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Thursday, September 18, 2003

Dogmatic non-creedalism.

You'll think this a strange admission from a Unitarian Universalist, but I can't wait to get a copy of Jaroslav Pelikan's new book, Credo. The history of ideas is the only discipline I would go back to school to study, and it was my favorite part of my English and div school work. But my interest is especially motivated by the fact that religious liberals react to doctrine with a peculiar schizophrenia: Unitarian Universalists often say they're "non-creedal" — true enough — and yet they also often quote the liberal religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs's "It matters what we believe." (Indeed it does.) So perhaps a study of the history and significance of creeds and confessions is especially important to a bunch of heretical religious intellectuals and their denominational heirs.

So go find a copy of the Sept. 20 Christian Centurysubscribe, too — and read William C. Placher's review of Credo, "Believe It or Not: Why Creeds Matter." Here are two key paragraphs, broken up and given subtitles by your helpful philocrator:

Confessions arise, [Pelikan] argues, from exegesis, prayer, polemics and politics.

Exegesis. Those who read the Bible seriously (as opposed to those content to memorize a dozen or so all-purpose proof texts) will find themselves puzzling over how to reconcile James and Paul on the relation between works and faith, John 10:30 ("I and the Father are one") and John 14:28 ("the Father is greater than I") and a host of other apparently conflicting passages. Figure out how to put such pieces together in a coherent whole, and you are doing theology; suggest the answer you figured out to your fellow Christians, and you are proposing doctrine; write down what you and they agree on, and you have produced a confession.

Prayer. Similarly, in private prayer and public liturgy, Christians turn to God and need to figure out how they should properly address God. Thus reflection on prayer, like exegesis, leads toward doctrine.

Polemics. So do polemics and politics. "Wherever there is a creed," Alfred North Whitehead once remarked, "there is a heretic round the corner or in his grave." Pelikan doesn't quite agree—he cites the Apostles' Creed, for instance, as having emerged from baptismal covenants without a primary focus on any particular heresy—but he does readily concede that polemics against heresies are an important reason for the emergence of confessional statements.

Politics. Finally, he admits, politics also plays its role. He quotes the title of a book by the Dutch scholar H.M. Kuitert: Everything Is Politics but Politics Is Not Everything. No creed or confession has been written without political influences at work, but Pelikan maintains that the meaning or importance of any significant creed cannot be reduced purely to its political implications.

Correspondence with a reader of UU World recently led me to the observation that Unitarian "non-creedalism" has two quite distinct roots: One is our "heretical" root in anti-Trinitarian, Arminian, and eventually Romantic and modernist deviations from Nicene or at least Congregationalist orthodoxy. Or, to put it more simply, the "liberals" we regard as forerunners of modern Unitarianism embraced doctrines that fell outside the orthodox doctrinal perimeter. They weren't anti-doctrinal; they just embraced different doctrines, sometimes at great personal peril.

But the other is our "political" root in movements that protested against the imposition of creeds in civic life. Objections to state religions, the prosecution of heretics, and the political authority of religious leaders are expressions of this concern. Call it the "question authority" approach. This root has turned out to be more enduring among Unitarian Universalists.

Early on in American Unitarian history (probably with Theodore Parker) the idea emerged that the church oppressed its own members (or, more accurately, its ministers) when it expected some degree of doctrinal conformity within the church, even though no political coercion was involved. This strikes me as significant, because the political battles for religious freedom and for freedom of conscience were also battles for the freedom of association — the right to join with others who shared a common goal.

But what happens to a group that decides it can't or shouldn't name its common purpose? (The history of the Free Religious Association would be a good case study.) Or, in the case of the Unitarian Universalist Association, when it ducks doctrinal questions and yet treats its bylaws — and its annual resolutions — as if they were proof-texts?

I ask all this because I admit to having become a Unitarian more out of a commitment to the tradition's liberalism than to its unitarianism. But, as Whitehead said, "definition is the soul of actuality," and we're currently struggling with the realization that we've let ourselves get a little undefined. So I find it helpful to have Placher's gloss: "Figure out how to put such pieces together in a coherent whole, and you are doing theology; suggest the answer you figured out to your [co-religionists], and you are proposing doctrine; write down what you and they agree on, and you have produced a confession." But of course, we won't dare to admit that's what we're doing.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 18 September 2003 at 10:45 PM

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September 19, 2003 05:16 AM | Permalink for this comment

I hope you are familiar with Don McEvoy's books Credo and Credo International - they are fine small pieces of individual narratives, speaking more of *how* we believe than of *what*.

Scott Wells:

September 19, 2003 10:18 AM | Permalink for this comment

Of course, there's a certain irony about making these observations on the eve of the Winchester Profession bicentennial. (September 23) I guess one of the secondary reasons I was drawn to traditional Universalism is that, despite a Unitarian-pleasing revisionism (from within Universalist circles), there is a much greater interest in unifying theological statements.

Otherwise, it is just all "No, isn't it funny that we don't agree" and perhaps a study group, but little corporate exploration.


September 19, 2003 12:04 PM | Permalink for this comment

Ole, I've seen McEvoy's two books, but my question is: What would happen if the people featured in them sat down and tried to figure out what they had in common?

Scott, I'm eager to know more about how the Universalist confessions functioned, and especially how the "liberty clause" was understood. It's clear that the Universalists maintained an exegetical and polemical interest much longer than the Unitarians with the exception of the Humanists, of course. Another irony.

Scott Wells:

September 20, 2003 03:41 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'll post my sermon (for the Winchester Profession bicentennial) for tomorrow on the church website, and will link from here.

Brian Parker:

December 9, 2005 08:27 PM | Permalink for this comment

Prayer Alliance is an online community where Christian Groups can come together to worship Jesus Christ with prayer, praise, and fellowship.

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