Shuck and Jive

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

Saturday, June 11, 2011

What Presbyterians Believe (except me)

I received a special issue of Presbyterians Today in the mail. The cover says, "What Presbyterians Believe."

Charles Wiley, the coordinator of the PC(USA) office of theology and worship, wrote the first article, "Reclaiming the Trinity." The subheading reads:

The Trinity is not an optional 'extra' to God; it is the very nature of God as revealed to us in Scripture.
In the article he writes:
We haven't rejected the Trinity outright; we simply do not seem to need it anymore. If we can express our faith using only "God," we have become functional Unitarians.
He is not happy about that. He wants us to "reclaim the Trinity."

I like Charles Wiley. I have met him. He is a great guy. I wish I had half his intellect. I would love to spend hours hashing this stuff out with him. I also appreciate the magazine,
Presbyterians Today.

But I disagree that we need to reclaim the Trinity except as one metaphor among many.
If it is true that we Presbys have become "functional Unitarians" it may not be because we are bad or wrong. It could be because the Unitarians are more persuasive. (Many of the Unitarians I know have moved beyond "God" altogether).

I do not mean this as an insult, but I find much of our modern theological work little more than dealing in antiquities. The Trinity, the person of Christ, the sacraments, the authority of the Bible, eschatology, and so forth were invented in the pre-modern era and are best suited for that time period.

This does not mean that we are smarter or more hip than the people who invented these ideas. We simply have changed. Trying to retrofit our belief systems to a modern understanding of the Universe, Earth, and Earth's inhabitants turns theologians and pastors into pawn brokers for ancient religious relics that fewer and fewer people embrace.

If folks aren't interested in the Trinity and have become functional Unitarians, it could be because they have moved. Rather than make people feel bad, theologically inept, or heretical--"You are not Presbyterian unless you believe all of this stuff"--maybe we should listen to what people are really saying.

While I find the Trinity to be poetic and artsy, I have a hard time finding any reality to it. The only reason I am forced to care about it is because of the power issues regarding ordination. We require modern people to affirm anachronistic "vows" thus forcing them to take great liberties in their interpretation.

We could make another decision. We could change. We could change our theology and not try to make old concepts fit new realities. We could decide and say clearly that the creeds, doctrines, and confessions tell us where we
were (and some of us still may be), but now we are on the move.

The issues that plagued folks in the 4th, 16th, and 17th centuries are not ours. We have different issues. We honor and learn from our past but we are not beholden to its ideas.

In response to "What Presbyterians Believe" (except me), here are a few things I think about.

I title the following "What
This Presbyterian Believes."
I believe...
  1. in evolutionary theory. This obviously includes human beings. Evolution and science in general have had major implications regarding theology that we mostly ignore or in our worse moments deny.
  2. in higher criticism of the Bible. The Bible like all other books are human products (what else could they be?) and should be read as such as opposed to special revelation from a divine being.
  3. that all religion is a human construct. Its primary purpose has been and should be an attempt to find and evoke meaning amidst life's contingencies as opposed to speculation regarding supernaturalism.
  4. that "God" functions as a symbol. The concept of "God" is a product of myth-making and "God" is no longer credible as a personal, supernatural being. For me, "God" functions as a shorthand for the Universe and sometimes for qualities and aspirations I wish to pursue or to emulate.
  5. that human consciousness is the result of natural selection. Human beings do not have immortal souls nor will consciousness survive death. Thus there is no afterlife. There is no heaven, no hell, and no need for salvation from one realm to another.
  6. that there is no "end" in human time. Earth is four billion years old. Earth was here long before human beings. Earth will spin on its axis and revolve around the sun long, long after the last human being has breathed her last. We will have to find meaning and our "eschaton" in this life.
  7. that Jesus may have been historical but most of the stories about him in the Bible and elsewhere are legends. But he's cool. He serves as a human ideal and a focal point for devotion (like an ishta deva).
  8. that industrial civilization is in for a long descent. Peak Oil and Overshoot should be everyday terms in our lexicon. We ought to be putting our religious energies toward spiritual, emotional, and practical preparation for this reality.
Those are some of the things that I think about. Again, I don't insist and I could change many of my ideas tomorrow. That is where I find myself in the present. I guarantee you, I am not alone. I do think it would be in our denomination's interest to step out of our doctrinal boxes and face squarely these changes.