The "how can I know what is true?" group, and its postmodern descendants, the "that may be true for you, but not necessarily for me" group, are not doctrinally oriented. For many, the aversion to doctrine links up with a strong bias toward personal autonomy, in contrast with those who want the assurance of a group identity. This is a period in human history when we seem to be unusually free intellectually to put together our own personal understandings of defining and pursuing happiness and figure out how those understandings mesh with communal identity, loyalty, and responsibility. This freedom is not actually free: by and large, people need some level of affluence to be in this happy position. What looks to many North American Quakers like a natural state of affairs can come across to Quakers in other parts of the world as unsustainable self-indulgence. I think those critics have a point; much of the romance of "seeking," skepticism, and radical autonomy seems rootless and narcissistic to me.
On the other hand, in more high-context societies, I find people who use loyalty and social obligations as a way to wield power over others. Certainly there have been some ugly cases of corruption among Quaker leaders in economically distressed parts of the world—leaders who have indulged their egos while lambasting Westerners for our supposed decadence and cultural imperialism. These leaders may have all their doctrines lined up in a row, but are ultimately just as hollow as those who go through life using Quakerism as a social mask for their personal autonomy.
Doctrines are nothing more than seasoned and corporately ratified insights into the ultimate nature of things, expressed in a coherent, communicable form. Doctrines deserve respect, even though the granting of that respect may require community members to lower their walls of autonomy enough to acknowledge that wisdom doesn't start and end with them personally. To dump doctrines altogether may be a sign of intellectual laziness, but it may also be a declaration of independence from the community that holds those doctrines dear. Well, 'tis the season (at least in the USA) for declaring independence; Independence Day was just two days ago. However, sometimes I get the feeling that people don't really want to leave the community, they want the benefits of affiliation with no costs. They want identity and autonomy, too.
I don't intend to caricaturize anyone; identity and autonomy are not entirely contradictory. We cannot honestly take on a doctrine if we don't understand it, if it appears to be in a language or from a social context with which we are completely unfamiliar. Too many people in the "where will I spent eternity" camp seem willing to accept doctrines wholesale for the sake of acceptance, by essentially shifting their brains into neutral. (More about this below.) But it seems completely reasonable to me to ask people, as a condition of belonging to an established group such as Friends, to grapple with the foundational doctrines that we share with other Christians, and with the specific insights into discipleship that our ancestors affirmed prayerfully, sometimes at great cost. To "grapple with" is not the same as swallowing uncritically, but it does mean questioning the conventional secular wisdom that all evangelical Christians are fundamentalist robots or foaming fascists; that Christianity is somehow responsible for colonialist excesses, degradation of the environment, patriarchy, and other outright falsehoods, and furthermore doesn't have the capacity for mystical wonder that glistens from any third-hand gnostic derivative. "Grappling with" means taking the time to distinguish the actual doctrine from the exaggerations of opponents, and to learn enough of the issues behind the doctrine to gain some sympathetic understanding of its origin. if someone is willing to do that much work to understand my community in its historical depth as well as contemporary reality, I'm not really concerned about whether he or she signs on some literal dotted line. We have the makings of a worthy dialogue.
I'm reading Anthony Bloom's book О встрече (On Meeting) . The very name of his book is interesting; the word "meeting" in his usage has the same multidimensionality that it has for us Friends. (Canadian Friend Deborah Haight meditated profoundly on the word in her 1987 lecture and pamphlet simply entitled Meeting.) On the back of Bloom's book are these words: "Meetings come in all kinds—superficial, profound, truthful, deceptive, salvific—but they all begin at the same point: A person with a Gospel-illuminated consciousness, or simply with a sharp, lively human consciousness, must learn to see that another person also exists."
The last couple of days I've been reading a chapter in Bloom's book, "Christianity today," that has a lot to say about doctrine. Here's a sample, from an interview originally published in 1990. I love how Bloom combines his defense of doctrine with a deep and persistent humanism. This excerpt begins with a question from the interviewer:
The truths of Christianity don't change, but in various historical situations, various aspects of these teachings become more important. What is Christianity's specific message for Russia today?
I completely agree with this way of putting the question. If we think of the development of theological thought in the Christian church, we see that it took place gradually. The first generation knew Jesus Christ personally. They likely knew him first in his youth. Cana in Galilee and Nazareth were, after all, just a few kilometers apart; it's hard to imagine that Jesus Christ living as a child or teenager in Nazareth didn't know Nathaniel, who lived in Cana. So at first they knew him simply as a living person, and very likely were struck by the uniqueness of his personality; and subsequently greater and greater depths were revealed to people until the moment came when they realized who he was: the Living God become a living human. This was their first-hand experience, at the absolute center of which was the living Jesus Christ, known and familiar to them. And when Christ died and rose again, they would go around speaking of someone they knew personally.The apostolic call was directed to those who knew Christ from the start; they could testify about all of this. Next, this testimony began to develop, questions arose about who he truly was. Yes, he was God, but he himself said that he was the son of God; he spoke about God as being his Father, leading to questions about what this Fatherness was about. The descent of the Holy Spirit was not a theological reality but purely an empirical, true-life reality. The Holy Spirit took up habitation with the Apostles, who began to speak about the Spirit as you could only speak about a force that is directing you concretely and experientially. That's how Trinitarian theology began to develop and to take on more and more precision. There were arguments, which in a sense was very good. The Apostle Paul says, "For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you." (1 Cor. 11:19.) And gradually, the Orthodox creed—through searchings, through half-light and half-dark, through the struggle of opposing schools, opinions, personalities—crystallized into something that holds, in a kind of equilibrium, that which can be expressed in words or in liturgical act, and that which cannot be expressed in any way, because in the final analysis, when you meet God face to face, all you can do is be silent. The English and the German words "God, Gott" are from an ancient root that means "That, before which you fall on your knees"—and precisely that is your final step.
These days it's becoming more urgent to consider that if the Biblical story is true, both Old Testament and New Testament—if God truly became a human, we can talk about humanity in completely new terms. A human being is not just a more remarkable ape who learned to do things other apes don't know how to do. The human being is a being that, right from the start, carries in itself the image of God and that can in its depth and width become a vessel for divinity, and not just a vessel in the sense that, say, a bowl holds its contents, but let's remember what Maxim the Confessor said about incarnation. The union of divinity and humanity in Christ is like the union of fire and iron. If you put a sword in the forge, it goes in colorless, grey, dead, but when you pull it out it is glowing red-hot. Flame stays flame and iron stays iron, but now you can cut with flame and burn with iron. A human being is deep, great and mysterious enough to be in full union with God without ceasing to be human. And that is something no materialist can say.
Still another thing: Speaking of incarnation ... Incarnation means that the divine unites with the physical. This speaks of the fact that the universe of physical matter is capable of reunion with God in that indescribable miracle that Paul described: "so that God may be all in all." (1 Cor. 15:28.) And it seems to me that, more than previously, we must now speak of the greatness of the human being, of believing in the human person with the same depth and assurance that we use when we say, "I believe in God."
And one could say something else, something that inspires me very much: namely that God is far from dense. If God creates some creature, it's not so that creature would simply perish or would disfigure the world God created. This means that every time a person enters the world, this is a divine act of faith in that person: God believes in us, individually and collectively—in all of humanity and in each of us. And that's a wonderful thought: God believes in us. God is relying on everything from us. Because we speak of God out of proportion, as if the person is insignificant and God is gigantic. We see this in icons, and this is the only way of showing God's grandeur. But how often you see Jesus enthroned, and by his feet a pair of saints, like little mice. This doesn't speak about the greatness of humanity, only about the greatness of God. We don't have icons that show human greatness—except the icon of Christ. Look: "Behold the Man," this is a man, a person; it's not you, it's not her, and it's not us, but him, the unique Man. If you want to be a person in the fullest sense, this is what you must be. And right here is the problem of our day: the human person has lost faith in the human person. Humans have showed their shadow sides too much, and only the Christian, in my opinion, can still believe in humans. I remember that one Western priest wrote somewhere that when God looks at us, God doesn't see our good deeds, nor our successes (which might in fact not be successes) but in the depths of each person sees God's own shining image, which may grow to the point of completely filling, in fact transfiguring, the person. That's what it seems to me we need to talk about in one way or another: I believe in the human being, God believes in the human being.
That's probably no less true in other countries—or do you think that this is especially important for the specific case of today's Russia?
Right now this is important for all countries, because everywhere we've lost the consciousness of human greatness. I speak about this in the West [Bloom lived and served in London at the time of this interview] and I think that here we need to talk about it much more. The human being has become a political creature, or a sort of high-status animal; the world becomes an anthill. But it generally takes much talent to construct a genuine anthill, whereas we humans construct our anthill less artfully. And I think that Christians are obligated to work together with all other people, those of goodwill and those of ill will, without distinction, in constructing the City of Man*, but adding to this City of Man the dimensions of depth, width and holiness, so that it could one day turn out to be the City of God, the first citizen of which would be the Man Jesus Christ. This concerns all of humanity now, in any case—whether Christian or pseudo-Christian.
[*I'm violating my own gender-inclusive-language rule here because the phrase "City of Man" seems closer than anything I could think of to convey Bloom's thought.]
Two items have come to me recently that remind me of how far short we evangelicals sometimes fall when it comes to enjoying the true liberty of the Gospel.
Item #1 is this long discussion on a consistently useful Web site, mondaymorninginsight.com. This is a wonderful/disheartening glimpse into evangelical church politics, with group-think and twisted logic struggling against common sense, and everyone trying to grasp whether the influence of money and power is somehow warping the whole discussion. Read far enough, and you'll see Friend Richard Foster, author of the best-seller Celebration of Discipline, linked with the allegedly New-Age "heresy" of "spiritual formation." All I can do is shake my head.
Item #2 is Randall Balmer's article, "Jesus Is Not a Republican," excerpted recently by the Chronicle of Higher Education from his upcoming book Thy Kingdom Come. How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical's Lament. Balmer summarizes much of what drives me nuts about cultural evangelicalism: the bait-and-switch tactics; community-building through shared straw-man arguments and enemy lists; manipulative logic that argues backwards from undesirable outcomes ("If you don't believe this passage literally, you compromise the whole authority of the Bible." WRONG!); and the magical use of the Bible, which is a form of heresy that is highly honored among evangelicals.
Let me explain that last point briefly. The authority of the Bible actually rests on the same foundation as all other doctrines: the uncoerced, prayerful ratification of the church. If you believe that God can lead through humans assembled for prayerful discernment (as we Quakers do; it's the entire foundation of our ecclesiology!), then it is no sweat to understand the authority of the Bible. Devout humans met together and dialogued for generations and came to a sense of the community over what the canon of scripture was. God did not wave any sort of magic wand at any point to cut short that process of divine-human collaboration, nor did God dictate the original materials that became recognized as the Bible. All sorts of textual problems and apparent contradictions melt away as soon as we recognize that God's leadership was just as decisive in the assembly of the documents as in their literal word-for-word creation, and probably more.
If we don't believe that God acted with authority in the creation of the Bible, then we have no business pretending to respect Quaker process now. However, if we do respect the process of believers assembling prayerfully for corporate discernment, and recognizing and minuting the will of God, then we are bound to acknowledge that this was the process, over several generations of lively and open dialogue (not conspiratorial politicking, as attractive as that theory might be for people with an investment in minimizing Biblical authority) that led to the composition and ratification of our Bible. No magic, but something far better than magic: incarnation.
Here are some excerpts from Balmer's article. I've taken the liberty of quoting quite a bit, since the article is locked up in the Chronicle's archive$. However, I do plan to buy the book, and hope you do, too.
In November 2002, 30 years after my previous visit to Wheaton College to hear George McGovern, I approached the podium in Edman Chapel to address the student body. At evangelical colleges like Wheaton, in Illinois, there are two kinds of required gatherings: chapel and convocation. The former is religious in nature, whereas a speaker at convocation has the license to be far more discursive, even secular — or political. The college's chaplain, however, had invited me to preach in chapel, not convocation, and so, despite temptation, I delivered a homily that was, as I recall, not overly long, appropriate to the occasion, and reasonably well received.At this point, I reluctantly cut off this excerpt in the hope that you'll get the book and read the rest of Balmer's fantasy address to Wheaton's students.
I doubt very much that I will be invited back to Edman Chapel. One of the benefits of being reared within evangelicalism, I suppose, is that you understand the workings of the evangelical subculture. I know, for example, that when my new book on evangelicals appears, the minions of the religious right will seek to discredit me rather than engage the substance of my arguments. The initial wave of criticism, as an old friend who has endured similar attacks reminded me, will be to deny that I am, in fact, really an evangelical Christian. When that fails — and I'll put up my credentials as an evangelical against anyone's! — the next approach will be some gratuitous personal attack: that I am a member of the academic elite, spokesman for the Northeastern establishment, misguided liberal, prodigal son, traitor to the faith, or some such. Another evangelical friend with political convictions similar to mine actually endured a heresy trial.
The evangelical subculture, which prizes conformity above all else, doesn't suffer rebels gladly, and it is especially intolerant of anyone with the temerity to challenge the shibboleths of the religious right. I understand that. Despite their putative claims to the faith, the leaders of the religious right are vicious toward anyone who refuses to kowtow to their version of orthodoxy, and their machinery of vilification strikes with ruthless, dispassionate efficiency. Longtime friends (and not a few family members) will shuffle uneasily around me and studiously avoid any sort of substantive conversation about the issues I raise — and then quietly strike my name from their Christmas-card lists. Circle the wagons. Brook no dissent.
And so, since my chances of being invited back to Edman Chapel have dropped from slim to none, I offer here an outline of what I would like to say to the students at Wheaton and, by extension, to evangelicals everywhere.
Evangelicals have come a long way since my visit to Edman Chapel in 1972. We have moved from cultural obscurity — almost invisibility — to becoming a major force in American society. Jimmy Carter's run for the presidency launched us into the national consciousness, but evangelicals abandoned Carter by the end of the 1970s, as the nascent religious right forged an alliance with the Republican Party.
In terms of cultural and political influence, that alliance has been a bonanza for both sides. The coalition dominates talk radio and controls a growing number of state legislatures and local school boards. It is seeking, with some initial success, to recast Hollywood and the entertainment industry. The Republicans have come to depend on religious-right voters as their most reliable constituency, and, with the Republicans firmly in command of all three branches of the federal government, leaders of the religious right now enjoy unprecedented access to power.
And what has the religious right done with its political influence? Judging by the platform and the policies of the Republican Party — and I'm aware of no way to disentangle the agenda of the Republican Party from the goals of the religious right — the purpose of all this grasping for power looks something like this: an expansion of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the continued prosecution of a war in the Middle East that enraged our longtime allies and would not meet even the barest of just-war criteria, and a rejiggering of Social Security, the effect of which, most observers agree, would be to fray the social-safety net for the poorest among us. Public education is very much imperiled by Republican policies, to the evident satisfaction of the religious right, and it seeks to replace science curricula with theology, thereby transforming students into catechumens.
America's grossly disproportionate consumption of energy continues unabated, prompting demands for oil exploration in environmentally sensitive areas. The Bush administration has jettisoned U.S. participation in the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, which called on Americans to make at least a token effort to combat global warming. Corporate interests are treated with the kind of reverence and deference once reserved for the deity.
The Bible contains something like 2,000 references to the poor and the believer's responsibility for the poor. Sadly, that obligation seems not to have trickled down into public policy. On judicial matters, the religious right demands appointees who would diminish individual rights to privacy with regard to abortion. At the same time, it approves a corresponding expansion of presidential powers, thereby disrupting the constitutionally mandated system of checks and balances.
The torture of human beings, God's creatures — some guilty of crimes, others not — has been justified by the Bush administration, which also believes that it is perfectly acceptable to conduct surveillance on American citizens without putting itself to the trouble of obtaining a court order. Indeed, the chicanery, the bullying, and the flouting of the rule of law that emanates from the nation's capital these days make Richard Nixon look like a fraternity prankster.
Where does the religious right stand in all this? Following the revelations that the U.S. government exported prisoners to nations that have no scruples about the use of torture, I wrote to several prominent religious-right organizations. Please send me, I asked, a copy of your organization's position on the administration's use of torture. Surely, I thought, this is one issue that would allow the religious right to demonstrate its independence from the administration, for surely no one who calls himself a child of God or who professes to hear "fetal screams" could possibly countenance the use of torture. Although I didn't really expect that the religious right would climb out of the Republican Party's cozy bed over the torture of human beings, I thought perhaps they might poke out a foot and maybe wiggle a toe or two.
I was wrong. Of the eight religious-right organizations I contacted, only two, the Family Research Council and the Institute on Religion and Democracy, answered my query. Both were eager to defend administration policies. "It is our understanding, from statements released by the Bush administration," the reply from the Family Research Council read, "that torture is already prohibited as a means of collecting intelligence data." The Institute on Religion and Democracy stated that "torture is a violation of human dignity, contrary to biblical teachings," but conceded that it had "not yet produced a more comprehensive statement on the subject," even months after the revelations. Its president worried that the "anti-torture campaign seems to be aimed exclusively at the Bush administration," thereby creating a public-relations challenge.
I'm sorry, but the use of torture under any circumstances is a moral issue, not a public-relations dilemma.
And what about abortion, the issue that the religious right decided in the early 1980s was its signature concern? Since January 2003, the Republican and religious-right coalition has controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress — yet, curiously, it has not tried to outlaw abortion. Why? Could it be that its members are less interested in actually reducing the incidence of abortion itself (in which case they should seek to alter public opinion on the matter) than in continuing to use abortion as a potent political weapon?
Equally striking is the rhetoric that leaders of the religious right use to motivate their followers. In the course of traveling around the country, I have been impressed anew by the pervasiveness of the language of militarism among leaders of the religious right. Patrick Henry College, according to its founding president, Michael Farris, "is training an army of young people who will lead the nation and shape the culture with biblical values." Rod Parsley, pastor of World Harvest Church, in Ohio, issues swords to those who join his organization, the Center for Moral Clarity, and calls on his followers to "lock and load" for a "Holy Ghost invasion." The Traditional Values Coalition advertises its "Battle Plan" to take over the federal judiciary. "I want to be invisible. I do guerrilla warfare," Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition, famously declared about his political tactics in 1997. I wonder how that sounds in the ears of the Prince of Peace.
Such rhetoric and policies are a scandal, a reproach to the gospel I honor and to the Jesus I love. I went to Sunday school nearly every week of my childhood. But I must have been absent the day they told us that the followers of Jesus were obliged to secure even greater economic advantages for the affluent, to deprive those Jesus called "the least of these" of a living wage, and to despoil the environment by sacrificing it on the altar of free enterprise. I missed the lesson telling me that I should turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, even those designated as my enemies.
The Bible I read says something quite different. It tells the story of ancient Israel's epic struggle against injustice and bondage — and of the Almighty's investment in the outcome of that struggle. But the Hebrew Scriptures also caution against the imperiousness of that people, newly liberated from their oppressors, lest they treat others the way they themselves were treated back in Egypt. The prophets enjoin Yahweh's chosen people to "act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" and warn of the consequences of failing to do so: exile and abandonment. "Administer true justice," the prophet Zechariah declares on behalf of the Lord Almighty. "Show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other."
The New Testament echoes those themes, calling the followers of Jesus to care for orphans and widows, to clothe the naked, and to shelter the homeless. The New Testament I read says that, in the eyes of Jesus, there is no preference among the races and no distinction between the sexes. The Jesus I try to follow tells me that those who take on the role of peacemakers "will be called the children of God," and this same Jesus spells out the kind of behavior that might be grounds for exclusion from the kingdom of heaven: "I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me."
We could have a lively discussion and even vigorous disagreement over whether it is incumbent upon the government to provide services to the poor, but those who argue against such measures should be prepared with some alternative program or apparatus.
The agenda of the Republican-religious-right coalition, moreover, is utterly disconsonant with the distinguished record of evangelical activists in the 19th century. They interpreted the teachings of Jesus to mean that, yes, they really did bear responsibility for those on the margins of society, especially for the emancipation of slaves and for the rights of women.