Monday, May 24, 2010

I Don't Know... and Neither Do You.

The exercise of "doing theology" can be a fascinating process, seeking to place into arbitrarily decided, logical categories the diverse and varied bits of data one can find regarding things pertaining to faith. The categories can include (but are not limited to) matters regarding the nature, character and habits of what one calls "God," the makeup of human beings and the manner in which the two entities interact. Other categories can emerge as well, such as beings that seem to exist but do not fit either of those categories (angels, demons, spirits of various types, etc.). The entire process is predicated on the assumption that there exists more to reality than what can be empirically or materially proven. Thus these are matters of "Faith," not science. The "science" of thinking about God (theology) may have a set of criteria, but must not expect the level of detail achieveable in the "hard sciences" (geophysics, biology, chemistry, etc.).

In the Christian tradition, the parameters for "doing theology" have chiefly emerged from the Holy Scriptures (The Bible). However, since the Bible requires interpretation, the question of "who has authority to interpret it?" has also been hotly debated. This has given rise to "Church tradition" being a trusted benchmark for whether one is reading the Bible "Christian-ly." In ancient times, concerns over whether those reading the Scriptures would arrive at "Christian conclusions" necessitated major biblical themes being codified into "Creeds." Today, one can be reliably confident that they are "doing theology" in a Christian manner if they fall between the boundaries set by the great Creeds of the ancient Church (The Apostle's Creed, The Nicene Creed, etc.). The ancient Church "Fathers" wisely defined in the Creeds what is emphasized in the Scriptures, and central to Christian faith. However, they also wisely left undefined those matters that are not emphasized as much and are not as central. It would seem that even in a pre-scientific era, the Fathers knew not to require the same level of scientific precision that would later be pursued in...oh say... nuclear energy applications.

However... the wisdom of the Fathers appears largely absent in the present religious landscape of the West. Our curiosity gravitates automatically to nearly any matter not made plain in history or Holy Scripture. That the Fathers, the Apostles, or God (for that matter) left a thing under-defined is by no means a deterrent from our endless speculations. In our twisted re-direction, we emphasize that which Scripture does not, and marginalize that which it does. That a thing cannot be well known, is not considered a significant obstacle from trying to know it better than anyone else.

How is it that the authors of the great Creeds sought merely to assert that God created "all things visible and invisible," but did not codify how God created these things? Did they lack the "sophistication" to offer such "scientific" details? Or were they instead moved along with Divine wisdom to simply assert THAT he created, and render further details unnecessary? I argue the latter. Yet curiously, Evangelicals of the West have made the "how" a tenet of faith. Allowing those without faith to somehow "draw the battle lines," Evangelicals have declared the Creeds' pronouncement of "God as Creator" to be inadequate. "One must be against Darwin to be for Christ"... goes the refrain. Matters that cannot be known are assumed to be "knowable enough" to constitute a new layer of criteria for orthodox belief. I lament this with head hung low.

Yet this is only one example... Many others can be offered. The myriad ideas that have arisen regarding angels, demons, Heaven, hell, the return(s) of Christ to Earth and the "filling" of the Holy Spirit grow so fanciful and outlandish as to welcome popular superstitions with open arms. For this reason, the mind develops a sort of "theology fatigue." Recognizing that the "goofy" so often prevails over the "thoughtful" in such topics, the reflective observer simply "shuts down" and declares, "I'm out." The instinct to muse creatively about things not emphasized in Scripture or Creed leaves the bystander discouraged about the level of certainty entertained regarding what cannot be known. It's not just that I admit I don't know certain things... I don't think you know them either (but that certainly hasn't discouraged you from asserting it as though it was a central doctrine). Sigh.

Because I used to fear appearing unlearned, and the acceptance of peers was so paramount to self-esteem, I would offer my speculations about all manners of concepts, regardless of whether they were demonstrable from history or Holy Scripture. Having increasingly lost my appetite for that sort of "creative thinking" though, I'm now much more willing to simply say "I don't know;" and in my braver moments might even add, "...and neither do you."

Saturday, May 22, 2010

I have No Opinion

There is a phenomenon I've observed in our culture that is not restricted to a single arena. It is the situation wherein you hold a differing opinion than some of those around you, and they simply cannot handle that. They must set upon you like starving Dingos to persuade you to their point of view, discourage you from further voicing your thoughts or to marginalize you in the ideological landscape. The notion that you might thinking differently than they do cannot be tolerated (in contrast to the "tolerance" supposedly valued by the those same people). There's a sense in which they hold the "orthodox faith" in a specific category, and you are the unrepentant "heretic." As a result, sharing your thoughts on a matter can be risky business - even among those you call "friends" (facebook's redefining of that term notwithstanding). To this end one must be prepared: if you share your thoughts on a matter, and it deviates from the "party line," you may be required to debate your point with nauseating endurance by those unwilling to simply let you have your view.

It is because I have no appetite for debating, arguing and rhetorical "combat" that I now have learned to keep many viewpoints to myself. Those around me that have constituted that "swarming Piranha" can glory in their triumph for having successfully intimidated someone into keeping his opinions (for the most part) to himself.

I find this prevalent in two arenas (though there may be others): politics and religion. In both of these, the propensity for debate and argument is strong. Ever since preaching replaced "the table" as the primary "sacrament" of the Protestant church, the art of speech as a persuasive enterprise has permeated throughout not only Western Christianity, but politics as well. Prior to The Democratization of American Christianity, personal views would have appeared more tolerable because (1) kings did not have to persuade subjects to vote for them every few years, and (2) pastors did not have to persuade people to remain in their church. However, as western culture has progressively moved toward the necessity to persuade every individual, the rise of the opinionated person has become so commonplace as to nearly constitute a next "phase of evolution." As a result, anyone with a strong opinion is (or has to be) in "persuasion mode." I'm seen as a "preacher" for my viewpoint, proclaiming forth the "correct" perspective and shouting down all opposition.

In the religious arena, my experience has been that the fundamentalist mentality will not countenance a differing viewpoint. It's never enough how much in common you might have with someone in the same broader faith context. On the contrary, the differences (no matter how slight) are cause for their alarm; to the extent that they will "root out" the deviant within their midst. It is not enough to hold in common the same basic tenets of faith, particularly in regards to (in my case) historic Christianity. No, the manner in which your smallest opinion differs from mine must be discovered and camped on until it's all we talk about. It's the most important thing I know about you, and the major issue in which I need to convince you to think the way I do. Whether or not you like me or can stand my presence is of no consequence; your complete agreement with me is all that matters.

Such is it in political discussions as well. I am sure that there exists plenty of this type of person on both sides of the political spectrum, but because I am a "conservative" (with "libertarian" tendencies), I've experienced it mostly from those on the ideological "left." Post any opinion or share any idea regarding my distaste for government expansion, the eroding of personal responsibility or monstrous taxation, and "it's on." It is not enough for those friends or acquaintances of mine that fit well within the "liberal" or "progressive" category to simply shake their heads and think, "There he goes again." No... their biting comments are nearly inevitable. Not content that my view differs from theirs (even thinking me misguided), my view must be "shot down" with righteous fervor and forceful argumentation. It is simply intolerable that I might have a different opinion. It is not enough to subscribe to a different political philosophy, my view must be demeaned and mocked with biting jabs until I finally "shut, the heck, up."

Well, to all of my debaters and arguers, I raise a glass in your victory. I am successfully intimidated. You win. I am now, by and large, fearful of posting anything on facebook or twitter regarding politics, government, or those goofy ideas you hold about "how many Angels can dance on the head of a pin." Since I'm so confident I'll never persuade you either, I'm not going to waste energy trying. I'll simply vote how I vote, worship how I worship, and hopefully raise children that are pretty reasonable too. But around you, I pretty much have no opinion. Why? Because it's just not worth expending the energy to endure the onslaught of your intolerance. Congratulations... My silence is your glory (and the saddest part is, I'm sure you think so).

Friday, May 7, 2010

Why do you do it?

"Sunday's Coming" Movie Trailer from North Point Media on Vimeo.

I simply could not resist. I'm teaching a course wherein we evaluate religion in ancient Israel, and with this wisdom try to evaluate ourselves. For this reason, a little satire goes a long way in helping us maintain a healthy perspective. This is so awesome!