creeds and criticism :: hellfire and history (part I)

by Eric Daryl Meyer

“I reject any creed that would send the Dalai Lama to hell.” I watched an author of fiction (one I’m quite fond of) offer this phrase at a book release last year. As he spoke, the vast majority of receptive ears were attached to heads nodding in agreement and righteous indignation.

Inner monologue: “Who could possibly be so stupid as to send the Dalai Lama to hell? What group of people could possibly hold a set of beliefs that would send such a man to such a place? They must be ridiculous! The Apostles creed is bunk! We’d be better off if it were never repeated again!”

So… wouldn’t we as a species make it a few steps further along our evolutionary journey if we dropped the self-righteous possession of truth in pretty little formulas? Weren’t the creeds the attempt of the powerful majority in the early church to subjugate all dissenting opinions? Who in their right mind would want to follow such a legacy?

Any time I walk my dogma out in public, I find some hefty stigma waiting to drive it back “where it belongs.” Being “dogmatic” is not likely to win popularity contests these days, and it’s hard to imagine anything more dogmatic than creeds (though I can imagine a few examples…). But often being called dogmatic means little more than, “You disagree with me and actually believe that I’m wrong.” In that case, we’re all dogmatic on some level (unless we’re just along for the ride, waiting out our life-expectancy); pointing the finger back and forth just defers the conversation that might actually work the issues out.

Furthermore, even among self-consciously Christian folk, I find hesitation about the creeds. Part of this is simply due to participating in a tradition (American Christianity) that de-emphasizes the history and heritage of the faith and therefore (unintentionally, I’m sure) inculcates ignorance about such things in order to focus on “more important/relevant” things. Occasionally, I’ve found churches that intentionally push away from the creeds, whether because they don’t want to be pegged to the particular doctrine encapsulated there, or becuase they don’t trust the Christians and the churches that wrote them, or because, they don’t want to be known as “that type” of Christian.

In addition, since Casey and I are pretty sure that we are the only ones reading each other’s blogs, this will provide an opportunity to talk a bit closer to the core of our friendly disagreement. I imagine that an emphasis on creeds will rile Casey’s spine in ways that few other things will. This will bring up all kinds of good stuff: conformity, objectivity, history, teaching and praxis, exclusion, metaphysics, heaven and hell, human doctrine and God’s action.

I’ll get it out of the way. I think the creeds are important. A good worship service ought to include the Apostle’s creed. But why? Why bother reciting 1,700 year-old formulations?

What am I aiming for here? I’m looking for compelling reasons why the creeds of my tradition are still an integral element of being Christian in the world (particularly the Apostles‘, Nicene, and Chalcedonian creeds). I’m not inclined to treat the Creeds like a contract which we sign at the bottom in order to become Christian. I can imagine a Creed-pounding as blind and distasteful to me as Bible-pounding is. On the other hand, I want to avoid the temptation (so present within me) to polish up the creeds, and use just the right words so that everyone thinks they are “okay.” It’s not my job to make this stuff hip. There will probably be something distasteful here for everyone!

I’m going to start a series of posts on the topic, explore a bit more. This is partly for my sake (to help me think through things and get feedback from friends). It’s also partly to answer some of the criticism above. I’ll structure the posts under the following headings (though not necessarily in this order):

1. History and belief
2. The creeds and the Bible :: God’s words for God’s people
3. The creeds and the church :: personal belief and corporate confession
4. The creeds, heaven, and hell :: Jesus and the Dalai Lama
5. The creeds and culture :: presupposition, practice, tradition, and justice

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