Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Heresies Distressed

A commenter, Grace, and I have been talking circles around each other on this post, Make No Vow. It got a little sharp at the end when Grace asserted:
What you're doing is morally, and ethically wrong. And, not all are blind to see it.

You're using your position of trust, and authority, mouthing traditional sounding terminology, to introduce a radically different faith into the structure of the church, using the resources of the PCUSA.
I give her a point for bluntness. I think this is worth some discussion. I have heard this general observation (in this case criticism) from a variety of sources within our denomination. We use the same words but we don't mean the same thing.

While I don't think I am morally or ethically wrong, I can understand how evangelicals see it that way. We put a lot of effort in attaching a particular meaning to religious symbols. We look at a cross and we know what that means. We sing "Jesus Christ is Risen Today" and we know what that means. We participate in communion and we know what that means. We affirm that God created heaven and earth and we know what that means. The Bible is the word of God we say and we know what that means as well.

Or do we? We have invested meaning in these symbols, stories, hymns, and rites to the degree that we often cannot distinguish the symbol from the meaning, until someone comes along and offers a different interpretation. More often than not, that interpretation is upsetting, at least initially.

The task of theology is the interpretation of religious symbols. It has been its task since our ancestors made statues of the Earth Goddess (and probably long before that). Why are there so many different religions and denominations and differing views among people of the same denomination? It is because we are constantly reinterpreting symbols in our search for meaning. And we don't always see things in the same way.

Evangelical (or orthodox, I guess) folks believe in the "master narrative" of Christian history. According to this narrative, there was a time in which the essence of faith was pure. The truth of God was revealed perfectly. This was the time of the Apostles who got the real thing from Jesus and passed it on faithfully through the orthodox believers. From the perspective of the master narrative, theology is largely an exercise in keeping the story straight from the heretics on both the left and the right who keep messing it up. Innovation is wrong. Reinterpretation is not only an error, but of the devil.

This narrative continues through the Reformers, particularly Calvin. For Reformed thinkers, Calvin's theology is pure theology. He swept away (which was for him) all the papist nonsense that accumulated through the centuries and went back to the Bible, to the apostles, to the real thing. Calvin is the icon of Reformed Theology. If we want to be truly Reformed, we must believe as Calvin believed (or pretty darn close).

Evangelicals believe that this master narrative of Christian origins is the truth. So, when scholars criticize the validity of the master narrative (and show that it is an orthodox fiction), introduce higher criticism, embrace modern cosmology and evolution, study and compare Christianity with other religions, and on and on, evangelicals have a lot of heretics with whom to do battle. I don't envy their task.

For them, like Grace, religious symbols have a particular meaning that has been preserved by the master narrative of Christian history. By interpreting them for the 21st century, I am "introducing a radically different faith into the structure of the church." I am messing it up. Oh, and the Jesus Seminar is too. And that Bishop Spong. And feminists. And the liberation theologians. And Charles Darwin and his Darwinists. And the enemy list gets longer and longer.

I feel for Grace and for those in the PC(U.S.A.) who feel the need to put all their energies into securing church property, breaking away, or trying to change the church bureaucracy to keep the gospel pure. I feel for you but I am not interested in changing church structures to make you happy.

We have bigger issues. Ecology, Economy, War and Peace. It would be nice if the church would put its energies into helping out a bit there.


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