Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The dangers of dying for doctrine

I recently came across two excellent videos on Youtube discussing the psychology of fundamentalism. They aren’t very flashy and are in fact more essay than video, but what they lack in style they more than make up for in substance. This was by far the best description of how the fundamentalist mind works and really helped me understand why they act and speak the way that they do. I would recommend that anyone who is able to should watch it, you can find part 1 here and part 2 here.

The reason I’m bringing these videos up is because I now realize just what a Sisyphean task it is to try to get fundamentalist to hear my point of view. The fundamentalist mind is largely incapable of processing things like nuance, irony and shades of gray and tends to instead see things in the very simplistic categories of right/wrong, good/bad, black/white, God/Satan only. In fact to even suggest that things may be more complex than that and that there may in fact be more than one correct answer tends to land you (and everything else you may have to say) on the side of wrong/bad/Satan. After all, to a fundamentalist Christian, the word “compromise” is the dirtiest of all swear words. The thing about people who divvy up the whole world and everything in it into neat piles of right and wrong is that they tend to classify themselves (and their beliefs) as “right” which inevitably means that all who differ from them must be counted as “wrong”. Nowhere is this kind of thinking more prevalent than in the area of doctrine.

Few things in the world can compare to the unwavering faith of a fundamentalist regarding his doctrine. Their doctrine is something they will stand for, fight for and defend with their dying breath. Most fundamentalists would rather be physically tortured than admit they may have been mistaken about their doctrinal views (in fact they may even welcome torture). As with most things in the fundamentalist mindset the reasons for this are simple – all their doctrine is based on the Bible, the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, therefore the Bible is perfect and therefore their doctrine is perfect. Now this certainly seems straightforward and logical on the surface – which is one of the reasons I was a fundamentalist myself for many years. But here is a question that never seems to occur people with this belief: If all fundamentalists base all their doctrine on Scripture only, why do most fundamentalist doctrines differ so much between denominations? Different denominations may all claim that their doctrines are completely Bible based but may end up having completely different ideas about “right doctrine”. Of course to a fundamentalist this is really a non-issue – if you don’t agree you are wrong, if you say you base it on the Bible you obviously don’t understand the Bible the right way.

Of course everyone except the fundamentalists sees the problem with that line of thinking. After all if they are basing their doctrine on the Bible and you are basing your doctrine on the Bible and the Bible is perfect and as clear and straightforward as you think, shouldn't you logically come to the same conclusions? The problem here is that the Bible is not as clear cut, simple and straightforward as the fundamentalist mind perceives it to be. In fact you would be excused for wondering if these proud defenders of the faith have ever actually bothered to actually read the Book they are constantly beating people with!

The truth is that a lot of what we teach in church isn't nearly taught as clearly in Scripture as some may believe. Some of the things that are taught are based on misunderstandings of Scripture - binding and loosening would be perfect examples of this. In the hands of charismatic Christianity one brief verse was turned into voluminous teachings about spiritual warfare. However in its original context it had nothing to do with fighting in the spirit world but was actually a rabbinical term referring to the allowing or disallowing of certain practices, ethics or teachings. Of course shoddy interpretation isn't the only reason for differences in doctrines. There are other cases where we have to infer doctrine because it isn't explicitly stated in the Bible. While that doesn't mean the doctrine is wrong it would be wrong to count it as an absolute and allow for no other interpretations than our own. Here are some well known examples:

The Trinity

The doctrine may be pretty much universally accepted among Christians (I have come across some exceptions though) but nevertheless there is no reference to, or discussion of the Holy Trinity anywhere in the Bible. This doctrine is a perfect example of making an educated guess in order to understand something that is unclear. Based on the information that we have, the Trinity is the best explanation. If the Father is God and Jesus is God and the Holy Spirit is God and there is only one God then logically the best explanation would be the Trinity. (I do however use the term logically very loosely here) While I personally agree with this doctrine I do also recognize that we are trying to wrap our minds around something far bigger than ourselves here. As a doctrine the Trinity may be 100% correct, but there is the chance that we are wrong. Can we even begin to grasp what the word God means? Can we really be 100% confident in our ability to dissect and comprehend His essence?

The makeup of man

I was brought up to believe that man is made up of a body, a soul and a spirit. In fact there was some rather detailed theology in place discussing what each part was like and what functions they have. Interesting, considering there is really not much in Scripture to back this up! Basically there are 3 theories regarding the makeup of man: The Monist view where man is just animated flesh, the dichotomous view that man is body and soul/spirit and the trichotomous view that man is body, soul and spirit. Thing is, you could make a Bible based argument in favour of any one of these. Actually the one with the most evidence seems to be the dichotomous view as it has the largest amount of Biblical support. In almost the entire Bible the terms soul and spirit are used interchangeably and everything that is said of the one is said of the other (this includes sinning, praising God and feeling emotions and at death, Scripture interchangeably states that either the “Soul” departs or the “Spirit” departs. Do a word search sometime, its fascinating!) The trichotomous view is based on a grand total of two verses (1Th 5:23 and Heb 4:12) and it can be argued that these Scriptures no more intend to list soul and spirit as separate components than for example Mat 22:37 intends to classify heart, mind and soul as separate components. Point is, there is no way we can know any of this with dogmatic certainty. We can dissect the body but there are no anatomy handbooks for the soul.

The Rapture

The Rapture of the Saints is another well established doctrine that you will not find directly referenced in the Bible. In fact the word "rapture" isn't even in the Bible! This is not to say that there will be no such thing as a rapture but once again we are making conclusions from a handful of ambiguous verses. The Bible does clearly teach about the Second Coming of Christ in which the believers of the world will be "caught up" to Christ but the version of events as portrayed in for instance the Left behind series is mostly guesswork. Likewise any doctrines about the rapture happening "pre-tribulation" or "post-tribulation" - both camps can quote Scripture to support their position but since there is no explicit discussion of the rapture anywhere in the Bible it is impossible to be dogmatic about this. Here is an interesting article giving a fuller discussion of the arguments for and against the rapture.

The End Times

Of all the things to be dogmatic about, eschatology is probably the most senseless. Yet, to date that hasn't stopped some rather sharp divides from forming in the Christian community. I'm not going to discuss the merits of Amillennialism, premillennialism and postmillennialism here because the point is that there are plenty of ways to interpret the book of Revelations (and Daniel and the End time prophecies of Jesus). They contain so much imagery and symbolism that no one in his right mind could claim to have the one and only correct interpretation. Surely there can be no talk of literal interpretation here because such a large part of the content is clearly not literal! Yet somehow people still do... To date almost every generation (for the past 2000 years) have come to the conclusion that they are the ones referenced in the Book of Revelations and that the events and people of their day fit all the prophecies therein. This however just highlights the sheer amount of guesswork and creative interpretation involved in eschatology. Compare for instance the views of dedicated Bible literalists Jack Chick on the one hand and Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins (authors of the Left Behind series) on the other. Both claim to give Biblically accurate portrayals of the end times in their books and yet Jack Chick has the Pope as the Anti-Christ and the Vatican as Babylon while the Left Behind series portrays the Anti-Christ as a charismatic eastern European and takes allusions to Babylon to refer to the actual city of Babylon in Iraq (rebuilt of course).

I don't think fundamentalists are necessarily bad people for believing the way they do. Certainly the stark shades of good and evil with which they colour their world must on some level make life seem simpler, safer and easier to deal with. However, fundamentalism is still a dangerous and destructive thing. It has the appearance of zealously guarding the faith but in actual fact it is destroying it. In my previous post I discussed the hypocritical way that those who claim they follow the Bible literally actually follow some parts while ignoring others. Here I tried to show that many of the doctrines fundamentalists claim they would give their lives (or destroy yours if need be) to defend are built on nothing more than guesswork and conjecture. None of this helps the Christian faith. In fact it's unthinking, unquestioning, hypocritical behavior like this that make a lot of people not want to have anything to do with Jesus. I know that no fundamentalist will be able to hear a word I just said but I really wish I could get through to them. Things are not all black and white, there are in fact several shades of gray. Of course this doesn't mean I think that all of Christian doctrine is negotiable - nothing could be further from the truth! But if you are waiting for me to list the doctrines one shouldn't negotiate on you have missed the point of this entire post. Thoughtless Christianity is dangerous and destructive, if you believe in something you should know why you believe it. Personally I can respect many viewpoints, even ones I don't agree with but I find it exceedingly hard to respect an opinion that is held for no other reason other than the fact that "that's what I was told". Being a thinking Christian is a confusing and frightening path sometimes, but I wouldn't have it any other way because to me that is what a life of faith is really about. The black and white world of fundamentalism takes no faith - just brainwashed obedience to the doctrines of an organization. That may feel safe, that may feel easy but that is not faith. I would want no place in a religion that didn't allow me to believe AND think (thanks to fundamentalism that idea seems like a complete oxymoron to the ears of most non-Christians now) Somehow I think the Bible would have looked a lot different if that's the kind of life God wanted for us!


TPluckyT said...

Personally, I'm a Pan Tribulationist . . . I believe it will all pan out it the end . . .

Have you heard of Karl Barth? You're thinking reminds me of what little I know about him . . . Here is an excerpt from Wikipedia . . .

Although Barth's theology rejected German Protestant Liberalism, his theology has usually not found favour with those at the other end of the theological spectrum: confessionalists and fundamentalists. His doctrine of the Word of God, for instance, holds that Christ is the Word of God, and does not proceed by arguing or proclaiming that the Bible must be uniformly historically and scientifically accurate, and then establishing other theological claims on that foundation.

"Some evangelical and fundamentalist critics have joined liberal counterparts in referring to Barth as "neo-orthodox" because, while his theology retains most or all of the tenets of their understanding of Christianity, he is seen as rejecting the belief which is a linchpin of their theological system: biblical inerrancy. Such critics believe the written text must be considered to be historically accurate and verifiable and see Barth's view as a separation of theological truth from historical truth. Barth could respond by saying that the claim that the foundation of theology is biblical inerrancy is to use a foundation other than Jesus Christ, and that our understanding of Scripture's accuracy and worth can only properly emerge from consideration of what it means for it to be a true witness to the incarnate Word, Jesus"

RandomSue said...

Um, what he said.