Saturday, June 19, 2010

How important is orthodoxy?

No small question! I mean 'orthodoxy' in the broad sense, referring to the 'fundamentals' of the Christian faith, what we attempt to explicate in the Apostle's Creed, or other similar statements. Let me start by saying that I try to take these fundamentals very seriously. I say 'try' because there are times I question some of them, and wonder about their necessity. And a lot of the time I am confused by them. (The more I learn about God, the more I realize I don't understand God!) But, I am willing to accept the basic foundations of the faith:

God is one, and yet triune, Christ is God who became a person, and died, and rose from the dead to reconcile all creation to God. The church is essentially the presence of Christ in the world. One day God will complete the reconciliation of all creation. That includes belief in an afterlife, the resurrection of the dead.

Let me repeat, I believe all this - that is, I am willing to place my hope in it, even though I don't always understand it. But, therein lies my question. How important is it for us to correctly believe these fundamentals? The key word is, of course, 'correctly'. I assume that nearly everyone agrees God is beyond human comprehension. I would be very surprised by, and skeptical of, anyone who claimed they have God figured out. God would not be a very impressive deity if we could figure him out!

However, there are still many Christians, I suspect, who - even if they agree with the above assumption, are confident that they way they view God is accurate. They may not claim to know everything about God, but what they do know about God, they know correctly.

How do they know this? Well, they have some particular interpretation of Scripture, or appeal to reason and common sense, or set of experiences, or storehouse of tradition to which they appeal. More likely, they have a combination of all of the above. And, like all human attempts to understand something, Christian beliefs include views that are more general, and more specific.

What do I mean by general and specific? Well, here is an example of a general Christian belief: "There is a God." Clearly, it would be very hard to claim that one is a Christian if one does not believe there is a God. A specific belief, on the other hand, might be something like, "All Christians were chosen by God before creation, and God already has decided who will be saved and who won't." This is a belief grounded in a particular interpretation of Scripture, and at the end of the day, it is hard to see why a Christian would have to hold this belief. After all, you could be one of the chosen, and be following Christ, even if you had never heard about being chosen before creation. In other words, you don't need to know how you are saved, in order to be saved.

But, one might ask, how do we determine which beliefs are general and which are specific? Well, early on, the church developed the creeds and councils as ways to make decisions about what constitutes proper Christian belief. This is how orthodoxy developed; beliefs would arise about which someone said, "That doesn't seem right." There would be a debate among all the church leaders - sometimes they would last for decades! - and finally a decision would be made; this particular belief is/isn't correct, and so was labeled as either orthodox or heresy.

Now, the big problem with this approach is, naturally, that human beings are imperfect and make mistakes. So, decisions would be made that were later reversed. Arguments that could not be resolved sometimes led to factions and splits - although, prior to the Reformation, the church generally had a much better track record of maintaining unity in the midst of disagreement. Unfortunately, there has also been no small amount of violent response to these disagreements, which thankfully our modern world has been able to alleviate somewhat. At any rate, it is clear that maintaining orthodoxy has been fraught with difficulties.

HOWEVER, it is worth pointing out that the basics (i.e. The Apostle's Creed, etc) have managed to withstand nearly 2,000 years of struggle, and the vast majority of Christians still agree on these beliefs. So we can reasonably assume that the general beliefs of Christianity seem a bit more solid and have a wider range of support.

Still, none of this really answers the question of importance. If we agree that orthodoxy has value, then we can also ask about the constitution of that value. Is it simply in believing these 'basics', or is the value in a posture of faith that expresses willingness to believe, in spite of what the 'basics' may be? If we say what matters most are the beliefs themselves, we run the risk of claiming to have figured God out. Additionally, we seem to be setting ourselves up as potential heretics, if and when some of the beliefs are modified. (Granted, with the basics, it seems highly unlikely there will be much modification! Most arguments are about the specifics...)

On the other hand, if we say that what matters more is our posture of faith, that is, the willingness to simply follow Christ no matter what, we seem to be caught in a vicious circle: Who decides what constitutes a posture of faith? A further problem - we seem to be setting ourselves up as potential heretics, since any number of varying factors might influence our posture. So what do we do?

The danger of heresy exists either way. This leads me to think that those who claim to have a 'correct' view of God ought to be very humble and slow to speak, since that danger of heresy is always present. I do not claim to have a satisfactory answer to all of these issues, but I do have a couple of suggestions.

1. When in doubt, relying upon the basic beliefs of Christianity seems wise. In general, there is little reason to deviate from these basics unless one has truly struggled with them in a variety of contexts and with a variety of conversation partners.

2. There is nothing wrong with questioning your/our beliefs! Doubt may lead one away from God, but doubt is always a crossroads: will I be led by this question to a new realization about God, or will I be led to deny God? There is a big difference between rejecting some belief and replacing it with a better belief, and rejecting belief. Of course, the follow-up will be: How do we know what 'better belief' means?! (I'll leave that for another post!)

3. Fear of heresy is still fear. We should be concerned about heresy, but not afraid of it, because God knows we don't have everything figured out. We all slip into heresy from time to time, and with God's grace we are able to wriggle free. But heresy is not equivalent to damnation. If we can learn to be graceful with each others forays into heresy, we will all be better off in the long run, and may actually grow to be more orthodox.

4. Orthodox belief and a willing posture of faith always have to be held together. There is no simple formula. At the end of the day, to claim that one is 'correct' is to answer the wrong question. The question isn't "Are my beliefs correct or not?" The real question is, "Given that I have placed my faith in Christ, how can I best reflect that faith as I live my life?" This involves not only learning to express our beliefs as clearly and coherently as possible, but it means taking them seriously, and actually following what we say we believe. Otherwise, it doesn't really mean much to us, does it?

I welcome your thoughts.


Thankfully said...

Thanks for the blog Geoff. I really appreciate that final statement/question...

>>The question isn't "Are my beliefs correct or not?" The real question is, "Given that I have placed my faith in Christ, how can I best reflect that faith as I live my life?"<<

Taking this to heart, what does Jesus asks of us on a daily, hourly, and minute to minute basis? If this can be our focus we can more easily avoid the little snares of division the enemy has set in place.

Anonymous said...

Good words, Geoff. I'm left wondering what it means to believe at all. Is belief a conclusion one comes to and acts on it? Is it a state of mind that one clings to in the face of contradictory facts? Can we conjure up belief? Does someone truly believe something if their actions consistently contradict that belief? If there is a God, a God who is the business of drawing humanity to itself, what good are our beliefs when surely the desire of this creator is infinitely more powerful and steadfast than any belief we could hold anyway? *falls down a rabbit hole* - Roy

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am from Australia.

"religious orthodoxy" always follows the "golden rule"--those in power get to define what is "orthodox".

Orthodoxy is just the self-justifying ideology of those who won the power battles of their time(s) and place(s). And of those who wish to consolidate and extend their worldly power.

It seldom, if ever has (or had) anything to do with Truth and Reality.

For instance consider this radical critique of the FICTIONAL origins of the the usual Bible narratives.

And of religion altogether.