Thursday, October 12, 2006

Doctrinal Uptightness

Jockeystreet wrote of a co-worker who has Down's Syndome:

I like Steve. A lot. He's a good guy. And I don't say that in a paternalistic "isn't he sweet and cute and retarded" sort of way. I like Steve. Steve is a good guy.

Steve thinks my name is Mike.

My name's not Mike. My name is Jim.

Steve doesn't accidentally call me Mike. It's not a slip of the tongue, something that he forgets and then quickly corrects. And he doesn't confuse me with a guy named Mike. He just thinks my name is Mike. It doesn't matter how many times I remind him that my name is, in fact, Jim. He might remember for a minute or two minutes after I've reminded him, after he's said it back to me a couple of times. Next time he sees me, though, he's going to call me Mike again. I don't know why. And I don't particularly mind. I like Steve. Steve likes me. He's just not so good at remembering the name (actually, correct that; he remembers fine; he always calls me Mike, not Joe or Bob or Andy or Greg; he just remembers the wrong name).

It has never occured to me to poke Steve in the eye for calling me Mike. It has never occured to me to turn my back on him, walk away, and never speak with him again. It hasn't really occured to me to take it personally. There are a lot of things that I just don't get, but I very much get the fact that Steve and I are on different levels, that Steve is doing his best, that Steve likes being around me, and that there's no reason for me to feel insecure or slighted over the name thing.

Read it all, for Jockeystreet is a good storyteller and wordsmith. He then compared his unconcern with Steve's mistake with doctrinal generosity, or the lack thereof:

Why is it that we want to attribute to God an ego so fragile that it can't tolerate well-meaning believers getting a few facts wrong? Why is it that we believe that God's self-worth is so conditional that mixing up some of the biographical information is a sure way to earn his wrath?


Why, when it comes to God, do so many people want to convince me that what matters isn't the desire you have to grow closer, isn't the effort you make to conform to his will, isn't the openness you have to faith and love, isn't the compassion you feel for his people, but is, rather, your ability to call him by the proper name, your assent to certain historical details as fact and others as fiction.

We are not saved by orthodox beliefs. We are saved by a God who searches our hearts. As John Wesley said:

I say of the heart. For neither does religion consist in Orthodoxy, or right opinions; which, although they are not properly outward things, are not in the heart, but the understanding. A man may be orthodox in every point; he may not only espouse right opinions, but zealously defend them against all opposers; he may think justly concerning the incarnation of our Lord, concerning the ever-blessed Trinity, and every other doctrine contained in the oracles of God; he may assent to all the three creeds, -- that called the Apostles', the Nicene, and the Athanasian; and yet it is possible he may have no religion at all, no more than a Jew, Turk, or pagan. He may be almost as orthodox -- as the devil, (though, indeed, not altogether; for every man errs in something; whereas we can't well conceive him to hold any erroneous opinion,) and may, all the while be as great a stranger as he to the religion of the heart.

Within certain boundaries, I agree that the 'right opinions' don't matter. If Steve calls Jim 'Mike', Jim still knows who he's talking to. If Steve calls a flowerpot 'Mike' and talks with it, then there are problems. One's understanding of God can be sufficiently wrong that one is talking to a creature other than God.

The hard part is determining those boundaries.


Dan Trabue said...

So, if one is seeking the one true God - the God who defines God's own Self as Love, the God who wants to save us from our own fallen humanity and follow in Jesus' Way - if one is seeking THAT God, but calls that God, "Allah," is that cool?

John said...

No, I don't think so, because Islam has a radically different understanding of Jesus. It rejects the divinity of Christ and the atonement which came with the death of Christ.

Jesus had a 'way', but Jesus was also a person who did great acts with himself. Following the 'way' of Jesus will not save us; Jesus alone can do that for us.

Unless, of course, you're just talking about the Arabic word for "God" without the Islamic theology attached to it. In that case, yes, one can call God 'Allah'.

Anonymous said...

If I talk to Laura Bush and Cindy Sheehan about George Bush, I will get radically different descriptions of his character, his intentions and just about everything else about him. Are they talking about different people or radically different understandings of the same person? Obviously, the latter.

Muslims, Jews and Christians all worship the Creator God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but their understanding of Him and His will for his servants are only understated when described as "radically different," especially WRT to the identity and mission of Jesus.

Calling THAT God is Allah is "cool," I guess, but misunderstanding His will for us, not so much.

Dale Tedder said...

Jockeystreet wrote...

"Why is it that we want to attribute to God an ego so fragile that it can't tolerate well-meaning believers getting a few facts wrong? Why is it that we believe that God's self-worth is so conditional that mixing up some of the biographical information is a sure way to earn his wrath?"

This seems terribly simplistic, ill-informed, and naive. While I'm not going to quibble about "getting a few facts wrong," I would say that what those "facts" are means a great deal. It was God who said not to have any other gods before him. It was God who called himself a jealous God. It was God who called his people time and time again to turn from false gods and false beliefs.

There is content to our faith. We don't have to get a 100 percent on a theology test before entering heaven, but if we are justified by faith in Christ through grace, then that limits the playing field considerably.

We ought to attempt to avoid the old canard which asks, "who are we too say this and that about God." A faithful Christian will seek to say what God has revealed about himself. It has nothing to do with God's poor self-esteem. However, if God has said something about himself, we probably ought not ignore it.

Richard H said...

If doctrine is only stuff in our heads and no more, then I see little reason to quibble over it. In my account, however (see The Recovery of Doctrine in the Contemporary Church; Baylor Univ. Press), real doctrine always results in action. Mere beliefs might not have much impact on the world. Actions surely do, however.

Is that enough reason to "quibble" violently over doctrine? Maybe some doctrine, though surely not Christian doctrine. The story of Jesus (life, death, resurrection, etc.) upon which our Christian doctrine is parasitic seems to preclude violent confrontation over doctrine.

codepoke said...

Hey, I'm with Jockeystreet on this one.

If Steve calls a flowerpot 'Mike' and talks with it, then there are problems.

That's a really good line.

The question is whether we are alive in Christ. Are we born from above? If the answer is yes, then there's no flowerpot in the discussion.

It is impossible for the spirit in me to be led by the Spirit in me to fellowship with Belial. So, if I see a sacrament a little differently than you do, that doesn't mean God is going to have a problem with me. So maybe we could try having fewer problems with each other?

Doctrine guides our walk through life, so the mo' better we can get it, the better. Amen! But if you and I disagree on a couple points, it should not impact our relationship to each other.

John said...

Ditto what Codepoke said.

jockeystreet said...

I didn't say the flower pot thing, but if it gets Codepoke to agree with me, I'll take credit for it.


Terribly simplistic, ill-informed, and naive? This, of course, is a distinct possibility. When I claim to have the big answers, I'm usually lying or trying to impress the ladies (which, you know, is sort of the point of the post... I'm becoming more comfortable with not having the big answers down pat). In this case, though, I don't exactly see where I'm being simplistic, ill-informed or naive. The "ill-informed" part confuses me most. Where was my information inaccurate? You may not agree with what I make of the information, in which case I think the word you're looking for is "wrong."

Just trying to be helpful (and, okay, maybe a little snotty).

You would have been even more accurate, I think, had you called me "terribly unoriginal." The whole post is really just a long-winded way of asking that very cliche question, "is Gandhi in Hell?" (And lets take it as a given that Gandhi's goodness wasn't all in his "works," but in a deep love for and faith in God.)

Or, if the Steve doesn't understand all this talk about Trinity and grace and the divinity of Christ, but just has some abstract notion of wanting to love God, is Steve in Hell?

Or (another real life example, the grandmother of a professor I had) if a young Jewish girl's village is wiped out in pogroms and people wearing crosses on their necks and praising Jesus do awful things to her family and friends, and she grows up to have a deep, committed spiritual life but, in part due to the circumstances of her youth, never has any particular interest in becoming a Christian, is that girl going to Hell?

A person who can answer "yes" to any of that too easily is someone I probably won't ask to watch my dogs, and their version of God is one that I feel a little sorry for.

Telling me that that's the way it is because scripture says this and that is sort of like defending scriptural inerrancy by pointing to 2 Timothy 3:16.

Of course, there are people smarter than me who see it differently.

Richard said...

Great article.

Oloryn said...

There are definitely areas where "Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind" applies, while there are other areas where "if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed" applies. The problem is where is the line drawn between them? And why are so many people "drawing outside the lines", in both directions?