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Beliefs, Heretics & the Shift

Saturday, September 25th 2010 @ 1:15 AM    post viewed 1066 times

I’m often perplexed by the way many well-meaning, self-described conservative religious folk derogate other well-meaning religious folk as ‘liberals’…as if to say liberal = “not onto it”, illegitimate, unmindful, lax and remiss.

They paint the straw man, and say ‘liberals’ do not take the Bible seriously -

That ‘liberals’ hold their beliefs in spite of the Biblical evidence -

That ‘liberals’ stubbornly refuse to accept what are the patently obvious theological, philosophical or historical facts.

Some even point to scripture to explain that the ‘liberal’s’ error is a result of a sinfully depraved mind – a mind given over to Satan – a mind which cannot accept the ‘truth’, and that further, that this state of affairs was preordained by God, who chooses some and not others, and further still, that they, as God’s appointed “keepers and protectors” of orthodoxy, have a right and indeed a duty to speak the ‘truth’ and publicly denounce the heretics.

And ‘liberals’ are by no means guiltless! They are just as good at painting the straw man conservative as an uneducated (or over-educated), paranoid, reactionary, judgmental red-neck.

I’ve observed that many liberals and conservatives seem to fail to recognize that those of the other ‘camp’ are such, not for lack of genuine or pious faith and enquiry, but because of it! They fail to understand that serious theological, philosophical, historical and spiritual exploration can lead one to different theological destinations. And they fail to recognize that each one believes that their respective theological destination is the ‘truth’, and the onlyreasonable position to hold.

We fail to realise, just how similar “the other” is.

In this respect, I think this excerpt from a recent talk by Rev. Dr. Keith Mascord (formerly of Moore College, Sydney) at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on 30th May 2010, is very helpful:

In terms of the conservative/liberal spectrum … literalistic fundamentalists down this end — highly skeptical & hardly-recognizable-as-Christian liberals way down the other end … most people on this spectrum are committed to truth (in one form or another).   Some think that we can’t know the truth, but even they believe that is true.

 We all want to live in the light of what is true. And there are pitfalls at both ends of that spectrum aren’t there – and in the middle and all the way through?!

Conservatives down through the years have too often resisted the truth (when it comes from sources outside of the Bible) even when that truth becomes plain and well-evidenced.  They have held out for a flat earth or an earth-centered universe or a young earth or slavery or apartheid or patriarchy.  They have even been known to lie for God – in trying to hold onto beliefs when the evidence keeps mounting up in the opposite direction … and they have to twist the evidence to make it fit their view.

Liberals, on the other hand, although they are more open, in principle, to following the evidence wherever it leads, too often have just given in to the latest fads and fashions; without being critical, as they should be, of many of these trends.

But my point is that we don’t have to be afraid of the truth – whatever its source; whether geology or psychology or history or archaeology or physics.  All truth is God’s truth – and we need to be open to reading and re-reading our Scriptures in the light of all we know to be true.

We won’t be led into all truth – unless we are always open to the truth – no matter how inconvenient or unsettling.”

Well said I say!

But I think it is truly sad, that this ‘battle of beliefs’  has so dominated public discourse and Christian practice that Christians are no longer known for how they love one another (cf John 13:34-35) – and in many ways, Christianity has become more concerned with what you believe than how you love or how you live..

I’ve felt a personal transition of the past few years, more and more shifting to a position that is less interested in holding ‘right’ beliefs, and much more interested in, and placing much more importance on, how those beliefs are manifested and lived out….

I personally find the straight dichotomies of right/wrong, truth/error, in/out utterly wearisome, too easy, and tragic, having little to do with Jesus’ prime directive, let alone what ‘the other’ actually believes, and why.  I’m convinced there is a kind of ‘third way’ that sees the ‘truth’ – or rather our understanding of it – as in transition – and the Christian life as a journey of continual spiritual transformation focussed on living, loving God and loving others.

I think this is characterized by:

…a greater emphasis on the way of life of Jesus – rather than an articulated and succinct belief system…

…more about living out the command to be a beacon of good news – to embody the kingdom of God and bring about the Kingdom of God – rather than defending a certain creed, and trying to argue, plead, or pray others into agreement…

…an embrace of sacred love and mystery, myth and wonder, a comfort with “I don’t know” – than an obsession with certainty, ‘answers’, and the abc of salvation…

…a devotion to how I can be a better lover of people and Jesus-follower – than judging who’s in and who’s out of the kingdom of God, and who’s theology is ‘right’…

….a way of living and loving, focusing on justice, compassion and genuine relationships here and now, rather than taking on the role of saviour, judge and executioner that rightly belongs to God alone.

I’m reminded that Jesus never gave his interlocutors a theology test as a pre-requisite for salvation, except when it was to expose the futility of men making God in their own image, and boxing faith up in rules and laws rather than a wide-open space of surrender to the living God, who, as exemplified by Jesus, is much more the loving Father of the prodigal son than the megalomaniacal vindictive Judge painted by Dawkins. I look at the parable of the sheep and the goats, or Jesus’ commandment to Peter to “feed my sheep”, or even Paul’s commandments to new disciples, all as being mostly about living in the right way rather than believing the right things.

Granted beliefs are important – Paul goes to great lengths to sketch a Messianic theology to Greek believers – and granted, the belief that beliefs aren’t the end game is indeed a belief in of itself…

But I firmly believe we aren’t FOLLOWERS of Jesus by what we believe – we’reFOLLOWERS of Jesus by how we live. Just as Paul once said, “faith without works is dead”, the only legitimate beliefs are those which intersect with action.This is the only faith that can save.

In How (Not) to Speak of God, Peter Rollins articulates the shift like this:

Instead of following the Greek-influenced idea of orthodoxy as right belief… The emerging community is helping us to rediscover the more Hebraic and mystical notion of the orthodox Christian as one who believes in the right way – that is, believing in a loving, sacrificial and Christlike manner. The reversal from ‘right belief’ to ‘believing in the right way’ is in no way a move to some binary opposite of the first (for the opposite of right belief is simply wrong belief); rather, it is a way of transcending the binary altogether. Thus orthodoxy is no longer (mis)understood as the opposite of heresy, but rather is understood as a term that signals a way of being in the world rather than a means of believing things about the world”.

The trouble is, this shift from ‘holding right beliefs’ to ‘believing in the right way’ is heretical, being radically at odds with orthodoxy and the dominant doctrines, theories and practices of much of modern Christendom. Technically, it is a shift from orthodoxy to orthopraxy.

It is a call for a revolution, a revival, or more – a renewal, where being a Christian becomes once again inseparable from works of love, hospitality, goodwill, generosity, justice and compassion.  Where we don’t just say we care for the poor, for example, but we actually become friends with the poor. Where, for example, as in the Abolitionist movement, the call to follow Christ constitutes both a commitment to faith and social justice.  (see this short post on the history and shift of the ALTAR call).

And so perhaps, as Mike Todd points out, heresy is not, and should not be avoided as a dirty word:

As humanity evolves, our understanding of God does as well. Please hear me on that: God does not change, but our view of God does. Or it should. And again, that makes sense if we truly see transformation as a desirable bi-product of faith. Transformation is impossible without heretics; transformation is led by heretics.

It seems to me we’re in good company, as Jesus himself was the great heretic. He was the visible image of the invisible God who declared that existing religious dogma was no longer in force. And as a man, his contrary opinions eventually got him killed.

The problem as I see it is this: Our more fundamental friends who have appointed themselves as the keepers and protectors of the dominant religious theories, opinions, and practices–in other words, defending us against heresy–have confused that with blasphemy.

Blasphemy is a horrendous thing. But in a world where the religious status quo is simply not working, heresy is a desirable thing.

Heretics are the ones I want to speak with and listen to, because, by definition, they are the only ones saying anything new and different. They are the ones trying to put words to our ever evolving understanding of God.”

And in that spirit, I believe Jesus is calling us to be devout, prayerful, radical and (ir)reverent heretics… not so much committed to a set of particular beliefs and creeds, but committed to a way of  living, Jesus-style:

loving and living together in the Jesus kind of way,

treating others as Jesus taught and did,

fighting systemic evil and injustice as Jesus did, and

working and praying for the “kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven”, just as Jesus said we should.

Salvation and conversion then, shifts from being principally about embracing a new certain set of beliefs,  to participating in new way of living…

…and this changes everything.

This article was first published on the Very Small Steps Blog in June 2010

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Comments

Dave Smith
Group Administrator
fatherdave said on Sunday, September 26th 2010 @ 12:38 AM:

Perhaps the problem really lies in a misunderstanding of what 'truth' is.

As Kierkegaard pointed out, when Jesus says, "I am the Truth" he shows us that truth is not a sum of concepts but a human being.  The goal then (according to the great Dane) is not to know the truth but to become the truth! Cool