Reciting the creed as counter-cultural act.

Luke Timothy Johnson, in The Creed, says that reciting the creed—he means the Nicene Creed, but I think it works for the Apostles’ Creed or others as well—is a counter-cultural act. What is being done when the creed is recited:

In a world that celebrates individuality, they are actually doing something together. In an age that avoids commitment, they pledge themselves to a set of convictions and thereby to each other. In a culture that rewards novelty and creativity, they use words written by others long ago. In a society where accepted wisdom changes by the minute, they claim that some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again. In a throwaway, consumerist world, they accept, preserve, and continue tradition. Reciting the creed at worship is thus a counter-cultural act. (40)

That’s not to say that churches need to be counter-cultural for the sake of being counter-cultural. However, the gospel is itself counter-cultural and yet the church is often pro-cultural—and often subconsciously so—so to be consciously counter-cultural in our worship serves as a good reminder about where our allegiances lie.

Some people are uncomfortable with certain aspects of the creeds—say, the virgin birth—that they may be reluctant to recite it, thinking that doing so would lack integrity. Justo Gonzalez, writing about the Apostles’ Creed in The Apostles’ Creed for Today, has this to say in response:

…think of the creed not so much as a personal statement of faith but rather as a statement of what it is that makes the church the church, and of our allegiance to the essence of the gospel and therefore to the church that proclaims it. (7)

To recite the creed with that in mind is also a counter-cultural act.

[Added: I’m reading up a bit on the ecumenical creeds of the church for a small group discussing the basics or essentials of faith. We don’t recite the creed (or at least we haven’t in my time) at our church and our denomination is “non-creedal” while still affirming the major ecumenical creeds, but these writers make a convincing case!]

7 thoughts on “Reciting the creed as counter-cultural act.

  1. Toni

    “…think of the creed not so much as a personal statement of faith but rather as a statement of what it is that makes the church the church, and of our allegiance to the essence of the gospel and therefore to the church that proclaims it.”

    To be honest, Marc, this makes me squirm a bit. It says *to me* that it doesn’t matter whether it’s really true or not, but that it’s a nice tradition to have and it’s kind of saying some OK things that seem nice. I appreciate it may not read like that to you, and it’s probably my CoE/post-modern filters on. An issue with English (and some other major) tradition is that it acquires all sorts of cruft because it sounds like the right sort of thing, even though we think it’s probably not true. Kind of religious Father Christmas.

    If the creed is true then embrace it and feel free to use it as appropriate, but if it’s of questionable truth then probably best to act in faith and steer clear.

    To me, the apostles creed IS counter cultural, because it sets God in His rightful place and removes us from the thrones of our lives. It makes statements of fact about God’s work in our world where present culture wants to be vague and mystical at best, outright denying and aggressively mocking at worst. It says that there is a judgement to come instead of setting every man up as his own judge and measuring stick.

    But I guess all that certainty and assurance is a bit ‘modern’ and old fashioned, instead of being counter post-modern. 😉

    God bless you Marc, thanks for making me think before 9am. 🙂

  2. Marc Post author

    Hi Toni,

    I had similar concerns as you, but I wasn’t able to articulate them without sounding rambly and taking focus away from the general point of what I posted here (the counter-cultural nature of worship). I *personally* affirm the whole creed.

    I should read the broader context of the Gonzalez quote (I drew what I wrote here from notes I had taken) to make sure, but I’m certain Gonzalez isn’t suggesting that everyone should blindly recite it whether they accept it or not. I think his point is simply that one does not need to understand everything or be comfortable with everything in the creed in order to recite it. A new Christian, for example, may not have heard of the virgin birth or have but be incredulous (even while wanting to follow Jesus), but that shouldn’t prevent them from participating in recitation.

    It’s not a personal statement of faith because I didn’t write it, neither did you, neither did the new Christian. It’s the catholic (universal) church’s statement and we can affirm what makes the church the church and commit ourselves to it and to its Lord even when we don’t understand or maybe even don’t believe some of the minor particulars (I think Gonzalez had the virgin birth in mind particularly). Because we recognize that it’s not *just* me and Jesus, but I’m part of something bigger—the body of Christ—and sometimes the faith of others carries us when we belong to that Body, even when we are broken and uncertain. And we can also recognize that I may not be sure about something, but can accept that the church universal has some things sorted out which I don’t.

    Hope that makes sense… Glad I could get your neurons firing this morning. 🙂

  3. Linea

    Interesting that you are leading a small group through some of the ancient creeds. I am in the midst of preparing a power point presentation for my History class and the subject I chose was “The Creeds.” One resource I found in the library, besides the one you cited by Luke Timothy Johnson and a couple others is one by Jane Barter Moulaison, Thinking Christ.
    One thing she says is that the creeds sought to clarify teachings about Christ in the midst of intellectual and theological controversies – not so different from our current theological and intellectual controversies. They developed the creeds to safeguard the identities of Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit so developed these faith statements to rule out the proliferation of false notions, especially about Christ.
    At one point this author draws some parallels to our own times where Arian – like conceptions are held about Christ: Christ being a partial revelation of God to develop a more hospitable theology as some try to make room for other faiths or try to increase credibility for our faith in a scientific age where human knowledge is separated from theological origins.
    She also sees the statements in the creed as being counter-cultural. A higher political authority has been established – but is yet to come. God, in Jesus, unites what is divine with our humanity and restores our humanity to its proper standing. The order of the universe is restored through Christ although we cannot fully grasp or experience the restored creation. Christ has revealed the order of the universe to be love and abundance and only through him can we experience this revelation and the freedom to be part of God’s kingdom.
    I think we need to affirm theses creeds as Christian communities, even if we do not attribute any special power to them as a creedal church. They connect us with the larger body of Christ and help us to affirm some of the most central of our beliefs in strong, thoroughly thought out words.

  4. andrew

    I like the creeds for their history and tradition – I can recite it despite personal doubt or reservations about dogmas precisely because it’s not my personal manifesto. It’s the foundational story of the historical church community (its mythology, if you will) that I’m acknowledging.

  5. Marc

    More from Johnson on some of the concerns raised here:

    “Yes, the creed can be a sign of alienation, when its words mean nothing to me, or when I say them only to meet social expectations. The creed is an authentic profession of faith when I find that the truth of my own experience in some measure corresponds to the words that I borrow from others to express that truth. I can be an authentic expression of freedom even when my experience at the moment does not seem to correspond to the words I speak. It is possible, after all, to place our bodies in witness to ourselves, as signs to ourselves, long before our thoughts and conscious desires have caught up.” (43)

    And this:

    “…we acknowledge that no one of us individually believes as much or as well as all of us do communally. The church always believes more and better than any one of its members. Does this mean that we act hypocritically when we say together “we believe”? Not at all: it is rather that we want to believe as the church believes, that we choose to stand together under these truths, in hope that our individual “I believe” someday approaches the strength of the church’s “we believe.” (46)

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