Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Testing some heresies ~ Part 1: Faulty Towers

Preface:

In my last entry I alluded to some unorthodox views about Christianity that I have recently found which I find highly enticing. In the next couple entries I'm going to attempt to articulate why they make so much sense to me. After I'm done with this series I am going to do my best to debunk these arguments to see if I can find myself back in agreement with tradition. (And thus, stay within the good graces of my spiritual leaders within the church.)

In my last entry I talked about the anxiety I've felt over this process. In my mind, the stakes are high. I'm very mindful about the word picture Jesus painted for those who teach others falsehood. I'm not excited about tying a millstone around my neck and jumping into the ocean. I'm not happy about risking my family's souls because of the way I feel. On the other hand, I can't very well parrot teachings to them that I no longer believe. It may well be the case, that after thoroughly examining the claims of these heresies, I end up back where I began. But it may not. The one thing I take comfort in is the fact that God put in me a real desire to seek Him and His Truth. I believe that my soul will not be satisfied with anything less.

Let me quickly say what these heretical ideas do NOT include. They do not include discarding any part of the Bible or accepting any additional material as Truth. They do not include changing my behavior, adding or subtracting rules, or making me love anyone less. They do not include joining any sort of group, giving money to anyone, or accepting the word of someone as a prophet. They do not include any way to salvation other than Jesus Christ. They do not include any secret information that is only available to a select few. They do not include a redefinition of God as He is revealed in the Bible.

I also want to state up front that while I love these ideas, I'm not going for them hook, line and sinker until I have tested and tried them to the fullest of my abilities. I'm not teaching them to my kids or anyone else. In the following entries I will be advocating them, but I will not be in my daily life until I have God's assurance that I am not harming anyone by them.

This process reminds me a lot of my decision to marry Heather. I was very aware of the devastating effect marrying the wrong woman would have on my family. So I approached it with a lot of council, prayer, and trepidation. I looked for signs that it was right or wrong. I listened to my soul. (And presumably what God was saying to me.) Well, I think that process paid off in spades. (I have no idea what that term means but I'm pretty sure it's good.) I married an amazing woman who is so perfect for me it's spooky. She is an amazing mother despite her doubts and frustrations, and she loves me and supports me in ways I didn't even know I needed. So since that process worked with one life-changing, potentially devastating situation, I'm confident that it will work with this one as well.

In this first part I'm going to explain why I am able to consider these heretical ideas despite my upbringing that taught me not to ignore the church's theologies.

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I picture Christian theologies as towers made of rocks. We take our verses or passages that we consider holy and inspired by God, and cobble them together in the best way possible, leaving as few holes as possible. We step back, look at what we've built, and call it doctrine. We end up with things that are not specifically mentioned in the Bible, but that, logically, seem to be the best way to assemble the rocks. Things like the Trinity. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There are verses that clearly describe them as having the same attributes such as omniscience, omnipotence, etc. (Well, God and Jesus anyhow… I'm not sure how God's spirit got lumped into it as a person rather than just, well, God's spirit.) Yet it's clear that God wants us to know Him as a single entity. I've always wondered why we assume that there are only 3 parts to God. Yes, He has revealed 3 (or 2) to us. But why do we assume that God has shown us all that there is of Him? And why did Jesus repeatedly say that God was greater than Him, and He couldn't do anything without the Father, yet God the Father never said the same about Jesus? Well, that's not the point of this.

Anyway, back to my tower analogy. Everyone has biases. Everyone was taught what they know by people with biases. Everyone wants God to be what they desire Him to be like. So they find verses that support their view and fit them together in a way that makes them happy. The problem is that there are so many verses to choose from that it's difficult to keep them all coherently informing your thoughts as you build your tower. So a lot of rocks get left out of your tower. People who like the thought of a vengeful, angry God Who smites their enemies have plenty of rocks to use, but overlook the ones that don't fit their thought. Same with the people who want a lovey-dovey, peace-and-flower's God Who would only bless everyone. I've never been content with most of the theologies I've heard. I've always felt that they left out too many rocks. Too many scriptures that -according to our beliefs- hold just as much truth as the ones they are using.

Now here is where things get tricky. Our 'rocks' are not the same rocks that were around 2,000 or 3,000 years ago. They have a lot of sediment build-up, or corrosion from time. Why? Because the Bible has gone through so many translations (corrosion of the original idea), and because so many verses have had doctrines built around them. (sediment adding more weight than was originally intended.) We here in America, reading our NIV or King James Bibles really have a heck of a time fitting all our oblong, misshapen rocks together. As a result, I think we have a lot of pendulous, precarious towers built of verses that didn't quite mean what everyone thought they did.

A good example of this can be found in the modern television evangelist sphere. They have created a culture that has incubated this incredibly stupid doctrine of prosperity that contradicts the vast majority of scripture. They preach that when you give enough money, time, etc. to God, (Or by proxy: them.) He WILL bless you financially in order for the world to see your blessings and want what you have. Never mind that entire quarry of stones over there that say our life as Christians WILL be difficult. That we WILL be tested with fire from God. That we should expect suffering and persecution. No. They have focused on the rocks they like so much that they myopically build their theological tower out of far too few stones. And it WILL come crashing down around them.

I want to talk about the condition of the rocks in my analogy. I'm beginning to think that our building material needs a really good examination. I think the core of each stone is solid, and is truth. But I mentioned two conditions that afflict the rocks we are working with. Build-up, and corrosion. Build-up occurs when a verse is taken from its context and cemented to other verses to form a theological premise. At that point, when we look at the rock by itself we can't help but think about the other rocks attached to it. Even when we break it off, it still has bits of cement and pieces of other rocks stuck to it. Here is a classic example of two verses cemented together that formed a doctrine.

Isaiah 14:12 How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!

Luke 10:18 He replied, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven".

There you have it. Satan used to be an angel named Lucifer and he went bad and got kicked out of heaven where he has been wreaking havoc ever since. Most Christians can't read one of those verses without thinking of the other. Never mind the context of each of these verses is completely different. Never mind that Isaiah was clearly talking about a Babylonian king. (All you have to do is read the verses around it to see that.) And never mind that Jesus was painting a congratulatory analogy for his apostles after they came back to Him rejoicing over the power He had given them to cast out demons. Never mind that 1 John 3:8 says Satan "sins from the beginning."

That's what I mean by build-up. The residue of other verses, stuck together incorrectly has rendered those verses difficult to evaluate and use correctly. One has to chip away all the incorrect associations before they can incorporate those stones into their tower properly.

Another kind of build up that occurs is sediment. The sediment of our traditional understanding of scripture and the traditions of men. Where do we see the idea of a church building in the Bible? Where do we see any political activity endorsed? How about spending tens of thousands of dollars to send a small group of teenagers from your church to Africa where they will spend a week "helping", instead of just sending the tens of thousands of dollars to the Christians who are already over there struggling for every scrap they have? Sure, if you poke around in the Bible enough you can find snippets of verses to support that stuff, if you interpret it the way you want. But I've seen vegetarians, communists, and homosexuals do the same thing. If you don't approach the Bible holistically, you can't claim it as authoritative.

Then there is the corrosion. And this is a really tough issue to deal with since it involves so many fields of expertise. I have to sadly admit that I am unilingual. But I have read that when anything is translated from one language to another it is impossible to make it have the exact meaning that it did in the original. There are some words that have exact matches, but for the most part there are shades of difference between them. Then there is the problem of analogies, euphemisms, and a dozen other forms of writing that subsist wholly on using words that don't mean what they normally mean.

Since the King James Version of the Bible was an Olde English translation of a Latin translation of Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew words you can imagine the difficulties involved with keeping true to the words that God spoke into ancient Greek, Aramaic or Hebrew speaking minds.

The King James Bible was translated at a time when Christendom had many, many established traditions and had become a world super-power. The translators were looking at Latin text from hundreds of years earlier and applying their filters of established church doctrine to the work. King James was THE established publication of the Bible for a long time, so the ideas in it had a lot of time to build momentum, further instantiating these traditions and theologies, embedding them not only in the texts, but in the minds of countless theologians, writers, priests, pastors, etc. For example, I read that the word "eternity" or "eternal" do not exist in Greek or Hebrew. But it does in Latin. So whichever Latin speaking scribe that translated all those verses about eternal life, or eternal fire, made a judgment call. This has to happen all the time when translation occurs. But suppose the Greek word, "aionios" never meant eternal or carried its connotation. But church teaching has embedded the idea of eternity in the head of the translator so well that they justify translating it as such due to a belief in the perfection of church teaching. Well if that was the case, you would find a huge shift away from the original meaning of the text, and every reader from that point on would learn and teach and enforce doctrine based on a misinterpretation.

But this particular scenario begs the question of why the founding fathers of the church, who were Greek speakers, would develop theology that includes eternal punishment or reward if such concepts are not found in the text. The answer I have seen is the milieu which they inhabited. The Greco-Roman culture which was heavily influenced by Egyptian mythology ends up leaking into the church in all sorts of ways. You can see this with the word Hades, which is universally used to translate the Hebrew word Sheol. Jesus talks about Hades and Gehenna which His disciples translate in the Gospels (Probably from Aramaic to Koine Greek so who knows what the actual, specific words He used were.), John talks about Hades, but were they referring to the underworld according to Greek myth guarded by Cerberus and holding Elysian Fields and Tartarus? Clearly their teachings contradict these myths in every way conceivable. But using the word Hades automatically brings with it the baggage of Greek myth. So while John may have understood the limited meaning of the word as the closest facsimile to what he was communicating, later readers could easily misunderstand exactly what elements of Hades he was referencing. A modern corollary would be a Christian preaching in a Muslim area, using the word Allah instead of God. Well, which aspects of Allah is the missionary referencing? Allah/God who created the universe? Allah/God who spoke to Abram and changed his name? Allah/God who spoke to Mohammad and ordered him to go around killing people? Clearly the missionary would not be using that last connotation.

But would readers of the Gospels a hundred years later be so clear about what aspects of Hades are, and are not implied by the use of the word? What if they built doctrine about hell based on a misunderstanding about the use of the word Hades? This is the kind of thing I'm talking about when I say our towers of theology have stones with a lot of corrosion. There are a lot of what-ifs and who-knows, and the consequences of turning the shade of meaning of a single word can have massive effects on the stability of the tower.

What this all comes down to for me, is that I don't see a need to be slavishly bound to traditional church doctrine. I see a need to be slavishly bound to God and His revealed Word. It would seem safer to stay within the bounds of what others have figured out over the course of 2,000 years; to sit safely in one of these towers built upon the thoughts and ideas of millions of Christians. But I'm feeling more and more uneasy about the workmanship of these towers. You see, I really don't trust man and his workmanship. I don't have a lot of faith in giant organizations. They are great for keeping things stable. But if they are keeping a wrong thing stable, I don't want to be there when the wind and the waves come.

But what other option do I have? Do I build my own tower? Do I ignore the weight of thousands of brilliant Christians' ideas? Do I say that MY feelings on the matter trump all the tower-building that went on before me? If that was the case, there would be only one explanation: I have been chosen. Not in a Golden Child sense, as though I have merited favor from God so He blessed me with some brilliant insight. No, it would be more like: He put a heart in me that couldn't bear the way that traditional church doctrine demeans Him. He put fiery experiences in my life that taught me that my old understanding of Him was wrong.

OR. Or I'm just chasing a blasphemous doctrine because it sounds right to me. I pray that God will burn away any desire I have to believe anything wrong about Him or His will for my life. I pray that He will dampen my enthusiasm for anything that is not of Him. And mostly I pray that He will mold me into the best spiritual leader for my family that I can be.

Coming up next: My 3-fold attack on traditional church doctrine! Who will win? (God. He always wins.)

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

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11:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reason you're struggling is based on your approach. The first christians didn't go to their bible, find verses and build a world view out of them. Rather, the apostles taught and appointed other teachers who taught. Later, some of these teachings were written. Often to deal with a specific situation. These writings became a compendium of belief, but weren't the sole basis of the belief.
If the beliefs truly need cleansing, the Holy spirits hasn't done a very good job guiding his church throughout the centuries.

1:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rather, the apostles taught and appointed other teachers who taught. Later, some of these teachings were written. Often to deal with a specific situation. These writings became a compendium of belief, but weren't the sole basis of the belief.If the beliefs truly need cleansing, the Holy spirits hasn't done a very good job guiding his church throughout the centuries.

Well.. if that isn't a huge miscomunicaion just waiting to happen, I don't know what is. It's like the telephone game. Ever played? Wow.

11:21 PM  

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