Re-thinking Christianity

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Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, a British progressive Jewish rabbi, wrote an article a few days ago for the Guardian's "Comment is Free" web site, in which she commented on the current divisions taking place within the Anglican church. As a practitioner of progressive Judaism, she has witnessed the divisions within her own faith over such questions as the ordination of female rabbis; orthodox Judaism, for example, still does not recognize the right of women to be rabbis. Thus she offers a perspective as an outsider on what is happening within the prevailing Christian denomination in her country, which is struggling over, among other things, matters of inclusiveness.

She notes, for example, that "Nowhere is the 'glass ceiling' more resilient than in the institutional frameworks of the major religions." Yet she also points out that "Progressive Jews look back on Jewish history and see that Judaism has evolved over four millennia, and that being able to adapt to changing circumstances has been the secret of Jewish survival." She offers this insight as a progressive Jew, as an example of perhaps what Anglicanism needs to consider for itself.

This theme--evolving and adapting to changing circumstances--resonates with me, and it is something I have written about quite a bit. In fact, it is because of my interest in this topic that I wanted to read the book Re-Thinking Christianity, by Keith Ward, which ostensibly is devoted to this very topic. For example, Ward makes this comment in his book:

There are many beliefs in the synoptic Gospels that we cannot share--where the kingdom would be, what it would do for Israel, when and how it would arrive. Christian faith has changed in important ways since the days of the apostles. But that does not mean such beliefs are no more than mistakes. We must try to see what the spiritual reality was to which such beliefs may have pointed, and ask how they might be rephrased in in the light of new knowledge or in the new contexts of our own day. That is why it is important to re-think Christianity. Christian faith needs to be re-thought in each new place and generation. That is something that may be become apparent as the result of a reflective and informed study of the synoptic Gospels and the form of their beliefs about the nature and coming of the kingdom of God. It is part of the essential nature of Christian faith that it should be open to constant change and creative exploration. The history of Christianity is the history of such change, and I have suggested that a fairly radical change was necessary even in the first generation of Christians, as they had to revise their beliefs about the nature of the Messiah and the kingdom of God. It should be no surprise if we find that we have to undertake a similar task in our own day. It can be an encouragement to realise how very radical the change of beliefs was a the very inception of Christian faith. (Keith Ward, Re-Thinking Christianity, pp. 16-17)
Keith Ward thus points out that a certain kind of Christianity that developed after Jesus died is not the same as Jesus's own religion. This is not exactly earth shattering news. Barrie Wilson has written a book, How Jesus Became Christian, in which he bemoaned this very fact, and offered a whole conspiracy theory surrounding it. But there is no conspiracy here, because it is no secret that Christianity evolved. What Wilson complains about, Ward celebrates. Ward sees this evolution as a reasonable and necessary phenomenon, one that set in motion a process that he believes should continue even to this day. Christianity should always be re-thought, he argues.

Yet even as Ward offers a compelling argument for this process, he in almost the next breath seems to waver in his celebration of diversity and evolution and re-thinking in Christianity. He describes himself as orthodox, and in many ways he is, and he is willing to rethink Christianity only up to a certain point. To him, incarnational and Trinitarian theologies seem to be essential parts of Christianity that cannot be rethought, even though he freely admits that these theologies themselves emerged within the Christian community after Jesus died and thus serve as an example of how Christianity was "re-thought" from the very beginning. At one point he seems to reduce Christianity to certain essential beliefs such as that "God...became incarnate, is Trinitarian in being and reconciles the world to the divine in Jesus Christ" (p. 191). It isn't clear to me why he draws a line in the sand around these beliefs when other beliefs are provisional and open to reconsideration. When Michael Servetus rethought Christianity in the sixteenth century and rejected Trinitarianism, wasn't he engaging in just the sort of re-thinking process that Ward wants us all to do?

As an illustration of just how well he understands that many "essential" Christian dogmas do not go back to Jesus himself or his early followers, he makes the point that Protestant sects that think they are restoring the practices and beliefs of "original" primitive or apostolic Christianity as described in the Bible are simply fooling themselves:
Most classical Protestants did not in fact derive all their doctrines from the Bible alone. They accepted the decisions of the first ecumenical councils of the church. They accepted, for instance, that Jesus was fully God and fully man and that the Trinity was three persons in one substance. They also tended to accept some specifically Western doctrines, as formulated by Augustine--that humans are born with original guilt, that the 'saved' are predestined by God and that human free will is compatible with such pre-destination. Many of them accepted a theory of atonement that derived from Anselm, as adjusted by Calvin, that we can only be saved because Jesus died 'in our place', to pay the penalty of death that God's justice required for our sins....

So Protestants did not in fact rely on Scripture alone for their doctrines, as they sometimes claimed. They relied on a number of traditional interpretations of Scripture, interpretations that got more and more specific and exclusive, until in the end some of them relied on Luther, some on Calvin, some on Zwingli, and some on other less famous but equally cantankerous interpreters of the allegedly 'self-interpreting' Scripture. (p. 106)
That is a wonderful quote, and it illustrates the fact that, indeed, modern Christianity in general relies on developments that came about some time after Jesus died, reflecting beliefs or practices that Jesus neither preached nor anticipated. Ward's point is simply that there is nothing wrong with this, and I don't necessarily disagree with him. I also think that there's nothing wrong with an evolving faith, but it also means that those later re-thought doctrines themselves can be just as subject to re-thinking as the earlier ones were that spawned the original re-thinking in the first place. In other words, if we follow the argument that he seems to be advancing in the book, we should not become too attached to any given interpretation, which is why I find it curious that at times he himself seems to just implicitly accept some of these later developments himself.

I think it is the inconsistency of his position, or at least the fact that he didn't articulate the subtlety of his position very well (or at least well enough for me to understand it), that I find the most frustrating. He often seems to contradict himself, and the book itself seems unfocused, as he ranges across many subjects, from merely arguing in favor of re-thinking Christianity to giving his own theology on the afterlife and the Trinity, to exploring the history of German philosophy as it relates to Christian thought. While it it was interesting to read about Hegel and Kant, I had a hard time seeing how it all related to his supposed central thesis.

Perhaps most disturbingly, at one point he seems to argue that the evolution of Christian doctrine should be a purely collective process, and that individuals should somehow defer to the collective wisdom of the Christian community as a whole rather then openly questioning these questions of theology for themselves. It is hard to know how a process of "re-thinking" Christianity could be possible without the input from free thinkers who questioned the prevailing wisdom that everyone is supposed to defer to, and yet he seems to suggest just that when he writes of the superiority of the authority of the apostolic witness, the New Testament, and church tradition over individual questioning of the received dogma:
Such authority is greater than that of personal experience alone, because it covers a greater range of human cognition, it has been subject to continued theological criticism and intellectual enquiry and it includes the experiences of those much more closely united to God than most of us are. (p. 217)
That statement bizarrely seems to undermine so much of his argument elsewhere in the book that it isn't exactly clear what he is really trying to say here. Or is this "wisdom of the faithful crowds" a sort of Wikipedia model for Christian theology? This would also seem to contradict what he says about the problem of repression against minority views, and it not particularly consistent with the fact that some of his own views are somewhat unconventional as far as Christian orthodoxy goes (he is essentially a universalist, for example, and he also offers his own take on Trinitarianism.)

Ward offers some powerful insights in this book, but in certain ways the book is disappointing. While I think he offers some powerful ideas at times, I also think that after having set up any attachment to a fixed orthodoxy as a potential target for questioning, he then at times seems too afraid to take his own advice and make the leap into territory that would actually question orthodox wisdom. Still, he is not dogmatic, and he treats his subject matter thoughtfully and intelligently, and in my view that counts for a lot. I would thus recommend the book, but with qualifications.

29 comments:

Matthew said...

>>Perhaps most disturbingly, at one point he seems to argue that the evolution of Christian doctrine should be a purely collective process, and that individuals should somehow defer to the collective wisdom of the Christian community as a whole rather then openly questioning these questions of theology for themselves...

"Such authority is greater than that of personal experience alone, because it covers a greater range of human cognition, it has been subject to continued theological criticism and intellectual enquiry and it includes the experiences of those much more closely united to God than most of us are." (p. 217)

That statement bizarrely seems to undermine so much of his argument elsewhere in the book that it isn't exactly clear what he is really trying to say here.<<

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So many concepts and ideas, and not enough connection with reality- truth. How can there ever be agreement on what it means to be Christian, or what Christianity, as a religion, is 'supposed to be'? Everyone has their understanding and reasons to support their claims. Judging. As long as people desire to figure things out for themselves, to take on God's role, they'll never find their way into his kingdom. Perhaps the person believes in 'teleology', some end result, a time when 'good' defeats 'evil'. What an interesting thought, bound up in an upheaving tradition.

A little faith goes a long way, and most people would rather trust their tradition, their works, their 'you name it', than have faith.

Matthew

Frank said...

"Progressive Jews look back on Jewish history and see that Judaism has evolved over four millennia, and that being able to adapt to changing circumstances has been the secret of Jewish survival." She offers this insight as a progressive Jew, as an example of perhaps what Anglicanism needs to consider for itself.

I really agree with this. I'm in the middle of Hans Hung's The Catholic Church: A Short History and a point of the book is to show how so many so-called time-honored traditions have a sketchier past than modern folks tend to believe. In other words, it might be easier to allow ourselves to reform if we realize we're not messing with a 2,000 year tradition handed down by Jesus himself, but maybe something that is only 200 years old.

Mystical Seeker said...

How can there ever be agreement on what it means to be Christian, or what Christianity, as a religion, is 'supposed to be'? Everyone has their understanding and reasons to support their claims.

Matthew, Good question. To me, it seems like a problem is that Christianity often defines religious faith in terms of assent to some set of propositions that everyone is supposed to agree on.

it might be easier to allow ourselves to reform if we realize we're not messing with a 2,000 year tradition handed down by Jesus himself, but maybe something that is only 200 years old.

Frank,

It is interesting how later developed practices become institutionalized.

Harry said...

Mystical, the required assent to certain propositions is a solution not a problem.

If everybody has their private notions of what Christianity is, then Christianity isn't anything. If you require assent to certain basic propositions, then Christianity is something.

Matthew said...

harry,

>>Mystical, the required assent to certain propositions is a solution not a problem. If you require assent to certain basic propositions, then Christianity is something.<<

What does "required assent' mean? If Pres. Bush assents to certain propositions, since he's considered by many to be the 'most powerful man' on the planet, does that work? Perhaps the pope's assent (and everyone who believes with him), or Britney Spears (and all her fans)...Bono(same)...Mel Gibson...the Dalai Lama...Oprah...Borg...Max Lucado...what if everyone in the world could agree to a specific proposition about Christianity, what then does Christianity mean?

Jesus was up against the 'separated, or pure ones (Pharisees) of Judaism in his time. All of their assent to certain basic propositions about Judaism didn't impress him very much. Why wasn't their assent seen as valuable by him?!

Matthew

Harry said...

Matthew,

If you can't assent and don't find such assent valuable, then fine, don't join.

Nobody is being burned at the stake these days.

Many of us find it valuable to be in a community that worships the same God together and struggles together for the same goals and in the same way.

I know you can't understand what a community of shared beliefs and struggles means, but at least try to respect our communities and don't try to undermine them.

Fair enough?

Matthew said...

harry

>>I know you can't understand what a community of shared beliefs and struggles means, but at least try to respect our communities and don't try to undermine them.<<

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

I disagree with your comment about what I understand. I do know what a community of shared beliefs is. Communities can be helpful, but they can also be detrimental.

Why do you judge me? And WHY DO YOU tell me what I understand?!

What difference should it make if I do or do not respect your communities? Are you giving me power over them?!

I don't need to undermine anything, reality will do that quite nicely. It always does. (I don't think it's up to me to decide ;)

Peace,
Matthew

Harry said...

When you participate in a thread called rethinking Christianity, I can only presume you intend to do away with Christianity as it is.

You have done plenty of judging, your first post claims that people who follow tradition lack faith!

Having judged others, you are now ready to be judged.

And Christianity has survived two thousand years of persecution. Your flabby attempts at "rethinking Christianity" are laughable.

JP said...

"To me, it seems like a problem is that Christianity often defines religious faith in terms of assent to some set of propositions that everyone is supposed to agree on. "

Actually, that is not a problem at all. Unity is what Jesus wanted. Without unity, you have schism, and with schism comes heresy, and with heresy you have what you see today with the likes of Borg and the Jesus Seminar folks : A make-do God. Believe what makes you comfortable.

Laughable indeed harry.

Frank said...

JP,

I would caution you to think for a minute about who may be making stuff up on the spot.

Where do you get the idea that Jesus wanted unity? And what kind of unity did he want? Brotherly love, or dogmatic likemindedness? It sounds like you are talking about "assent to some set of propositions." Jesus spoke in parables, that's not the language of someone who wants things understood in the black and white.

Harry said...

Jesus spoke in parables to the beginners. He explained the parables in detail to the Apostles.

From this teaching to the Apostles, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the utterly sublime and spiritually powerful Dogma was formed to lead us out of bondage into eternal life.

The Dogma is the most wonderful and precious gift we possess, given to us by God through His Son Jesus Christ.

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, one in essence and undivided.

Frank said...

Harry,

You are neglecting the evolution of dogma over time. Jesus did not hand down a list of dogmas fully worked out. It would have been easy to do so, but he didn't. Original sin is an Augustinian concept, purgatory comes through Gregory the Great and others, The divine/human nature of Jesus wasn't agreed till one of the Lateran Councils and let's not even start on Trinity. The Church existed without the New Testament also for a few hundred years, as books were added then subtracted and debates about canonicity were quite strong for quite a while.

For HUNDREDS of years, people had different propositions. Debate, dialogue, agreement & disagreement, dogmas & protest are just part of the game--just like we're doing now.

Thomas Aquinas was a heretic to some people, and today he's considered the pillar of orthodoxy. Today's heretics may be tomorrow's saints.

Just so you know--I'm not anti- dogma. But let's be clear about how it has changed over time.

Harry said...

First off, by dogma, I recognize only the pronouncements of the Seven Ecumenical councils. So "original sin" and purgatory are not dogmas, and neither concept is part of Orthodox Christianity.

The divine/human nature of Christ was proclaimed at the Council of Chalcedon, not a bogus Latern council, and it was defined not because the divine/human nature of Christ was questioned, but because of a dispute between the monophysites and the duophysites as to whether there were two seperate natures, one human and one divine, or one nature simultaneously human and divine.

The Trinity was implicitly accepted until Arius started teaching the Christ was a creature and not Uncreated. It had to be made explicit.

These dogmas are subtle, but essential. The promise of Christianity is that we will become, through Grace, what God is by essence. Or as it is sometimes put: God became Man so that Man may become God.

Any change to the Nicaean or Chalcedonian dogmas leads away from this central truth.


Dialogue and debate are futile activities: Truth is revealed, not debated.

Finally, Dogma has not changed, it has become more explicit, and dogma can only be defined by Ecumenical Councils, not by individuals such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, or the Pope.

As there has not been an ecumenical council since 787, dogma has not been declared since then.

Frank said...

Well, first, you are missing the point: I apologize if I got the name of a council wrong (I'll have to re-check my council names), but the point is that these dogmas have a history and an evolution. Trying to act like it was all implicit and then 700 years after Christ the Church just decided to make it official is a blatant skewing of history.

History involves debate. That's why the Church used the council format--because there is a belief that the Church coming together as a whole will be better in tune with hammering out theology than an individual acting on their own. The Church used the council BECAUSE of debate, not as a way to avoid it. It was also a way to come to a decision in the wake of peopel like Arius who were starting a debate that had an appeal to a lot of people.

Second, you are making pronouncement as to which councils and which dogmas you accept, and I'm not sure why that is necessary since you seem to think that "truth is revealed, not debated."

If dialogue and debate are futile, then why are we talking?

Mystical Seeker said...

History involves debate. That's why the Church used the council format--because there is a belief that the Church coming together as a whole will be better in tune with hammering out theology than an individual acting on their own. The Church used the council BECAUSE of debate, not as a way to avoid it. It was also a way to come to a decision in the wake of people like Arius who were starting a debate that had an appeal to a lot of people.

Exactly. Christianity during the fourth century was rent by deep divisions. To say that there were serious debates at the time is putting it mildly. There was outright violence, intimidation, and, after decisions were made, the suppression of dissent. The early church councils in that century were deeply political as much as they were theological.

Dogma is what the winners in these conflicts decide the orthodoxy to be, and the losers get labeled heretics. The winners then get to claim that their "truth" was revealed to them. It's all a very convenient charade.

Harry said...

Frank:

Apology accepted. But I think your going to have to get your council names right before you can accuse me of blatantly skewering history.

I have actually studied this history, and it my honest opinion that the Councils never invented any new dogma, but ratified what the true dogma was.

If you don't believe in divine revelation and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, then sure, the Dogma of the Church is just random and politically based. And I suppose you would then be justified to reshape Christianity to conform to your politcal preferences.

But I, through faith, know otherwise. When you live the Dogma you see how it works, how it is a seamless garment of exquisite beauty: not the result of political debate and compromise. Dogma is a gift leading to eternal life, not a the tool of political control you wish to make it for your own personal ends.

Mystical Seeker said...

How lucky for those Guardians of the Truth that their tactics were successful, that they managed to secure a majority vote at just the right times, and furthermore how luck all of Christianity is that they then used their muscle and their connection with the secular Roman authority to suppress dissenting views.

I guess if one thinks that God somehow controls the outcomes of these events to make sure that the correct beliefs prevail, somehow magically changing through Divine power just enough people's minds such that Arianism managed to get fewer votes at just the right time in history, then it is easy to say that it was all God's doing. I'm sure that the victims of repression by the winning side throughout Christian history will be happy to hear that God was behind the suppression of their viewpoints. But then, those who engage in theological repression have always claimed to have God on their side, haven't they?

Frank said...

Harry, you're going to have to do better to discredit someone than on a technicality of nomenclature. My point still stands and you haven't answered it.

Its good that you, "through faith" know the truth. How wonderful it would be if truth were so well understood. I guess its a problem is my faith leads me to one set of udnerstanding and yours leads you to another. I guess that's quite a pickle, huh?

I think it is interesting that you feel that revealed truth does not involve debate, yet here we sit... debating. Are you suggesting you "get it" better than anyone else? There are lots of people who share that attitude--fundamentalists, cultists, etc.

I actually believe in churches having dogmas. Dogmas are not very popular these days, but they have a place: For example, if the entire church in a faith tradition comes together to affirm a particular set of ideas, then that carries some weight in my book.

Its like the blind men and the elephant, discussed on this blog before. The more people touching the elephant, the better an image you can come to. This is why the quest for religious truth has to involve community and is not best served by an individual acting by themselves. The dogmas in my book are not rigid legalisms, but the handed down sketch of the elephant and should be taken seriously.

Harry said...

Frank:

I don't know that I'll have to do better. It was not a technicality of nomenclature but a mistake of historical fact.

You made a historical claim that dogma has changed. I made a historical claim it hasn't.

You made a fairly serious mistake about the history of dogma.

I have studied the history and made a judgement that dogma has not changed. I invite anyone interested to study the history for themselves (by reading the source documents, not modern writers like Borg or Pagels who spin the history to satisfy personal political preferences).

I am confident that an unbiased reading will lead to the same conclusion I came to.

Why should anyone trust you judgement about a history about which you don't know much about.

It is not a pickle for me. Your faith is one of your own invention. So long as you don't try to foist your invented faith on unsuspecting Christians (by Rethinking Christianity") I have no problem.

What we are debating is not revealed truth, but history. It is certainly OK to debate history, at least if you have a basic understanding of the facts.

And those blind men and the elephant will never do as good a job as a single sighted man who sees the Elephant when the scales are lifted from his eyes.

It is my faith that Christian Dogma is the product of such sighted men.

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Mystical:

And you accused me of being cynical!

Yes, the fourth century was a wild ride. Fortunately the truth won out over the politicians, and Athanasius fought through the suppression to quell the heresies.

If you actually read the history of the forth century you would know that several Emperors supported the Arians against Athanasius.

The heretics are the politicians. The Saints are the theologians. Sometimes the politicians win for a while, but the Saints prevail.

Yes, Mystical, if you don't believe in revealed truth it is all a big charade.

If you don't believe in revealed truth than it is all an exercise in Nietzche's "WILL TO POWER", and the Old Man of the Mountain was right:

NOTHING IS TRUE. EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED.

Do you really not believe in revealed truth?

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Kontakion in the Second Tone

Having planted the dogmas of Orthodoxy, thou didst cut out the thorns of false doctrine; and with the rain of the Spirit, thou didst increase the seed of the Faith, Wherefore, we praise thee, O righteous Athanasius.

Frank said...

Harry,

The claim that revealed truth requires no debate does stand up to a test of common sense. So then why the councils? Why did the many councils have many drafts that had to be continuously written then re-written and voted on? Why the debates? Why are theologians writing about it? If it is so obvious as to not require debate, then this should be a lot easier.

Why did early Christians argue vehemently for and against the inclusion of Revelations into the canon if the recognition of revealed truth is so easy? Why were Paul, James and Peter locking horns all the time? Their debate is shown in the New Testament.

Unless you want to play the "my faith is better than your faith" game. In such a game, reason has no bearing, and its just your subjective version of reality versus someone else. You know best, and there can be no argument because you have a direct line to truth and anyone who disagrees with you doesn't. And then you have the nerve to accuse other theologians of bending truth to suit an agenda.

It is my understanding that even many ultraconservative Catholics are under no delusions about the fact that dogmas evolve over time.

Mystical Seeker said...

Fortunately the truth won out over the politicians, and Athanasius fought through the suppression to quell the heresies.

Yes, he certainly did "quell" the so-called "heresies", if suppression of dissenting views is what you use that quaint word "quell" to describe. Either you are in denial about the fact that the Roman Empire used its might to enforce Athanasius's orthodoxy, or else you think that it's okay to suppress "heresy" because when you have the "revealed truth" you don't have to bother with tolerating diversity of opinion.

If you don't believe in revealed truth than it is all an exercise in Nietzche's "WILL TO POWER"

Nice use of simplistic either-or thinking there. Of course, whose "revealed truth" are we talking about? Oh yeah, that's right--the one you happen to be in possession of. Funny how that works.

Mystical Seeker said...

You know best, and there can be no argument because you have a direct line to truth and anyone who disagrees with you doesn't.

That does seem to be his position in a nutshell. He is in possession of this "revealed truth", which of course is absolutely true and cannot be questioned because it is revealed from on high.

Mystical Seeker said...

Another interesting thing about this "revealed truth" nonsense is the point that I raised earlier, namely there is an implicit assumption that God somehow insures that the correct opinion always prevails in the debates and disputes that take place within the community of faith. How this takes place exactly is not explained. Since there is rarely unanimity of doctrinal belief (and in fact throughout Christian history there has been consider difference of opinion, going back to the very beginning when Paul and Peter had it out), God apparently doesn't try to use his Divine mind control on every faithful person in order to get them to think the right way--he just makes sure enough of them do, or at least the ones who have the power to make the final decisions or enforce them. How the Holy Spirit makes some (but not all) people have the right opinions, and how the Holy Spirit makes sure that the right ones in particular do, is not explained. Yet somehow it all works out in the end and the right point of view always prevails.

The circular reasoning behind this is basically that the winning position is right because it won; and the reason it won was because it was right, and the reason it was right was because it won, and the reason it won was because...

Frank said...

Mystical,

That circular reasoning you mention is quite at odds with someone like Aquinas, who argued for the necessity of both faith and reason.

Mystical Seeker said...

Frank,

Fair enough. I believe in faith and reason as well. :)

Mystical Seeker said...

Here's a quote from Delwin Brown's "What Does a Progressive Christian Believe" that I like:

On important theological and practical matters, the Bible embraces difference. Partly for this very reason, Christians today differ in theology, modes of life, and decisions about human relationships. Acceptance of diversity, however, does not mean indifferent relativism. If there are not perfect ways to love God and neighbor, in each circumstance some ways are far better than others. But diversity remains, and it should. Continuing diversity in the Church and in the human community seems to be the means by which the incarnate God restrains our longing for absolute perspectives and the arrogance they always engender. Differences provoke us to seek the better ways and prod us to do so in humility.

By the way, when he says "incarnate God", he is talking about God's immanence in general.

Matthew said...

Whose dogma is the correct one ;)

Why don't we continue what has 'worked' for approximately the last 2000 years, shall we? Let's each choose our favorite, then argue and kill each other over who gets to promote theirs (and claim God supports their cause)! Pitiful, don't you think?

Have you heard of the fellow who drew crowds...he had a very simple message, 'Repent, for God's kingdom is at hand!'

Why don't dogmas focus on this message, instead of trying to wring every detail out about who the crowd gathering guy was?

Dogmas remind me of what the Pharisees were promoting. That 'crowd gathering' fellow was at odds with them ABOUT their focus! He said they held the keys to God's kingdom, but didn't enter themselves and kept everyone else from entering. Sounds like trouble!

Love one another,
Matthew

Harry said...

Frank:

I am not playing the "my faith is better than your faith" game. I am playing the Christian faith once delivered to the Saints is better than your faith game.

I don't have a direct line to Truth, the Church does. And the proof can be found in the Lives of the Saints. Here is one of my favorite stories: Father Arseny and Alexei have been sent to punishment cell for two days in a Siberian GULAG where the temperature was -22F.


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"We are here all alone, Alexei; for two days no one will come. We will pray. For the first time God has allowed us to pray aloud in this camp, with our full voice. We will pray and the rest is God's will!" The cold was gradually conquering Alexei and he was sure that Father Arseny was losing his mind. Making the sign of the cross and quietly pronouncing some words, Father Arseny stood in the ray of moonlight. Alexei's hands and feet were numbed by the cold; he had no strength in his limbs. He was freezing and no longer cared.

Father Arseny was silent now, and suddenly Alexei heard Father Arseny's words clearly, and understood that this was a prayer. Alexei had been in church only once, out of curiosity. Although his grandmother had baptized him when he was a child, his family did not believe in God. They simply had no interest in religious matters. They did not know what faith really was. Alexei himself was a student, a member of the Komsomol. How could he believe?

Through the numbness and the pain from the blows he had received, Alexei could clearly hear the words that Father Arseny was saying: "O Lord God, have mercy on us sinners! Ever-merciful God! Lord Jesus Christ who because of Thy love became man to save us all. Through Thine unspeakable mercy save us, have mercy on us and lead us away from this cruel death, because we do believe in Thee, Thou our God and our Creator." And so the words of prayer poured forth, and in each of these words lay the deepest love and trust in God's mercy, and unconditional faith in Him.

Alexei started listening to the words of the prayer. At first he was perplexed, but gradually he began to comprehend. The prayer calmed his soul, took away the fear of death, and united him with the old man standing beside him.

"O, Lord our God, Jesus Christ! Thou didst say with Thy purest lips that if two or three agree to ask for the same thing, then Thy Heavenly Father will grant their prayer because, as Thou didst say, 'When two or three are gathered in my name, I am among them.' " Alexei was repeating these words after Father Arseny.

The cold had taken over Alexei completely; his entire body was numb. He no longer knew whether he was standing, sitting, or lying down. But suddenly the cell, the cold, the numbness of his whole body, his pain from the blows he had received and his fear all disappeared. Father Arseny's voice filled the cell, but was it a cell? Alexei turned to Father Arseny and was stunned. Everything around had been transformed. An awful thought came: "I am losing my mind, this is the end, I am dying."

. . .

Lying on the floor at Father Arseny's feet, Alexei listened, half-asleep, to the beautiful words of the prayer. Father Arseny prayed, and the two others in bright garments prayed with him and served him. They seemed amazed at how Father Arseny could pray. Father Arseny no longer asked for anything, he only glorified God and thanked Him. How long all this lasted no one could say.

The only things that remained in Alexei's memory were the words of the prayer, a warming and joyful light, Father Arseny praying, the two others in clothes of light, and an enormous, incomparable feeling of inner renewing warmth.

Somebody struck the door, the frozen lock squealed, and voices could be heard from the outside of the cell. Alexei opened his eyes. Father Arseny was still praying. The two in garments of light blessed him and Alexei and slowly left. The blinding light was fading and the cell at last became dark and, as before, cold and gloomy.

"Get up, Alexei! They have come for us," said Father Arseny.

"Come out!" shouted one of the supervisors. Father Arseny and Alexei walked out of the cell. The supervisors removed their gloves and started frisking them. The doctor also removed a glove, put it under Father Arseny's and then Alexei's clothing and, to nobody in particular, said, "Amazing! How could they have survived? It's true, though; they're warm." The doctor walked into the cell, looked around it and asked, "What kept you warm?"

"Our faith in God, and prayer," Father Arseny answered.

------------------------

Frank said...

I am not playing the "my faith is better than your faith" game. I am playing the Christian faith once delivered to the Saints is better than your faith game.

I don't have a direct line to Truth, the Church does.


Harry, I'm quite familiar with your viewpoint. The word "reactionary" applies, and I hate to use labels but it is appropriate in this case to illustrate a point: A reactionary viewpoint imagines a past that never existed.

Your idea that dogmas have been static through time is an obvious example. Starting with the Bible and the various perspectives on Christology in it, for example, you see that the Christian community--like all community--is one of human relationship--which involves dialogue, debate, etc. The consensus of modern scholarship overwhelmingly supports the notion that the biblical authors were all over the board on this one. That debate did not end in the pages of the Bible, but it continued in the letters of the Church Fathers and it continues through time and in this blog today.

I just had a professor who has a reactionary viewpoint, as well. She had no shame in declaring some things as "Truth" and other things as false. It was really her own interpretation of Church tradition and dogmas, though. However, she would always hide behind the same statement as you: "Its not my opinion, it is the Church's!" But yet it was her opinion. And being a Catholic in the scholastic tradition, despite having a similar attitude as you, you both would disagree on many points. A lot of people claim to have a line to absolute truth, and yet they don't agree with each other.

The desire for absolutes is very understandable. Religion is very scary, and a world without a known absolute truth can be terrifying when you consider the implications. It can turn otherwise intelligent people into illogical people supporting claims that have little substance, with a fierceness that can turn them ugly.

Yet, that is the territory of faith. Faith is not about knowing the absolute facts but in having trust. Jesus bid us to be not afraid because I believe he knew the dangers that fear can cause. Look what happened in his own life when he preached a message that upset the apple cart of absolutes that people held in his day.

In addition, your line "once delivered to the saints" implies a religion where all the action was done in the past, and it does not open the door for a living relationship with God in the present.