Friday, July 23, 2004

But who do you say that I am?

I start this thread with a disclaimer/apology.  I realize that some of you are not mormons and may not enjoy discussions where themes center around mormon issues.   For me, at least, these are the issues that I think about the most in my life, they are the things that grab my attention the most.  Don't misunderstand, I like discussing about a lot of things that aren't religious - but the sacred sits at the top of my list.  So, in an effort not to make anyone feel too marginalized or uncomfortable, I invite anyone so inclined to post on anything of interest, especially non-religious issues.  Also, Jason and I have been talking about ways to encourage more discussion and we thought that maybe the initial posts are too long, too much of a time investment, so we'll try to keep them shorter.  We also thought that people might be worried about having to write profound observations on deep issues.  Don't.  Say what you think, and we'll talk about it - the good thing about a blog is that you can keep amending your threads.  As a good friend of mine said "Dobbiamo dialogare per non morire"  (We have to have dialogue, so we don't die!!).  This long prelude is merely to say that if you are uninspired by the stuff we bring up, ignore it, and write something yourself. 
I recently heard some comments from Jaroslav Pelikan a Yale theologian/historian.  He recently wrote a book about the history and influence of creeds in Christianity.  Pelikan believes that  "A creed is used to test the authority of what one is saying...[it is] a flag, an identity by which we are known by those who aren't a part of our community, but want to know what you are."  He sees creeds also as a uniting factor in space and time through which believers across centuries and separated by oceans can connect and relate.  On the other hand, Pelikan also sees creeds as stifiling and sometimes misguided. 
I have two questions, one general, one specific.  First, why has Christianity given itself so completely to the importance of creeds when the other two  monotheistic religions Judiasm and Islam have stayed away from them? (except maybe for the one basic creed "there is no god but Allah...")  Second,  given Pelikans definition of a creed as a flag, or a test for authority/authenticity how does mormonism's lack of formal creeds fit with that?  Do we have informal creeds that fulfill the same purpose?  Or is it that for mormons, like for jews and muslims, what we do is the important thing, not what we believe


At 7/23/2004 02:28:00 PM,

Can the Articles of Faith be seen as creeds? I can't seem to decide. Are they descriptions of our beliefs or prescriptions for belief? What do you guys think?

At 7/24/2004 03:17:00 AM,

I'm having trouble distinguishing between descriptions and prescriptions of belief. As I see it, it's analogous to the relationship between what we believe and what we practice. Admittedly, the two are often not congruent, but the greatest happiness is achieved only after they coincide perfectly. So, the truly happy person does not need to consider which matters more, because they are the same.

At 7/28/2004 02:40:00 AM,

Really thoughtful post, Chris.

If the Pearl of Great Price account of the First Vision is very accurate, one of the first revelations of divine knowledge in our day is that the creeds of Christianity are abominable and probably have a causal relationship to the fact that men in our time are prone to draw near to god with their mouths (empty or vain words?) but their hearts and true devotion are far from him. It looks like God sees creeds as a crutch, and for a stiff-necked people especially, they may not serve their purpose of providing foundation to powerful faith.

And what is a creed, message-wise, but a supplantation of scripture? I want to be careful to not overstate my case here (and bring down the wrath of all blogdom), but a creed claims the inerrancy of scripture, and the brevity (and memorizability) of a catch-phrase (albeit a long one). To creeds you must subscribe, or you are a heretic; however, an informal paraphrase or homily on scripture (which I would define as authorized, divinely-authored/delivered text) does not demand universal adherence--we don't sustain the messages given in sacrament meeting (which, honestly, thank goodness after my ward's meeting last week!) So I see Christian creeds as taking all the glory of scripture (infallibility and demand for universal adherence), and making none of the divine claims (like God is revelatory source of this text; it was given through prophets; the Spirit manifests its truth to the heart of anyone who is humble enough to receive that witness, etc).

And for Latter-day Saints, don't our peculiar doctrines give us the conceptual veil we want between the initiated and the uninitiated? The Book of Mormon has traditionally caused a great divide between the Saints and the rest of the world, Christian or otherwise. We cling to it, and it is logically uniquely ours. None can have it but by us, and none can believe it fully, we posit, without believing the related claims that would make every believer wish to unite with the church. And regarding the pitfalls of the creeds, namely their lack of power, the Book of Mormon seems almost endlessly to captivate the spirit of those who dedicate themselves to its study. it is surely possible to treat it lightly, or treat it as a challenge rather than a scripture, but the words within that text make demands on the reader that should drive the sincere reader to prayer as the only way of knowing what they should do with this book. The testimonies of the power of this book are countless--it serves, for me at least, as a conduit through which I can begin to understand God.

I say all that in support of what I see as the contrast between the creeds of Christianity and the standard which Mormons hold up as one of their rallying points. The Book of Mormon may not be the only "flag" we use to identify our religion and set it apart, but it is surely one of the main and well-accepted dividers.

I will maybe address the interesting point about similarity to Judaism's emphasis on act rather than belief later.

At 7/28/2004 11:01:00 AM,

Great thoughts, guys...

I like the idea that creeds can become a crutch. In the absence of a living revelation, creeds try to hold onto an original sense of what people (ideally) believed at one time. Instead of a constant renewal through revelation and personal experience, the creeds anchor religious belief to a specific point in time.

The articles of faith, I think, aren't a creed under pelikan's definition. They're not prescriptive in that we're not "required" to believe them. To get a temple recommend these days, the bishop doesn't ask, "do you believe in the literal gathering of the ten tribes, and that zion will be built on the american continent etc, etc??"...of course not. He asks very few questions about orthodoxy, and a whole lot about orthopraxy.

Along the same lines, I think Jason's comment about the book of mormon as a flag is great. I agree that it is a flag, "an identity by which we are known by those who aren't a part of our community, but want to know what you are." But what about the first part about creeds being a test for authority? I don't think the BoM fulfills that role. We don't measure orthodoxy according to what the book of mormon says, and in fact, most of our doctrinal breaks with creedal christianity come from the D&C and pearl of great price.

At the risk of actually making a positive assertion, I think that Mormonism has little official orthodoxy. (except perhaps what a temple recommend requires, i.e. belief in God, the Atonement of Jesus Christ, and a living Prophet) There may be a vast implicit orthodoxy in the LDS Church, but unfortunately for Bruce McConkie, there is no real "mormon doctrine". Barring relatively few durable principles, our belief in continuing revelation precludes any need for written creeds. In the LDS faith, living prophets and apostles, as well as the possiblity for personal revelation, take on that role.

At 7/28/2004 02:05:00 PM,

The direction of this post leads me to kind of veer off and make a tangential post. On my mission a usually very thoughtful disgruntled member of the Church decided to engage me about the word of wisdom, and how the Bible doesn’t teach it. How did he phrase it? Of course he told me that (this just in!) “Jesus drank wine.” That’s a pretty common Italian way of thinking and arguing, which in part surprised me because this man was an expatriot American who had lived in Italy for a few years at that point. He said in conclusion “You believe in the Bible, the Bible teaches (implicitly) that wine-drinking is OK, so your Word of Wisdom must be a fabrication.”

The reply that occurred to me was not the standard (and in many ways parallel) retort that Paul proscribes wine and several passages prohibit drunkenness. Rather, I responded that the Bible does not importantly teach that wine drinking is OK. The most relevant message of the Bible teaches us to follow divine guidance, it teaches to follow the prophet. Religion and society change regularly, the organization of the church changes regularly, the ethical principles which are endorsed by the Bible are applied differently throughout, sometimes with seemingly contradictory results. If the text of Deuteronomy (which Mormons accept as scripture) were adhered to and followed as law to in utter totality, the resulting practice of LDS faith would change drastically. The same is true if the practices present in the book of Mark or the Acts were the authoritative guideline for our actions. These books of scripture, each allowed the same status as divinely inspired (despite varying relevance to Modern faith), contain the practical revelation for a people and a time.

Chris said creeds link a people to a past era when it was sure that the people were guided and led by God–this is true at least for the so-called Apostolic Creed which conservative Catholics take as an extant text dating from the Twelve Apostles shortly after Christ’s death, I believe. So subscribers are linked to the ancient Christian leaders whose lives manifested the power of God in word, faith, patience, and in the spreading the gospel.

But that era is over, and we cannot personally experience it. We can draw faith from the examples, but that faith is powerless if it does not work a similar miraculous and spiritual effect in our lives as believers.

To point to a past time or people as the acme of faithful life is, to me, a tragedy–everything from thence is downhill, and our modern experiences must necessarily pale compared to these. Elder Maxwell has preached on “the Holy Present” in which God’s power can be manifest. Surely the holy past is important and foundational, but to view it as the acme is spiritually disastrous, I think.

Let me clarify that I don’t oppose linking ourselves to the past–ordinances do that, especially sealings. But the view that “past generations got it right” and we need return to that time and place discredits the opportunities of the present. A more true interpretation (and perhaps more frightening) is that the miracles of the past gives us an indication, if only partial, of what may be in store for us presently, or in the days to come.

At 8/23/2004 12:22:00 AM,

The Spirit of Christ is that which makes all things alive. All things-- be they human flesh, the light of the sun, or human language. I believe that the same words, spoken by two different people (or even spoken by the same person at different points in his life) can be, in one case, "living," and in another case "dead," depending on the spirit by which they emenate from the person speaking them.

To me, a creed, in the negative sense of the word, is on par with a "vain repetition." It is a statement that might once have been inspired (literally, "breathed in") to the heart of the man who wrote it, but has since, like a breath that his held too long inside one man's lungs, or a breath that is exhaled directly into another's mouth and passed along indefinitely in this manner, stripped of its original life-giving oxygen content.

Any words dealing with the sacred have the risk of becoming like this, if we are not careful. For example, the belief that we profess at the end of each of our prayers that "we say these words in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen." If we, as a people, or individually, say this tag-line at the end of every prayer we offer without truly marveling at its significance each time we utter it, then it can become a dead, spiritually harmful phrase. If we say it without the proper spiritual correlary to our verbal action, then we cease truly praying in the name of Jesus Christ and begin, instead, praying in the name of _____________ -- an empty signifier, a nothing, in idol of laziness that has usurped for itself the name of Christ.

Another creed-like element of the Latter-day Saint world are the oft-repeated phrases of Testimony meetings. If we say them without our words being inspried, without the Holy Ghost quickening our language, then we are simply engaging in a verbal performance of orthodoxy-- i.e. the recitiation of a creed.

In my mind, the key distinction lies, on the one hand, in the fallen and continuously dying words of the mortal, versus, on the other hand, the continually quickened, the linguisticlaly-imported celestial in-breathing of the divine, the eternally alive. If we live according to the former, then even our exultant and true doctrines become as the dead creeds of the man-made faiths-- in our lips having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof. If we live according to the later, then our mouths themselves become fountains of living water that no fire can dry up.




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