Saturday, 15 December 2012

Orthodox belief - how much does it really matter?

It's been slightly strange writing something this week in the midst of 'flu, not knowing if I'd be fit to deliver it on Sunday.  It also took rather a long while, I guess because the brain wouldn't engage at all for the first half of the week and only slowly in the second half.  But still, here we are.  Many thanks to Nimue Brown and the comments she made in her blog which brought some direction to my rather addled thoughts...

Luke 3:7-18
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’

And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Belief and Practice - Getting our priorities right
It has been a remarkable experience to be challenged by those who follow a more nature-based spiritual path. My new friends have demonstrated a respect for my beliefs as being different from their own and have given me spiritual insights that I don’t think I would have glimpsed were it not for them.  Yet this is not a new challenge, just a different one. In the past I became good friends with a laboratory colleague who was an atheist and with whom I had lengthy debates about belief. Similar conversations still happen on-line. We hone our beliefs by exposing them to questions, but I realise that in the current spiritual climate this is very difficult for many Christians because we feel undermined not so much by the beliefs of other religions but by the beliefs of those who claim to be of the same faith as we are, except they somehow feel they are more pure.

Some of us struggle with the loud voices in own institution as it makes what, for many, seem like remarkable statements about what it believes to be infallibly correct doctrine regarding whether women can minister as Bishops and whether same-sex couples deserve the same spiritual support and recognition in their covenant relationships as heterosexual people getting married.

It feels as if the church has become extremely defensive, and in being defensive it is clarifying ever more tightly what it thinks we should believe. This seems to me to be even more pronounced in the more conservative wings, both evangelical and catholic. When I grew up it seemed like the Nicene Creed was sufficient in defining orthodox Christian belief, but now there are such things as the Lausanne Covenant from 1974 which includes such wordily-exact belief statements as this:
We affirm the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.
Lausanne runs to fifteen paragraphs of beliefs. But that wasn’t enough. It was followed in 1983 by the Amsterdam Affirmations, another fifteen statements of belief, and then in 1989 there was the Manila Manifesto, which ran to twenty one points of belief. (Amsterdam Affirmations and Manila Manifesto - you couldn’t make this stuff up!)

The same thing seems to have taken a firm hold in our authorised liturgy. When the new prayer book, Common Worship, came out at the millennium I was still in training and found myself thinking how much of an improvement it was over the old ASB.

But now, after ten years of working with it in ordained ministry I am constantly frustrated by its determination to dot theological i’s and cross orthodoxy t’s in such a way that the texts are frequently cold and devoid of the life that congregations need in order to make spiritual links between their inmost selves and the Holy One who pervades all things. That’s one of the reasons why I frequently use some of the Celtic and other liturgies, because they have a vitality about them which many feel they can respond to. And then each time I consider this issue I feel a little chill of fear run down my spine as to how long it is before the orthodoxy police come knocking to check that I believe all the right things. Yet all of these different statements of belief seem to stand out in stark contrast to what we find in the Gospel reading.

There it is John the Baptiser who is loudly proclaiming the gospel, the good news, and the word which seems to be completely absent is ‘belief’. Now part of the reason for that was that the first century Jewish community had a totally different take on belief. It was all about being a part of a covenant nation.

They were in relationship with God together with little of the emphasis on personal belief that we find today. Belief was a given for a Jew. Instead John’s message was all about action. It doesn’t sound much like good news, given that the mental image Luke conjurs up is of a wild prophet yelling at people about how awful they are.

But leave that aside for now as that’s another address for another day. What is so vitally important here is the question that people asked, over and over again in this passage, which was this:
“What should we do?”
The crowds asked it, the tax-collectors asked it, even the soldiers of the occupying army of Rome asked it. “What should we do?”

What makes this so important for us is that they did not ask this question:
“What should we believe?”
You and I do not believe the same things about God as John’s followers believed. To be honest I suspect that many of us do not believe the same things about God as John believed. And later on in the story, when Jesus comes eating and drinking with tax-collectors and prostitutes, it becomes clear from John’s consternation that Jesus did not believe the same things about God as he did.

But it appears that belief is not the question which is important to John. What we do as a result of what we believe is far, far more important to God than the finer points of orthodox correctness. Do you believe the right things, or does the belief that you do have cause you to love other people? And that love that you proclaim, does it cause you to act for the welfare of others or is it just words?

I actually don’t think God cares too much about whether we believe all the right stuff, and I am absolutely convinced that our getting something wrong is no barrier whatsoever to God acting in our lives. For example, in orthodox Christianity we state that we believe God is a Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I do indeed believe that, but do I believe that’s the whole story? Not remotely.

The Trinity seems to me to be just the best-fit model we have for the current evidence and revelation, but there’s no way in which it is the complete picture - it’s just the best we can do with what we can comprehend with our limited brains. Does God care? No. What God cares about is whether our knowledge of the three-in-one community of God leads us to recognise the need to support the whole community as a mirror of God’s image and react against the culture of the individual in modern society.

So this Christmas, don’t worry too much about whether Mary really was a virgin, or whether Jesus was really born in a stable. I don’t actually think God is too bothered if you’re unsure about those issues (and he certainly won't smite you for having questions). The important message is that God willingly came to us, an action which changes everything, and so we should respond by going to others. It is far more important that the message changes our behaviour to one of lovingly responsible caring than that we get the message absolutely correct.

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