The Kind of Religion/Christianity I Do Endorse
My last post may have left the impression that I am a simple agnostic. I don’t define myself that way; in fact, I have a hard time defining my faith. But I thought I’d elaborate a bit more here.
In order to get to what I do believe I first have to note what I reject and my reasons for such.
Over a decade ago, I discussed Christianity with a young evangelical fundamentalist type. He seemed a real nice fellow but offered a lot of stock, unconvincing reasons for his faith. One reason was, he claimed, the “lack of contradiction in the Bible.”
Really? I did a bit of digging and found pages like this and now this. Now, the cursory apparent contractions in the Bible do not mean the good book, properly understood, really contradicts itself. I learned a good, rich, sophisticated hermeneutic can explain those contradictions away like an iron can smooth out creases in wrinkled pants.
The hermeneutic — if it’s sound — will well use principles of logic and synthesis. Some Protestant Sola Scriptura types are fond of saying “Bible interprets Bible.” One certainly must take the different (often more than two) verses and chapters of the Bible, put them together and extract non-contradictory principles from them.
But here’s the 800 pound Gorilla: Even the most learned, well synthesized, non-contradictory understanding of the 66 books of the Bible doesn’t necessarily lead to one “obvious” result. Rather, competing verses and chapters, synthesized pursuant to the canons of logic and rationality can produce results that blatantly contradict one another.
Indeed, potentially limitless understandings abound and arguably have led to thousands of different sects. And the differences aren’t trivial either. (Or at least those who adhere to the contradictory results don’t view the differences as trivial, but things worth going to war over).
So, for instance, the doctrine of the “atonement.” It’s either limited or it’s universal. It can’t be both. (Or at least Western logic holds it can’t be both). Fundamentalist Protestant Sola Scriptura types differ. And both assert “I believe this because the Bible teaches it.” The Bible apparently goes both ways on the issue.
This also illustrates there is no such thing as “Sola Scriptura.” It’s never “the Bible alone.” It’s always “the Bible plus.” In the case of “Sola Scriptura” Protestants, it’s at least, plus the “human reason” of the interpreter. (It could be plus a lot of things — the magesterium, tradition, etc.)
And it’s not just the doctrine of the “atonement.” It’s in fact, every single letter of TULIP and lots of other verses and chapters of scripture that present this problem. It’s one reason I reject “rationalism” as a mechanism for solving the problem; as valuable a tool it can be, the method of the Bible + rules of reason to make sure the texts work with one another, lead potentially to such numerous contradictory understandings.
The top down approach to biblical understanding on the other hand solves this problem. The Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are the two main players here. And indeed, I think this dynamic is a good argument on their behalf. But they still have to convince that they are who they claim to be: The “true Church” that traces back to Jesus. I’m not convinced, if for no other reason than they both can’t be right. Both can argue each other to a Mexican Standoff regarding such exclusive truth claims. Were I convinced, I’d join the one who convinced me.
So instead that leaves some kind of Protestant option. But I’ve already concluded Sola Scriptura and the notion of the Bible plus a reasoned understanding can’t settle differences in understanding. As a libertarian individualist, I’m interested in taking the notion of Protestant individuality (Priesthood of all believers) to its logical conclusion. Each individual, appealing to his own conscience in good faith, decides for himself not only how to understand the books of the Bible, but also which books are inspired and whether there are errors in them.
The way in which it was determined the Bible has 66 books instead of 73 is complicated and there isn’t a clear objectively provable reason to endorse one canon over the other. Martin Luther in fact, when he was cutting out books of the Roman Catholic Bible wanted to — if I understand the story right — cut into the 66 until his other friends in his movement stopped him. (Luther actually did a Thomas Jefferson to the Bible, or vice versa.)
The Book of Revelation, among others, almost made Luther’s chopping block. Now, I think that book is poetically interesting and well worth reading and reflecting on. But it is so trippy in the way it is presented my conscience instructs that no general principles can be derived from it. The Gnostic gospels are more valuable for ascertaining general truth principles. (And indeed, the early church fathers, though they believed in sacred scripture, did not believe in the Protestant “book of 66.” Once they actually formed the consensus in the late 4th Century, the councils settled on books that numbered in the 70s).
As noted above, I reject “rationalism” as a place to settle these issues because it can’t. Religion, yes, must meet the test of rationalism. If science tells us that, for instance, evolution is true, then a rationalistic religion must explain itself to meet that test. Thomas Aquinas noted that if religion and reason appear to contradict one another you have either bad religion or bad science.
There is still, alas, something beyond citing verses and chapters of scripture and testing according to the rules of rationalistic philosophy. Something mystical. And the mystical is something the individual must experience for herself in order for this truth sense to be understood and validated.
Rational argument and empirical evidence will not prove these truths. You don’t “win” the argument by getting the last word in. A lot of people seem to operate this way; but such feeling is actually a neurosis. Truth is what it is regardless of who gets the last word in or what masses of people believe in. And because neurosis is an imperfection, true religion ought liberate one from such.
That’s one reason I don’t think Luther got it right. He was too neurotic. Neurosis, anger, depression, chaos, addiction often yield valuable outcomes, indeed brilliantly so. People worry themselves into productive responsibility. That crazy depressed but brilliant romantic artist. The Black Swan. Nietzsche, if I understand him right (as the Straussians present him) thought this chaotic energy was key to formulating creative authentic values that make life worth living.
Of all the Christian sects, the Quakers come closest. They call the internal understanding “the spirit” from within speaking. (Though I don’t like how they got their name. Religious truth should make us be still, not make us quake.) Scottish Common Sense philosophers, many of them theistic and Christian of diverse, questionable orthodoxy spoke of internal conscience as a necessary truth testing monitoring mechanism (beyond what the Bible says in verses and chapters and what the external canons of reason and logic can prove and test for). And there is also a long rich tradition of mysticism in Christianity that spans from Meister Eckhart to Thomas Merton.
For the forms of worship I endorse the Quaker’s. The Roman Catholics are the most top down in their ecclesiology. The Baptists are the 2nd most decentralized of the notable sects. As my friend and co-blogger Brian Tubbs, a Baptist Pastor himself, explains why lunatics like the Westboro Baptist Church (and I would add, Steven Anderson) can call themselves “Baptists”:
The reality is that Baptist churches are congregationally autonomous and largely independent from one another, even if they do cooperate together in a fellowship or denominational organization. Such cooperation is voluntary and grants absolutely zero oversight authority to the cooperative body. The chuches [sic] remain independent. And this means that anyone can start a church and call it “Baptist.” Phelps would’ve had a much harder time starting a Catholic, Methodist, or Presbyterian church, because those denominations are structured differently. The ease with which hateful crackpots like Phelps can coopt the name “Baptist” is why many Baptist churches are, in recent years, dropping the name “Baptist” from their signs (and, in some cases, from their official name altogether).
Baptists so believe in the Protestant concept of “Priesthood of all believers” that they have no “Reverends.” But they do have often loudmouthed “Pastors,” speaking from the front and telling the flock how properly to interpret the faith and what to believe.
The Quakers on the other hand, take the notion of Priesthood of all believers to its logical conclusion. No loudmouthed leader from the top or in front or above telling us how to properly interpret religious truth. Rather silence, with each individual congregant having equal rights to speak, when it moves them.
Maybe the individual speaking is right, or not. That’s for each other individual to agree with to the extent it resonates with his or her own conscience.