I received an email from a very close friend “Little Shoes” (LS) today, which read, in part, as follows:
I … would really love love love to discuss with you in some fashion what you’ve come to as to spiritual ‘doctrines’. I know you’ve said it’s been a journey, and that it’s a bit of a departure from the Calvary teachings [e.g., those of the church LS currently attends and I attended for 16 years]. I don’t personally consider that a bad thing at all — we’ve really done quite a bit of journeying ourselves too … starting … shortly after we were married. It really made me aware there was much about the history of the Church that I was unfamiliar with. So, when you’ve mentioned possibly going into the ministry, I’ve really wanted to hear more about what your beliefs are at this point. I know you’ve mentioned it, but I can’t remember the specific denomination that you’re a member of … but since I don’t consider deominations to be the full definition of a person’s beliefs, I would love to hear more from you.
Unsurprisingly, my reply was so long-winded that Facebook (the venue wherein LS sent the email) didn’t allow it. I had to break it up into thirds. Here, somewhat edited, are the second and third parts of my reply to my friend.
* * *
I have been reading a book on the Inquisition, and so, given my ginormous theological transformation, have decided to attend a Halloween party as a heretic. Yeah, giant yellow “cross of infamy” on the front and back of my clothing. Maybe I’ll even sport the dunce cap.
My beliefs have changed radically. But the primary thing to me is not *what* you believe, but *whether* you love like Christ. I believe a Christian is defined by how she goes about bringing heaven here to earth, which, after all, is what Jesus meant when he talked about the kingdom of heaven being within us. I believe we can either extend the boundaries of hell by making life hell or we can expand heaven. It is very difficult (contrary to the right-wing mocking tendencies against “love is all you need” people like me) to *act* from love, to actualize the kingdom of heaven. If we focus on doing unto others, loving our enemies, living grace, and dignifying God’s creation (all of his creation) by being good stewards and good neighbors, then I believe the dogmas we personally affirm are beside the point.
Yes, some things are true and others aren’t, but the boundaries of what these are have been fuzzy since the beginning, and there were many powerful Christians who carefully studied, for example, First Clement (a letter I strongly recommend every Christian read) and Gospels never seen by us. God is bigger than our congresses and conventions. Thus, it seems better to me 1) to follow the teaching of Paul (in the uncontested early letters, since they were the very first documents (of those we have) written), and to take them *not* in the light of the canonical Gospels (again, written before them), looking rather at his powerful understanding of grace and egalitarianism (that was ardently *not* supported by the writers of the pastoral epistles, for example).
Then I believe we should 2) follow the *teachings* of Jesus as presented by the Gospel writers. Yes, I put this second even though I put Jesus first, but I do this because I am convinced that since each Gospel writer had a different doctrinal stance and specific purpose in writing his story, we need to filter the gospels in light of Paul, not vice versa, which leads to confusion and psychotically mind-twisting claims like “we believe in relationship, not religion” so long as you follow the correct dogma and baptismal style and liturgy (even if it be terribly informal and accompanied by electric guitars). Point is, the drastically different (and legitimate) agendas of each of the writers, when one tries to reconcile them, causes much confusion. If we wish to get back to the earliest understanding (that we have) of Christianity, then, we must begin with Paul.
I am also convinced that the Bible is infallible, but *not* inerrant. I’m using the terms as defined by the church elders who wrote the first creeds. I believe the Bible is infallible to lead people to God, but not without contradiction or “factual error” (though, the notion of “factual error” is utterly incoherent, as I will explain). This inerrancy belief arose only in the late 1800s, as a response to Darwinian discoveries. It arose from the Enlightenment belief that anything “mythic” cannot possibly be *true*, whereas before the scientific revolution, truth was understand to be much larger, not limited to mere scientific facts, but including also principles and so on. Much of the Bible was written to convey mythos, not fact. The two creation stories, for example (one making humans first, the other making humans last), were never understood as factually true until a century ago. They are intended to demonstrate God’s relation to us, to show us our role in creation. The error of taking poetry as fact is perhaps more readily acceptable *as* an error when we consider that Milton’s “Paradise Lost” is the source of the notions of an apple, of Eve seeking Adam out, and of the specific names and hierarchical ranks of demons. Milton wrote the story as a study in human nature, not to convey facts of hell and the garden. So, too, the early mythos writers were recording for Israel their cultural roots and their specific relation to God.
Other things that aren’t scientific or measured in terms of fact, but nonetheless are truth-related: Ethics. Poetry. Art. Music. Love. Anything of the spirit, really.
In short, I believe human beings wrote the Bible, expressing as best they could how they related to and understood the ineffability of God and God’s love of us. It is when we misunderstand mythos as fact that we come up with contradictions as worrisome. And we tragically lose the power of the stories and their deeply profound truth when we obsess over where Noah’s ark is or how long a creation day was. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we live as Christ, that we follow the teachings of Jesus and love the world into heaven. After this, doctrine is incidental.
My mom used to say we’d all be surprised at who was right and who was wrong when we face God. I believe this is profoundly true, and that we should focus rather on being Christlike rather than picking at each other’s eyes. Even heresy, as defined by wee little humans, might turn out to be right. Only God knows. But we can know Christians by fruit, and it says that the fruit of the spirit is Love (which is manifested in joy, peace, longuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, and so on).
Finally, I believe it profoundly important that we realize that the adversary of faith is not doubt, but certainty. You don’t need to trust (because faith is trust, not blind adherence to a belief set some community endorses) if you are certain. You *do* need to trust, even more so, when you are in doubt. Doubt tests, proves faith *as* faith. You never have to walk in faith if you know everything. And it seems to me that the certainty required by groups like Calvary (even though I love these people) hinders many opportunities for faith and limits the growth of people in depth, since it is so afraid of doubt. Dostoevsky wrote that one *must* doubt if one were to grow spiritually and authentically. But much of Christianity is terrified that doubt will cause people to leave the accepted belief set, so we are not allowed to think for ourselves (consider the Inquisition and contemporary admonitions of sinful minds—like the many times my questions as a child or teen were met with accusation of “rebellion, which is witchcraft!”). Doubt is our friend, always keeping the door open to truth, since it forbids us to rest on something we believe forever, refusing ever to consider ourselves mistaken. Doubt is the opponent of pride, since this refusal to question ourselves is merely a manifestation of a belief that we *cannot* possibly hold a false belief. And pride, even (perhaps especially) epistemological pride, is the root of all cruelty in the name of God, the root of murders in Jesus’ name, the root of us-vs-them behaviors like church splits, antisemitism, jingoism, internecine vitriol, and war.
Perhaps by this time, you won’t be surprised if I don’t give you my personal beliefs on the Trinity, heaven as an “out there” place, the literal existence of hell, and so on. I do have specific beliefs on these issues, but I don’t think they are what matters at the core of Christianity. What matters is love, and how we treat our neighbor, and how we care for the world with which we’ve been entrusted. And good Lord, that’s enough to keep us busy for a lifetime, both in action and in meditation regarding what our individual responsibilities are.
I am a member of the United Methodist Church right now (though will transfer my membership to the United Church of Canada when I move). I heartily endorse what has come to be called Wesley’s “quadrilateral,” that is, his claim that what we believe should be *equally* determined by 1) scripture, 2) personal experience, 3) tradition, and 4) reason. “Sola scriptura” leads to bizarre cults, especially when reason is banished as so corrupt as to be unreliable. God gave us our minds. Tradition gives us perspective as to where things have come from, what errors we have overcome, and how much bigger God is than our current worldview. And personal experience keeps us from becoming nothing more than intellectual assentors, or ivory tower theologians instead of in-the-world living-it-daily Christians.
It is a sad, sad thing that places like Calvary teach that mainline denominations are “dead,” especially when I see such powerful community work, love, and devotion here. Of course, this comes from the focus on correct doctrine (orthodoxy) as far more important than correct action (orthopraxy). Sure, the mainline churches may not have electric guitars, Vineyard praise songs, and highly emotional music for a half an hour before the hour- (and-a-half-) long sermon. Sure, they follow the lectionary. But they love. And, unlike the majority of so-called “non-denominational” Christians, they have the apostle’s creed committed to memory and know what it means. Dead, indeed. It’s all wordsmithing, marking those we don’t like with negative connotations. Fallacy of emotional language, you know. If we were to truly judge by fruits, we’d see many of the so-called “dead” churches ministering to the homeless, actually letting them into their own homes, feeding the hungry with weekly meals, offering free healthcare to the uninsured, and teaching the unemployed skills to gain jobs. (Oh, and that’s just here at Trinity [the local church I currently participate in].)
But the fruits of the “orthodox” and “real” Christians (i.e., those that groups like Calvary accept)? Mission trips to faraway places, intended to minister to others who have the same belief set, or to make those who don’t believe as we do believe as we do. Sometimes nifty shows are offered to encourage people to listen to us. And sometimes we take care of their needs, but usually only as a means to get them to believe as we do. But if they never change their minds? Well, we’ll feel bad, but just let them “go to hell” (that is, we won’t actualize heaven by unconditional love, by lovingly caring for them without expecting any belief change).
And sermons from “real” Christian pulpits? What love? We sneer at, mock, judge those who are so stupid as to not see and unquestioningly accept what we do, and we joyfully anticipate a worldwide genocide that will usher in the final days when the bad guys will all be tortured and the good guys will get to judge them openly. Woo hoo! In fact, every year, we thrill to attend a five-hour-long service where all the minutiae of latest world events are sifted, filtered and examined to see exactly how soon this holocaust will come and the ones we love to hate get their comeuppance!
Yes, I’m sarcastic here, but only because I’m deeply ashamed. Apocalyptic thinking keeps us from everyday loving. What if we spent New Year’s Eve out on the streets, offering clean needles and hope instead of sitting segregated in our auditoriums alternately singing ourselves into emotional delerium and daydreaming about a third of the planet being destroyed? What if we spent our meditation time seeking out our personal responsibility to love our neighbor (and all the sacrifice and hard work that entails), instead of doing a careful Strong’s word study on some arcane conjugation that we can put down before we go off to our content little lives? What if we actually loved our neighbors?
It was, after all, those who focused on love and piety instead of dogma who were slaughtered in the second wave of the Inquisition. It never fails: jealousy and shame are masked and suppressed by violence and vitriol. Then it was the Inquisition, now it is blind and unwitting self-righteousness and misplaced focus. Mark me with the yellow cross.