Saturday, August 8, 2009

A rant about church and theology

That title should be enough to scare some of you away. But I hope there are others of you who are concerned enough with where the church is and is going to keep reading.
A recent blog by my fellow hare-brained loose cannon Peter
got me thinking. He's quite good at that!
He refers to the 'Wesleyan Quadrilateral'.
Wikipedia defines it saying that“ Wesley used four different sources in coming to theological conclusions. The four sources are:
Scripture - the Holy Bible (Old and New Testaments)
Tradition - the two millennia history of the Christian Church
Reason - rational thinking and sensible interpretation
Experience - a Christian's personal and communal journey in Christ”

I believe it is time that the church returned to a place where all four are operating in balance.
This resonates with me in two ways:
--That there is great value in having all four areas involved in developing our understanding of God (theology), and
--Church should be a safe place to explore all four, a place to discuss with people who share your desire to come to a fuller understanding and practice of your understanding of God.
Scripture. My experience (fairly limited, I admit) has been that church tends to be the presentation of a singular point of view. Although it purports to be 'scriptural', that point of view is not usually open to discussion or deeper study as to whether the point being presented is a legitimate understanding of scripture, based on as full an understanding as possible of the place, culture and language of the time, and purpose of writing. It seems to me that sermons are more a monologue than a dialogue, and not much place (if any) is provided to truly study and converse together. So, although the Bible is used as a foundation for the teaching, there often is no place for people to bring tradition, reason, and experience into the conversation in a desire to better understand the full message of that scripture. Add to that the tendency of some people to say “The Bible says __________” with the not-so-subtle inference that any other interpretation is denying the authority of scripture. That alone is valid cause for making sure that tradition, reason, and experience are all part of the process of understanding what God wants us to learn and live from the Bible. For too long people have taken their particular understanding of scripture (often based as much on tradition as good exegesis) and said that any other understanding is evil, wrong, against God, or whatever other words they can use to keep the flock in line—sometimes to the detriment of a Christ-like character. (The Crusades, slavery, anti-abortion militancy, treatment of gays and other unloving actions come to mind.)
Tradition. It seems to me that many denominations are either quite open to the past 2000 years of church tradition, or quite closed to it. Tradition either figures largely in the content, government and style of a church, or very little (although even new denominations seem to have formed their own contemporary traditions). I think it is time to recognize the strength of the past, but to also be ready to move ahead. Tossing out 2000 years of wisdom and experience in favor of the last few decades can easily doom us to repeating mistakes that have already been made. We have accumulated a lot of wisdom and understanding over the past two millennia. On the other hand, speaking in a centuries-old style in today's world only serves to demonstrate to a person outside of the church that faith is outdated and out of touch with reality. A balance is necessary.
Reason. There seemed to be an era in parts of the church when reason was considered evil. Higher education was shunned, individual thought was denounced. Anything that seemed to question the 'traditional/fundamentalist' view of scripture was immediately branded as diabolic and tossed out, even if there may well have been a need for some new insight. For example, any discussion on the Genesis creation account that didn't include six literal days, or a 6000 year-old earth, or even hinted at (gasp!) evolution was considered blasphemous and so were the people who brought it up. Leaving out reason acts as if only the leader/priest/pastor/teacher has understanding (and sometimes even they are not allowed to question 'the way it has always been'). Leaving reason out of the process also tends to make our faith appear out of touch with the world around us. Four centuries ago Galileo Galilei was promoting the new scientific understanding that the earth was not the center of the universe. He was 'tried by the Inquisition, found "vehemently suspect of heresy," forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.' for his ideas that were considered "false and contrary to Scripture".
Experience has either been strongly affirmed or negated, depending on your particular stream of Christianity. But usually, it is only one's own experience that counts, not someone else's. So, if I have experienced __________, I will believe it is of God and for today. And if I haven't experienced _________, I will say it is of the devil and so is anyone who says they have experienced it. You can fill in the blanks with a number of supernatural phenomena. Here again balance is in order. Experience alone can soon run amok if it is not offset with the other three. I'm sure you can think of enough recent examples to illustrate either extreme.

In balancing scripture, tradition, reason and experience I see the need for a safe place for discussion, where the student of the Bible and the cynic can both listen to each other. Where the person steeped in tradition can hear the concern of the person with different experience, and neither feels disrespected or scorned. Where the differing opinions of two students can both be laid on the table, and both are valued, and open for discussion. Where a person with little church experience can raise her questions about what the preacher is saying.
I believe it is time to make church a place where we can all be 'experts', be listened to, be valued. To all be students where no one claims to have all the answers. A place where ancient liturgy and church practice can be experienced, but willingly replaced with something contemporary. A place where the spirit of God speaks through all of us to bring us to where we need to be. Sure, my perspective on an issue may be totally out to lunch, but that is likely to become very obvious in the presence of my peers. On the other hand, the long-held traditional theology may be what needs to give way, and that probably won't happen if there isn't a safe place to argue (I mean discuss!).
Since a Sunday morning crowd of tens or hundreds or thousands of people isn't a conducive place for this kind of dialogue, I think home-sized groups are vital to keep our theology vibrant and thoughtful.
Probably every 'revelation' of new understanding came about as someone questioned the status quo. If we keep all four corners of the quadrilateral dynamic and functional, we can safely work through the questions and issues facing us today. If we climb up on our favorite corner and chose to ignore the rest, we only display our fear and insecurity about the validity of our present insight, and both we and the world at large will suffer for our arrogance.

OK, I'll get down off my soapbox now, and try to dodge the rotten tomatoes!

4 comments:

Searcher said...

I felt your thoughts in the rant were stated so well. I was reminded of a thought I came across a while back on searching out Biblical truths. Namely, "it is wise to dry stack your rock wall of beliefs as you build it" as a mason sometimes does, without mortar to see what the project is looking like, as it is much more difficult to take out a rock that is in the 'wrong place' if mortared in initially. Then later, "You'll learn when to cement it in." I kind of liked that thought.

Al said...

Welcome, Searcher!
One of the blogs I read has as his blog subtitle: "always write your truths in pencil, so you can change them later".
There's less humble pie to eat if we haven't been so dogmatic about things and later realized we were on the wrong track.

Tim Aagard said...

I agree with your desire for church life to be two-way communication, dialogue, mutual truth expression. Not because of tradition, logic, or experience. Only because God's word specifically calls for believers gatherings to be this way. God himself, is a two-way communication God. The verse that warns to "not forsake assembly" specifies two-way communication Heb. 10:24,25. The scripture that says the "word of Christ will dwell in us richly, with all wisdom" specifies two-way communication Col. 2:16. The scripture that specifies "order" in the gathering specifies "each one has a song, a teaching..." 1 Cor. 14.

Tradition, reason, and experience are all weighed down and mixed with man's fallen nature. They cannot come close to the purity of Spirit taught revelation. The church today is chained to bogus assumptions driven by tradition. It has been that way for centuries. Even Paul was fighting bogus traditions.

Tradition defines "preach the word" as "lecture the word. God's word never says such. Lecture is the weakest form of communication. Scripture never calls for this dynamic. But tradition demands it. So we are stuck with it, unless you want to exit the institutionalized form of church, which I recommend.

Reason as well is mixed with rationalization. Man's thoughts are far far below God's thoughts. Nothing that man has thought of has resulted because of his powers of reason. They are all driven by God's revelation of himself.

Experience is a horrible gauge to determine truth. Look at the saints who vocalize gibberish and call it "speaking in tongues" when God's word specifies speaking in tongues was real languages Acts 2. People "feel" God while sitting in a pew and so they believe the church building is God's house. Scripture is clear that "God does not dwell in buildings made with hands". God's people are His temple. God is building holy people, not holy buildings. Americans spend BILLIONS on holy buildings.

We must stick with scripture - God's revelation. We can never put "confidence in the flesh" in it's reasoning, traditioning, and experienceing dynamics. These 3 are not to determine truth, but flow out of truth. Our ability to think, experience life, and structure life is best done when God's word sets the boundaries, not when these things are added to God's word as equal elements. Only God's Word lasts forever. These other 3 elements will vanish like vapor, just as our bodies do.

Al said...

Tim! Thanks for joining the discussion.
I find it most interesting that although we may not use the same approach in every case, we end up with some similar conclusions. This shows me that our ability to reason, while certainly in no way up to God's capacity, is still part of being made in His image.
I really agree with your point about 'lecture the word'. I suppose that is what particularly moves me to desire a safe place for discussion. Connected with that thought would be the larger point that all of us have traditions that we come up against within the church--not just 'traditional churches'.
I hope I communicated my concern that any one of the 4 corners could send us off into left field if not kept in balance. Even revelation isn't immune since our understanding of what God might be saying (whether through the Bible or within our own spirit) will still be colored by our human understanding, experience and/or tradition. Merely saying 'this is what the Bible says' doesn't mean there isn't something of our own interpretation involved.
I haven't yet burned my bridges with the traditional expressions of church--but I am certainly open.

 

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