Prescribing Versus Seeking: Reader Comments on Creeds:

February 15, 2013

“‘Friends have no creeds’ is a creed.” That was a favorite reader comment on my recent blog post Deal or No Deal? Creed or No Creed?  The commenter adds, “Sheesh, have these people never studied recursion or self-reference. Goedel, Escher, Bach?”

True enough. But ‘Friends have no creeds’ is a very small creed. And I could even be comfortable with a slightly longer statement such as the text of A Simple Faith that Iowa Yearly Meeting (FUM) puts on the “About Us” page of its website.  So when does a creed become an objectionable creed?

Another comment: “in my view, Quakers do have creeds, just ones that are not spoken about.” Also true. I certainly know meetings where certain expressions of faith are welcome and others, equally deep and sincere, are not welcome. Unspoken creeds are no better than written ones. So it’s not a written text that makes a creed objectionable.

One marker may be length. The “A Simple Faith” text runs 120 words. The Richmond Declaration text runs 6868 words. That is a great deal of specific belief to prescribe.  Our word “creed” comes from the Latin credo: “I believe.”  Creeds are statements of belief.  Given the mysteries inherent in religious matters, the more we try to spell things out in words, the more likely we are to state something in a way that’s wrong.

A Quaker in Iowa urges that there is value in clarity about beliefs, especially for those in positions of responsibility for a church. He writes, “Having an employee of an organization, church or whatever, be in agreement with and supportive of its vision, goals, faith statement seems normal and minimal for a good understanding for employment.  I cannot imagine hiring a College President who wasn’t in agreement with the College’s stated purpose and goals.  … [It] is better to have those things clarified up front rather than after the contract is signed and then we find ourselves figuring out how to dismiss someone.  I would think that would have been common practice for Earlham while you were President.”

I wrote back, “When I came to Earlham, I remember being invited by the Board to tell them about how I had come to be a Quaker and to tell them a little of my continuing spiritual journey. They listened and asked questions, as I listened to them and asked questions. But they did not ask me to subscribe to particular views.

“I can imagine being asked to declare my full comfort with the statement on the IAYM website of “A Simple Faith.” And that I would gladly give. But I could not in good conscience affirm the whole of the Richmond Declaration, with its many, many specifics – many of which go to verbal formulas that do not speak to my understanding of Our Lord, my experience of whom is often beyond words.  That’s the step toward creeds, for me.”

Another reader comment: “I think there are as many creeds as there are souls sitting in any meeting room at any given moment.”  Yes, but…  And the “but” gets at the heart of the matter.

Yes, there certainly are as many packages of beliefs in a meeting room as there are souls in the room, but that doesn’t make each of these packages of beliefs a “creed.”  Creeds are more than statements of our own beliefs.  They are statements of belief that others prescribe for us. They are statements telling us what we should believe rather than personal statements of what we actually do believe.

I see value in efforts to put into words what we believe. Such statements may come from one person or many. But they should be offered for instruction and encouragement, not for prescription. Believing is something you have to do for yourself; others can’t do it for you.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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