Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Intellectual Content of Religion

Yesterday, we debated the reasonableness of religious pluralism. In response, Andy Bryan wrote at his blog:

There are some people for whom theology is a set of propositions to which one may subscribe. If you subscribe to one set of propositions, you are a Christian. If you subscribe to another, you are Jewish. If you subscribe to another, you are a Muslim. And so forth. Even agnosticism and atheism fit in nicely here, as the subscription to their own respective sets of propositions about God.

For a Christian who has this mindset, evangelism seems to be a rather rudimentary process of comparing sets of propositions and ascertaining which set is "right" and which set is "wrong," and convincing people to subscribe to the "right" one. The "right" set of propositions is almost always the set held by the one doing the evangelizing, which makes the set of propositions held by the object of evangelism, by definition, "wrong."


To start out, theology is more than a set of propositions. Peter Hodgson (I think) says that theology is a kind of "creative fiction," or a poetic retelling of that which we know to be true about God. (I'm paraphrasing.) Dovetailing this idea, I see theology as the art of describing God and God's relationship with creation. It is less scientific than imaginative. Reducing it to a mere set of propositions is like hanging color-by-number paintings in an art gallery.

Secondly, Jesus did not say to his followers, "Go therefore and compare sets of propositions with all nations, convincing them that their sets are wrong and yours is right. And lo, I will be with you (and only you) always, till the end of the age." No, he said, "Go and make disciples." It's about relationships, not doctrines. Jesus seems to care a whole lot more about how we treat one another than about how we get other people to believe what we believe.

Read the whole post. I completely agree that religion is more than a set of theological propositions. I completely agree that evangelizing through intellectual argumentation is foolish. So I don't know of Andy is actually critiquing me here or is just using my post to express his concerns about a form of evangelism that I equally consider to be annoying and ineffective.

But although religion is more than agreeing to certain theological propositions (as John Wesley argued tirelessly), all religions, including Christianity, contain a certain amount of intellectual content. That's why the early Church formulated the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds. In fact, that's why they wrote the New Testament. To be a Christian means -- among other things -- believing in certain things, such as that s/he is a sinner and that Christ is the Son of God who can forgive those sins. One cannot be a Christian if one deviates from these propositions, such as believing that one is a god and that Christ is a potted plant, or was a complete fabrication of early Church. This has been the collective understanding of the Church since the composition of the New Testament until very recently.

Discipleship, as Andy says, is about relationships. But that there are certain theological propositions involved at some level is unavoidable. How we treat each other is probably more important than doctrine, but -- if I understand him correctly -- Andy is saying that doctrine is of no importance whatsoever. Here we disagree.

Am I wrong? In a previous post I linked to a long list of statements in the New Testament in which Jesus and the epistolary writers asserted that correct teaching matters.

Were they wrong?

The early Church, through writing, prayer, debate, and ecumencial councils, hammered out what were their core beliefs and what were (necessarily) not. From these, they created the creeds.

Were they wrong?

The people of the Church through its whole history has considered various propositions of doctrine, and their relative importance or unimportance. But it has never stopped contemplating who God is and what he is doing.

Were they wrong?

It is only in the modern bizarro world that we live in today where religious pluralism has been invented and considered to be something more than an intellectual incoherency. That's why I find it hard to debate religious pluralism -- it's a pure non sequitur. It is a self-refuting statement devoid of meaning.


Andy B. said...

John, I have just one thing to say to you:
What the heck is a pecumenicalate?

Anonymous said...

Doctrine to the postmodern mind seems to have all the attractiveness of beet casserole. I suggest that if we don't think there is content to our faith, then we should stop reciting the Apostles Creed & Nicene Creed, and stop pretending that the Articles of Religion have any meaning.

By the way, "doctrine" means "teacher," coming from the Latin, "doctrina," or doctor. While doctrine can be weaponized, do not the scriptures urge us to "always be ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you?" (I Peter 3:15) And, yes, we are to do it with with gentleness and reverence--yet do it we must.

P.S. I don't know what 'pecumenicalate' is either, Andy, but it sounds like a mucus-causing virus.

John said...

Doctrine to the postmodern mind seems to have all the attractiveness of beet casserole.

Or Memphis-style BBQ.

John said...

Thanks, Andy. Fixed now.

Anonymous said...

Or Memphis-style BBQ.

True that, John! Which reminds me, I haven't had some of God's BBQ in a while. Gotta make a date at Springcreek Barbecue soon.

Anonymous said...

I still think that we seem to be adamant on debating a doctrine of exclusivism:
If my religion is correct then yours cannot be. (Your A and B points)
a doctrine of pluralism:
All religions are correct.

Again I call for the center...
See the doctrine of inclusivism


John B said...

I believe anyone should be free to believe whatever she or he thinks is best. I do not believe that anyone should be able to claim to be a Christian or a United Methodist just because she or he wants to. There are boundaries defined by the scriptures and by the Book of Discipline as to what a United Methodist Christian believes.

I thank God we have wide boundaries, but we do have them. If one does want to live within these boundaries they are free to choose that. However, those who make this choice should have the intergity to admit that they don't want to be bound by our beliefs and go somewhere that fits them better.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

John...please delet my last post...I didn't mean to repost Andy's post...long story...I'm a doof!

I find it interesting that catholicity has not entered the discussion. I suppose John touched on the essentials of the faith when speaking about the Virgin Birth and what not. An old argument but a good one none-the-less. So I pose this question.

How important is catholicity?

Frankly, I am surprised some of us are spending time on this it being the end of the semester and all. As if we don't have enough to do. Well, at least you now know where my priorities are.

John said...

Frankly, I am surprised some of us are spending time on this it being the end of the semester and all. As if we don't have enough to do. Well, at least you now know where my priorities are.

14 semester hours, A grades in all of them. Run IHN and worked with the youth group and in the soundbooth. I've done my work.

But it's amazing how much time is left over when one stops doing the MBWR.

John said...

Oh, and the end of the semester isn't hard. If you do your work during the semester.

I'm sure that it can be time consuming to read five hundred pages a day in the week before the reading reports are due.