Faith statements–a pretext for scapegoating?

My recent situation with Trinity Western University is a reminder of why I’ve always had difficulty with faith statements. On the one hand, I don’t think I’ve ever read a faith statement with which I can agree wholeheartedly. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. I often tend to disagree with myself mid-sentence, so that shouldn’t come as any surprise.

Therefore, when faced with the prospect of signing a faith statement, which I’ve had to do several times over my career, I’m left with two options:

1) Lie. Just sign the damn thing and don’t kick up a fuss. The problem is, lying is, well, a sin! Not only am I misrepresenting myself to the organization, I’m not being true to myself or my beliefs. So ultimately, it’s a cowardly, fear-driven act.

2) Offer a qualifying statement (or two or three). This is where the fear of scapegoating kicks in. The last thing you want to do within a creedal tradition is draw attention to yourself as some sort of an iconoclast. All eyes turn to you, wondering, “If he doesn’t agree with us on this point, what other seditious thoughts are circulating in that bald head of his?” From that point onward, if you aren’t expelled from the group outright, you are watched carefully in case you finally slip up and show your true colors.

For such groups, conformity to the creed and perpetuation of the institution is paramount. The needs of various individuals within the group are secondary or tertiary at best, because they often see themselves as embattled organizations, under attack by the culture at large. Like an army in the midst of a firefight, summary expulsion is completely justified, because they simply can’t afford to have people running around doing their own thing. As Sgt. Barnes says in Platoon, one of my all-time favorite films:

There’s the way it ought to be. And there’s the way it is… Now, I got no fight with any man who does what he’s told, but when he don’t, the machine breaks down. And when the machine breaks down, we break down. And I ain’t gonna allow that in any of you. Not one.

This is essentially how a fourth year Trinity student described the college’s current situation in an email yesterday when she urged me to simply accept the President’s decision and be quiet for the good of the school. How’s it going to look for us if we graduate from a college that is viewed as “narrow, provincial and fundamentalist” (as one of my friends put it)? In other words, shut up, because you’re making us all look bad.

So while I view this second option as far superior to the first, as I (and others) have discovered, it’s also much riskier.

Which leaves to my second problem with faith statements: To my way of thinking, Christianity isn’t about assenting to a set of propositions. It’s about following Christ. It’s not a statement of faith; it’s a way of life. It’s about loving God first of all, which frees us to love our fellow human beings, to practice self-sacrifice rather than demanding that someone be sacrificed for the sake of the group.

So rather than require prospective members to assent to a body of beliefs, which seems like a hyper-rationalist version of religion, if you’re going to ask them to sign anything, it makes more sense to request that they assent to a shared way of life, a way of living in community and relating to God and their fellow human beings.

Unlike a statement of faith, with brooks no compromise, a statement of community ideals or values is just that, an ideal. No one matches it perfectly, but no one realistically expects anyone is capable of doing so. Rather than serve as a pretext for scapegoating, a statement of values is a continual reminder that we all fall short of the glory of God every day. But we are united in our efforts to attain this ideal and to help others do the same.

I’m not saying scapegoating can’t also happen within such a context. We’re highly imaginative creatures, and outside of Christ, we know of no other way of forming an identity except through sacrifice of the other. So our first instinct is to bend everything toward some sort of scapegoating mechanism.

However, I still think inviting people into a shared way of living rather than demanding conformity to a set of beliefs presents a much stronger appeal to what Steven Pinker calls “The Better Angels of Our Nature.”

About Kevin Miller

Kevin Miller is an award-winning screenwriter, director and producer who has applied his craft to numerous documentaries, feature films and shorts. Recent projects include "The Chicken Manure Incident," "Hellbound?," "Drop Gun," "No Saints for Sinners," "spOILed," "Sex+Money," "With God On Our Side," "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" and "After..." In addition to his work in film, Miller has written, co-written and edited over 45 books. He lives in Kimberley, BC, Canada with his wife and four children.

  • http://www.redemptionpictures.com/ Micah J. Murray

    This is the best thing I’ve ever read about “statements of belief”

  • christinaarcher

    Yay!!! Thank you for a thoughtful response.

  • BrainRush

    To be fair, it should be said that TWU does, in addition to the faith statement, have “a statement of community ideals or values.”

    • Kevin Miller

      Right. But you don’t have to sign it to become part of the faculty.

      • BrainRush

        I don’t know if you’ve just forgotten or if you actually didn’t get one, but I’m looking at the signature line of the Community Covenant Agreement right now.

        As you know, I’m disappointed with the whole situation. But I do want all the facts to be correct.

  • Tim

    Yep. Exactly. Spot-On, Kevin!

  • k_Lutz

    The only valid reason for signing in a confession of faith would be to receive the guarantee of salvation. Of course we know it cannot do this, so we become the subjects of a different master. No matter how pure is their initiating motive, preservation of the ensuing culture/community is always the end result, for which the iconoclasts become isolated, ostracized, outcast, and enemy. This, in an organisation that claims along with Jesus to love your enemies. Apparently, loving oneself is too hard, forgiving oneself admits too much.

  • http://outin2thedeep.wordpress.com/ Wesley

    I wonder why you would say creeds and confessions were ever written in the first place? I wonder if there was some point after all to writing such unrealistic, unattainable idealism down and holding it up as a way to test orthodoxy? Hmmm …

    • Kevin Miller

      I’m not saying creeds don’t have their place. It’s how they’re used. As far as I know, the writers of the creeds didn’t require assent to the creeds as the price of admission into the community.

      • http://outin2thedeep.wordpress.com/ Wesley

        Then i would direct you to the history of the church. Consider, as one of many examples, how those who didn’t line up with the Nicene Creed fared. Or how the whole east and west church split – as another example – over the “Filioque” clause in Constantinople II. The whole point of creeds and confessions is to do the very thing you seem to be saying they aren’t. If i deny that Jesus is truly God’s Son and the only means of salvation, am i really to be accepted in the Christian community as a fellow believer?

        • Kevin Miller

          I don’t deny that throughout church history, creeds and faith statements have been used to exclude those who don’t adhere to them. I’m just saying I don’t agree with that sort of behavior in any age. As I noted in my post, this goes against the way Jesus invited people into community with him.

          • http://outin2thedeep.wordpress.com/ Wesley

            I think i see what you’re saying but it then becomes unclear what Jesus was inviting people to follow. The gospel is necessarily exclusive and is itself a test/benchmark of who is actually following Jesus. Jesus invited the rich young ruler to follow Him and yet he was not willing to submit to what Jesus was telling him would be the cost/standard of doing so.

          • R Vogel

            I don’t see it as unclear – he was inviting them to follow his example. Feeding the hungry, ministering to the sick, showing mercy and compassion and challenging man made orthodoxy.

            It is well and good to talk about the ‘standard of Christ’ but who gets to decide what that is?

          • http://outin2thedeep.wordpress.com/ Wesley

            There’s no question that the “Christus exemplar” theme is present all throughout the Gospels. But Jesus didn’t come to earth simply to show us how to live, He came to die for our sins (Rom. 3:23-25). This is why Jesus’ message was not just about the kingdom but always included a call to repentance.
            And as for “challenging man made orthodoxy” i would agree with you to a point. The religious leaders of the day had gone well beyond what God commanded in order to “assist” people in keeping the law, but there still was the law and Jesus didn’t come to eradicate that law but to perfectly fulfil it in our place. Ergo, Jesus’ standard was the same as the OT law, just not all the extra stuff that had been added on to it. And yes, to some degree the church today has added things as well. But that does not mean that all propositional teaching is “man made” – the bible does have clear propositions in it that we are to obey *as* followers of Jesus.

          • Yowie

            Matthew 5:17-18.
            “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
            Unless Jesus left with unfinished business He fulfilled the Law as stated above and therefore the ‘smallest letter or stroke’ can pass from it now. That’s my understanding.
            Though regarding obedience to Jesus, I think it’s vital!

          • http://outin2thedeep.wordpress.com/ Wesley

            Jesus’ statement here means that He will fulfill the perfect obedience to the law that mankind never could, making Him the perfect, spotless, substitutionary sacrifice for mankind. Fulfilment of the law just means that Christ’s perfect obedience is credited to us when we trust Christ as our Saviour. It doesn’t mean that there is no longer any law to obey in this life. you think God is cool if you kill, lie, blaspheme, etc. now?

          • Yowie

            If nothing from the law could be done away with until it is completed and Jesus completed it, then what is the problem if it’s done away with?

            I get what you’re saying, but as someone who follows Christ, if you need a law written out for you that you’re not to kill, lie, blaspheme,etc. then I think there is a serious problem and I would question whether the Holy Spirit resides in you or not.

          • R Vogel

            Yet in Matthew 25 the only criteria that Jesus uses to separate the nations is how they lived – he never mentions anything about ascribing to the correct creed or orthodoxy. And when the lawyer responds to the question “what is written in the law?” he responds “Love the Lord You G*d….and love your neighbor as yourself” and Jesus says “You have answered correctly do this and you will live” Still nothing about theology or orthodoxy that I detect.

            It is an interesting statement by Jesus, and for the life of me I have never been able to make head nor tails of it. What does ‘fulfilling the law’ mean? Certainly it is not referring to the 600+ laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy(sp?)? From the quote above, I take it that through his life and death he was the perfect example of loving G*d with all of your mind, heart and soul and loving others as himself. Of course that is a complete off topic ramble, but I thought I would throw it in there for flavor. ;p

        • Yowie

          Wesley, I personally see “creeds” and “statements of faith” (although there maybe some some genuinely good ones) as a way to keep the community you want the way you want and a clause to get rid of those or deny entry to those who may buck the system. I can’t help but think of when Jesus spoke about being able to tell a man by his fruits.

          • http://outin2thedeep.wordpress.com/ Wesley

            Yowie -
            let’s take the Nicene creed for instance: this is a brief but fairly detailed summary of what historic Christianity has held as our understanding of the Trinity.
            The whole point of this (and many other creeds) is absolutely to distinguish between who *is* a part of the Christian community and who is not. If you don;t believe that Jesus was truly God, or say that the Holy SPirit is a real member of the Trinity, etc. then you are not following the Triune God the bible and are, thus, not a part of the Christian community (at least not in a saving sense). And so it is overly reductionistic to speak of someone denying the foundational teachings of Christianity (eg. Trinity) as simply “bucking the system” nor is it fair to say that those who do hold to those teachings are just trying to maintain the status quo and keep out those we want to keep out. The point is: those who deny God’s revelation about Himself (the bible) are not being excluded by anyone from the community of faith; they are excluding themselves.

          • Kevin Miller

            I think the question Yowie (and others) are asking is, whose reading of the text (or whose interpretation of Jesus’ life) is authoritative, to the point they are in a position to decide who and who isn’t part of the Christian community? You seem to believe you’re in a position to make such a distinction, but you are already playing out the problem Yowie and others are raising.

          • http://outin2thedeep.wordpress.com/ Wesley

            The Scriptures themselves are the only authority in this equation – none of man’s interpretations are ultimately authoritative as far as i’m concerned. But that doesn’t mean we must distrust ALL interpretations of Scripture. Surely you would agree that there are faithful and unfaithful ways to interpret any text – Scripture or not.
            This does not mean that i’m one of those – ‘Augustine and Calvin said it so it must be right guys’ either. No, i read the church fathers and the reformers and test their conclusions/interpretations against Scripture for myself.
            So, when “ladies only fitness” says in their regulations that men are not allowed to work out there, i don;t get to interpret that how i want. I means i cannot be a part of that community b/c i am a man. And everyone who can read or understand that would say i was right in that interpretation.
            Same thing with the bible. When it says Jesus is God and that He literally rose from the dead, those are not negotiable beliefs that i can interpret how i want and still consider myself part of the Christian community if i reject those claims. Creeds – on the whole – are summaries of such teachings from the bible. This is why we can authoritatively say that a Muslim is not a Christian or a Buddhist is not a Christian; a conclusion they would happily agree with.

            You make it sound as though i sat down one day and said, “hmmmm – now what standards do i want to put up to say who’s a Christian and who isn’t?” That doesn’t mean people have never done that very thing (and probably still do today) but that doesn’t also mean we can just say there are no boundaries whatsoever on what it means to be a Christian. I mean, does the bible get to speak for itself or not?

          • Yowie

            In the bible it is written that Jesus said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’ The authoity is in Christ Jesus, not the bible. The bible didn’t even exist when He said this.

            I wholeheartedly believe when it comes to scripture we need the Holy Spirit’s revelation of what is truly being said or else it is exactly just our own or someone elses interpretation. Satan himself used scripture.

          • http://outin2thedeep.wordpress.com/ Wesley

            The OT was clearly written at this time and it had the same authority as the NT does; not in and of itself but b/c it was the very words of God. The authority is from God through His inspired Word.

          • Yowie

            The OT didn’t have Jesus saying, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’ And like Kevin has touched on in another comment, Jesus usualy, if not always, took the OT and turned peoples understanding of it on it’s head.
            I personaly think a lot of the problems we (the church) have today is because of an issue that has been around for a very long time, and that is the church have had something round the wrong way. We are taught to read the bible to get to know God better, where I believe we need to get to know God better to understand what the sciptures say (not to mention all the mistranslations also). After all the scriptures are a result of people’s union with God and the revelations He has given them.
            An issue I see today is that we seem to have this mindset that God stopped speaking to people after the bible’s completion. I have asked a christian brother if God had said something to him (and I mean undoubtedly God speaking to him) and God told him to write it down, would it be considered to hold the same weight as the bible, and his answer was, no. I’m under the impression “no” would be the answer most christians would give to that question. Which raises the issue of our thoughts around the bible and what is considered God’s word. If God tells you something today and it’s His words and you write it down as He directs and/or inspires, then what is the problem with refering to what He told you to write down as the word of God? Is it really just because it’s not published on pages within a lot of other pages, bound and put in a cover that has Holy Bible written on the front?

            I know this may be off topic to the oiginal thread, but it’s something I wanted to raise and stirs within me when I see people going on about scripture as the only authority.
            I just want to make it clear that I’m not trying degrade the bible in any way whatsoever.

          • http://outin2thedeep.wordpress.com/ Wesley

            Yowie -
            see below (or wherever for my response to Kevin re: Jesus’ use (lit. expansion not eradicating) of the OT.
            Your question re: the Word of God is a good one. The simplest answer is – as i see it – God is absolutely still speaking to us today but not in the same manner as He spoke to the authors of Scripture. This is why the canon of Scripture is closed and we do not accept any further revelations as having the authority of Scripture; not b/c God has stopped speaking, but b/c the conditions for biblical authorship (particularly NT) can no longer be met (one quick but undoubted one is that they must be witnesses to the risen Christ).
            God’s Word therefore is not the same thing as God’s words to you and i today. I don;t have honestly have the time to unpack the whole doctrine of Scripture to you here. Gotta do that on your own time.

          • Yowie

            Wesley,
            It’s interesting you use the Nicene creed in this discussion because if I remember right, from what I’ve heard the author of the Nicene creed held the same or very similar belief as Kevin regarding the reconciliation of all.
            Just looking at the Nicene creed now I can see how if I wanted to I could start another break-off amongst believers by maintaining some sort of “authoritive stance” and giving an interpretation of how Mary became pregnant with Jesus and an interpretation of what that ‘one baptism for the remission of sins’ is. I don’t think I’m exaggerating either. It’s happened MANY of times so far. We call them denominations.
            When you talk about revelation, I think it’s important to remember it can take some time for someone to get the revelation that others may have had a long time ago. Take the revelation God gave to Peter as to who Jesus is, for example. There’s nothing to imply the other 11 had the same revelation at the same time. Does that mean they’re any less or off the team until they get it?
            I don’t know about you, but I’ve wondered about how christians live who have never read a bible or creed and have no access to them.

  • R Vogel

    I am running headlong into this very issue – my wife and I were raised in an evangelical church and we both left years ago. She simply drifted away, where I consciously rejected virtually everything we were raised on. Our son was born last year and now she is interested in finding a church. Although I have no interest in joining a church, I have told her I would go with her. However I refuse to send him to a church where he will be indoctrinated through the use of Creeds or faith statements what he will eventually be faced with the dilemma you cite above. I have been looking for non Creed based churches and have only found two: Church of the Brethren and Quakers (luckily we live in Pennsylvania, hot bed of 16th century religious dissent!) Do you know of any others?

    • http://outin2thedeep.wordpress.com/ Wesley

      I’m confused as to why you would want to go to a “church” that did not hold to historic orthodoxy in any way. Can you think of any religion in fact that does not have creeds (either written or unwritten)? I assure you, Brethren and Quakers absolutely DO have creeds – they just aren;t written down.
      Why did you leave the church you grew up in?

      • R Vogel

        I have no idea why anyone would give a fig about historical orthodoxy. The whole point of orthodoxy as far as I can tell is to strengthen the institution by excluding people as heretics who don’t think like you do, and for the laity to delegate thinking about what they believe to some church ‘authorities,’ who mainly are psuedo-philsophers who sit around arguing about nonsense like whether or not the son is ‘of the same substance’ as the father. What has the been the fruits of orthodoxy? Wars, division, hatred, violence.

        You can declare that they DO have creeds, but both their own literature and my experience with those whom I have met speak otherwise. One could make the case that a creed that is not written down is not a creed at all since there is no way to enforce it and no way to ensure that it doesn’t change over time. Quakers and Brethren both say they are bound together by their common belief to live like Christ which is focused around service and a belief in social justice.

        For me this is the crux of the issue: As I have grown and learned and experienced the world, I have changed. My beliefs changed. How I approach faith has changed. Creeds do not change. Therefore I have no interest in yoking myself to some man-made creed.

        • Kevin Miller

          Very well put!

        • http://outin2thedeep.wordpress.com/ Wesley

          R Vogel -
          it’s clear we come at this issue from different perspectives and i hope you know i respect your opinions.
          There is much i would want to say in response and it would be awesome to just sit down for a drink and work it out. But, for the moment, i would just ask you two quick questions:
          1. Who is Jesus Christ?
          2. How do you know that?

          • R Vogel

            I didn’t feel any disrespect, but I thank you for saying it just the same. I hope my comments aren’t interpreted as disrespectful either. When I say, in my admittedly glib manner, that ‘I have no idea why…’ I mean just that. I have no idea – it is not something for which I personally have any desire. If religion is a personal relationship to the divine, which I believe it is, then I must work out the details of that relationship, using the symbols and metaphors that make sense to me including the bible. I can’t rely on someone else’s authority. I am happy to consider the thoughts of others, but I recognize no authority beyond the still small voice. Finer points of Trinitarian doctrine, for instance, have no relevance to me, so I certainly could not be a part of church that demands I declare them. For some this means that I should be shunned from the community – so be it. But it is unfortunate, because while you are feeding the hungry, clothing to naked, tending to the sick, how much does that really come up?
            To address your questions: All I know of Jesus Christ is what I glean from the gospels. I am unsure the point of the question – there is still significant disagreement about much that is in the bible, and creeds were simply a way to quell debate. And who knows how much original material was lost that might have challenged our conceptions about who Jesus was, or more pointedly the theology created by Paul, thanks to orthodoxy.

  • Maureen Driedger

    Hey Kevin! While reading your post the following article came to mind- I think you will find resonance w/ it. The site is undergoing some changes & this one isn’t presenting properly right now but for anyone taking the time to slog through it, worth the effort, IMO. http://www.godward.org/archives/Special%20Articles/politicization%20of%20doctrine

    Also , the librarian in me wants recommend the following book that I think you would greatly enjoy: http://www.amazon.com/Orphean-Passages-The-Walter-Wangerin/dp/0310205689/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1378393171&sr=8-1&keywords=the+orphean+passages

    • Kevin Miller

      Thanks for the recommends!

  • R Vogel

    Love the post, Kevin. Can’t wait to see the movie (kind of a newb around these parts)


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