Beliefs are the subjective, unverifiable assumptions through which people, or groups of people, use as building blocks to construct their current worldviews, both secular and religious.
Everyone wants to think that their beliefs are factually “The Truth”. So how do we “know” the Truth. Alas, the scientific method will not help us here since it can only prove a hypothesis false, it can never conclusively prove anything true. (See post “The Spiritual, Does It Exist) Philosophy, logic, and mathematics are no help either. Godel’s incompleteness theorem demonstrated that for any logical or mathematical system, there will always be statements about that system that are true, but that are not provable from within the system. Again, that doesn’t say that the truth may not be out there, but the intellectual tools to prove it true don’t appear to easily exist. So how we use our beliefs should always bear these points in mind. Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry sums the situation up very eloquently when he stated in the movie Magnum Force, “A man’s got to know his limitations”. Beliefs are loaded with limitations.
I’ve heard numerous religious groups refer to themselves as, “a community of believers”, and I must confess that I’m not sure what they mean by this statement. Don’t all people have beliefs? In all my life I have never met a human being that was totally devoid of beliefs. So I’m going to assume that by this statement they are referring to the community sharing commonly held beliefs that they hold to be “true”. Now some people would interpret this statement to mean an exclusive community of people who hold the “correct” beliefs. The implication here is that those outside the community believe incorrectly, so called heretics, or perhaps they are just uneducated and need to be informed. In the latest polls over 90% of all Americans say they believe in God. Yet if you drill down on this statement you find that God is “believed in” through very different ways.
The problem; however, is not in the supposed correctness of beliefs, but in how we use and act on these beliefs. All beliefs should be treated the same way we view modern day antibiotics or pesticides. If used sparingly, with knowledge, and only where appropriate, much good is realized. If, however, they are used to extreme excess and without proper supervision or care, they can become harmful, as in the case of pesticides, or ineffective, as in the case of antibiotics.
Apparently it is permissible to question ones beliefs; however, changing ones beliefs is very much culturally frowned upon, especially in Christianity and Islam. After all, if your beliefs are true, where does that leave you when your change then? Yet life has a way of changing what people think is important and what we believe in. Change happens with growth. One religion that joyfully embraces change and is willing to modify their beliefs is Buddhism.
Christians, Muslims, and to a certain extent Jews, have had an “exclusive approach” to their beliefs and worldview. Those not holding to the orthodox beliefs of the group are looked on as being, at best, “outside” the community of believers or, at worst, heretics. In either case the solution is to “convert” said individuals to the correct belief, or else. It’s the “or else” part that’s tricky here. The “convert or die” approach has been responsible for untold wars and human misery for thousands of years. Even when the conversion has been consensual, it has been accompanied by the horrendous loss of cultural identity. Even in the current climate of multiculturalism and religious “tolerance”, where people aren’t killed or ostracized for their different religious beliefs; there is still a lingering attitude of, “if others just believed the way I do, they would be a much better person”.
For Christians, correct belief is essential. So much so that creeds have been developed to aid the individual in knowing exactly what to believe. The principle Christian creeds were all developed during the first 600 years of the religion. At this time most of the world was illiterate and the simple creed was a vehicle for easy memorization in teaching correct Christian belief. Listed below are the major Christian creeds developed from about 45 C.E. to 500 C.E. Only the first creed is free from significant religious propaganda used by the early Roman Church as a tool to ensure harmony of the masses. Note the length, in words, for each creed over time.
- First Creed: “Jesus is Lord” 3 words
- Apostles’ Creed 110 words
- Chalcedonian creed 208 words
- Nicene Creed 271 words
- Athanasian Creed 658 words
There is an interesting trend here. Apparently the core beliefs of Christianity expand over time and required more words to communicate them correctly. This apparently is a feature that creeds share with the US tax code. If you Google a list of Christian creeds you easily get back several hundred responses. It appears that every denomination, sect, and meeting group in just about every country of the globe has a modern day creed. This puts religious creeds at the functional level of the corporate mission statement.
So here’s one humble idea I would like to toss out in the midst of all this belief proliferation. Beliefs are only a means to an end, they are not the end in itself. Many eastern religions treat beliefs very cautiously to insure they don’t become the central objects of spiritual dogma and desire. In other words creeds can become idols and objects of worship. Beliefs are not God, nor should they be substituted for the idea of God. Beliefs are only subjective mental objects, and as such, can be either helpful or harmful to one’s own spiritual growth. Beliefs are also not “The Truth”, although they may share a metaphysical likeness to the shadows on Plato’s cave wall.
If one holds on to beliefs too tightly, then they become a dead weight to spiritual change and understanding. Beliefs are the basis of our worldview which we need to spiritually develop and learn. Life is all about risking our precious beliefs as a trade off for true spiritual enlightenment.
Lets think of beliefs as rungs on a ladder one has to climb to grow, learn, and live. To make progress up the ladder one must be willing to risk taking one foot off the ladder’s lower rung to move on to the next higher rung. Giving up those old beliefs is a scary thing, it’s uncomfortable because maybe that next rung up wont support our weight and we could fall. Yeshua certainly understood that spiritual growth could not be achieved without risk and discomfort. You have to be willing to put your foot out in the air and reach for the next higher level with faith that the spiritual reward of a new understanding will be worth it all.
Many Christian theologians are challenging the old entrenched creed based belief systems. The title for this post was taken from Elaine Pagels book Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. In this book she conducts an examination of the earliest Christian texts, arguing for an ongoing reassessment of faith and a questioning of religious creed based orthodoxy. Discoveries of ancient spiritual texts and archaeological discoveries are bringing to light new information that challenges the old beliefs. We must be prepared to consider how faith allows for a diversity of interpretations, and that the “rogue” voices of Christianity encourage and sustain “the recognition of the light within us all.”
John Wesley and Creeds
Lets take a closer look at creeds and the confessional dogma they spawn. Confessional statements are the activist instruments of hard core creed based beliefs. Confessionalism, in a religious sense, is a dogma regarding the importance of full and unambiguous assent to the whole of a religious teaching. Confessional religions believe that differing interpretations or understandings, especially those in direct opposition to a held teaching, cannot be accommodated within a church communion. In their extreme usage, creeds and confessional statements are the verbal and written weapons that religions use against each other.
In their benign form, creeds codify and inform our faith, but in the Methodist tradition we do not equate creeds with faith. The word creed comes from the Latin credo, meaning “I believe.” The United Methodist Church states on its website: “While the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith are considered foundational documents, they are not legalistic or dogmatic creeds that do not allow for differing interpretations. They are guidelines that themselves require continuing reflection, interpretation and expansion in light of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.” This is somewhat unique within the range of Christian denominations.
The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, sought Christianity more in practical principles and sanctified affections than in dogmatic orthodox formulas, and laid greater stress on the ecumenical consensus which unites all religions, rather than on the sectarian dissensions which divides us.
Wesley clearly considered creeds and confessional assent as unnecessary in a relationship with God. In his Sermon 7, “The Way to the Kingdom” he states:
For neither does religion consist in Orthodoxy, or right opinions; which, although they are not properly outward things, are not in the heart, but the understanding. A man may be orthodox in every point; he may not only espouse right opinions, but zealously defend them against all opposers; he may think justly concerning the incarnation of our Lord, concerning the ever-blessed Trinity, and every other doctrine contained in the oracles of God; he may assent to all the three creeds, — that called the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian; and yet it is possible he may have no religion at all.
Wesley was far more concerned with how an individual treated his fellow humans, how one lived his life in harmony with others, as well as how one prayed, and meditated to enhance communion with God. In this he sounds very much like the Buddha and Krishna. Wesley got these ideas from the teachings of Yeshua found in the New Testament scriptures, not from any creed. He certainly realized that the earliest creeds were statements on the relationships defining God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. More importantly they spell out exactly what we should think and “believe” about their relationship to each other and us. The Athanasian creed adds a nice touch in the final line, “This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved”. In other words believe everything stated in the creed, all 600 plus words, or burn in hell.
In addition, Wesley was not in agreement with many of the Church of England’s beliefs on religion. These thirty-nine articles of religion were developed by the Church of England as doctrine. Wesley, as a priest in the Church of England, was bound by English law to support all thirty-nine articles of religion literally and not to amend them. When the Methodists of the former colonies, at the time the newly formed United States, began to plan for a Christmas Conference in 1784, Wesley sent them an abridged version of only twenty-five articles which were adopted at said conference. One of the Articles rejected by Wesley was this one:
Article VIII Of the Three Creeds
The three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius’ Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed; for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.
It is unknown if Wesley ever received a reprimand for his abridgment of the articles.
So why was Wesley not impressed with creeds and their associated confessional statements. Put simply, he was just as concerned with what Yeshua taught in his earthly ministry, as well as what the creeds said Yeshua was as the Christ. This understanding of what Yeshua taught was hard work as well, and it required the application of study through reason, tradition, the scriptures, and experience,the Wesley Quadrilateral. Now absolutely none of these four legs of the quadrilateral are required with regard to creeds. The purpose of a creed is to supply an easily remembered, recitable summary of what you need to believe. No thinking required or wanted!
Creeds With A Hole in the Middle
What Wesley realized is that all four creeds mentioned here have a huge hole in the middle. As far as the “Yeshua of the creeds” is concerned, he was born, died, rose, and ascended. Little is mention of what happened in between. Let’s consider the earliest major creed, the Apostles’ Creed. The most significant thing about the creed is the omission of Yeshua’s baptism, his teaching, his fulfillment as the Messiah, his works, or his relationship with the Disciples or John the Baptist. The Apostles’ Creed does not summarize the original Christian gospel either. This is a far cry from what those first followers of the Yeshua Movement used for a Gospel, the Q document. This resource contained nothing but sayings and parables of Jesus, starting with the Sermon on the Mount. These early Yeshua disciples were concentrating on the message of rabbi Yeshua, not the Christology of the rabbi. Wesley correctly focuses on the message of Yeshua as it is lived and practiced in our daily lives.
The Apostles’ Creed is an attempt at a doctrinal stance that proclaims a God of might and power, and omits references to a God of love, to the kingdom of God, repentance, faith, the divinity within all humans, or the nature of the Christian life. Although the creed cannot be ignored, it is obvious that there is so much more to the traditions of Christianity. Surely Wesley was right in his understanding that creeds had to be complemented by scripture, reason and tradition.
The problem with confessional dogma is that it has no faith in the Holy Spirit. It is attempting to systematize God and bolt down our faith to make it immovable. In other words, a vehicle of ironclad belief through what it omits or specifies, it is an attempt to imprison us in an exclusive worldview which encompass the Christian faith. As such, it does not serve a living church of rational people.
Never in the Wesleyan tradition is the identity of Methodists defined by right doctrine, it is defined by right living. The test of authentic faith for Wesley is the practice of holiness, and a life that is manifested in love of God and neighbor. This practical holiness defines mission, identity, and life in compassion together. In other words, it is grounded in the teachings of Yeshua, or the Buddha or Krishna for that matter.
Yeshua said, “Unless you are converted and become like little children you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” It is clear that children are too young to have become captive of their society’s ideology and to have developed vested interests in property, nationalism, war, racial, or other prejudices. Children are incapable of understanding dogma.
James A. Sanders, president of the Ancient and Biblical Manuscript Center, and professor of Inter-testamental and Biblical Studies at Claremont School of Theology, summarizes best the whole case against the use of creeds and confessions:
“No one person, no denomination, no theology, and certainly no ideology can exhaust the Bible or claim its unity. It bears with it its own redeeming contradiction, and this is a major reason it has lasted so long…. Once a theme or strain or thread rightly perceived in the Bible has been isolated and absolutized, it simply becomes available for challenge from another theme or strain also there. The whole Bible, of whichever canon, can never be stuffed into one theological box.” (Canon and Community, page 37)
Although hotly debated among Methodists today, it would appear that they have inherited a Wesleyan legacy of a non confessional church. As one Methodist minister recently told me, “All are welcome in the Methodist congregation, to worship God and meet in fellowship. It doesn’t matter if they are Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim, all are free to be in communion with God as they see fit.”
Unlike the Iowa caucuses where a tie is broken by a coin flip, science has a different way of choosing between theories when data is indecisive, Ockham’s Razor. The Razor is a problem-solving principle attributed to William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), who was an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher and theologian. This principle was extolled by both William and Einstein.
So following Ockham’s Razor, here are four radically simplified creeds that span the worlds religions. They are about as basic as you can get, factually accurate, non confrontational, and not in contradiction with each other.
They are in order of oldest to newest.
- Krishna is Lord
- Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is One
- Buddha is Master
- Jesus is Lord
- Mohammad is the Prophet of God
A Final Thought:
Odium Theologicum — A Poem By Sam Walter Foss
They met and they talked where the crossroads meet,
Four men from the four winds come,
And they talked of the horse, for they loved the theme,
And never a man was dumb.
The man from the North loved the strength of the horse,
And the man from the East his pace,
And the man from the South loved the speed of the horse,
And the man from the West his grace.
So these four men from the four winds come,
Each paused a space in his course
And smiled in the face of his fellow man
And lovingly talked of the horse.
Then each man parted and went his way
As their different courses ran;
And each man journeyed with peace in his heart
And loving his fellow man.
They met the next year where the crossroads meet,
Four men from the four winds come:
And it chanced as they met that they talked of God,
And never a man was dumb.
One imagined God in the shape of a man.
A spirit did one insist.
One said that nature itself was God.
One said that he didn’t exist.
They lashed each other with tongues that stung,
That smote as with a rod;
Each glared in the face of his fellow man,
And wrathfully talked of God.
Then each man parted and went his way,
As their different courses ran;
And each man journeyed with wrath in his heart,
And hating his fellow man.