Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The guise of authority, arrogance, and ambiguity

Here's what I've been thinking lately... distilled as a rant.

There is a cacophony of stupid doctrines resounding around the Christian community because people often don't seem to realize that teachers who (arrogantly) claim to teach "the truth" can in fact be mistaken. The common appeal to the authority of tradition isn't valid if the tradition is wrong. Yet many just seem to believe what they're told because someone says "it's the truth" without investigating what warrants that claim. The thing is, the many "true" doctrines out there are not harmonious - they don't all fit together. So what seems to be happening is that they are becoming blurred by ambiguity.

People increasingly pick and choose whatever doctrines suit them, but they keep all the same language to talk about them. So superficially, it sounds like everyone believes the same thing. But in fact Christians can mean very, very different things by the same words. This is what I mean by ambiguity.

So take the idea of "grace" for example. According to scholars, the Greek word (charis) was originally quite a clearly understood word used in the ancient Favour System, where it referred to having someone's favour or a favour given to someone. These days, I have read and heard "grace" being used to describe pretty much anything good or pious-sounding that involves God. It's perhaps the most non-meaningful word used by Christians now precisely because it's used to mean so many things. It's not only God's act of sending Jesus. It's his willingness to forgive us. It's the new covenant we're under. It's the means of our redemption. It's God empowering us, even "working in us" like we're some kind of marionette being pulled by the strings of grace. It's how God's looks at us, what he gives us, why he gives us it. It's the opposite of "law", "legalism", "striving", "effort", "works" and any other equally ambiguous terms that Christians don't like. It's everything Christians want and the opposite of everything they hate. Don't think, just "rest in grace".

Then there's "faith". When directed towards a person such as Jesus, the Greek word pistis seems to have originally referred to ideas of faithfulness, obedience, loyalty and commitment to the person. These days, though, "faith" is used to justify whatever people can't justify through normal means. "Faith" is what assures believers that whatever they happen to believe is true (which of course isn't much assurance at all). It is a gift from God, but if you struggle to have it then it's your own fault, your own "disbelief". "Faith" justifies whatever ideas you want to hold and provides a firm and solid foundation from which to reject any ideas that don't like. It is the answer to all problems, the cure for all uncertainty, and the carpet under which to sweep all contradictory evidence. All pain, evil, trouble and intelligence suddenly disappears if we just have "eyes of faith." Don't think, just "have faith".

Complementary to faith is the idea of revelation, especially in Reformed circles. This is the truth divinely revealed by Scripture, which both the Jews and the early Christians needed to be interpreted carefully. The same Scripture can be interpreted in sometimes widely different ways. Many people who hold quite contradictory views can claim to have a divine revelation of truth - but they can't all be right. People often seem to ignore this though. Instead, they appeal to the authority of a divine revelation of Scripture, but they seem to actually be appealing to the authority of their own interpretation of Scripture (whatever than interpretation may be). The consequence is that people use this idea of having a "revelation" to justify whatever silly interpretations of Scripture they may have, and they arrogantly dismiss any and all opinions contrary to their own.

Then of course, there's the Holy Spirit. Now I'm not sure how the early Christians understood this, but I suspect that very few Christians these days correctly understand how they did. It seems to me that the early Christians saw this Spirit as a kind of disposition of character, and that by sharing "the mind of Christ" we share his Spirit also. Today, the Holy Spirit is often thought of as some kind of external invisible cloud that floats around near the ceiling of church buildings, or that lurks around the dim corners of our hearts. It has become so mystified with ambiguous and subjective personal cognitive experience that it has almost become meaningless. There may be authentic experiences with God, but Christians seem to welcome all manner of psychological effects masquerading as the Holy Spirit. The emotional and physiological results are often seen as authentic "experiences with God" - but they seem to bear little fruit beyond the physiological high. Of course, if you express skepticism about the validity of some of these religious experiences, you just don't have enough faith and you need to accept more of God's grace...

And there's the often mentioned "personal relationship with God". Now I think God can still interact with people personally, and the early Christians probably did too, but the modern idea of a "personal relationship with God" seems quite dangerous. It's dangerous because it's almost entirely subjective, and so can potentially be used as an invalid source of authority. These days God seems to have become the ultimate emotional substitute for an intimate relationship. In whatever ignorance they may enjoy, people seem quite happy to project onto God whatever thoughts, feelings, and views they want. There seems to be no clear doctrine of a "personal relationship with God" and everyone is left quite at liberty to imagine what God might be telling them. For example, how many times have you heard young Christians think God's telling them to marry the girl they're attracted to? Here's where the ambiguity and Christian terms and the cacophony of stupid doctrines really come into play, because people use them to construct their idea of God and his relationship with them. They reinforce their own ideas with "faith" and the experience of the "Holy Spirit", all the while taking comfort in "grace" if their character and lives don't seem to be moving in the direction Jesus taught.

So because of the ambiguity afforded by modern Christian terms, the likelihood of some Christians these days believing biblically accurate doctrines seems alarmingly low. Yet their eagerness to assert the authority and truth of their beliefs is alarmingly high. Does Christianity make these people arrogant, or would they be arrogant whatever they believed? Does Christianity attract a certain kind of person? How should Christians and non-Christians respond to these issues?

And what happens for the other people, who like me want to follow Jesus, but don't wish to believe stupid doctrines and imagine a inaccurate relationship with God that will meet their psychological needs? I suppose their Christianity will be as difficult and rewarding as it is authentic, and I suppose they will be humble in proportion to the amount they are willing to learn and grow. As for me, I will continue to pursue God and what is right, to do what I can to understand the bible accurately, and to be willing and open minded in sharing my thoughts with others while using all my faculties to discern what to believe as best as I am able. To help with this, I will try to be clear about my ideas rather than ambiguous. And with luck and some concerted effort, perhaps I will be able to avoid arrogantly claiming authority for my ideas, and instead to let them stand or fall on their own merits.


era said...


I wonder though, how and why has it grown into what it currently is from what it formly was?

Christina said...

*grand* Nicely put, Reubs :)

Ah, now I don't feel like such a lone lune for not being a 'typical' christian and thinking it's all a bit, um, crap.

Reuben said...

Thanks for the comments...

Given 2000 years of passing on tradition, it only takes a little difference in interpretation between each generation to end up with a very different religion.

Christina, it's not all bad - I hope I didn't give that impression. There are many good Christians and good aspects to Christianity. I was merely focussing on misunderstandings and poor thinking that I think Christianity could do without.

Jim said...

and I suppose they will be humble in proportion to the amount they are willing to learn and grow

Then it sounds like you aren't very willing to learn and grow... :P

What I mean is: for a post accusing other people of arrogance, it comes across as very arrogant. Which is weird. Because you're not normally arrogant in person. And I'm sure you don't mean it that way. But somehow, often in posts like these, you come across sounding hypercritical and conceited. Like other people are idiots and need to learn from the intellectual studies you've done. And that any claimed experience of God outside of your paradigm must be a delusion that people need to be cured from. And that you despise people who still cling to bits of "conventional" 20th century Christianity. Which I hope isn't true. Because that might include me.

anyway - more thoughts - on what you actually said, rather than the tone with which it gave off when I read it - may follow later

Reuben said...

Thanks Jim. Criticism accepted =) You're right that I did not intend to be arrogant, and I hope that I'm not arrogant, but I can see how I may have given that impression in this post.

I'm not quite sure what you mean by arrogance, though, because it seems to be a different idea of what I would consider arrogance. Would you mind clarifying that for me? I think there's a big difference between arrogance and expressing a strong opinion. Strong opinions may be or may not be justified - so I don't think it's arrogant simply to express opinion. I could strongly advocate that the earth is round, but it doesn't mean I'm arrogant for saying so. Just because I've expressed some strong opinions, it doesn't mean I'm arrogant for holding them or advocating them.

What I see as arrogant having or showing feelings of unwarranted importance out of pride. In other words, I see arrogance as thinking of one's opinion more highly than one ought for poor reason. I think my opinions here might be important, otherwise I wouldn't have written anything, but I don't think they're important simply because they're my opinions. I don't think I say these things out of pride. I also see arrogance as not fairly considering other's views, but I strive to fairly consider other's views. So if, having read this, you think I am actually being arrogant rather than just sounding arrogant in my post, please tell me. =)

Kerry said...

Hi Rueben,
I really agree with you about people constantly following doctrines
a)because the enlightened one said God told him
b) because everyone else says it is true
c)this has been believed for hundreds of years.

Luther said once, something like “ Learn from me how difficult a task it is to change the views of a multitude when those views have been followed by many and for so long…” Entrenched beliefs have an inertia all their own.

We are also in agreement about the coherence or lack of it when viewed as a whole. The truth cannot be contradictory and this helps to convince me that Christ is the way. The way the doctrines fit together- dare I say systematically. I think many doctrines so called could be shown to be untrue if there was consistency and a willingness to follow through the logical sequence to the conclusions. When doctrines clearly contradict each other then something has to give. But of course speaking of truth and untruth, right and wrong and endeavouring to weigh it all up just shows that we are trying to measure things by a standard, which is Truth. We also know that every view we hold is in danger of being coloured by our own prejudices, predispositions and assumptions which is what post modernity has enabled us to recognize, but that is not to say that objective reality is at least attainable to a degree that we can live by. And that objectivity I am convinced as I believe you are is to be comprehended in Christ. (John 8:32) And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

But what of paradox?

Is that merely a way for Christians (or for that matter-anyone who holds contradictory views at one and the same time) to excuse themselves for doing so? Or are there genuine paradoxes that cannot be resolved because of human limitations? Where we can hold both views but cannot penetrate to the point where we can see how they are in fact compatible, reconcilable. For instance the “trinity” to some is irreconcilable with logic, to others it is acceptable but not necessarily entirely comprehensible. For instance for me human autonomy and predestination represent a tension but not a contradiction.

You are right of course about the different terms being used which for one means one thing and to another something completely different. Discussions like this are valuable if they at least make clear what we believe and progress is at least possible from there. Please take a look at my spot: