Friday, March 21, 2008

Jaroslav Pelikan and "The Need for Creeds"

A few weeks ago I came across an interesting radio program, Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett that is a part of public radio. A search on their website reveals a number of interesting topics related to an exploration of religion and spirituality. In light of the Easter celebration by Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity this Sunday, the program is revisiting an interview from the past, one with the noted late scholar, Jaroslov Pelikan. Following is Tippett's recent discussion of this in the Speaking of Faith e-newsletter:

The Need for Creeds
"The late, great historian Jaroslav Pelikan devoted his life to exploring the modern vitality of ancient Christian doctrines and creeds — which all revolve in some sense around the Easter events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And Pelikan believed that even modern pluralists need strong statements of belief. For Easter, which is celebrated by Western Christians this week and by Eastern Orthodox churches next month, we revisit our 2003 conversation with him.

On the Role of Creeds in Modern Society
"Every field of human endeavor has its heroes: men and women who may be relatively unknown in the wider culture, but are living legends in the worlds of their accomplishments. Jaroslav Pelikan was one of those.

"I first interviewed him at Yale a decade ago. "Jary" speaks in full paragraphs, his friends said to me. He was considered by many to be one of the great minds of the last century. He was a professor of history at Yale University for four decades and a past president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among his many books, he wrote five epic volumes, the defining work of our time, on Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine.

"And I was fascinated when I learned that in his eighth decade, Jaroslav Pelikan had taken on another monumental topic: the history and importance of creeds in the Christian church. He collected Christian creeds from biblical times to the present and from across the globe and wrote a dense, wide-ranging historical and theological guide to accompany them. This was the first such effort since 1877, and is already hailed as the standard resource for the coming century.

"Jaroslav Pelikan understood what a difficult thing unchanging creeds can be for modern people. He knew as well as anyone that historically creeds were employed in part to consolidate power — both of church authority and of Christian empire. But he insisted on capturing a sense of the profound and positive reasons Christianity, alone among the major traditions, seemed to require creeds. The global spread of Christianity and of the translation of the Bible into now more than 2000 languages, as Pelikan described it, "is the history of how one sought in a new setting not to speak the same thing but to say the same thing."

"And creeds, he believed, also meet a deep human need — one that is not diminished but intensified by pluralism. Pluralism, he reiterates during this conversation, is not the same as relativism; the singing of a creed, in fact, is a way of indicating a universality of the faith across space and time. Pelikan's own generous sense of space and time, I think, helped him internalize the original impulse of creeds and communicate their meaning to the rest of us. Every time he recited or sang the creeds, he tangibly experienced the fact that these same words were sung in the Philippines that same morning and recited by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century and Thomas Aquinas in the 13th and intoned by his own grandfather in the 20th century. I have been struck by the number and diversity of people who have told me over the years that this program touched them in a special way. Among them have been more than a few Unitarians, whose faith tradition was formed in part in reaction against the very idea of creeds.

"Attempts to make creeds modern and contemporary often seem to sacrifice something in depth and grace. Jaroslav Pelikan compared this, interestingly, to the language of love. We can try to be creative and unconventional but there aren't terribly many ways to say "I love you." Again and again most of us fall back on well-worn words and find that they more than suffice.

"Having noted that, in one of the most poignant moments of this program, Jaroslav Pelikan recites one of the newest creeds he discovered — a creed written by the Maasai people of Africa. In 1960, they took the bare-bones summaries the great creeds represent, and enlivened them with the vocabulary of their lives. Pelikan reads this Maasai creed, which includes mention of hyenas and safari, with reverent passion and an almost child-like delight.

"And isn't religion at heart about mystery, I had to ask Jaroslav Pelikan, that can never be captured in words? Can creeds ever be sufficient as a statement of faith? He left me with a wonderful statement of St. Augustine, who apparently struggled with this same question in his own theologizing as well. We resolve to speak of these things nevertheless, Augustine concluded — inspiring Jaroslav Pelikan centuries later — not in order to say something, but in order not to remain altogether silent.

"I am grateful to have sat with Jaroslav Pelikan during his lifetime, and to have gathered some of the language and ideas he added to our collective resources for pondering ultimate and important matters of faith and of life."

The interview is a fascinating one as Tippett asked Pelikan the difficult questions surrounding the credibility of a creedal Christianity in the post-Christendom, late modern world of the West.The interview will benefit Christians and non-Christians alike as they seek to understand Christian history and its creeds in light of the contemporary religious scene. The program can be listened to in a variety of formats, including MP3, RealAudio, and Podcast.


Anonymous said...

I have no real objection to creeds per se, for all the reasons you outline above. It seems like searching for truth in a systematized fashion is a good thing.

However, the problems arise when said creeds are used as inflexible tools of exclusion for who is or is not a part of the tribe. At that point, those excluded are quite right in attacking the mentioned problems with those creeds - their narrowness, any lack of support, their inadequacy for truly encompassing God and the quest for Him, etc.

We Mormons, for instance, wouldn't have half as much of a problem with the Nicene Creed or Apostles' Creed, if they weren't constantly being used as clubs to beat Mormons with. This, I think, is an excellent example of utterly misusing an otherwise useful tool in religious discipleship.

John W. Morehead said...


Thanks for your comments from an LDS perspective.

I hope other readers can see the continued value of creeds to the Christian faith, even in a late modern, pluralistic environment.

You are quite correct that the creeds should not be used as a club to pummel those perceived to be outside the faith who do not assent to the creeds as the essence of the faith. But it must also be noted that the very nature of creeds and their affirmation involves a defing feature of who is "in" the tribe and who is "out" of the tribe.

In addition, it might be remembered that the creeds are more tools of affirmation for those in the faith rather than tools of exclusion, at least that is how I think they should function. I'm not sure how this appropriate use of the creeds is allegedly problematic and therefore I would not agree that they are narrow, lack support, or reflect the knowable aspects of a God who is both knowable and ultimately unknowable, comprehensible and incomprehensible.

I think that used properly, creeds retain an important tool for self definition by local groups of Christians, and a broader identification with the global and historic church, and also serve an important pedagogical function. Let's hope we can focus on these aspects rather than their use as a weapon for those perceived as outside of Christianity.

Anonymous said...

John, thanks for bringing this interview to my attention. I enjoyed Tippet’s interview with Robert Millet and this interview with Jaroslov Pelikan too was fascinating. Pelikan pointed out that among the world religions Christianity is different in that “Christianity has spawned many creeds” and Pelikan says he collected about 1000 creeds, whereas Judaism and Islam has only needed one creed for thousands of years. I’ve never thought about it in that context. Pelikan didn’t answer Tippet’s question as to why Christianity is different from other world religions in that respect, but rather he spoke in more general terms as to the role and function that creeds have played in liturgy, as he noted the creeds were often sung.

I think it is particularly important to recognize the characteristic of continuity in the creeds. The idea that by reciting a creed one can have a sense of unity with past adherents who recited the same exact words, regardless of all the change in time and place that occurs in the human experience. Thus, one of the needs is a sense of continuity. Another thing he points out is that the creed is something of value that can be handed down from one generation to another. Pelikan also seemed to raise this notion that creeds are inevitable. In other words, even if one decided they wouldn’t use creeds, over time creeds would naturally develop because something has to be passed on to the rising generation, which is a very interesting notion. Here too I wish he would have expounded why this apparently isn’t the case with Judaism or Islam. Perhaps, it is a more difficult question to answer and perhaps one outside his area of expertise, but I would have liked to have asked him that question.

JR said...

I echo Aquinas. Good post.

I greatly admire Pelikan. I’m not sure I that agree with him on the inevitability of creeds (expressed ones). It’s possible forcibly to construe non-creedal churches (some Baptists, Quakers, Churches of Christ, etc.) as having a de facto creed of non-creedalism. But, I think this presses it. These non-creedal churches hold relevance for historical studies because these groups raise the question of just how much we really know about the existence across epochs of individuals and little groups possibly lost to our “creed-finding-radar” because they simply never produced a document that made its way into some scholastic library and past all the nihil obstats of time.

I have a hunch that Pelikan may have indulged a bit of benign apologetics in asserting some necessity to creeds.

On the other hand, sciences from biology to social sciences to economics vigorously study all the little and large “credo’s” which we make for ourselves to navigate our world. Creeds are ubiquitous. So Pelikan has a point.

I’m not so sure Christianity has a monopoly on creeds. Muslims tended to regularize creedal statements by application in jurisprudence through case judgments: al-Tahawi, Asari, Hanifa, Taymiyya, to name a few jurists. They key being judgment. I think Seltzer shows how Jewish authors and schools canonized competing verbal formulae into their scriptures – a case that rabbi Anson Laytnor (Arguing with God) formalizes as tradition. Christians sometimes flatten these Hebrew sources by ignoring or normalizing-out all the noise of argument: but, there is creed-like advocacy embedded throughout the Hebrew scriptures (to have a king, or no king, the Song of Deborah, etc), if not in its formal composition (various documentary hypotheses).