Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Monday, May 7, 2012

Is right belief that important?

If the Church were Christian gracious behaviour would be more important than right belief.

I often talk with people who have left the Church but are still devoted to the ways of Jesus. I know lots of ex-ministers who have moved on from the church, feeling disenchanted. I began preaching regularly in 1972, so for nearly 40 years I have been studying the Gospels and the life of Jesus. In the last ten years I have taken it on as a hobby to read the latest scholarship on Jesus and scripture. I often look at the Church and get the feeling that Jesus would sing with the 1970’s Malanie Safka, “Look what they’ve done to my song, Ma! … its turning out all wrong, Ma!”  I look at Church practices, pastimes and priorities and they often seem foreign to the Jesus I discover in the Gospels. Sunday’s sermon topic was “If the Church were Christian, gracious behaviour would be more important than right belief.”

The Church and Christians for a long time have attempted to get people to believe “the right thing.”  In other words “Orthodoxy” – right belief has been important. The early church met at the Council of Nicaea in 325 and established what is known as the Nicene Creed, which was and is still seen as normative for orthodox belief.  In the years since the Church has argued over such things as how Jesus was divine and yet human, the nature of the Trinity, and various theories of the atonement. But down through the centuries there have been shocking things done to make people believe the right things. Excommunication, divisions, burnings at the stake, the inquisition with its torture and promises of damnation are just some of the activities done in the name of God, to make sure people had “right belief”.  We read the Bible in our own language and take that for granted today, but people were burned as heretics for trying to make that possible!  Looking at this terrible history, Jesus could say, “Look what they’ve done to my song!” Thankfully we have stopped burning people but in recent times I can list a lot of things done to try and bring people around. I recall an elderly minister telling me that when he got off the train in Gardner Station, Melbourne, to begin his ministry training he was asked if he was pre or post millennium in his understanding of the Second Coming of Christ. It really was important to these people. I knew a theological college principal who was sent hate mail, a death threat and even cow dung in the mail from people who thought he did not hold right beliefs. Again… “Look what they’ve done to my song ma. It’s turning out all wrong, Ma!”  I recall working as a plumber about twenty-five years ago. We were trying to find a drain running underground down a road. In desperation I tried water divining quite successfully. I don’t have a clue how it works, but it did. A couple in the Church told me I had gone over to the dark side and would go to hell! Another time I was working with a ministry student from the USA. We were looking at the hymn, “Are ye able”. One verse goes, “Are ye able to remember, when a thief lifts up his eyes, his pardoned soul is worthy of a place in paradise.”  My student colleague did not like that verse. “No” he said, “the thief would have to be baptized by immersion before he could get to heaven!” … Is that Jesus’ style? Could I worship a God hung up on a particular ritual? I have been told I would go to hell for  - not believing in a personal devil, - for not participating in the Toronto Blessing/Spiritual laughter movement that went through charismatic churches a few years ago. – for not speaking in tongues. All sorts of Christians have angrily told me “You are going to hell” for not having the right belief. (These days I just say, “That’s OK, I’ve got mates in both places!”) Creeds, threats and excluding dogma… from my reading and study of the Gospels, I just don’t think Jesus would want those. They are not his style! There are at least four reasons I shy away from definitive, exclusive creeds, dogmas or statements of faith.
1.     The meaning of the word “Believe” in the New Testament. The creedal/dogma approach to faith tends to interpret “Believe” as intellectual assent to metaphysical statements. The question they ask is, “Can you put a tick beside certain religious dogma?” But “Believe” in the New Testament has a different sense about. The Greek word translated  “believe” can be translated “to be loyal to” or to “trust or commit myself to”. The word is used in a sentence like, “Some generals deserted, but General ‘x’ was loyal to the emperor and stayed to fight with him.” It is a much more relational concept than being able to say “Yes” to the likes of the Nicene Creed or other dogmas or statements of faith.
2.     I think our “belief systems” have distorted biblical language.  The New Testament writers were sharing their experience of Jesus, their deep life-changing journey. Their language was experiential, often metaphorical and picturesque. I am sure they would not have expected their words to become dogma and serious excluding theological statements! To illustrate; A friend of mine went to Perth recently. She took a photo of Perth clouds, put it on her photo blog and wrote these words. “I landed at Perth airport and started thinking about clouds. Perth clouds are different to Dunedin clouds. They are big and fluffy and float in the air like they have nothing better to do. They have nowhere to go and feel like friendly creatures who are laying about watching the humans for fun. In contrast Dunedin clouds are all go. They are on a mission. They are thin and wispy and rush across the sky in a hurry (might be why they are thin and wispy). They don't have time to take notice of what the humans are doing, they have their own business going on”. These words give you the feel of the clouds in both Perth and Dunedin. But they would be meaningless down at the meteorological office. The weather people would give long intellectual sounding names and definitions to the clouds. It would be wrong to take my friend’s paragraph as scientific knowledge about the clouds. But those words have a truth about them. The Biblical writings are more like my friend’s description! They were not meant to be metaphysical definitions. The Church has taken their language and given it meaning it was not meant to have. The Gospel writers experienced Jesus. I can imagine them saying something like, “How can you ever describe this man?” In their scriptures the kings of Israel had been described as “sons of God”. The Roman emperors called themselves “son of God”. These disciples were so impressed with Jesus that they rather radically said, “Nah… this Jesus is THE Son of God” picking up a phrase in use in their day. The Church has picked up that phrase, made it a metaphysical statement and argued about what it meant, often without being open to the spiritual experience these disciples were trying to convey. The Church has argued about the Trinity. I once was part of a Ministers’ Association and the only denominations allowed to be part of the group had to be “Trinitarian”.  “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” are mentioned together only twice in the New Testament. In the last verses of Matthew’s Gospel and in the familiar benediction at the end of II Corinthians. (Scholars question whether these are later additions to the original texts.) I don’t think the New Testament writers meant for some sort of trinity doctrine to come out of their words of their spiritual experience! Paul talks of being “In Christ” and “In the Spirit”. John writes of the “Father” and the “Son” and then again the “Spirit” (actually “paraclete”) abiding with the believer. This was their experience. Sometimes “the presence” felt like “the Father”, sometimes “the Son” and sometimes “A moving Spirit – dynamic”. I don’t believe in their wildest dreams they expected the Church to try to define “the God-head” using these terms! I don’t think they would ever imagine it being a test of membership and often a source of theological debate in the Church!  They were simply describing a new awareness of the sacred! Another example is what is called the “Substitutionary theory of the Atonement” that has become a major part of the message of the Church. The Apostle Paul and others experienced a new freedom and grace through Jesus. How do you describe it in their setting? How do you put the feeling of this marvelous new freedom into words? All about them there are slaves. A common experience for people would have been to know of a slave set free by a ransom paid. I can imagine the New Testament writers saying, “That’s it! That’s what it feels like! A slave set free with somebody else paying the ransom! It is so great! A gift! Amazing grace!” The Church however, has taken this amazing picture and made it “theology”! They argued about  Jesus’ death, who was paying what to whom, the Devil or to God? .… By so doing they distorted the experience the writers were trying to describe.  “Look what they’ve done to my song!” indeed.  The more I read the New Testament the more convinced I am that we have read them in a dead, analytical and institutional fashion. They are evocative often-metaphorical writings and our dogma has killed their dynamic. To use them to define and enforce “right belief” is to distort the spirit in which they were written.
3.     Speaking about “the sacred” demands humility.  I occassionally attend lectures my son-in-law gives. He is a Doctor of Chemistry. I understand just some of what he knows. I am left in total awe at the world about us. That is just chemistry! How can I hope to understand or to even begin to describe “the sacred” that we experience? When it comes to “God” we must recognize that we cannot define him, there is always mystery. I often say in my wedding or funeral services, “God, or ‘the Great Spirit’ is bigger than our various religious interpretations of him.” In the face of such mystery isn’t it arrogant to write creeds, statements of faith and to be aggressive in defining “right belief”?
4.     Jesus’ example showed that for him “right belief” was just not important.
·      In Luke 6:1-11 Jesus got into trouble because he set aside the Sabbath laws for gracious behaviour. The disciples “harvested wheat” on the Sabbath. Jesus healed on the Sabbath. Jesus was a loyal practicing Jew, and yet for him life and people were more important than religious rules. I once supported a man who had terminal cancer. He was a member of a mental health drop-in centre. He died and a clergyman from his family’s denomination took the funeral, which I attended with some of his mates. After the funeral the lady leading the drop-in centre rang me. She said that many of her clients would have loved to have gone to the funeral, but it was not really their scene. It was difficult for them to go. She asked if I would take a memorial ceremony at the drop-in centre. Being ecumenically minded I suggested that she ask the clergyman who took the funeral. She said, “I did and he refused.” “Why?” I asked. “Because he told me the drop-in centre was not a consecrated building!”  Religious rules were more important to him than gracious behaviour. What would Jesus who healed on the Sabbath have done? (I led a memorial service there.)
·      When Jesus called his disciples and others he simply said, “Follow me.” He did not tell them they had to believe “A” “b” & “c”. Right belief it seemed was less important than “following” – doing the things he did.
·      When Jesus was asked, “What shall I do to enter eternal life?” his answer was to say “love God and neighbour” and to tell the story of “the Good Samaritan”. He did not say “You must believe in “the trinity”, “a literal understanding of Genesis”, “the right kind of baptism”, etc. etc. He did say, “Go do likewise!”
·      In Matthew 25 Jesus tells a parable… and it is a parable we must remember. It is the parable of the last Judgment and “the sheep and goats”.  Through it Jesus tells us what is ultimately important! The questions asked are, “Did you feed me when I was hungry? -give me a drink when I was thirsty? – visit me when I was sick and in prison? – clothe me when I was naked?” None of the questions relate to believing the right things!
If the Church and we Christians were following this Jesus, gracious behaviour would be more important than right belief! We are too engrossed in “beliefs”, perhaps as a distraction from truly following. We should be simply calling ourselves “followers” rather than the more common “believers”.

In the First letter of John the writer says, “Whoever loves is a child of God and knows God.” Somehow in the loving, we “know” the sacred. The Church has tended to say, “If we can recite beliefs about God we know him.” – wrong!

In First Corinthians the Apostle Paul is talking about gifts in the Church and what is important. He finishes chapter twelve with, “I will show you a more excellent way.”  … then comes chapter thirteen; “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith, so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing….. etc.”

Philip Gulley is right, If the Church, (if Christians) were more Christian, gracious behaviour would be more important than right belief.

My "denomination" began in America as a movement to try to unite the then splintered Presbyterian Church. Ironically it ended up a separate movement and has since split within itself. Human nature aye? One of its early slogans was "No creed but Christ." I still like that. 

No comments: