By Robert A. Rees
Robert A. Rees teaches Mormon Studies at Graduate Theological Union and the University of California Berkeley. He has just completed a play on Emerson and his circle and is compiling a collection of his essays on the Book of Mormon. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Joseph Smith reports that in the Sacred Grove, God told him the creeds of all the churches were an abomination in his sight. I’ve always been a little puzzled by that categorical condemnation because it seems to me that many Christian creeds, including many of those current in Joseph’s time, are framed in language that Latter-day Saints can, for the most part, agree with. The Apostles’ Creed (very early church) and the Nicean Creed (325, 381 CE) have nothing that seems objectionable to Latter-day Saint belief. The Athanasian Creed (500 CE) was the first to introduce the current Catholic and Protestant version of the Trinity, which clearly is different from the LDS understanding of the godhead. Terryl Givens speculates that it is the Westminster Confession (1647) that more likely qualifies for divine condemnation since it forecloses continuing revelation and presents concepts of the nature of God (“invisible, without body, parts, or passions”) and humans that fall short of what Mormons consider the enlightened doctrines of the restoration.
The late Yale historian Yaroslav Pelikan was the world authority on Christian creeds, of which he includes two hundred in his five-volume Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition. Pelikan defends creeds as “an indispensable key to the living and dynamic reality of . . . the faith of Israel in one God, . . . the primal creed and confession of the Christian church.”1
One of the functions of creeds over the centuries has been to narrow the scope of those considered believers in Christ and his ministry. In other words, it was believed that only those who could confess their faith according to an established formula could be allowed into the congregation of the faithful. But Rumi takes a different tack, declaring that Christ himself is “the population of the world”2 and is therefore both reflected in and transcendent of the creeds. That is, he is seen through the hearts and minds of all cultures and times. In his poem about Christ, “The Ballad of the Goodly Fere,” Ezra Pound sees the Lord as a bold, brave sailor:
No mouse of the scrolls . . .
No capon priest . . .
But a man o’ men was he.3
Like his disciple Paul, Christ becomes all things to all people, entering their lives however and wherever they are willing to open the portals of their heart to him. As Gerard Manley Hopkins says,
Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s [and women’s] faces.”4
Of all the creeds Pelikan includes in his collection, my favorite is that of the Maasai people from southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. To use Alan Paton’s words from Cry, the Beloved Country, it is “lovely beyond any singing of it”:
We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created Man and wanted Man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the Earth. We have known this High God in darkness, and now we know Him in the light. God promised in the book of His word, the Bible, that He would save the world and all the nations and tribes.
We believe that God made good His promise by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left His home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, He rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.
We believe that all our sins are forgiven through Him. All who have faith in Him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love, to announce the Good News to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for Him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.5
Such a creed could never be considered an abomination, for it shows a Christ who is kind, merciful, forgiving and—most of all—loving. Even the hyenas honor him!
“We have known this High God in darkness, and now we know Him in the light.” It is the light of Christ that shines in all his children—all tribes, peoples and nations—that causes those of us who believe in him to share bread with one another and “to announce the Good News to others until Jesus comes again.” As Rumi says,
Where Jesus lives, the great-hearted gather.
We are a door that is never locked.
If you suffer any kind of pain,
Stay near this door. Open it.6
That is a creed to which all Christians could give glad assent.
- Jaroslav Pelikan, “The Will to Believe and the Need for Creed,” On Being, http://www.onbeing.org/program/need-creeds/feature/will-believe-and-need-creed/1293 (accessed 3 November 2015).
- Mowlana Jalaluddin Rumi, The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks (Edison, N.J.: Castle Books, 1995), 204.
- Ezra Pound, “Ballad of the Goodly Fere,” http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/ballad-goodly-fere (accessed 3 November 2015).
- Gerald Manly Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173654 (accessed 3 November 2015).
- Krista Tippitt, “Transcript for Jaroslav Pekikan—The Need for Creeds,” On Being, 23 April 2014, http://www.onbeing.org/program/jaroslav-pelikan-the-need-for-creeds/transcript/6285#main_content (accessed 3 November 2015).
- Barks, The Essential Rumi, 201.