Heterodox Aftershocks 10: Faith, Hope and Love
I used to know my place in the universe by my doctrine. I felt secure because I knew I was right. I knew I was right because I was surrounded by those who agreed with me. How much I felt I was absolutely right about has changed. Why? Because I find it presumptuous to believe that I, (or my religious subculture) out of deafening roar of the multitudinous past, have heard and believed the Pure Truth. When I survey Christendom’s history I find so much variety in doctrine, attitude, works, and form that I find it unintentionally humorous when I hear or read my fellow evangelicals make huge, sweeping statements based on the proposition that they, out of all Christendom, are the ones who got it right. We are ready and willing to argue our interpretation of scripture and God down to the jot and tittle with our last breath, because to do less would be to compromise the Gospel, right? Yet we claim – at least most of us do – that we are not sectarians. We claim that the rest of Christendom has a less accurate, but still sufficient, understanding of God.
And this leaves me wondering: What are the essential doctrines? Lewis states in the preface to Mere Christianity that he knew he could not please all branches of Christendom with his definition of ‘mere’ Christianity. Because while some say certain issues are ancillary to the core of the Gospel, others would argue that they are absolutely foundational. A while ago our home group did an exercise where we tried to distil our conception of Christianity to the bare essentials. “What does one need to believe or do to be Saved©?” It was astounding to me that a group of people with very similar economic, cultural, religious backgrounds could barely scrape anything together. I don’t think this speaks to a failure on the part of the church. I think this speaks to the failure of the question. Because the question assumes that if you don’t have the right formula you can not be Saved©. With such high stakes the task becomes pedantically loaded. It essentially places the burden of an omniscient God on the woefully inadequate shoulders and minds of mortal humans.
And this is how I am beginning to view all doctrine. At least when it is made a spoken –or more often unspoken – litmus test for Salvation©. I have no problem with creeds and statements of faith. Without those you can’t get a very large group together. (But then, I question the validity of the need to get a large group together in the first place.) I believe a problem arises when we as humans presume to dictate who gets heaven or Hell®. And I believe this is a problem specifically because it’s predicated on the false assumption that there are eternal winners and eternal losers. Those who presume to play the referee in such a game are taking on an impossible task. And the result of the endeavor is the folly that our fractured and bloated Church has demonstrated. Because we are not omniscient, because we can not see the human heart, because we only see through a glass dimly, our attempts at roping off heaven ends as a pathetic joke.
So where does this leave me? I no longer know my place in the universe by my doctrine. I no longer feel secure because I “know I’m right”. And yet… I don’t feel lost and I do feel secure. Why is this? What has replaced my locating dogma? How am I secure when I’m not sure that I’m right? As I prayed about this, this verse came to me… Right after what must be the greatest treatise on Love ever written, Paul says this:
1Co 13:13 Right now three things remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
He just finished comparing agape Love to prophecy, tongues, and, what’s this?...” understand[ing of] all mysteries and all knowledge” I’d call that perfect doctrine. Doctrine we know we can never have in this life. Here, Paul speaks of a power that supersedes what the Church has attempted to use to define Herself in all Her splintered forms. Looking at the History of the Church, how often do we find Her defining Herself as Love, rather than drawing lines, shooting anathemas at Herself and burning the outside world? Could this lack of Love come from wrong priorities? Could the relentless pursuit of perfect understanding of all mysteries and knowledge, (i.e. doctrine) have so tired Her out that She barely has the strength to Love anymore?
I’m doing a mental exercise and trying to think of what would happen within the Church if everyone suddenly dropped the pretext of declaring who is Hell bound and who isn’t. What if our frame of mind switched from, “We have to Save© the lost!” to “We want to Love God and others as much as ourselves. We want to demonstrate a better way to live.” To most, those statements mean the same thing. But notice what happens when the Hell® part is removed. Without a guiding directive to determine the course of action that one must take when confronted with an Unsaved© individual, (i.e. get them to say the Sinner’s Prayer) we are left with a wide open playing field. Our agenda is gone and we can only –gasp!- rely on God’s Spirit to guide us in loving that person. Of course, if we are truly God’s workmanship and our lives bear witness to that fact, we will show them a “more excellent way” to live. But the guidance will not be based on a false notion of an off/on, light switch Salvation©, where the work is done once we get them across that magical line. With a humble appreciation that we just can’t know what God knows we can stop categorizing people. And ridiculous doctrinal debates like ‘Once Saved©, Always Saved©’ become pointless.
I really don’t know what good the categories do. In fact, I think they only harm us all. Once Saved©, we have a tendency to create a country club mentality, rather than “working out our salvation with fear and trembling.” After all, our name’s on The List, why fear and tremble? Maybe because that distinction we’ve created for ourselves, based on presumptuous doctrine, isn’t real. Maybe because our tradition has given us a false sense of security and our human nature turns that into lording it over those who aren’t In. I think we have plenty of reason to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. I think that’s because our salvation is a life-long (and probably extending into the next life) process. And those who don’t take is seriously – those who think they can coast through life without lifting a finger for others because they believe a certain doctrine so they are “in” – will have hell to pay. I think they will be weeping and gnashing their teeth as they realize what utter asses they have been to others simply because they subscribed to a doctrine from particular group from a particular time. I think every missed opportunity to show Love to another human on this earth will feel like a tongue of flame, burning their conscience. … But that’s all speculation, and applies to me as much as anyone else. And finally, after we have been cleansed to absolute purity, and are formed into creatures who can be true Sons and Daughters of God, He will embrace us all, wipe away our tears, and we will all have a good laugh about our experiences and the hell we put ourselves through.
So here I am…. Doctrine-less. (Sort of) Am I just another post-modern Gen-X wash out with no direction or motivation? No! Because what I have is so far greater than doctrine can ever be. I have Faith, Hope, and Love. That is why God brought me to this scripture. I believe this is the foundation of a relationship with God. This is how I can worship in Spirit and in Truth when I hear the Spirit imperfectly, and can not claim to know the Truth. These three… things… fundamental things, that God has given us are the key to transcending the limitations of humans and our understanding. These are our only way to escape the chains of our culture, religion, dogma, intelligence, historical place, etc.
My understanding of Faith is that it provides the framework for interpreting the reality we live in. What we put our faith in will color that interpretation. Those who put their faith in humanity, science, or self, will interpret reality far different than one who put’s their faith in Jehovah. I see the events of my life as an unfolding story about the grace and sovereignty of God. I see my attributes and attitudes as provided by God for the purpose of Loving Him and others. I see the world and interpret it this way because of Faith. Is there doctrinal presupposition in that? Of course. (I’ll get back to that.) Could I be wrong in my interpretation? Of course. But it couldn’t very well be Faith if it was for sure.
If Faith is the rode that I’m driving, Hope is the fuel in my tank. Without it there is no point of going anywhere, because anywhere could be just as bad as here. I HOPE that God has particular attributes and attitudes towards me and my fellow humans. I Hope He is as described by my Judeo/Christian scriptures. I Hope that He is Love. I Hope that He is Just. I Hope that He is Merciful. I HOPE that He doesn’t only let a small group of people who happened to get all their doctrine right into heaven and let everyone else burn in Hell®.
Love is the compass on my dashboard. I know where to go and what to do because of it. (Most of the time.) How I express Love is based on how I interpret reality. (by Faith) I try to listen to God and do what He says. For in that procedure, I know by Faith and Hope, that I will be accomplishing Love. It’s telling that Paul would put a higher premium on Love than Faith, Hope, and even perfect understanding. Those things are great, and help us to Love better. But if they are not directed and restrained by Love they are counterproductive. I think about 90% of the Church’s contradictory doctrine falls under this category.
I want to get back to the doctrine issue. Because I love the logical side of parsing texts and determining doctrine. I love the scholarship, wisdom, and wit that goes into it. I’m not a sentimentalist who thinks that “All you need is love.” What I’ve become disenchanted from is the way doctrine is used once it is created. Rather than doctrine being presented with a humble spirit; “Here is what makes sense to me. I think it honors God the most.” It is invariably presented as a dividing line: “This is the way it is. If you don’t see it this way you must be blind.” I think this is because of two factors. First, it is human nature to club each other over the head with ideas. You see it in politics and philosophy as well. As humans, we think we have the ability to know it all, and that we actually achieve that status. So naturally, those who disagree with us must be stupid. (Or in theological lingo: more sinful.)
The other reason I think doctrine is used divisively is because it is directed towards determining who gets into heaven and who doesn’t. I wonder what would happen if the fuel that fed the doctrinal machine were switched from Hellfire to Lovefire. If the basic question was changed from: “What does God require for us to be Saved©?” to “What is the best way to Love God and our neighbor?” I’m not saying that there isn’t a lot of good doctrinal work in that department. But I’ve never seen it as a focal point for theological dialog and consumption. ‘How to love’ is typically preached, but not studied or built into doctrine.
Doctrine is inescapable. If you have any thought about what God is or how to live your life you have doctrine. When I say that I am doctrine-less I mean that I am no longer holding to my opinions as anything more than that. I believe they are true by faith. And I believe in Truth that exists outside of myself. What I don’t believe is that I have the power to know exactly what that Truth is fully. I believe God gives me parts of it, and allows other parts to be murky. I don’t see how anyone can take any other position without committing grievous arrogance. Whether it is personal arrogance or submission to communal arrogance makes no difference. You can personally say that you have all the answers, or you can say your faith community has all the answers. Neither option is viable given the facts of reality and the multifaceted nature of the Church.
So if I can’t say, “I AM RIGHT!” what can I say? How about, “I think I am right.” How about just living according to what I believe to be right, and seeing what happens? Why not say God is always right, and He blesses us with little glimpses of Truth when He sees fit? See, I’m not a relativist because I’m not saying everyone has their own truth. I’m saying that only God has the complete Truth that exists outside of us and our experience or ability to attain. Knowing that ought to make one humble. So humble, that one can not pronounce ones doctrine to be Truth. So humble that one can only say what they think or believe.
Does that diminish the power of our witness? Does it render us as merely another voice in the pluralistic universe? Guess what Church; that’s what we always have been. Let’s drop the delusions of grandeur and simply live our lives with Love for others. Let’s have Faith that God is guiding us. Let’s Hope that He’s taking us somewhere good. And let’s Love as if it were our sole purpose of existence rather than a means to an end. (Salvation© for us and others.) Let’s drop the pretext of having the “understanding of all mysteries and knowledge”. We should still pursue that, but never for use as a weapon to club the heathen. (Or more often, our brothers and sisters.)
Love and Truth must coexist in order to work. If you believe it is true that killing a baby is mercifully loving, then you won’t actually be Loving. But we have to admit that we don’t KNOW all Truth. And therefore admit that our Love will be diluted by our fallen state. I’m sure that I do things that I think are loving for my wife and kids and coworkers, that, because I’m missing some crucial information, will end up not being the best thing for them. But that can’t paralyze me. Neither should a shift in doctrine attitude paralyze a Christian’s Love output. Does it make us less loving to say, “I’m not certain that I understand the Truth.”? No, it makes us less certain. And less certainty means more humility is necessary. And humility does nothing but aid Charity. So Truth and Love must work together, but in the absence of the assuredness of the truth as we understand it, Love must supersede all. You and I don’t KNOW that we are right. We have faith that we are. Let’s keep that open and on the table at all times.