Wednesday, December 16, 2009


So I'm musing more about the theology of creedlessness in Unitarianism. Sorry if this kind of thing bores you.

Here's a realisation I came to during my dissertation last year, that I think is worth sharing, if not preaching evangelically. I may begin to bang this drum more in the future.

Unitarianism is creedless: there is no written creed that members or minister are asked to sign up to.

But what does it mean to be creedless?

This is often the way we speak about being creedless, we use words and phrases such as:
"theologically diverse"
"supported in your individual search for truth and meaning"
"each individual is encouraged to find their own beliefs"
"many beliefs, one faith"
"free to discern our beliefs"
"celebrate diverse beliefs"

Here's my insight. This is not non-creedalism. This is what I would call credo-ism. (credo = I believe).

Creedalism is the belief that all individuals within a community should sign up to a particular set of beliefs.

Credoism is the belief that each individual should be primarily concerned with finding their own individual beliefs.

My theory is this: credoism is not the opposite of creedalism. In fact credoism is simply creedalism that has been made deeply individualistic. It's the child of creedalism, and it isn't that far removed.

Both creedalism and credoism emphasis that faith is really about beliefs, whether communal beliefs or diverse individual beliefs.

Non-creedalism, rather than simply indivdualising beliefs should rather point away from beliefs as the foundation of faith.

But point towards what? "Values" is often the answer but I find that unsatisfactory. I want my political party to be rooted in its values, but I want my religion to be rooted in something, well, religious. "Values" does not make a religion.

So how about this? A spiritual practice and a comprehensive way of life that emerges out of that practice.

That sounds like a faith to me: something emboddied in actions.

My elevator speech/lift pitch used to be something like this, "We're at the very liberal end of Christianity, but each person is encouraged to come to their own beliefs."

But now I'm thinking of something like this, "we're rooted in Christianity but what is really important to us is not beliefs, but a way of life based on a spiritual life, and what we do in the world."

This is an invitation not to come to your own beliefs, nor to understand a historical story/argument, but an invitation to a way of life. I think this is both more appealing to an enquirer and also more true to an authentic faith tradition.

The only trouble with the statement is that we have to live out the truth of it. It's only if we witness in our lives a joyfulness of spirit and a loving concern for the world that our words will be true. Otherwise our words will ring hollow. In some ways this is the most difficult "growth strategy", yet the only one really worth pursuing.


Blogger Paul Oakley said...

Thanks for an interesting "nusing" on creedlessness, Stephen. I'll come back to it later, but I do have some quickly formulated thoughts:

What does the distinction between creedo-ism and creedalism signify in historical context, I wonder? Take that arch-nemesis of anti-creedalism, the Nicene Creed. Written originally in Greek, it begins, "Πιστεύω εἰς ἕνα Θεόν," or in the Latin that dominated Western Christendom, "Credo in unum Deum..."

Though the creed is recited liturgically in unison, it does not begin "We believe" but "I believe."

So in a sense, creedoism and creedalism are or are not the same thing depending entirely and only on the process for arriving at one's position rather than on the content of that position and whether or not those around one subscribe to similar or identical credo. I agree completely, then, that creedoism is not the opposite of creedalism - and may sometimes even be identical to it, so far as anyone can tell.

Non-creedalism, taken historically, though, is, I think, not about basing faith on something other than belief. Rather, it was about not accepting adherence to a linguistic formulation of belief as a test of faith. It was a rejection of historical ecclesiastical authority to determine on the basis of such tests who was in and who was out.

I'll think about it some more, but right now, I don't see that as the same thing as moves past beliefs as the basis of (individual) faith.

But I could be wrong...

9:25 pm  
Blogger Strange Attractor said...

I love this definition. This is a much better fit for what brought me to UU'ism. The "beliefs" thing can still be a stumbling block but basing faith on your spiritual practice and the work you do because of it is much more meaningful to my life than yes-or-no check boxes of beliefs.

Didn't the old zen master say he tried to believe as little as possible?

10:23 pm  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...


I suppose in early Christianity the creed would have been "Jesus is Lord" which would have had a strong meaning of "Ceasar is not Lord" i.e. "I live my life by the laws/way of Jesus, not the laws/way of Ceasar." Later creeds became increasingly particular.

In Britain within my tradition you could trace non-creedalism to the Salters Hall controversiy in (from memory) 1719, when a number of Non-Conformist ministers refused to sign up to a particular statement of faith, some because they were Arian, but others because they didn't believe in subscribing to a creed, even though they may personally have been orthodox trinitarian.

Presumably they thought the basis of Christian faith would have been a way of life, but I don't know the history well enough to know what it is they were affirming, if not creeds. Perhaps they never articulated it very well, and their failure to articulate it continues to be the problem we have as Unitarians.

But I don't mind admitting that I personally draw very heavily from Quakerism in my thoughts about non-creedalism. This is much more about grasping a truth deeper than language. James Luther Adams also articulated creedlessness as based on the idea that revelation is not sealed, and meaning has not been finally captured, therefore nothing is above criticism.

9:40 am  
Blogger Yewtree said...

I always say that I don't have beliefs, I have working hypotheses to explain my experiences.

I agree strongly that religion should be based on values and not beliefs though.

I've just been re-reading the Abraxan essay on the meaning of worship on the UUA Worship Web. I think the definition of worship is closely related to how we define religion.

It's interesting to observe how, as Paganism becomes more popular, it is moving from a creedless stance to a creedal one. I predict that soon there will be the Pagan equivalent of the Council of Nicaea. It's probably something to do with the way newly-formed religions get integrated into their host societies (as in Weber's theory of cults, sects and churches).

2:14 pm  
Anonymous Tim said...

It's right to point out that creeds, belief statements, or even the "affirmations" of values used by some Unitarian congregations are spiritually worthless when people's behaviours and actions are not dealt with. It's the main reason I personally can no longer subscribe to a creedal statement, especially as my beliefs (and even values) seem to be constantly evolving.

I think, however, that any differences between "non-creedalism" and "credoism" are less important than what "spiritual practice" and a "creedless" way of life actually involve.

It is good to distinguish between beliefs, values, and practice, but I'm not sure if the latter can exist without at least one of the others. From a rationalist perspective, I believe that all of our actions - spiritual or otherwise - have some reasoning behind them to do with motivation and perception of consequences, which may or may not be deliberate or in the conscious mind.

How much room is there for a spiritual life to differ from the next person's?
Unitarian communities tend to consist of people with hugely differing, highly indivdualised beliefs, which sometimes contradict those of others within the same community. The group's values possibly differ less. Yet what is this spiritual way of life, when the practices and world views of Unitarians are also defined and carried out on individuals' own terms?

8:52 pm  
Blogger Xochitl said...

Hey Stephen! Ran into your blog because I have a google alert on "Bryan Stone"! Hehe. I've been his TA a couple years now and like to read what people are writing on his work. You and I were classmates when you were at BU. Anyway, nice blog, good reflections. I look forward to keeping up with it :-)

Happy holidays!


4:26 pm  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

Hi Xochitl!

I saw a comment from Xochitl and I thought: I know a Xochitl! It's not the kind of name I would forget.

Good to hear from you, isn't the internet wonderful for this kind of thing?

I'll have a look at your blog now.

Merry Christmas.

11:57 am  

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