This is the third post in this series. Here are the first two:
What Presbyterians Believe (except me)
What Presbyterians Believe (except me) Part 2
My series began in response to this special issue of Presbyterians Today.
You can go to the Presbyterians Today website and read articles about various things "Presbyterians Believe."
These articles are not definitive statements about what Presbyterians believe. These articles are the opinions of particular authors about what they think Presbyterians believe or should believe.
Presbyterians in the PC(USA) have a Book of Confessions and a Book of Order. They make up our constitution. Both of these books change as we vote to change them. Even the vows ordained officers affirm are subject to change. Views of the Bible change. Theological theories change. We could even decide to throw out some creeds and add books to the Bible. We could toss the Nicene Creed and add the Gospel of Thomas.
I cannot think of anything that is not theoretically subject to change. Actually, what I would really like to see is to change our approach to canon and creed and allow them to be porous and seen as resources for wisdom rather than sources for belief.
While these changes are theoretically possible, the denomination cannot handle too much change without splitting. Fracturing occurs even in response to small changes. This is a reason churches and denominations are so reticent to change. The pain of change is too great. It includes loss of people and resources and lots of nasty sniping along the way. But there comes a time when the pain of not changing becomes greater than the pain of changing, and change happens.
The points I am making are these:
- Presbyterians don't have a list of things we are supposed to believe, and
- What Presbyterians believe is not static. We are always in flux.
The challenge is that the world is changing so quickly and what we know and how we know it has changed so dramatically that compared to what we are learning through science traditional forms of theological reflection sound like quaint medieval fairy tales.
Through the 19th century (and in evangelical circles still today) the Bible was regarded as a fairly reliable account of the history of the world. Now we see it as mostly fiction. Rather than God being the author of the book, God becomes a character like Zeus or Athena in a book of dated mythology and legend.
The great Christian doctrines such as Trinity, Creation, Sin, Christology, Atonement, and Eschatology, are no longer great. They are shadows. They don't speak of reality on a grand scale like they once purported to do. They may fill an emotional or psychological niche here and there. For more and more people they hold little interest or suasion. The world has passed these doctrines by in the way that science has left alchemy.
The church is now pulled by a first group who wants to hold on to these doctrines and deny reality (ie. Creationism) and a second group who wants to change theology in response to the insights of science and the humanities. There may be a third group. These are the folks who are scientists six days a week and on Sunday put on the faith hat and believe even when it makes no sense. I have a soft spot for this third approach but I don't know if it is sustainable. Maybe. As to the first group I just hope they don't do too much damage in their panic while their worldview crumbles around them.
This second group is where I find myself. What can be salvaged from our Christian past? Are there resources within it that can help us make life more humane, meaningful, and prophetic? How might we appreciate the universe as itself holy and transcendent? Do we reclaim and reinterpret Jesus and God or do we let them go? How can we regard the Bible and our tradition both critically and as a source of wisdom? To use Karen Armstrong's language, how can we draw from the mythos so it can dance with the logos? I am speaking of the poetry, music, and heart of faith. Finally, what do we do with our faith communities, our churches and institutions? How do they adapt?
And the question with which I started this post, what do Presbyterians believe? It sounds rather small now. But I ask in the spirit of affection. What becomes of this institution that I have grown to love and that has served me as I have served it? Will we be stuck in "beliefs" and heresy trials or will we be able to embrace a posture of openness, learning, and compassion?
I think our denomination because of its polity and history is in a fairly good position to adapt to these changes. Because we don't have lists of essential tenets and because we allow freedom for our governing bodies to elect leadership and because we do embrace science and social justice we may be able to hang on and hang in. We may be smaller as the disaffected grow frustrated and find ways to leave with property but those who remain may find a new sense of intellectual vitality and a sense of purpose.