Before I start on my study of the history of the church I want to do an “aside” post here on another topic.
I just read a very thoughtful post over at Rachel Held Evan’s blog about mysticism and evangelicalism. In it she was commenting on a book by Tim Challis about how mysticism, which he defined at any experiences with God outside of the Bible, as not being valid. I am not going to get into his arguments to back up this belief nor Rachel’s counter to it. Click on the link above to see all that. Instead I am going to talk about how Mr. Challis and many evangelicals I have encountered to have thoroughly dismiss the pope as a mediator between man and God but then turn around and put the Bible in that position.
I personally have been on both sides of the Catholic/Protestant divide so I think I have an understanding of some of the differences. I spent the first 20 years in the Catholic church in one degree or another. I went to the first seven years of schooling being taught by nuns and priests. During that time I learned that man can’t interact directly with God as he is just too holy for our sinfulness. Instead we had to count on the parish priest for our daily interactions with God and for the Pope for the really deep understandings.
Even during those years I felt uncomfortable with this idea. We received communion on a regular basis but at that moment when the bread wafer turned into Jesus it was over the hunched shoulders of the priest ruling over the mass. We just weren’t allow to be part of that transformation. When I was an altar boy I occasionally tried to sneak a look at just what was going on but never saw anything I thought was miraculous about it. I just couldn’t understand why I needed someone else to talk to God for me.
As was typical I turned away from all things religious during my college years. I occasionally dabbled in the RCC but only very tepidly. When I was about to get married I had my first encounters with those people outside the “real” church. THose who call themselves Protestants in one form or another. The flavor I was involved with were Lutherans. I must admit that many of the things with Lutherans and Catholics are very similar. They have basically the same liturgy and beliefs with most things but definitely not when it come to the Pope. I can’t number how many times I heard very harsh words about the pope in my Lutheran circles. I was embarrassed by this almost hatred because I couldn’t understand it coming from Christians.
In reality I have come to realize that Lutherans and I expect many other Protestants have simply moved from one mediator to another. They take all authority away from the pope and put it on the document created under the tutelage of King Constantine in the fourth century. Of course that document is the Bible. While the Bible contains very inspiring writings passed down from generation to generation before being penned it is not the sole presence of God in the world today. To say that God quit instructing us how to live and love more than 1600 years ago is to take power away from him. And I am just not one to do that…..
Anyone who has read much of this blog knows how I feel about the slippery slope. I believe that the very concept has damaged us theologically, politically and personally beyond anything good that could come out of it. The very concept that everything we believe about a subject becomes worthless if we come to believe that any small part of it is questionable.
Here is what Tony Jones says about the slippery slope in his book The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier:
That theology is local, conversational, and temporary does not mean that we must hold our beliefs without conviction. This is a charge often thrown at emergent Christians, but it’s false. As a society, we’ve been wrong about all sorts of things in the past, like slavery. And not letting women vote. And not letting nonwhites drink from the same water fountains as whites. I could go on and on. Our forebears held positions on these issues with deep conviction, but they were wrong. And I can say that unequivocally. At least, I can say that from my vantage point-as one who came after them-they were wrong. What I cannot say is which side of those issues I would have been on a century or two ago. Nor can I say which issues I’m mistaken on today….
Unlike Mr. Jones I “did” live through many of the issues he discussed here. I have to admit that I was wrong to have such a non-committal attitude toward many of them when they were happening. Since I was a white kid growing up in rural America I, at least initially, didn’t think they had anything to do with me. In college in the 1960s I finally had some direct encounters and conversations with my first African-Americans. From conversations with them I came to understand that I too had a stake in these matters. It was not until my local circumstance changed that I knew how critical the civil rights demonstrations of the time actually were.
Dispatch 11: Emergents believe that awareness of our relative position-to God, to one another, and to history – breeds biblical humility, not relativistic apathy
Our understanding that throughout history the theologians in particular and the church in general has both evolved and devolved. To deny that fact is to deny history itself. We can’t just ignore the fact that during the period quoted above many Christian denomination claimed that segregation and denying people of color their God given rights was biblical. Among other things they pointed out the various reference to slaves in the Bible. We are all relativists to one degree or another. When we recognize that fact it frees us to look for further understanding of God’s infinitely complicated words to us. When we lock onto one version of our choosing we lock out further revelations from God or Scripture.
The concept of the slippery slope is a dangerous one but not from the fact that we look at things differently but from the fact that we refuse to do so…..
One thing that seems so hard for many fundamentalist Christians is the idea that much of their religious traditions and beliefs come from man, not God. They seem totally unable to even conceive of that idea. Without that acknowledgement they have doomed their version of Christianity to the trash heap of time. Science, that they generally deem as the enemy, will eventually become just be too convincing for them to deny.
Before I was excluded from a Lutheran church for my belief that the Bible is not totally literal or inerrant I had a lengthy discussion with a clergy leader there. He tried his best to convince me of the inerrancy of the Bible. When it became obvious that I was not going to discount scientific discovery as “God just trying to trick us”, he made the statement “What would happen to your faith if you found out that everything in the Bible is literally true and without the possibility of error?” He got a very different answer than what he was expecting.
When I responded to his question that I would be totally astounded by that fact but it would not change my beliefs in Jesus and that he is the foundation of my faith. I concentrate on his words and messages and not on what others said about him either during his life or especially many years after his death. But, I think my counter-question to him had a much deeper ramification. I asked him “What would it do to your faith if God told you that the Bible was written by men and was not totally from or even endorsed by Him?” I never got an answer to my question other than “that is quite impossible.”
Once we accept that man’s fingerprints are all over the Bible and other ancient religious texts the sooner we can get to the core of Christianity and that is the words, messages, and commands of Jesus. When he came to live with us on this earth it was not just to die for our sins, he could have done that in a day. Instead, he spent thirty-three years here to teach us how to live. When we no longer base our faith primarily on man-made belief that occurred after his death we get to the true meaning of being a follower of Jesus.
- No, I am not throwing out all the traditions and doctrine of the church. I certainly celebrate much of that history. But we must realize that man’s fingerprints are all over this traditions and doctrine.
- No, I am not opening it up to anyone that wants to believe whatever they want. Jesus made it clear that being a follower of his was more important that just saying certain words. He did not intend his church to be something-for-nothing; he intended it to be the guiding light of our lives.
- No, I am not saying that all the authors of belief system we currently have were not inspired by God but I am saying that every word they wrote came from their heartfelt thoughts but they were by no means dictated directly by God.
- No, I am not throwing the Bible out of the church. Instead I am giving it the rightful place and that is to teach us church history, give us examples of Godly living, and most importantly give us the words and messages of Jesus.
Change is difficult, especially within many very conservative church establishments. We need to accept that man’s fingerprints are all over our Bible and then move from there to a belief system more like the early Christians. That is what the current emergent church movement is all about…..
In a previous post I asked the question “why didn’t God write a book?”. One possible answer to that question came from a Quaker friend. He said that if God had written a book then man would have a relationship with a book and not with God. God want us to come to him not to a book about him. But that did not end my questions in this area. I still wonder what if God were to write a book what would it look like? Here are some of my conclusions about that. Of course I am painfully aware that I certainly don’t know the mind of God. That is something that man can never really know. Our minds are just too puny for that task. But that doesn’t keep me from speculating some of the possible answers to my questions. So here goes.
- If God were to write a book there would be absolutely no mistake that it was from God…. With our current written text know as the Bible theologians throughout the ages have constantly shown doubt about the authors of almost every book of the New Testament. We just can’t seem to decide, and there seems to be little evidence, of the true authors of the documents that make the Bible.
- There would be no hidden messages…. Compared to Him God knows we are all very simple minded people who need simple minded instructions on what God expects from us and what we can expect from God.
- It would be a book that is constantly changing…. ( I can just hear the jaws drop on this one 🙂 )It would be a changing book in that would it would give us different messages as we move along our road of life and our journey with Christ. It’s messages would be as clear to a four year old as they were to a life long follower of Christ.
- There would be no need for all the theologians around today… There are literally thousands of theologians around today to help us understand the Bible. But, one of the problems with that is that no two seem to have the same answers. So it depends on which is our favorite flavor of theologian as to what we think the Bible says. If God were to write a book this field of occupation would disappear. There would be no need for us to rely on others to know the meanings of a book written by God.
I believe that the Bible we currently use to try to understand the nature of God is an awesome collection of works. Yes, they do give us a basic understanding of the nature of God at least from the perspective of those who penned the words. And quite frankly, without that book we would be hard pressed to know much of anything about the mind of God. But being a book produced by inspired men and not God, the Bible is often misunderstood, misquoted, and misused. Being a collection of works written by different men at different times it is not a very unified document many pieces of text seem to say completely different things. If God had indeed written a book none of these problems would exist. It would be perfect as God is perfect.
God did not intend us to have a relationship with a book but a relationship with him.