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On the Issue of Creeds

 

Charles Richard

Alexandria, Virginia

 

 

“All things change, creeds and philosophies and outward systems—but God remains.”

Mary Augusta Ward  (1851-1920) in Robert Elsmere, Bk 4, Chp 26.

Introduction

Growing up Catholic, I was exposed to creeds and sundry dogma from an early age. It seemed comforting at the time to know that learned people in the Church had worked everything out for me, and all I had to do was pay attention in catechism class.

When I became an adult, however, this system did not seem quite as appealing as it once had. Following the example of the Apostle Paul (“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways”—1 Corinthians 13:11), I looked elsewhere.

I then found a group that claimed it operated under maxims such as “what’s true is what’s true for you” (meaning actually that one must examine what “authorities” say and avoid blind acceptance) and “reality is what we agree it is;” this was all within certain limits, however, as the group did have a loose, stated creed. Even though taking on the responsibility necessary to operate like this might be difficult, it should have led to an exciting time of exploration and freedom. Unfortunately, this group did not practice what it preached and in actuality insisted that one’s examination should conclude that their Founder’s way is the only way; thus, there could be no real independent thinking. The situation was dogmatic to such an extent that it made my Catholic Church experience seem very liberal by comparison, so I went searching again.

This is when I found Unitarian Christianity. What I read really made sense to me, and it was quite freeing, but there was this issue of creeds, or perhaps more clearly stated, the lack of a creed. It confused me, and I was even a little put off by it. I mean, how can you have a church (even in the broadest sense of the word) without even a loose creed? Was I missing something? Instead of just moving on to another religion or philosophy or ignoring the issue, I did some study on the subject. What I found follows.

 

Freedom

The Unitarian objection to creeds seems to be in part an objection to a resulting loss of freedom when a person or (especially) a group strongly adheres or demands adherence to them. A few points relating to freedom will now be examined before going to the main topic.

Freedom is normally considered to be a good thing, but when freedom becomes license, it is a bad thing. License in this context is lack of due restraint, excessive freedom or heedlessness for the precepts of proper behavior, even to the point of licentiousness (see the Houghton Mifflin Dictionary). A useful analogy here might be: freedom is to license as growth is to decadence.

Another point regarding freedom can be seen by considering that the power to do something does not necessarily bring with it the right to do it. That is, one may have the power (as in ability/strength) to do something without necessarily having the right (as in action having no legitimate, adverse consequences for the actor) to do it. Thus, just because one has the freedom (the power) to do something does not mean that one should do it, because if the one lacks the right, then there will be bad consequences for him.

It is also useful to consider a spectrum based on amounts of freedom. One could say that too much freedom is chaos, a little

less is revolution, much less is evolution, and none is stagnation. An ideal situation would seem to lie somewhere on the segment from revolution to evolution with the exact point depending on the particular situation, maybe even personal choice.

The spectrum spoken of here might actually be better thought of as a circle, given that in situations that are otherwise similar, the consequences where there is too much freedom are very often identical to the consequences where there is too little freedom. For example, it can be said that either too much or too little freedom within a group eventually leads to schism.

As an illustration of this, first consider that the Protestant Reformation resulted in part from too little freedom existing within the Catholic Church. This schism continued. The Unitarian Movement could be said to have arisen due, at least in part, to too little freedom among Calvinists. Later, it could be said that too much freedom amongst Unitarian Universalists (the successors so to speak of the earlier Unitarian Movement) lead to the formation of the American Unitarian Conference. This is not to say that schisms are necessarily bad or good, but rather that they can happen on either end of the freedom spectrum or where its ends join into a circle.

Some other relevant points or statements regarding freedom are as follows. Mankind hates chains, but nature abhors a vacuum. God may have given mankind individual free will, but there seems to be unhappy consequences for bad choices, at least in the long run, so there is some control mechanism to keep freedom in some sense within limits or rules. Mankind dislikes, even fears (excessive) control, yet will usually seek guidance from a higher power or authority when things get bad enough; guidance is not (necessarily) the same thing as an (arbitrary or capricious) authoritarian pronouncement, however. With freedom comes responsibility, or there is really only license. The Golden Mean comes to mind: moderation in all things.

I’ll close out this section with a quote by Robert Ross from page 107 of the September 2004 issue of The American Unitarian: “[Freedom] is to be wielded, intelligently, to achieve a goal. Mark Twain once wrote, as I recall, that a man who has a hammer is constantly looking for a nail. Freedom can be like that.”

 

Creeds

Now on to the main topic, the issue of creeds, or maybe more properly, the issues of creeds. First, some useful definitions (from the Houghton Mifflin Dictionary):

Christianity: The Christian religion, founded on the life and teachings of Jesus.

Church: The company of all Christians [or co-believers] regarded as a spiritual body.

Confession: An avowal of belief in the doctrines of a particular faith; a creed.

Creed: A formal statement of religious belief; a confession of faith; a system of belief, principles, or opinions.

Dogma: A doctrine or a corpus of doctrines relating to matters such as morality and faith, set forth in an authoritative manner by a church; an authoritative principle, belief, or statement of ideas or opinion, especially one considered to be absolutely true.

Group: A number of individuals or things considered together because of similarities.

Liberal: Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas.

Orthodox: Adhering to the accepted or traditional and established faith, especially in religion.

The Bible seems like a good place to start when considering creeds. Some relevant words on the subject by the Apostle Paul are:

Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life.  2 Corinthians 3:5-6 (RSV).

But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit. What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Romans 7:6-7 (RSV).

Paul appears to have been at least very suspicious of, but maybe not totally against, written religious codes or laws. However, following the Spirit seems to have been more important in his view. Perhaps the problem Paul had with the law was the rigidity of it as had existed up to that time.

Beginning with the early Christians, various creeds have been proposed to define Christianity, and creedal controversies have frequently resulted, with some of these controversies surviving today, even if no longer “front page news.” Given the great complexity of these historical events, the fact that their details are not of great importance to the discussion here and that most readers are probably very familiar with them anyway, little more will be said directly on this subject. Readers who are unfamiliar with this history may wish to study a sampling, including the controversies over Arianism, the filioque and predestination.

There has been much written on the subject of creeds in literature. A perusal of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations under creeds yielded the following:

Great God! I'd rather be a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn, so might I, standing on this pleasant lea, have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; have sight of Proteus rising from the sea, or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) from Miscellaneous Sonnets. Part i. xxxiii.

Shall I ask the brave soldier who fights by my side in the cause of mankind, if our creeds agree? Thomas Moore (1779-1852) from Come, Send Round the Wine.

There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds. Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) from In Memoriam xcvi. Stanza 3.

Ah! What if some unshamed iconoclast crumbling old fetish raiments of the past, rises from dead cerements the Christ at last? What if men take to following where He leads, weary of mumbling Athanasian creeds? Roden Noel (1834-1894) from The Red Flag.

Men have dulled their eyes with sin, and dimmed the light of heaven with doubt, and built their temple-walls to shut thee in, and framed their iron creeds to shut thee out. Henry van Dyke (1852-1933) from God of the Open Air.

Wordsworth shows an appreciation for the magical side, or at least the comforting aspect, of a creed, even an outmoded one, while Moore writes on the folly of deciding on whether or not to associate with a person based on similarity of creed. Tennyson and Noel seem to offer words of praise for being rational regarding ones beliefs and are less sympathetic to the opposite approach. Ward speaks of changing understanding or beliefs over time regarding an immutable God. Van Dyke writes on mankind’s corruption and the use of creeds in perpetuating it.

The thoughts expressed by these authors seem for the most part to show hostility to creeds. But, maybe the misuse of creeds was the real issue for them.

As an interesting side note, Mary Augusta Ward had at least some interest in Unitarianism in her lifetime. The book from which her quote comes concerned the conversion of an Anglican to something akin to Unitarianism. The full story is given in the article on Ward in the Dictionary of UU Biography available on the web.

Of course, many great Unitarians of the past wrote on the subject of creeds. A notable example of such writing is William Channing’s A Letter on Creeds. It is clear from this letter that Channing was no great fan of creeds:

My aversion to human creeds as bonds of Christian union, as conditions of Christian fellowship, as means of fastening chains on men's minds, constantly gains strength.

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My first objection to them is, that they separate us from Jesus Christ…. This is what shocks me in the creed-maker. He interposes himself between me and my Saviour.

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Christian truth is infinite. Who can think of shutting it up in a few lines of an abstract creed?… It is a spirit rather than a rigid doctrine…. It cannot be reduced to a system…. It is to be felt rather than described.

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From the infinity of Christian truth, of which I have spoken, it follows that our views of it must always be very imperfect, and ought to be continually enlarged.… Need I say how hostile to this growth is a fixed creed, beyond which we must never wander?

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It is another and great objection to creeds that, wherever they acquire authority, they interfere with that simplicity and godly sincerity on which the efficacy of religious teaching very much depends.… The minister must seek words which will not clash with the consecrated articles of his church.

***

Another sad effect of creeds is, that they favor unbelief. It is not the object of a creed to express the simple truths of our religion, though in these its efficiency chiefly lies, but to embody and decree those mysteries about which Christians have been contending. I use the word "mysteries," not in the Scriptural but popular sense, as meaning doctrines which give a shock to the reason and seem to contradict some acknowledged truth. Such mysteries are the staples of creeds.

Channing’s words demonstrate his general aversion to creeds, but would he have been against a personal creed that evolved as a person’s understanding increased? Or one for a group that involved no coercion, contained only the most basic and commonly shared beliefs of the group, served merely as a statement of what united them and was meant to evolve over time? Were creeds or the misuse of creeds really the issue for Channing? Perhaps he saw misuse as an inevitable consequence of creeds. 

Some years after Channing, another Unitarian, Frederic Henry Hedge wrote Reason in Religion (1865). In the passage that follows from page 408 of this work, Hedge makes a point about revelation and dogma. For him it seems, revelation is for the spiritual uplifting of mankind as opposed to simply establishing dogmas which he saw as never more than imperfect reflections of the principles revealed:

The purpose of revelation is not to settle speculative questions depending on the nice interpretation of words, but to infuse a new spirit into human things, to illustrate great principles of practical import with new sanctions. The principles are eternal; the dogmas in which they are embodied are limited and transient.

At about the time that Hedge wrote this last passage, the Unitarian minister, James Martineau was active in England. According to the Dictionary of UU Biography, Martineau believed in the importance of the church and insisted that it must be more than an association for free inquiry. He believed that the primary purpose of the church is worship, and a common bond or a consensus of purpose in worship must exist among the members, or individualism will promote anarchy. Martineau did not preach doctrine, but delivered pastoral sermons aimed at bringing people in closer relation with God. Advocacy for social reform and the like was handled in forums separate from his preaching.

Based on this assessment, Martineau was not in favor of creeds, yet saw a need for consensus when it came to worship—a practical, middle of the road approach it seems. Perhaps Martineau was attempting to stem the tide that, at least in the United States, eventually led to the current chaotic situation in UU churches.

The last great Unitarian from the past that we will hear from will be James Freeman Clarke. In his Manual of Unitarian Belief  (1884), Clarke offers what might be characterized as one of the milder views on creeds and related subjects that we have seen so far.

Preface

As Unitarians have no creed … no one among them has any right to define the views of others.  A Manual such as this is meant simply to express what, in the opinion of the writer, is the general belief of the majority of Unitarians. … No one is bound by it; and it does not attempt to limit thought, but rather to stimulate and rouse inquiry.

***

§ 54. A creed (from the Latin "credo," I believe) is simply a belief. In this sense creeds are good, useful, and desirable for individuals. If two or three who hold the same belief unite to convince others of its truth, this also is natural and right. If they state their creed in propositions and articles, this also may be useful. To such creeds Unitarians do not object. Many of their churches have adopted such statements of opinion.

 § 55. But Unitarians object to religious creeds under the following circumstances: 1. When they are made a test of character; 2. When they are made a condition of fellowship; 3. When they become an obstacle to progress.   Most of the creeds of the Christian Church have been liable to these objections.  … They have been an obstacle to progress, imposing the opinions of past centuries upon present belief. …

§ 56. Liberal Christianity, or freedom in religion, does not mean liberty to believe what we choose, but freedom to seek the truth anywhere, everywhere, and always. …

§ 57. Rational Christianity does not mean that we are to reject all beliefs which we do not now see to be reasonable, or to make reason the only source of truth.  But it means that we are to test every belief by the light of our reason, and seek to understand clearly what we think and why we think it.  

In a way, it is odd that Clarke would write such a manual given that Unitarians maintain that at least as a group that they are creedless. Perhaps this is why he took such pains with in the Preface.

Clarke goes on to distinguish “good” creeds from “bad” creeds in the excerpt presented here. He is in agreement with Channing as to the pitfalls or misuse of creeds, but does admit that there are some instances where creeds are even desirable.

It seems that Clarke is right on this latter point. If nothing else, a Liberal/Rational Christian, a person who places a great deal of import on applying reason in the realm of religion, would seem to find it useful to catalog where he or she stands on major points, at least at any particular moment. A creed might provide a good summary. A manual like Clarke’s might provide a detailed account or a basis of comparison for others.

Clarke’s comments on freedom and reason are interesting. His view expressed here is that there are or should be limits to freedom, and that reason is not the be-all and end-all, but one tool to get at the truth. (See the discussion on freedom given above.)

I find Clarke’s view to be well balanced and constructive. On a personal note, his Manual was one of the first Unitarian works that I ever read, and it impressed me greatly. It was a main reason that I chose to join the American Unitarian Conference and to write this article.

In the interim from Clarke’s time to our own, Unitarian groups for the most part embraced secular humanism and related philosophies. We now have the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and its (at least stated) all-inclusive, “big tent” philosophy. It is instructive to see how creeds are viewed in a UUA context.

In her Meditation On The Unitarian Universalist Principles, which was recently on the UUA website, Beverley Boke writes:

Historically, both the Unitarians and Universalists developed various statements describing their beliefs—and were careful to separate these from requirements for membership in a congregation. The Principles and Purposes are in the Bylaws of the UUA (Article II), a document that can evolve and change as the movement evolves. The process for developing and changing them includes intense discussion in local congregations and at General Assembly over several years. The Principles and Purposes (or "the Principles"), adopted in 1985, are ideals toward which we work, rather than requirements for membership; guidelines for religious and ethical living; and sources of inspiration for religious education, worship, and social action.

“The Principles” to which she refers, or the “7 Principles” as they are also called, can be found on the UUA website and are:

1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.

4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Most fair-minded people would probably not have a problem with any of these statements. They do not appear to form a creed, at least not in the classical sense, but this is probably as close to a creed as the UUA can get, given their diverse membership (other than a “creed” of left-wing politics as some might contend). In any case, as Ms. Boke’s explains, these statements are not part of a requirement for membership in the UUA.

Ms. Boke’s cautionary comments do appear a bit overdone after one actually reads the principles themselves; they are not exactly daring or controversial. Going even further, Larry Reyka stated in an article recently out on the web entitled, Why I Am Not a Unitarian Universalist:

However, as a Humanist, I find certain aspects of Unitarian Universalism to be frustrating. The principle of affirming no creed is, I believe, less than forthright.  Agreeing to disagree is an appropriate principle for our pluralistic society as a whole, but it is not appropriate for a religious community dedicated to celebration and action as a community. Groups that stand for everything stand for nothing, or else they deceive.

It might be said that Mr. Reyka’s comments would also apply to many Unitarian Christian writers and groups of the past (and maybe even present), but then again, they did not go as far as the Unitarian Univeralists (UU’s) of today in being “all-inclusive.” The Unitarian Christians at least professed to be followers of Jesus, even if they did not, as a group, explain what that meant, at least not in the form of a creed to which they required adherence.

The “7 Principles” are not all that religious, except in a very general sense. Perhaps this is why Marcus Hamilton-Smythe wrote in a letter published in the June 2004 issue of The American Unitarian: “The UU Church is a nice club, but a church without God leaves a lot to be desired.” I would venture to say that describing the UU’s as belonging to a church, a club, or even a group of any kind for that matter, may be stretching it a bit.”

After all, what do the UU’s have in common? As can be seen in a definition given earlier, a basic requirement for a group is that the members have similarities. The UU’s are all human beings, but it gets pretty difficult to come up with other similarities, given their extreme diversity. In any case, good for them if the UU’s find comfort in banding together, and to any UU’s that may be reading this, I am quite sincere about my best wishes. Many people, including myself, just cannot understand how UU’s can, or why they want to, be together given the wide spectrum represented. Their outlook seems more appropriate to be the basis for a nation rather than a church, even a “Church Universal.”

A strange phenomenon among ultra-non-creedal/super all-inclusive groups has been observed wherein they define themselves via what they don’t believe in, rather than by what they do believe in. In January 2005, there appeared in the now defunct web-based publication, The Unitarian Christian Journal (UK), an article entitled, “The Forward March of the Non Brigade,” where a writer gave the name “Non Brigade” to such groups of the Unitarian persuasion. This writer explains:

The Non Brigade – A group of people who negatively define themselves by what they don’t believe in - to them the Unitarian church provides nothing more than a forum for religious debate (or more accurately, carping about the perceived intolerance of Christians). Members of this group object to anyone with faith, fearing what they do not know or understand. These are the real obstruction to those Unitarians in both Britain and the United States who are working hard to re-establish Unitarianism as a radical, progressive alternative to ‘mainstream’ Christianity.

Apparently, the writer felt a great deal of frustration with the people he places among the “Non Brigade”. In my limited experience among Unitarians, I have felt similar frustration at times with this subgroup; fortunately for me, such contacts have been only from a distance and not very frequent. At the risk of seeming uncharitable, I think a term like “spiritual vampire” might also be appropriate for such people, at least for the most extreme ones. It seems like that they derive their entire spiritual existence from feeding on the ideas of others in order to give them a purpose, which involves little more than tearing down these ideas in an extremely menacing manner. A very sad situation for all concerned, including the “vampire.”

One reaction to the confusion in the UUA as to where it stands as a religious group might be found in the formation and continued existence of a Christian group among the UU’s, the UU Christian Fellowship (UUCF). Article II of the UUCF bylaws states the purposes of that group as “to diffuse the knowledge and promote the interests of Christianity; to encourage and aid the spread of the Christian religion and to support and promote religious activities.” The statement may be general, but there is at least some identifiable religious direction in it.

A more recent and stronger reaction to the confusion in the UUA may of course be seen in the formation of our very own American Unitarian Conference (AUC) in 2000. This is a God-centered group, apart from the UUA, and although not exclusively for Christians, has many strongly Christian people among its members. The AUC wishes to promote and restore classical Unitarian traditions and philosophy in the United States and even beyond.

A good example of what the AUC supports can be found in D. R. Miano’s recent work, An Explanation of Unitarian Christianity. It is in essence an update of Clarke’s Manual of 1884. The following excerpts are instructive and relevant to the topic at hand. Similarity with Clarke will be apparent, but note that more of the Miano work is excerpted here than that of Clarke, so a direct comparison of the two should not be attempted from the excerpts presented.

Preface

A manual such as this is meant simply to express the general belief of the majority of Unitarian Christians …

Briefly described, Unitarian Christianity is, like other forms of Christianity, a religion that asserts the divine character, divine spirit, and divine foundation of the teaching of Jesus Christ. It places particular emphasis on reason, conscience, and free will in religion … it seeks ever to form surer and nobler understandings of God and of the world by a conscientious search for truth. ...

The author hopes that it [this manual] will stimulate and arouse inquiry and deeper reflection on Unitarian Christianity.

***

§ 15. The union that exists among Unitarians is one of sympathy and cooperation, not of formulas. No one among them has the right to decide what the others should believe.

§ 16. A creed is simply a statement of belief or a list of points on which people can agree. In this sense creeds are good, useful, and desirable for individuals. If a number of persons who hold the same belief unite to convince others of its truth, this also is natural and right. If they state their beliefs in propositions and articles, this also may be useful. To such creeds Unitarians do not object. Many of their churches and organizations have adopted such statements of opinion.

§ 17. But Unitarians object to religious creeds under the following circumstances: (a) When they are made a test of character; (b) When they are made a condition of fellowship; (c) When they become an obstacle to the spiritual progress of the Church or of an individual. Most of the creeds of the Christian Church have been liable to these objections. … They have been obstacles to progress, imposing the opinions of past centuries upon present belief.

§ 18. Some object that Unitarians’ aversion to creeds results in too great a divergence of opinion in their religious views. But Unitarian Christians agree on the fundamental aspects of their religion, which include the indispensable tenets of Christianity (in their most basic, unrefined form), and which emphasize that which Jesus himself emphasized, namely, godly attitude and behavior.

***

§ 70. Rational Christianity does not mean that we are to make reason the only source of truth. But it means that we are to test every belief by the light of our reason and seek to understand clearly what we think and why we think it. …

§ 71. Free Christianity does not mean liberty to believe what we choose, but freedom to seek the truth anywhere, everywhere, and always. It means that we should not only be willing that others should differ from us, but ready to help them to inquire freely, even if their inquiries lead them to believe what we consider erroneous. …

§ 72. Unitarian Christians believe that their church is a union of those who come together to help each other to live a Christian life. …

§ 74. Unitarians do not practice excommunication. …

§ 75. Unitarian Christians regard Jesus as the head of their Church …

As in Clarke’s Manual, creeds are not characterized as bad in every respect. The message of the Explanation as to creeds seems to be, as in Clarke, that there is really nothing wrong with creeds per se, but they are a problem when misused, such as when a belief system is forced upon the unwilling.

It is interesting that although the Miano Explanation more-or-less claims that Unitarian Christians are creedless, it also makes statements such as “Unitarian Christians agree on the fundamental aspects of their religion” and explains what these aspects are, which would seem to say the opposite. Is there really an informal creed among Unitarian Christians then? One that they don’t get too assertive about? Does the statement, “Free Christianity does not mean liberty to believe what we choose, but freedom to seek the truth,” say that there are limits to creedlessness among Unitarian Christians? I don’t mean to be critical of Mr. Miano’s effort, since tackling this subject is like walking on a razor’s edge at times.

There is also a discussion of the AUC in Miano’s Explanation which is excerpted below:

§ 76.… The American Unitarian Conference is a God-centered association composed primarily of Christians, although non-Christian monotheists and deists are represented as well.

§ 77. The AUC, through whom this manual is published…is a publishing and missionary society and an association of like-minded churches and individuals designed to promote the Unitarian tradition in America. In all its endeavors, the AUC holds to the original meaning of the name Unitarian, rejecting humanist atheist, pagan, and polytheist conceptions of Unitarian-Universalism that have come to dominate the UUA.

***

The AUC has staked out a specifically God-centered set of religious principles to set itself apart from modern Unitarian-Universalism, but left them open enough to embrace the myriad ways in which people come to know God, allowing members and member churches to choose their own path to God in true non-creedal fashion. However, the majority of the AUC’s members are Unitarian Christians.

Although there is a statement that the AUC is open enough to allow “members and member churches to choose their own path to God in true non-creedal fashion,” statements that the AUC is “God-centered,” has rejected “humanist atheist, pagan, and polytheist conceptions,” and has “staked out a specifically God-centered set of religious principles” indicate some sort of loose, agreed upon creed among its members, even if very broad and informal. This duality is expressed also in the AUC’s bylaws:

Article I

B. Religious Principles. The religious principles that shall guide the Directors and Officers of the Conference are:

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3. Free will is a gift from God. Religion should assist in the effort to find a path that exercises that gift in a responsible, constructive and ethical manner.

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5. Religious experience is most fulfilling in the context of a tradition. Our religious tradition is the Unitarian tradition, which emphasizes the importance of reason in religion, tolerance and the unity of God.

6. Revelation is ongoing. Religion should draw inspiration not only from its own tradition but from other religious traditions, philosophy and the arts. Although paying due regard for the hard lessons learned in the past and to the importance of religious tradition, religion should not be stagnant but should employ reason and religious experience to evolve in a constructive, enlightened and fulfilling way.

***

C. Governance Principles. The principles of corporate governance that shall guide the Directors and Officers of the Conference are:

1. All persons were created equal before God.

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4. Ministers shall have the right … The only grounds for revoking this right of association are actions or statements inconsistent with the statement of religious principles of the Conference or actions or statements inconsistent with the Conference governance principles.

5. [corresponds to 4. for member congregations]

There does seem to be a creed of sorts stated in these bylaws, but by no means a narrow or a rigid one. Considering the history behind the founding of the AUC, it would have been silly to set no limits at all, but things would still need to be rather loose.

Not that long ago, I found this confession (by David Miano) on the AUC website:

A Unitarian Confession

We believe in one God, the Creator and Preserver of all things,

And in Jesus Christ, the one Lord of the Church, 

whose teachings and life form the standard of our faith and practice,

And in the Holy Spirit, the influence of God within us;

We believe in the divine element in conscience,

In free will and the responsibility that comes with it,

In the inspiration and sanctity of Scripture,

In the forgiveness of sins,

In God's universal love for all humankind,

And in the future advancement of the whole human family to holiness and happiness.

This Confession is a wonderful, uncomplicated expression of basic Christian belief, Unitarian or otherwise actually, and I have adopted it as my own. The AUC does not require members to accept this Confession, but the fact that it is on their website says that the AUC is at least accepting of such expressions among its membership.

The duality on creeds mentioned earlier can also be seen in the following taken from the website of Boston’s [Unitarian] King’s Chapel:

The congregation is creedless in the sense that it does not require affirmation of or adherence to any particular doctrine or interpretation of religion other than what is implied in the words of the Covenant subscribed to by the members of the Society of King’s Chapel: “In the love of Truth and in the Spirit of Jesus Christ, we unite for the Worship of God and the Service of Man.”

Less of this duality is seen in the following from the website of Washington, DC’s Universalist National Memorial Church:

The Universalists are so named for making universal salvation the cornerstone of Christian faith, a religiously democratizing proposition, traceable to the third century theologian Origen and the apostolic age.

Our Declaration of Faith was adopted by the Universalist General Convention in 1899 and reflects the language and beliefs of Universalists at that time. Recitation of the Declaration of Faith, or any part of it, is optional in this church. Many members of the church, however, recite some or all of it each Sunday to honor early Universalists, to carry on their traditions and beliefs, or because it embodies elements of their own faith.

***

Universalist Declaration of Faith (1899)

We believe in the universal fatherhood of God
The spiritual authority and leadership of his son Jesus Christ
The trustworthiness of the Bible as containing a revelation from God. The certainty of just retribution for sin
And the final harmony of all souls with God.

Even though it is clearly stated that this Universalist creed is optional, it is still found on this church’s website. The statements made about it are respectful and some even reverential. Does this indicate that this creed is needed in some fundamental way by this group, if only in an unconscious way for some members?

Maybe such a need is recognized in Matt Grant’s article, The Unitarian Christian Shahada?, which was published recently on the web in the Journal of Unitarian Christianity and in the March 2005 issue of The American Unitarian. In this article, Grant makes the point that even though Unitarian Christian may disagree on many points of faith and may individually change their minds quite often as to what they believe concerning many issues, there are certain core beliefs that are shared by all and unshakable. He suggests a statement of very basic belief for Unitarian Christians like the Muslims have in their Shahada, which would express that which unites the group together as a community of faith. It is not meant to stifle free thought, but could serve as a starting point for debate and inquiry as to other points of faith. Grant suggests the following for this “Shahada”:

We believe that there is One God; we affirm the unity of all creation and take the example and teachings of the human Jesus as our Way in life.

Grant makes the point that this statement might be very important to end the divisiveness that has occurred recently among Unitarians. It would also be useful in attracting new members; that is, prospective members could easily get some idea what the core beliefs of the group are through it. Grant seems to be saying that really “big tents” like that of the UUA are a little too big for many people, and adoption of a simple creed might help alleviate this problem.

A point of view very similar to Grant’s is taken by Robert Ross in an article in the September 2004 issue of The American Unitarian starting at page 106:

In the process of moving towards a consistent and whole Unitarian Christianity, the nature of faith and of the faith transmitted from one generation to another, from believer to believer, from the church to the world, needs clarification and organization. The classic word for this is ‘dogma.’ Dogma refers to the organized understandings that can be taught and learned. In practice, all dogma is flexible and changing. But the word dogma became a byword for evil to the Enlightenment Christians … [but] should not blind us to the need for organizing a picture of God’s realities, as we can best understand them, that we can use to transmit our faith, and also as a basis for discussion of our faith. We should not be trapped by an 18th century reactive definition of dogma. Without dogma as organized thought we have no common language, nor a language that allows us to communicate with other Christians.

Perhaps this concept of or use for dogma is what eluded Channing in his quest for Christian unity and the Universal Church. (See the discussion on Channing in David Dulin’s On Being Non-Sectarian at pages 133-134 of the September 2004 issue of The American Unitarian.)  

The issue of creeds comes up in modern, non-Unitarian writing also. Excerpts from a few such works are given below.

The first is from pages 178-179 of Kelly Elstrott’s 1998 book, The Fifth Revelation, which presents highlights of and commentary on The Urantia Book. This excerpt expresses thoughts similar in many ways to those of the Apostle Paul discussed earlier.

[W]e can no longer control religion by harnessing it with the reins of ritual; people today are simply not willing to be told what to believe. What we seek is a living faith. Just as scientists formulate theories based on the observable mechanics of the universe, so do spiritual seekers turn to the divine spirit within for an understanding of truth and right actions.

Certainly, it is more comfortable to follow a rigid set of guidelines spelling out appropriate beliefs and conduct, and to show up for an hour a week to recite a prayer heard many times before. But it is not as rewarding. Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God is within, and the more meaning we find in these words, the more inclined we will be to draw on the Spirit of Truth in determining the will of the Father.

This does not mean to abandon the religion of your forebears. To the contrary, it is exhilarating to attend a religious service among fellow believers in God and feel his spirit fill the room. When you step back out into the world, however, trust in his spirit to guide you.

Our primary task for the future is to foster a spiritual renaissance in ourselves. Only then will it permeate the world.

The second excerpt from a non-Unitarian source comes from page 194 of a moderate Christian-oriented book of 2003, Healing the Masculine Soul, by Gordon Dalbey. It is reminiscent of Channing in some respects: “Doctrines and creeds may mark the trail, but they cannot substitute for Jesus, who alone is the Way.”

The third excerpt comes from an article by James Dillet Freeman at page 27 of the January/February 2005 issue of the Unity Magazine:

The ideas of science change and change. Would we have our religion less open to new ideas? Unity is not a dogmatic approach to Truth; Unity does not have a creed which was written down centuries ago. Truth is eternal, but our idea of it changes as we change. Religion needs to be an expanding faith, to leave room for new truths, to leave us free to find the truth in and for ourselves. In an age of so many doubts and doubters, we need to leave room for them too. Tennyson was right when he said: There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.

It is interesting that these last writers from some fairly diverse orientations are so very much in line with Unitarians on the issue of creeds. Unitarians worried about the survival of the movement may wish to take some comfort from this.

As a (nearly) final point, there seems to be a trend regarding creeds in that they tend to get more complex and/or rigid over time. Is this because people crave structure? Or is it that many people (especially today) don’t want to think and need a crutch?  

This brings to mind the flaw in the American Unitarian tradition that David Burton mentioned in his President’s Letter in the September 2004 issue of The American Unitarian. Burton put forward suggestions that this flaw was an inability to cope with people who did too much thinking and then went off on atheistic tangents, and/or simply a failure to evangelize. Would it be more accurate to say that the flaw was actually a failure to adequately take into account most people’s desire for structure, and/or their intellectual inabilities, or even laziness? Maybe the key to why the AUC grows slowly is hidden away in not looking at what most people are ready for/need at this moment; maybe they need to be taught or encouraged in thinking for themselves as to religion before they will be willing to be part of groups like the AUC.

 

Conclusions

Readers may draw many, perhaps even diverse, conclusions from what I have presented here, and I will leave that to them as maybe a good Unitarian should. For my part, I take from this study of mine that one probably should have a personal creed and that a group creed is useful, but they all should be allowed to evolve, and particularly in the case of a group creed, not be allowed to become overly rigid or complex and eventually divisive. This is not in conflict with basic Unitarian principles.

In the case of a group creed, perhaps we should look at it like secular laws or the Constitution, where we don’t always agree with every provision, but still support and uphold them for the common good and cohesiveness in society – after all, too much freedom leads to chaos. Such a creed might even be “unwritten” like the British constitution; that is, not totally formal nor in one discrete place. A group creed could be set up to exist alongside a statement of welcome or tolerance.

Lest we go too far with creeds though, we should keep three things in mind:

(1) Non-conformists were the true movers of history (see Steve Jones’ article in The American Unitarian of September 2004);

(2) The Golden Mean – moderation in all things; and

(3) The quote by Mary Augusta Ward presented at the very start of this article: “[A]ll things change, creeds and philosophies and outward systems—but God remains.”


© 2005 American Unitarian Conference