Creedal Magnetism: God-Talk, Part 2

We can do anything we want with this planet since Jesus is coming back soon.
Round up gay people in a corral and let them starve to death.
People without health insurance deserve what they get.

Are those “Christian” statements? Why or why not? Each of them was made in various forms and more than once by a self-professed Christian. How do we discern what qualifies as “Christian”? Do we discern it based on what we say or by what we do or both? What if what we say doesn’t match very well or at all with what we do?

I still have a magnet that mom put on the refrigerator in my childhood house. It reads, “What you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.” I didn’t quite get it when I was young; it annoyed me as a teenager; and I still have it. I believe that magnet is deeply theological.

I take that magnet message as a clarion call for Christians to prioritize how they live in the world as the basis for evangelism rather than how well we parse our doctrines. These days, I don’t see any point in trying to persuade people to believe in God or to follow Jesus through rational argument. That ship sailed a long time ago.

Creating communities of radical hospitality and compassionate service is the best evangelistic magnet at our disposal – and not because doing so might fill our pews but because it’s the right thing to do and God has called us to do it.

Conversely, the worse thing we can do is exactly what too many Christians have done for too long: make intellectual assent to doctrine the gatekeeper for belonging. While some people may be argued into belief, most people are loved into it. Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another… By this everyone will know you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

As promised, I really am going to write something here about creedal Christianity. I truly am socially “liberal” because of my “conservative” theology. For the latter, I rely on the creedal history of the Christian Church. But my mother’s magnet reminds me that how we live is the best witness to what any of us want to say.

So why then bother with creedal statements at all? Let’s just throw great parties with great food!

Why? Because after two people have fallen in love with each other, they eventually need to talk about their relationship. Because after spending time in the regional park with my dog, I want to talk with someone about the plants, the terrain, and the climate. Because after organizing a neighborhood watch group, I want to talk with my neighbors and find out who they are, what they care about, and how I might be a better neighbor.

The creedal history of Christianity is of course complex and vexing. But I do believe our ancestors in the faith still have something to say to us today about God, Jesus, the Spirit, and what in the world we think we’re all doing. The following are just some of the ways that I continue to experiment with how to think about, treat, and address the classic creeds of Christian faith.

An Impromptu Tag-Football Game at the Family Reunion
There’s no official football field, so the family members take a cooler, a beer bottle, a diaper bag, and a sweatshirt to mark the four corners of the playing area. Someone brought a ball, people are divvied up into teams, and the fun begins. Someone keeps score, but no one really cares who wins. The diaper bag might get kicked out of alignment once or twice, someone might howl at this, but it’s all in good fun. Creeds provide the parameters of the playing field on which we think and talk about God among family members.

An Improvisational Stage Play
Theatrical actors pay careful attention to the stage cues of a director, both in scripted plays and in improvisational moments. Quite remarkably, the most scripted of plays can be performed in various ways depending on the director. Likewise, an improvisational performance relies heavily on directorial assistance. Creeds provide a loose script for faithful actors, and variances in the performances can prompt profound insights. No one performance is exactly like any other. Creeds are cues, not scripts, but they are important.

Open Source Software
Those of a certain age will remember that “software” meant ordering a product from a company that arrived in the mail on a disc. Load it to your hard-drive and it will do what I was designed to do. Open source software by contrast provides basic coding for doing something, but the end user can change the code and adapt it for particular needs. There are limits to what can be done to open source software, but they are vastly different from discs. Creeds suggest theological programming directions and functions, but both pathways and outcomes are in the hands of end users.

My Grandmother’s Recipe Cards
In her own handwriting, my maternal grandmother made recipe notes like “use some butter around the size of an egg or so,” or “stir until it looks like the color of our backyard field in September” or “toss in some salt; stir; taste it; add some more if you like.” This stands in stark contrast to the narrative and instructions one finds in Cook’s Illustrated. Creeds provide general directions, hints at how to proceed, and room to toss in one’s own flavor. I am profoundly grateful for grandma’s recipe cards for that reason, just as I am for Christian creeds.

In the end, what we think and say about God matters. It matters just like what we think and say about the people we love matters; and what we think and say about the environment matters; and what we think and say about our communities matters. All of this matters not because someone will judge us when we get it “wrong” or reward us because we are “correct.” It matters because we want to enrich and deepen our relationships.

I believe the most magnetic, attractive aspect of the universe is God – and it’s reflected in a loving embrace, a brook in the park, a moment of solidarity in the neighborhood. If Christians don’t live this magnetism, there’s no point in evangelism.

Be attractive. Then let’s talk.

Author: The Rev. Dr. Jay

I'm an Episcopal priest, parish pastor, and Christian theologian as well as a writer, teacher, and occasionally, a poet. I'm committed to the transforming energy of the Christian gospel and its potential to change the world -- even today. Now that's peculiar, thank God!

4 thoughts on “Creedal Magnetism: God-Talk, Part 2”

  1. For more than a hundred years, Presbyterians in the United States had a single confession of faith in the Westminster Confession. As time went on, this document was edited in different ways by both the northern and southern strands of the church until our reunification in 1983. They had to attempt to unify the changes, including women’s ordination, civil rights for all, etc, in order to make changes to the church’s doctrinal standards as the two denominations sought reconciliation and reunification. In many ways, it was a process that was never completed.

    Today, we have a different relationship with our Creeds and Confessions.

    Today, after including the Confession of 1967, and the creation of the Book of Confessions along with the ancient ecumenical creeds and the confessions of the Calvinist Reformation, we have found many of the Fundamentalists within our communion attempting to enforce the 16th and 17th century conceptions of sexuality and marriage. At the same time, we found many textual variants from the original Latin and German of the Heidelberg Confession, a corrected version of which will soon go to the Presbyteries for ratification, to change our translation to that of our ecumenical partners (CRC and RCA).

    It is interesting that as we move forward toward full inclusivity in the PC (USA), there are those who wish to impose such newly adopted confessions as binding descriptions on the family and marriage systems among us. The ahistoricity is more than I can bear, and there remains a segment of truly Fundamentalist men and women who are grasping onto these documents, and attempting to make a reading of our confessions as binding documents on the church – rather than being “guided by them” as our polity encourages.

    Still, there exists an important distinction between our modern world and that of the Ecumenical Councils. While these councils offered their best wisdom for their age, the answers of the past do not always answer the questions of the present, or the future. While such Councils have given great wisdom in the past, it is a part of Presbyterian polity that Council do err. And is it the duty of the rest of the church to resist such errors.

    You and I both stand on this “Side of Love” where the modern church stands up against any historic creed or confession that attempts to wither the full humanity of any person. Let us continue to do so within each of our communions.

    1. Thanks for responding, Will! It is really interesting to me, this tendency to want to distill something as dynamic as faith, hope, and love into confessional statements. I certainly live with the same tendency. Yet as the history you evoke here in your post suggests, every such confessional statement seems to have a relatively short “shelf life” — the dynamism just can’t be contained in static texts. I don’t think that means that we give up writing texts, confessions, prayer books, creeds, liturgies, and all the rest. But I do think we need to hold them less tightly than Christians have usually done. The other challenge of course is to discern what these important markers from history — whether the fourth or the sixteenth centuries — might still have to say to us today. I’m committed to the wisdom of our ancestors, but not in some kind of static retrieval, but something more organic and lively. Thanks for all the work you do to bear witness to that energy!

  2. By giving personhood to sexual attraction, it may appear to some that sexual behavior is immutable, but the fact is, it is not unjust discrimination to discriminate between appropriate sexual acts, and sexual acts that demean the inherent Dignity of the human person. There are many different types and degrees of disordered inclinations, including disordered sexual inclinations, some more difficult to overcome than others. Acting on any type of disordered inclination that demeans our inherent Dignity as human persons is known as sin. All persons have the inherent Right to be treated with Dignity and respect.

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