A Creed Concerning Creeds

by Alan Burns

A CREED may be nothing more than a doctrinal rut, serving to channel the mental activities of those upon whom the creed is imposed into certain desired directions. Whether it be a rut or a river-bed in either case the result is identical, viz., limitation. Perhaps a better simile would be that of a dam, for a channel, or rut, does not hinder the motion, it merely directs it, whereas a dam is altogether repressive, forbidding motion. The theological dams of Christendom have always acted thus, until at times the flood-tides of thought, or reason, have burst through the barriers.

A creed becomes an evil thing when it is the symbol of an idea that it contains the last word upon or all truth. When creedal statements acquire a fixed finality we may gravely question whether such fixity is the immutability of immortal perfection or simply the rigor mortis associated with mental or doctrinal death. Creeds, like their makers, are mortal, and some of them are corrupt. A creed may be the Bethlehem of important truth; but alas! most of them are but the graveyards of Christian thought, in which the faith of millions has interred the questions and doubts of a thousand years.

A creed is mortal, and so liable to death. Let us add, it is also human, and so liable to err. It may be the label of truth. It may be the libel, too. It may possibly be the telescope which brings to my vision facts and truths which, without it, would forever lie unseen on the further horizons of my faith. Again, it may be an unfocused, or mis-focused glass which but blurs into blindness the nearest objects to my sight.

The danger of a creed lies not so much in itself as in myself; that is to say in my attitude towards it. It is this that determines whether the creed I favor is to be swaddling-clothes or shroud. If my creed to me is but a tentative attempt to formulate consistently and intelligibly the articles of my faith, then it can never represent more than the letter A of future endeavors to formulate them more intelligibly and with greater consistency. If, however, my creed is the "last word" referred to before, then it represents the Z of all past attempts at formulation beyond which all further attempts were needless effort.

And we have all of us, and each of us, a creed. The difference is not in having, or not having, but in how we have it. To some of us our creeds are beginnings, to others they are ends. To the one class they are incentives of effort, to the other of indolence. A large section of the Church is but lazily intelligent on account of its creedal opiates. A parrot can talk, but it cannot think; that is it can talk like a man but it cannot think like one. A man that repeats a formula that he does not understand should have been born a parrot instead of a human. Nature, they say, at times can make mistakes.

But let us come back to the point that we have each one a creed. They exist, though maybe not on paper. For, after all, our creeds are but our doctrinal inventories, more or less consistent tabulations of the certainties of truth, as we see them. So long as my creed is an instrument of expression it fulfills an important function; when it becomes an instrument of repression-that is, the repression of another's self-expression-then it becomes a breeding-center of doctrinal disease. The great creeds of the centuries, so far as they have been expressions of the formulators views were not, perhaps, without their uses. As instruments of repression, in the dragooning of individual opinion, they not merely dammed but they also damned the activities of Christian intellect.

Any man that writes an article upon any subject is but writing his creed concerning it. Any man that tells you what his opinions are on any matter is but telling you his creed. The article you are reading is the writer's creed about creeds. It is subject to amendments. The only kind of men who are really without a creed are either dead or crazy. The African native has a creed about his pet fetish, as much though not so long as that recited in the Anglican jungle. Even the Atheist has his creed of negations, and his cousin the Agnostic a creed of his ignorance.

A creed is crystallized thought. It is the suggestion of rigor mortis again. Petrified wood has ceased growing long since. Petrified thought is static, immovable and fixed. Neither fruit nor flowers can be picked from the boughs of a petrified tree. All it has is form, and we can say but little more of some of the creeds. But the corpses of today are the living men of yesterday, and the creeds which at present repress, in times gone by expressed the beliefs and misbeliefs of their framers.

But we must have creeds, and each of us must have his own. We must believe, and the sum total of our beliefs is our creed. But my creed is my creed, not yours; and yours is peculiarly your own. The facts of our creeds will never change, facts don't. Our interpretations of those facts are ever changing, interpretations do. We must be careful to revise our interpretations into greater consonance with facts. Our creed will then be a living thing. Adapting itself to the new-found truth; as changeable as life, perhaps, but life-like ever reaching upwards to the sun.

Creed-makers and breakers have cause to imitate the mills of God. Grind slow. The road of Time is littered with the fragments of by-gone dogma. And we who add to the refuse-heap should hesitate before replacing the thing destroyed. Our children may have to scrap their fathers' follies with the rest.

We must have creeds even as we must have beliefs. But let these creeds be fluid and susceptible to truth. Let them be known as attempts rather than attainments, and as indications of truth's direction, rather than statements of its precise location. Modesty is not a dangerous disease-most creedmakers seem immune.

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