to get behind him, that Peter was the devil. Consider the nonsense that is in the Apostles’ Creed and the creeds before that, statements about Jesus descending into Hell, for example.
Then, we mindlessly recite the creeds, over and over again, Sunday after Sunday, Church after Church.
Some years ago, I asked a minister of my acquaintance, a minister who had been in the pulpit for well nigh on 35 years, a minister who had led his congregation in reciting the creed for what must have been hundreds, even thousands of times, what the statement in the Apostels’ Creed meant: World without end.
His response: “I have no idea. I never thought about it before.”
Bishop James A Pike, in his book, “If This Be heresy” (1969), after he was defrocked as an Anglican Bishop after the church court found him guilty of heresy, has pointed out that research has been done on what of the creeds people actually believe. Even 50 or more years ago, up to 60 percent of congregations admitted that they did not believe the creeds even though they faithfully recited them; and a whopping 70+ % of the clergy who led their congregations into reciting the creeds said that they did not believe the statements contained in the selfsame creeds.
We seem to forget that the disciples asked Jesus to give them a creed, Jesus refused! Jesus refused to give them a simple statement of belief. They pleaded, “Tell us again Lord, so that we will understand.” Jesus refused. He said, “Go! Figure it out for yourselves. I am not going to treat you like children. Grow up. Put away childish things.” Jesus refused! Jesus refused! Jesus refused to provide a simplistic creed! Jesus refused!
But, why do Unitarian Christians not have creeds, even though virtually all other Christians do have, and mindlessly recite, creeds?
In the first instance, creeds are conceptual filters blinding us to reality. Just think: If you always wear tinted glasses, everything you see takes on the tint of the glasses and other information is filtered out. As long as you are wearing the glasses, you can never see accurately; colours are altered; some colours are filtered out completely. You can never see reality as it is.
Ever wonder about those pristine photos by famous photographers, photos of scenes where you have never seen such clarity and you cannot possibly capture with your camera? Fact is, these famous photographers use filters. They don’t capture what is really out there; they create something that is false, something that is definitely not out there! We have been convinced that the false photo is more beautiful than a photo of the real thing. We almost worship the false photos; we shun the real thing. We hang the false photos in our houses and admire them and show them off and pay enormous sums of money for them. But they are fakes! We are convinced that they are more beautiful, but we never ask ourselves, “More beautiful than what?”
For some reason, we don’t want reality; we want the fake; we prefer that which is not true.
That is exactly what religious creeds do. Creeds provides conceptual filters, telling us what to see, how to see, what to believe, to deny our own eyes and out own thinking. There was a time, not all that long ago, that if we dared to think for ourselves, we got burned at the stake for our efforts. Oh, we have learned our lessons!
The creeds filter everything we see or try to see, in the Bible, in the faces of each other, in the world around us. We don’t have the intestinal fortitude to face the reality; we are comfortable only with the filtered gospel, the gospel that we are contented for someone else to interpret for us.
We want a simple creed, one that makes things easy for us, not one that will challenge us. We are still saying “Tell us again, Lord. Make it simple for me. Let me understand its simplicity. Don’t make me think. Please, Lord.” and then we ignore the fact that Jesus refused to provide the simplistic, childish statements of faith that the disciples pleaded for. Jesus refused for the simple reason that he wanted the disciples to think, for the disciples not to be blinded by the words that might happen to fall from the lips of the God-man. In fact, every Christian creed denies the gospel, soft peddles the teachings of Jesus!
An acquaintance said to me, some time ago, that he was confident that everybody in his congregation believed the same thing. He did not realize that (a) that is almost an impossibility, and (b) it is distinctly unhealthy. Some people seem to think that thinking the same thing leads to or constitutes harmony and will avoid conflict. It doesn’t. Besides, as Carl Popper, the famed philosopher of science said (in his book, The Open Societies and its Enemies, 1945) such a society would not be a society of friends but of ants. He also cautioned, further, that without the free play of ideas and criticism, we end up with totalitarian repression. What is true of society in general is also true of religious congregations. Far from being the communities of emancipation that Jesus promised, they become dens of repression and fear and people fall away and cease to attend.
Some years ago, I was confronted by my minister because he had been called away and had asked me to do the service in his absence. I choose to use Ecclesiastes as my source for the sermon. On his return, the minister listened to the recording of the service and was terribly upset by some of the things that I had said. Ecclesiastes can have that effect! He said things to me that a Christian should not say. He said, for example, that I was leading the congregation astray. I asked him if he had ever read Ecclesiastes. He admitted that he had never read it closely. (I interpreted that to mean that he had never read it at all). I pointed him to certain verses. He blushed as he read. He admitted that he had never really closely read it before and that the meanings had never dawned on him. He said, “I guess if it’s in the Bible, then it’s in the Bible. How can we argue with the Bible?” (I had no such difficulty. I argue with the Bible all of the time!) The upshot was that that minister never ever asked me to do a service or to be involved in a service for the following three years that he was with the congregation.
The fact is that a creed, any creed, blinds us to the reality of the gospel. A creed colours everything that we might read (for those who do try to read the Bible with eyes wide open).
Some people, believing that they know “a little of something” will quickly say that Unitarians don’t believe in a Holy Trinity. That is as simplistic as it is false. But, it saves people having to think about what a Unitarian Christian really is – or isn’t. It is a statement that helps people not to think, helps them to be dismissive, with the implication “How dare they?!”
One of the aspects of creeds that doesn’t get mentioned very often is that the formulation of creeds is an effort at control, control of people and control of life. Most people, especially religious people, feel out of control in a capricious world. Their creeds, formulation of creeds, propagation of creeds, repetition of creeds, is all an effort to exercise control, control of God, mostly. Creeds put God in a box. The creed statements are the bars of the cage in which we seek to imprison God. We are afraid of any God that we cannot imprison in our creedal cage. One of the creedal bars are our statements of how powerful God is, that God cannot be contained while we attempt to contain God by telling God how powerful God is. We are afraid of God; God is capricious, unpredictable. We try to make God predictable and malleable, and controllable by imprisoning God is a cage of creedal statements. We are afraid of the power of God, the supposed attributes of God, Gods ability to know all, see all. Good God, we don’t want a God that can SEE all and KNOW all!
We are egotistic enough, foolish enough, self-delusional enough to think that, somehow, we have the power to put controls on God, to contain God to limitations that we can live with.
Why did Jesus say that we have to be holy? Why did Jesus command us to be perfect? We can’t be either holy or perfect, except maybe our priests or ministers or pastors, especially our TV evangelists to whom we can give our money to keep God away from us, to keep God contained.
So, we had better get God in a cage as quickly as possible. We have to place limits on God, limits that we can be comfortable with, limits that allow us to sleep at night. Above all, we make creedal statements to tell God how great God is, thinking that God needs to hear such trite proclamations, God being like us, a jealous God, a needy God, an egotistic God, a vengeful God, just like us, only bigger and stronger, and fearful.
The creed is the cage to curb in God. It is to deny the abundant life that Jesus talked about, to reduce our spontaneity, interfere with our flexibility, because we see our creed, our set of beliefs as a set of boundaries, as limiting parameters that we become fearful of even looking beyond, let alone move beyond. Our creedal beliefs become our theological prison. Even more seriously, our creed becomes a spiritual prison because it interferes with our spiritual growth. We become fearful; we begin to think in terms of heresy and sin and condemnation of those different from us, and rejection of those not like us and, at an extreme, we will kill because we begin to see those not like us as dangerous to us: the perceived rejection of my beliefs becomes in our confused minds, rejection of us, rejection of me as a person, perceived belittling of my personhood. Our fragile egos can’t take it!
Our egos are exactly that fragile! If our creed is perceived to be under attack, disrespected, then we identify with the rejection because our fragile egos are bound up with our creedal beliefs. For example, some Muslims are saying that if a person doesn’t “respect” Islam, then they should be killed. If there is a difference between that and the exclusions built into our “Christian” creeds, then it is a matter of difference of degree, not one of kind. A simple example of that is the practice of “shunning” that is practiced by some Christian congregations/sects. Those who have been shunned have spoken of the pain they experience because of the rejection of their erstwhile friends, relatives, even family members. Sometimes, the rejection takes a rather subtle form.
I was told this story: I attended the serves of a congregation for a number of Sundays. It soon became obvious that I was “not one of them” because, for example, I did not participate in communion. The next time I went to that congregation a paper was passed around outlining the criteria for membership. I knew that I was the only one in the congregation who was not a “member.” The message was clear: “You make us uncomfortable. We don’t want you here. Your attendance causes us to question our own beliefs. You are dangerous to us.”
Moreover, beliefs, of a personal creed or a of a congregational or church creed to which we subscribe can become as much trap as crutch. We can become stuck, mired in our creedal beliefs.
Jesus said “I have come that you might have more abundant life.” But, to be caught in a web of beliefs that we call a creed
Having done a master degree in management, I was, and remain, a student of Dr. Edwards Deming and Dr. Juran Juran and their formulation and explanation of Total Quality Management, concepts that I applied to my own management efforts. Several years ago, I attended a very pricy three-day seminar on Total Quality Management, prepared to pay the price and the hotel bill and travel expenses, expecting as much from the offering as one would from an evangelistic event. After all, this was something I believed in!
As I listened – and, I listened carefully – I began to say to myself, “Something’s wrong, here! This man (the presenter) does not know his stuff! Essential elements of TQM are being left out or glossed over.” I was curious. At end of the second day, my curiosity got the better of me. I approached the presenter, during a break, and popped the question, “I see you are a student of Dr. Edwards Deming?” He looked at me, blankly: “Who? Never heard of the man!”
He had been reading a script that had been prepared by someone else. He was reading a creed. Sounded good! Missed the essentials! He had never read “the gospel” of TQM; had never sat at the foot of either of the prophets! I had! Had never been forced to think about the issues by these learned men! I had! Had never had to formulate one’s own understandings and argue for them! I had!
A couple of weeks afterward, I was chatting with a colleague and mentioned that I had gone to the TQM Seminar. “Oh, TQM,” he responded brightly. “Nothing to it. Just means that people have to be involved.” The man had been exposed to a creed of a creed of a creed. He had absolutely no idea of the concept of TQM! I, who had spent hours and days and days and more days reading the original writings and trying to understand and responding to them with my own research and writings, was upstaged by that idiot who proclaimed, mindlessly, “Oh, there’s nothing to it.” (I am embarrassed at my disgust on that occasion!)
The fact is that today’s Unitarian Christians, typically, take no position on the nature of God, Divinity, the Holy, the Sacred. Typically, we acknowledge the necessary multiple dimensionality of Divinity. Although we believe that God, the Great Mystery, is a Unity, we also acknowledge that Divinity has many aspects, two, or three, or four or a thousand. What is the significance? God is God. What is the point or purpose of defining Divinity and forcing Divinity into a conceptual box of our construction, according to our understandings, according to our limiting creeds?
We Unitarian Christian look around us; we are open to revelation. We need neither creeds not simplistically stated beliefs, otherwise. They interfere with our access to the truth.
“Be still!” we are told.
That is all the creed we need.