To be fair to the memory of Yale University history professor Jaroslav Pelikan, it seemed right to go back and listen again to his interview with Krista Tippett and try to discern more carefully his arguments for “The Need For Creeds.”

But I was struck listening again to the interview, by Pelkian’s strong acknowledgement of the importance of paying attention to the specific cultural context in which believers are attempting to communicate their faith. Christianity is a faith of Incarnation. Incarnation commits us to respect the specificity of place, time and culture.

Responding to Tippett’s question about Jesus asking “Who do you say that I am?” Pelikan argues,

Wherever the message is preached and brought and whatever language it comes from, the language it comes to and the culture into which it penetrates must at some stage of maturation learn to answer yet again the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Because the “you say” in that question is the culture in which we live. He is not asking who does the 4th century say that I am when it was written in Greek.

It is worth asking whether the church today takes seriously enough the need to listen deeply and sensitively to the culture in which we are attempting to embody the good news of Christ. It is not clear to me that the world of the 21st century will be inclined to give a sympathetic hearing to those who simply sit on the opposite side of the wall and hurl abstruse 4th century theological concepts across the great divide between “sacred” and “secular” demanding that everyone sign on to complex dogmatic formulations in order to qualify as a recipient of God’s favour.

It is Christianity’s respect for culture that has led in part to the proliferation of creedal statements in our faith.

Pelikan points out , that

It is one of the differences between Christianity and the other major world religions that Christina has spawned many creeds, 1,000’s of pages of creeds. Whereas to be Jewish is to affirm every day if you’re observant and with your dying breath if you can, “Hear oh Israel, the Lord is Our God; and that’s really all the Creed that Israel need. So, it’s been possible to be Jewish now for these 3,000 or whatever years without publishing 4 volumes of creedal texts.

“There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet,” is enough of a creed to animate the most rapid expansion of a religious in the history of humanity… and yet Christianity spouts creeds at will right and left.

It is worth ponder how Judasim and Islam have been able to preserve vibrant faith identities over a vast span of history and across dramatically different cultural contexts with only the most simple creedal statements.

It may be that we have reached a point in history where we need to simplify. Requiring people in the age of Twitter to sign on to a dense 223 word theological statement every Sunday, may not be the most effective way of engaging people in the 21st century in living worship. This is not to say that the early creeds are unimportant. It is simply to be willing to ask the question how the truth the creeds attempt to enshrine might best be presented in a radically different cultural context than that in which they were originally written.

Christians have far too often been guilty of the arrogance of demanding that our language is the only valid way of speaking about God. In a culture in which expressions of spirituality and faith proliferate at an alarming pace this narrow dogmatism constitutes a profound barrier against real communication.

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