February 1, 2007

A creed by any other name...

Over on One Quaker Take, Timothy has a post about whether Quakers have creeds. He delves a bit into a topic of my own concern, about the in-creeping of American individualism into our meetings and our practices.

This is as good a time as any to reflect on just what is or isn't a creed... which is a close cousin to the question, just what is or isn't a doctrine. I'm not ready to wrap my head or fingers around the question of doctrine, which seems to be a larger construct than a creed, but it seems there is something important about the nature of a creed that I want to explore.

Here is how the American Heritage Dictionary defines "creed":

1. A formal statement of religious belief; a confession of faith.
2. A system of belief, principles, or opinions.
When I myself consider what a creed is, I come up with a list of other elements. A creed is:
  • Multi-generational; a statement of faith that is used by more than one generation or cohort of users and is shared across generations or cohorts.

  • Taught rather than discovered organically; often acquired through rote learning, especially among newer generations.

  • Often stripped of its original context or isolated from it. This characteristic, coupled with rote learning, creates a form of language known as "frozen." (A country's national anthem is often a good example of frozen language.)

  • Given inappropriate weight, to the extent that members of the faith community may be prematurely "released" from being expected to learn more about their faith tradition if they can present elements of their faith in an articulate but "canned" manner.

  • Can be seen as iconic: a creed itself seems often to be very short but points to a much larger concept or set of beliefs. Outsiders of the faith tradition, or newcomers to it, might mistake the pseudo-creed or creedal statement to be the be-all and end-all of the faith itself.

In short, a creed may be described as
an encapsulated articulated expression of a faith's stereotyped, frozen, or decontextualized foundational element(s).
Examples of possible Quaker statements that come dangerously close to being creeds, even if unintended to be creedal, include:
  • "There is that of God in everyone."

  • "Christ has come to teach his people himself."

  • "There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition."

  • "Quakers believe in the Peace Testimony" (or its corollary, "Quakers have and act according to a set of Testimonies").

The thing is, a creedal statement--whether intended as a creed or not--undermines the overall gestalt of the faith from which it emerges, by the very fact that a creed often stands alone, outside of the larger context of the faith's traditions and away from its "gestalt of origin."

The last thing I'll offer here for now is this:
If we disallowed ourselves from using any of the above statements, how would we answer the question, "What is Quakerism and what do Quakers believe?"


Marshall has a comprehensive essay about doctrines, what they are, and how they present themselves within the various branches of Friends.

off-topic but with a section about creeds, by Gerald Rudolph in response to the January 2007 Friends Journal article, Misunderstanding Quaker Faith & Practice.

In response to some of the comments here, Pam reflects a bit more about the Center.


RichardM said...

Liz, I think the trouble we are having about creeds is connected with the trouble we have about community. Quakers seem to be so terrified of having creeds that they are anxious to reject anything remotely resembling one. While we need to be wary of the authoritarianism and shallowness that real creeds bring about we shouldn't go wildly off in the other direction either. Rejecting all commonality of belief is really to reject the possibility of meaningful community. We thirst for community and are withering in an excess of individualism (the branch cut off from the vine). We need to converge on the Center. For the past few days another post on this issue has been in me trying to get out. It seems to be a hard one for me to write.

Liz Opp said...

Hi, Richard.

I have been part of a "meaningful [secular] community" that had in common a set of values and a shared understanding of how to support one another. But my guess is, you are pointing to religious communities in general and Quakers in particular.

What I can say from my own experience is that yes, I feel a strong, wordless connection with fFriends who seek to "converge on the Center." But I cannot say that all Friends feel that same connection... Some Friends may experience a strong connection as they seek to converge on a Center that is meaningful to them but is different from my own understanding of "the Center." Oy! This is where individualism starts to fragment our community...

Anyway, I trust that whatever it is that is wrestling with you inwardly will find some breathing room as you and it are ready. Thanks for your faithfulness.


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Liz, the characteristics that you ascribe to "creeds" in this posting, are characteristics of doctrines.

Creeds are doctrines that have been reduced to official formulas.

earthfreak (Pam) said...

Liz - thanks for this post

Marshall - thanks for the clarification, though the dictionary definition that Liz posted has a secondary meaning that seems (to me) to be a synonym of "doctrine".

I have always thought that the "creeds" we don't have are the first definition - we don't say the Nicene creed, for example, or any other, as part of our worship or any other part of our spiritual lives.

I think your last question is a good one, and if we expect there to be anything like an answer to "what do quakers believe?" It seems we have to skate "dangerously close" to reciting a creed - the word, after all, is from the latin for belief.

Every group has common beliefs, I would say, or they wouldn't group. Those beliefs can be as simple as "it's good to help each other out" or "we like boardgames" - but common belief is not a sort of enemy.

I'm also intrgued by what you say about "the center" - it's long been an issue with me watching "convergent" Friends - that they don't seem interested in including me in their circle unless I'm playing by their rules (to use an inappropriate phrase) - It's my opinion that if you and I disagree on where the center is (and we often seem to :) then BOTH of us don't have all the information (obviously, none of us does) and need to pause in our beeline to our own preferred center to take in what is around us, and reevaluate where that center might be.


Liz Opp said...

Marshall - Ah, more food for thought. I would like to believe that the characteristics I ascribe to creeds can be and are also ascribed to doctrines...

Pam - "[Convergent Friends] don't seem interested in including me in their circle..."

Hmmm. Are you feeling excluded by the way I respond to you here or on your own blog? Are there specific behaviors that Quakers who identify as convergent engage in that make you feel marginalized?

And how do we distinguish the difference between being marginalized (i.e. oppressed) and simply having a completely different worldview from a group we otherwise feel connected to?

I certainly have felt that a certain liberal Friends meeting "didn't seem interested in including me in their circle," and I have needed to take a good hard look at how I was/have been/am still keeping myself on the outside looking in.


earthfreak (Pam) said...

Liz- no, I didnt' mean to imply a greater divide than there is. On the whole, I think that both of us act pretty faithfully in response to this question, but I know that our circles/centers look different for the most part (meaning, that, say, me and Zach, or me and James, could probably agree on a center and move towards it pretty easily, as can you and any number of people - I assume most of those who attend Laughing Waters.)

But clearly neither of those are THE center (unless we assume that some people are simply hopelessly on the wrong path, and choose not to take them into account when drawing a circle) - I am thinking in terms of math and graphs now, and regret that I don't know how to make one on the computer - If you have a bunch of points scattered on a graph, you can use a mathematical formula to find the center, but you have to decide what formula to use, and, more importantly, what to do about radical outliers - is the center more or less true if you include those who shift it radically by their inclusion?

I wouldn't say that I feel "oppressed" - simply saddened sometimes when folks (including myself) find that it's "too much work" to draw me into the circle, or redraw the cirlce with me in it.


Anonymous said...


Do you want something from "convergent Friends?" (I still don't get what those are.)

Do you want something from Laughing Waters?

If you do, would you consider approaching someone from one of those groups to talk about it?

Elizabeth O

earthfreak (Pam) said...

Elizabeth -

Thanks for asking!

I do feel that if I need anything from Laughing Waters, I am (relatively) safe and welcome to ask. I have been meaning to attend, but the timing is difficult for me, and, in addition, I have a concern that it was founded to get away from, to be blunt, people like me. I dont' mean that to be confrontational, and I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing and I want to respect it. In addition, I don't know if I would be comfortable worshipping with you all (and, more importantly, if that discomfort would be a good or a bad thing for all of us)

You and I were at one point going to get together and talk about some of this, perhaps I will work on initiating that in real life rather than diving into a "virtual reality" debate.

For the public purpose of answering this, though, I would have to admit that what I want probably isnt' from Laughing Waters. I only wish that I could find, or build, a similarly spiritually intimate and alive group which did not take God or the Bible or Christ as its center (it is, I admit, a challenging thought)



earthfreak (Pam) said...


I don't feel like it's quite fair to compare your sense of exclusion and mine, though I don't know all that much about your struggle with liberal Friends.

I have heard numerous people exclaim at length about how ludicrous (I believe more polite language was used, but I'm not sure, and I'm not impressed by polite language) it is to include buddhist quakers, pagan quakers, nontheist quakers. That's why I don't think convergent Friends want to include me - because I have heard and read many of them go on and on about how spiritually damaging, stupid, vapid, un-quakerly it is to have ME as part of their spiritual community, how their spiritual growth requires that they get away from ME. - How a quakerism that includes me is for all intents and purposes totally meaningless

To my knowledge no one has said anything similar about you, but maybe I'm wrong, and I just haven't seen or heard it. It was my understanding that liberal Friends didn't go deep enough for you (among other things) (they don't, by the way, go deep enough for me, but I don't think that a turn towards Christ and the Bible is what will change that)

It was my understanding that you wanted to worship in a way that liberal Friends (or at least TCFM) generally doesnt'.

Perhaps that's true of me too. Except that I want to worship in a way much like Laughing Waters DOES, but without so many references to a God I don't believe in and didn't like very much when I did. Sometimes I suspect that that's pretty much an impossibility, and sometimes I just wish more folks could see that it was.


Liz Opp said...

Elizabeth O and other readers who maybe are joining the conversation late --

The Friend who first used the word "convergent" took the time way-back-when to write what that word/concept means to her. It's good for those of us who are using the word more freely to review the original intention of it, too, from time to time.

For those of us who have been exchanging ideas through the Quaker blogosphere, it seems as though we are reaching across the branches--we are Liberal Friends, we are Conservative Friends, we are Evangelical and FUM Friends. There is something in common we are discovering that previously we could not access.

The blogosphere--and now some face-to-face gatherings--have circumvented the stereotypes we had unknowingly been holding onto and keeping us separate.

Through the internet, we knew each other first by our desire to be faithful Friends who cherish the Spirit, and THEN by learning where we fit in the Quaker "tree." But by then, it was too late: many of us realized we like each other!


earthfreak (Pam) said...


I was talking with someone from Laughing Waters last night, who had read this and said she didn't realize I have such a problem with LW.

I don't, so I'm attempting to clarify.

I didn't realize that I was the one who brought up LW first. In talking about exclusion I was talking more about internet discourse (with probably some memories of isolated incidents with LW folks)

I think that sort of exclusion feels much less real when the "theology" issue comes up with someone you know in another context. Liz and I have socialized in all sorts of different situations, and I am enjoying watching Elizabeth's children grow up, so when we have a theological difference it is far from all we have. It's more of a danger with someone like Martin or Marshall, with whom I don't really share anything by an cyber-theology debate.

In any case, I worry that that doesn't really clarify. But I thought I'd try.


QuakerK said...

I'm intrigued by the idea of the Center, and competing visions of what that means. Pam's metaphor of the dots, and the formula to determine the Center, implies that the Center is a function of people, it is in a sense dependent on them. If the dots were in different places, the Center would be somewhere else.

A more traditional Western religious understanding would be that the Center is where it is regardless of where people are. We can't determine the Center by calculating from the locations of the people, because the Center (i.e., God) transcends people.

There are ways to finesse the differences. For example, one can assume that if one calculates the Center based on everyone in the world, it will end up where the Center is objectively speaking. Still, it seems to me that there are two conflicting views of religion here, one of which involves individuals relating to a reality outside humanity, transcending the world, and another which involves interacting with something which is, in some way, a result of human action or striving. I'm not saying that last part quite right, but it does seem to me that there is a difference.

I find it hard to say which side I would come down on. I think I would go back and forth--to those who emphasize the objectivity of the Center--and that usually goes with the idea that "I know where the Center is"--I would probably stress that maybe they should consult with others just to make sure they are getting it right. To those who see the Center as being a triangulation from human positions, I would probably stress that they need to beware of relying on the merely human, and that seeing religion in a humanist light runs the risk of being too accommdating of the merely human.



Liz Opp said...

Pam - Thanks for hanging in there and doing what you can to clarify where the sense of exclusion emerges for you. I agree that having a relationship beyond the internet can certainly "shed light" on what is written on the internet. That speaks to why, at times, I contact someone privately and ask for a phone conversation, where additional nonverbal cues can be picked up--

Is that Friend really so spiteful of me and my beliefs?

Is that Friend truly intending to boot me out of Quakerism because I don't sign on the dotted line?

Even in our online writings, though, there is our INTENTION--to share our thoughts, our leadings, and our struggles--and there is the IMPACT of our words--hurt, affirmation, openings, or Way closing.

When I feel hurt or pained by what someone has expressed, I do what I can to:

1. step back from my own feelings for a moment;

2. consider the possibility that the person had truly good intentions, and if so, what would the intention/s be; and

3. prepare myself to share my "educated guess" with the person about her or his intention while also preparing myself to share with the person the impact of her or his words.

I find that going through those three steps has opened up conversations to a deeper level of expressed care for one another as well as a slowed pace of mutual exploration of what else might be going on.

So keep that in mind when you read my response to...

David --

Thank you for your comment! I have been wondering what it was about Pam's metaphor of the dots around an unknown Center that wasn't sitting well with me:

...the Center is where it is regardless of where people are. We can't determine the Center by calculating from the locations of the people, because the Center (i.e., God) transcends people.

Of course, this view aligns with my Conservative Quaker's understanding that the Truth, like the Light, is unchanging: only our understanding of it changes.

That said, I cannot completely discount what Pam offers, which leads me to consider the question of defining where "Center" is, is a matter of BOTH-AND thinking:

It is BOTH a Center around which and defined by where individuals place themselves (the human element of Quakerism; the horizontal arm of the Christian cross) AND a Center that is immutable and exists beyond the plane of those same individuals: it is everywhere and it is nowhere and it is exactly in one place (the Divine element of Quakerism; the vertical arm of the Christian cross).

One final thought, in light of David's comment and Pam's own post on considering Love as a testimony:

What if the Center is simply Love, and it matters not where we "place" ourselves around it; only that we each strive to move toward it, individually as well as collectively?


Yvonne said...

Ferenc David (an early Unitarian) once said "We need not think alike to love alike."

Then there is the idea that "God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere" (I forget who said that, I think it was a 12th c Benedictine monk).

I assume the centre you are converging on is the Divine? If the Divine is everywhere and in everyone, then it seems to me that you are practicing convergence just by having the conversation and in meeting for worship.

Hope that helps.

Yvonne said...

A clarification - I meant "having this conversation", i.e. seeking the hear that of God in each participant (not just any old form of conversation).

Liz Opp said...

Yvonne -

I see you've made the rounds recently on The Good Raised Up. ...As for your comment here and your assumption that "the center you are converging on is the Divine," I would say that is not correct.

Of late there has been a fair amount written in the Quaker blogosphere about the concept of "Convergent Quakerism" and how it transcends the schisms of this particular faith tradition, as well as the various parts of "convergence," as perceived by at least a handful of blogging Quakers [take a look at the comments within the second link].

I am beginning to wonder if convergence isn't really more of a gestalt--hard to pin down to a single experience or a single definition. Sometimes, though, we can get a grasp of a thing by reading about it, listening to others talk about it, going to events where others are exploring it.

Anyway, thanks again for the comment(s).