04 January 2010

Wrestling with Doctrine

Once upon a time there was a little boy named Johnny. Johnny's mother and his grandfather before her were respected Elders in the community; they were Community Story-Tellers.

Johnny's mother and grandfather told stories that didn't make a lot of sense to Johnny when he was little. There were stories about how human beings were children of Mother Earth; Johnny had seen his brothers and sisters born and he knew that's not where babies came from. There were stories about how all human beings are brothers and sisters, but Johnny knew that his brothers and sisters had the same parents he did. And there were stories about how, if you hurt another person you would hurt too. But Johnny knew that if he pushed his friend over, the friend would get the skinned knee, not him.

But Johnny grew up and he slowly began to understand that the stories were about the deeper things in life. They were not stories about where babies came from or about how to hurt - or avoid hurting - other people physically. Rather they were stories about the interdependence of human beings and the human relationship to the natural world.

Then one day, when he was 13, Johnny's mother told him that it was time for Johnny to become a Community Story-Teller too. Johnny asked his mother if he could make up his own stories. His mother told him that the role of Community Story-Teller was an important role in the community. While Johnny could make up as many stories as he wanted to for his own family and friends, when a Story-Teller was standing and telling the Community Stories among the Gathered People of The Community, the stories had to be told faithfully. These stories needed to be accurately memorized and repeated. "Why?" Johnny asked. "So they can be passed down faithfully from generation to generation" his mother replied.

Johnny understood what his mother was saying and so his training as a Community Story Teller began. Johnny put all his effort into faithfully learning and repeating the stories as they were passed down from generation to generation.

As he told the stories over the course of his life, Johnny was amazed at the power of the stories. He started out thinking "this story means this" and "that story means that" and then someone would come along and offer a very different interpretation of the story. Sometimes the other person's interpretation was the opposite of his understanding, but often he was able to see the other person's point of view. Johnny never failed to be surprised at the power of these stories and his wisdom grew and grew over his life as he learned from the stories and from other people who also wanted to learn from them.


I just made up this story and it probably has several levels of meaning. I wouldn't even be surprised if someone came up with a meaning that I hadn't thought when I wrote it.

One of my intentions in writing this story is to give an analogy of how I see doctrine in the Christian Church. In my opinion, doctrine should be passed down faithfully from generation to generation. So, for example, to me this means we don't mess with the words of the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed. Individuals don't start changing them to try to fit their own individual understandings or interpretations of the creeds. Rather, we pass them down faithfully from generation to generation.

On the other hand, passing down the stories faithfully doesn't mean that we are not allowed to have our own interpretations of the creeds. I have known individuals who seem to regard their own interpretation of the creeds as litmus tests by which they believe themselves able to judge the orthodoxy of other individuals. So, they will tell us, no one is allowed to question the facticity of the idea that Jesus was born of a virgin and still be judged as an orthodox Christian. And these people seem to think that the Creeds were given in order to judge the faith or salvation of other individuals. I don't agree.

On the other hand, it is equally wrong to say "I find the idea of the virgin conception difficult, so I'm going to remove it from the creed" or "I find it difficult to believe that Jesus' body was resuscitated, so I'm going to remove the statement about resurrection from the creed."

To fiddle around with the creeds because we feel the need to wrestle with some of the text is to confuse our interpretation with what the creeds say. To use the creeds as a tool to judge the eternal salvation of others is to confuse our interpretation with what the creeds say.

I think the Church and her officers are called to pass on the creeds faithfully from generation to generation. And we are also given the grace to wrestle with our own doubts and interpretations and we are asked to be gracious unto others as they wrestle.

Your thoughts?


Richard Hall said...

The notion of 'doctrine as story' is a very helpful one, because however simple they may appear to be stories are always open to re-interpretation. (I've become very suspicious of the conventional wisdom that Jesus' parables have one simple message)

Rev Tony B said...

I agree with you as regards the daftness of individuals assuming what they personally believe to be the only valid interpretation - but then, we're probably talking about very insecure individuals who don't think they're interpreting anyway. Teaching doctrine is a community function - it must be tested by the Body.

Which leads me to ponder the idea of passing on the creeds faithfully - what happens when it is the Church rather than an individual which amends the Creed? What about the Filioque Clause? Moreover, what about the Creeds as documents with historical contexts? I cannot escape the suspicion that the Nicene Creed was at least as much a Constantine-inspired compromise designed to exclude Arius as a good summary of the communal faith. In fact, I prefer not to use it, because it is too 'political' in its origins.

The problem is that every doctrinal statement has a political context which shaped it - Luther's Theses, Wesley's Sermons and Notes, the Creeds, the lot. How far are they reliable vehicles for passing on the faith? As they say in all the best exam papers - discuss!

PamBG said...

Hah, hah Tony! I thought about the filioque clause and I agree with what you say.

We even have to continue wrestling with this subject, don't we? I totally agree that many doctrines have political contexts. Look at Methodism and our strange and convoluted theology of ordination which is very influenced by internal politics.

The flip side of those insecure people who use the creed as a test for faith are the people who avoid going to church because they can't tick every box in the creed in a factual way. I know this is sometimes just an excuse, but I think it's also a real concern for some people.

Richard, I was thinking about this last night before falling asleep. All of Jesus' teachings to us were in the form of stories that can be interpreted in many different ways. If it was so important for humanity to have One Right Understanding of God, you'd think Jesus would have avoided this genre of teaching and been a lot more declarative. I do tend to think of doctrine as "story".

One other random thought: in quite a few languages, the word for "history" and the word for "story" are the same word.

John Meunier said...

I like your decision to use a story to illustrate your point that these shared stories are what the community teaches from generation to generation.

The creeds can certainly be viewed as stories, as well.

I wonder if all "doctrine" could be formulated as story.

When someone asks, "Why do some people reject God?" what story would we tell?

The doctrinaire answer has to do with concepts like free will and the meaning of the cross. Is there a way to "story" the answer rather than talking about doctrines?

Doorman-Priest said...

What an interesting perspective and what a coincidence as I just posted on doctrine.

PamBG said...

John M:

I think we could tell a number of different stories about why people reject God. And those stories may have other meanings as well.

We could tell a story about someone in the trenches who watched friend after friend die day after day and who decided there could be no God.

We could tell a story about someone who prayed to be cured of arthritis and didn't receive the cure and turned their back on God in anger.

We could tell a story about a sociopath who thought he himself was God.

All these stories would have other "angles" just as the story I told above has other angles. I might tell that story if someone asked me "How should a minister or member of the Church council enforce doctrine?" or "What should I do in church on Sunday morning if I struggle to believe the virgin conception?" (I know Methodists don't typically recite the creed but many other denominations do.)

The power of story: I wrote a case study for a pastoral workshop. It was about a made-up, composite character with a pastoral problem. The people doing the case-study "got" things out of it that I didn't even think about when I was writing the story and I learned from it as well.

larry said...

PamBG wrote:
"All of Jesus' teachings to us were in the form of stories that can be interpreted in many different ways."

Jesus clearly taught in the parable form frequently, but not all His teaching was in that form. Even in the synoptic gospels, which contain the records of the parables, we find the Sermon on the Mount, which is certainly teaching but not story (at least as I understand story - maybe you are using a broader definition than I would). The teachings of the sermon on the mount may be open to interpretation, but let's be clear that Jesus had more than one pedagogical method.

PamBG said...

Larry, I take your point. Yes, I think I'm being a but broad and free with my use of "story". I've beeen interrogated in my time about "Just precisely what do you believe about this or that doctrine?" in the Bad Old Days. I don't see Jesus requiring thought-precision from the people who followed him. I don't see any evidence that Jesus thought this sort of quizzing had much to do with being his disciple. That's what I meant to communicate.

larry said...

PamBG - Thank you for clarifying!

Anonymous said...

Had an interesting 'cht' about creeds yesterday with someone who had been challenged about 'did she believe all that she said when she recited 'I believe ...'' - we talked about the fact that the creeds tend to start we believe and therefore can allow for all levels and manner of belief as they are held within the entire body of Christ and do not have to be 100% totally subscribed to by every believer. I know this is a bit of a tangent but I already believe in the wealth, treasure and value of storytelling both for spreading the word and for healing etc.

Angela Shier-Jones said...

who first wrote the stories we hand down?

Who decides what is and what is not a community story and therefore should not be altered?

There is power in stories - both in the telling - and in the not-telling.

Rev Tony B said...

What concerns me most is the link people make between credal orthodoxy and salvation. "If you do not believe the Bible to be the literal word of God/the Virgin Birth/the Pauline authorship of the Pastorals (etc) you cannot be born again!" What utter rot.

I do see that some beliefs are necessary for a coherent faith: it would be nonsense to believe that faith in Jesus would save me if I believed he was a fictional construct, for example, or that he didn't actually die on the cross. But so much of what passes for orthodoxy is simply detail, and essentially peripheral to the matter of salvation.

To be really controversial (even heretical - but does that matter?) - the big argument in the 4th C seems to have been between those who believed Jesus had two natures, human and divine, and hose who believed he had one nature, both human and divine (helpfully illustrated on TV by Diarmaid McCulloch by comparing one glass of wine and water, and another with water and oil); when Chalcedon went one way, lots of churches went the other. The resulting division predates both the Great Schism and the Reformation, but has sort of vanished off the radar - both these historic groupings of churches effectively treat each other as not true Christians.

Am I wrong to say it doesn't actually matter a stuff whether Jesus had one nature or two? Isn't this more about believers trying to understand the incomprehensible, and neither answer is actually adequate? Or indeed necessary for salvation?

Don't get me wrong - I enjoy theology, sad person that I am, and I enjoy trying to figure out how the Bible works, etc - but the idea that getting a detail or three wrong casts me into the outer darkness, and the knowledge that so many brothers and sisters won't talk to each other or share in communion together because of details - well, I cringe with despair and embarrassment.

Jesus is Lord. He told us to love God and love our neighbours. The rest is just gift-wrapping.

PamBG said...

Angela, yes, there is power in stories. I can ask the same questions about the biblical texts and the answers are "the same". (I've just finished reading the controversy in the very early church about circulating the text of Revelation.) I'm assuming your questions are rhetorical? But the question of who decides the stories that we use is tricky, yes.

Anonymous, than you for your tangent. In my experience (which is probably less Methodist than more!), this kind of quizzing of individuals by others happens fairly frequently. Your friend is part of the audience I'm trying to address here. I agree with your answer although not all denominations use the word "we"!

Am I wrong to say it doesn't actually matter a stuff whether Jesus had one nature or two?

Tony, in terms of "my faith where the rubber hits the road" (as we say here in Northeast Ohio, home of Goodyear Tires), it doesn't matter one bit. It strikes me as similar to "transubstantiation" - based on philosophical categories that most of us don't think in!

WomanistNTProf said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
WomanistNTProf said...

PamBG, a very interesting way of viewing creeds. I did not grow up in a religious community with creeds, but I am now a member of one- the AME denomination. I'm sometimes uncomfortable with creeds paticularly the communion "creeds" with some of the archaic language that I don't fully understand and which must be even more challenging for those with less education-- I imagine. I'm wondering would you consider that while creeds are similar to passing down stories orally, orally transmitting stories is quite different from transmitting written traditions that are set and do not change. Orally transmitted stories will change with each telling and with each griot so that while something of the old narrative remains or may not, new narratives are also being created--at least this seems to be the case in oral societies . My problem with some creeds and traditions is that there is no room to reconsider the truths and those truths are presuppositions through which we are expected to read scripture preventing us from reading certain scriptures differently which in fact God may be leading us to do. For example, the Nicea decision about the trinity--many people cannot read the scriptures without that decision hanging over their heads. But it is possible to read some scriptures that will not support viewing the trinity the way Nicea did. We don't understand what it means to say Jesus was fully human and fully divine--what it means for us as we live our lives--but we dare not question it.

PamBG said...

Mitzi - Thanks for your comments. I take the point about oral tradition.

I'm hoping some of the British Methodists who posted previously might be subscribed to this thread and have some comments. They are all people whose opinions I respect and one is a published theologian. I'd like to hear their take on our tradition (British Methodism, which I'm becoming ever more convinced is not the same as Methodism in the US), which they are more familiar with than I.

I also take your points about the Nicene Creed. I'm totally on board with the idea that it addresses theological issues of its own day from a very particular philosophical foundation which I'm not sure was even well known to the average person of the day.

All that said, and my Missouri Synod background aside, who says that faith communities have to use creeds in such an absolutist way? I know a British Methodist minister who doesn't believe in the Trinity for the very reason that she doesn't believe it's a biblical concept. Technically, that should not be allowed. However, as far as I know, no one has moved to de-frock her.

In British Methodism, I do think that there is a collective view that we have to interpret scripture for our time and possibly be willing to throw out old orthodoxies.

I don't understand how the UMC deals with these issues and I have little to no knowledge of AME approaches.