Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Nature of Religious Authority

One thing about liberals: since their ideology demands that all existing institutions must come tumbling down, you never know where they're going to hit you. Or when. Or with what. Twenty, even fifteen years ago, if anyone had suggested that societal tolerance of homosexuality would lead to its glorification, which would lead to a demand that we change the definition of marriage to allow man to marry man, or woman to marry woman, he would have been laughed at and his suggestion ridiculed.

That was then, this is now.

One of my personal sins, by the way, is a love of controversy. It's fine to score points for God. But if you keep hammering at them over and over, scolding those who disagree with your position, it is appropriate to ask who you are really trying to glorify, yourself or God? The Bible warns against getting into harangues and debates, because someone who does not believe the Bible is not going to be convinced by argument. The Holy Spirit has to do that bit of heavy lifting. The best thing we can probably do for someone who does not see the truth is to pray for him. And a prayer that we get right with the scriptures, rather than expecting the scriptures to get right with us, is as appropriate for the Bible-believer as it is for the Bible-critic.

But does that mean we should never defend the Bible as the authority? We probably should not gird for battle as often as we think necessary. But in times like these, where up is down, white is black, and freedom is slavery, it's hard to believe we should always keep silent.

I got into some arguments recently at the following URL:

The devil didn't make me do it: I'm perfectly capable of getting into mischief all on my own. Pajamas Media is one of my favorite web sites for news and opinion from a libertarian-conservative perspective -- heavy on the libertarianism. Lots of libertarians dislike Christians as much or more than they dislike liberals -- a fact that winds up getting a lot of liberals elected. Quite a few posts in the comments are mine. Some of them, I think, are correct and well-reasoned. Not very many of them were written, however, in the spirit of strictly serving God's purposes. Some of my own crept in, somehow.

Objections to my arguments appear to have come in two basic forms:

1. "Your religious views shouldn't determine policy."
2. "Your religious views are wrong-headed even from a religious standpoint."

Regarding the first objection, it's safe to say that the liberal gambit has worked: somehow, bringing one's religious convictions to the voting booth has been discredited -- it's only a matter of time until it's outlawed. But even the non-religious bring morality into the public sphere. In politics, all voters bring their own values to the issues at hand and vote their conscience -- but if your conscience has arrived at certain positions because of your religion, somehow they are less valid than if someone simply made up his values all on his own. It doesn't make much logical sense, but there it is. I have to waste time explaining that, e.g., when someone calls me a "bigot" for opposing gay marriage, that he too is invoking a particular set of moral values as authoritative -- and if he can be a moralist, why can't I? By what set of standards do we define "bigot", and what kind of authority do those standards carry? At least my cards are showing: the Bible is my authority, and even when I get it wrong, it's still my job to get it right; at least the Bible represents something much bigger than me. But who, exactly, wrote the standards stating that opposition to gay marriage is bigotry? God? Or just some blowhard, like me, who's spouting off on a blog? The Bible has been around for thousands of years; blowhard opinions, including my own, tend to be more ephemeral, like Styrofoam peanuts in a hurricane.

Regarding the second objection, there's probably a more plausible ring to it: it is not hard to believe that I have misunderstood or misinterpreted any given Biblical passage. I can't even get my wife's shopping list right. To say that the Bible portrays an objective truth is one thing; to say that one's interpretation of the Bible explains the objective truth perfectly is something else -- namely, a tremendous leap.

In math, a different assumption at the outset of solving a problem can make a world of difference in the final outcome, and a single mistake made early on in one's calculations can lead to a wildly untruthful answer in the computational endgame. Authority is to religion what assumptions are to math: the basis for everything that follows. In the Protestant fundamentalist world, for example, perhaps the two most well-known schools of thought are Arminianism and Calvinism (there are others). Both schools assume that the Bible is authoritative and inerrant. Calvinism starts from that assumption and builds from it an apparently deterministic universe; whereas, the "Evangelical" takes the same assumption and paints a universe in which human choices are the decisive determining factor in attaining salvation. What this means is that, when someone calls both an Evangelical and a Calvinist "fundamentalist" in the same breath, he may not imagine how different their theologies really are.

But at least Calvin and Arminius start from the same assumption: the Bible is the authority. Other churches have other authorities. The Roman Catholic church's central authority is the church hierarchy: the Pope, primarily. They claim a role, as well, for tradition and the Bible -- but since the church hierarchy decides how to interpret tradition and the Bible, it's still the church hierarchy that rules. The Mormon church, depending on who you talk to, is not even a Christian church at all, as it rejects many of the central tenets of Christianity; however, their authority structure is parallel to the Catholic Church: the church hierarchy is authoritative.

In many of the liberal Protestant churches, however, it's hard to find any authority at all. Browsing the United Church of Christ's web site, for example, it's hard to figure out what they regard as authoritative. If someone knew nothing about Jesus, and were to browse their web site, he could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that Jesus was a 21st-century left-wing activist. Buried, however, in the morass of gay & lesbian awareness tabs and assorted ethnic and immigrations issues, is a forlorn little paper entitled, "What does it mean to take the Bible seriously?" -- as if they're already starting off on the defensive. By all means, follow the link and judge for yourself, but I can't really find a definition of an actual religious authority for the church -- something objective, something bigger than we are. At least the Roman Catholics believe the Pope's ex cathedra pronouncements are inspired by God; the UCC's utterances seem inspired by Barack Obama.

They do seem to be aware that there's a problem, however, and apparently some of their braver members are actually willing to defend the Bible, kind of. Here's a sample discussion talking about a UCC event that took place, the 2000 Dunkirk Colloquy in Dunkirk, New York:

"The Bible both unites and divides us as a church."

The Bible unites, in the sense that it provides an excuse to have a church in the first place, and in particular to pass the collection plate; it divides, however, when someone insists that it means something objective. The Bible, in other words, sounds less like an authority, and more like crazy Great-Aunt Ethel who wanders out of her room sometimes and starts yelling incoherent accusations at the mailman -- that is, something we prefer to keep under wraps and out of sight.

"Our spiritual ancestors have never agreed, even in the first generations of the Christian community, about the right way to read and apply Scripture."

At some point, even the most analytical among us have to make a decision. This sounds more like throwing in the towel.

"Today, views in the UCC (like all other mainline denominations) range from conservative to liberal."

If true, I can only imagine how embattled the conservatives must feel.

"Scripture often quoted by all sides in the ethical conflicts that divide us as well as many other churches."

I don't find a complete sentence in there; if you do, congratulations, here's your law degree. But I gather that the church considers unity to be the highest good, even if it means tolerating widely disparate or even contradictory interpretations of scripture. Who does a UCC member ask when he wants to figure out which interpretations are correct?

"The Bible is God's gift to the church, to be read for our instruction and comfort, but we often use it as a hammer to strike down the arguments of our opponents, or even to exclude each other from the Body of Christ."

That crazy God of ours, giving us a gift that causes us so much trouble -- what was He thinking? If the Bible makes you feel good, use it? That sounds more like a couple of hippies reading "The Joy of Sex" than consulting a religious authority to find some answers. If truth is objective, every once in a while, it's going to hurt. When that happens, does that mean it's time to put the Bible away and break out this month's copy of The Nation magazine?

Let's assume for the sake of argument that a UCC member has read the Bible and decided, since sacrificing babies to Baal was good enough for a king of Judea, then it's good enough for us; he then asks the elders to print up some nice brochures on how burning one's baby to praise a pagan god is a matter of one's own conscience. What should the elders do? If they don't use the Bible to strike his arguments like a hammer, or if they don't excommunicate him, then by what authority do they discipline him? Do they discipline him? We don't want to exclude him from the Body of Christ, after all, do we?

Are there any beliefs that would justify tossing a member out on his keister?

"Right interpretation of Scripture necessarily includes right living, that is, we cannot hear God's word in the Bible if our minds and hearts are closed to each other. These were some of the issues that were explored at Dunkirk."

It sounds like the issues explored were some of the same ones explored by the British at another Dunkirk. I suppose we should be grateful that they consider there is a "right interpretation". But who or what died and made open minds and hearts the sine qua non of Christianity? If A = A, and A = B, and B = C, then A = C, regardless of whether I'm living right or not; my mind and heart are both pretty well closed to the possibility that A is not equal to C. Either the Bible is saying something important, or it isn't. If it is, shouldn't we try to figure out what it's saying? And if it means one thing, does that not preclude its opposite? If it is objective, isn't it likely that it's going to say things we don't happen to like? When that happens, who's wrong? The Bible? If so, we have spoken: our authority is not greater than us; our authority is us.

In the Bible, that's not usually recognized as a good sign.

And if a nominally Christian church doesn't think the Bible is authoritative, I would ask, why bother with calling yourselves Christians? Whose word do we take that Jesus was a figure worthy of being worshiped? If He was merely a great teacher and no more, why worship Him, when studying Him would be more appropriate? If we can't trust the Bible's word, what grounds are there for believing Him to be the Incarnate God? That's a pretty tall story about some dude who wandered around, turned water into wine, fed five thousand people with a couple handfuls of food, healed the blind and sick, raised the dead, and himself rose from death. I wouldn't believe it if I heard it from just anyone.

The great tragedy of our age is that the Church has failed to give proper theological training. I'm not saying we need millions of John Calvins or John Wesleys walking around, only that we need to know what we believe, and why. If our religious authority does not tell us anything transcendent, anything that is objectively true, why must we pay it any heed? We have so little respect for our authority that we treat its truths as optional at best, and bothersome at worst. We cherry-pick the Bible for the parts we like, and explain away or ignore the parts we don't like, because we have become our own little personal religious and moral authorities. We risk becoming fools when we profess ourselves to be wise. In that regard, my impulses are as treacherous as those of my pro-gay-marriage antagonists.

We are all sinners, and have all fallen far short of God's glory. He is gracious and willing to forgive sin, but does that mean we are absolved from the responsibility to recognize and fight the sin in us? As a Calvinist, I believe we can't even do that on our own, but need His help at every step of the way. And as a Christian, I believe the Bible when it tells me my heart is the most deceitful of all organs. We work out our salvation in fear and trembling, but the good news is we have an authority who promises deliverance from sin and forgiveness when we repent.


Glen said...

I thought you might be interested in this article about the gay agenda being pushed on elementary aged students in California schools.

Whether you believe in the biblical admonitions against this sort of thing, the Darwinian decree against survival of the unfit or the scientific assessment of the American Psychiatric Association, before they succumbed to PC pressures; this just seems like a bad way to run your life, let alone your culture.

Lee said...

Love those Republican web sites. They know the right things to say to rile the conservatives. If they know the right things to say, then it follows that they know the right things to do. But when you need the Republicans, the sound of crickets chirping dominates the night.

Ken Christian said...

Good stuff, Lee. The debate really goes right back to the Garden where our first parents were asked, "Did God really say?" We should remember who it was doing the asking.

As for the general discussion concerning morality and politics, the hardest thing to convince people of is that the whole thing isn't a question of whether someone is trying to impose a moral standard but rather which moral standard one is seeking to impose. This is really the crux of the matter.