Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Faith, Doubt, and Dogma

(Conversations with Bob! More thrilling than 70s songs!)

John. Thanks for the explanation. Sometimes I think I’m an F Christian! At least you have a passing grade. Of course, we don’t earn our way into God’s favor. Grace is a gift. So while we might score low, God, through Jesus, gives us A’s.

I’m going to talk about this first from a personal perspective first. While I agree with you that faith and doubt are things that affect our whole beings I tend think about faith and doubt in several categories.

I have intellectual faith and doubt. Even though I am an INFJ I was trained in school as a thinker. That, after all, is what they want in school. Isn’t it curious? Big advancements in science tend to come from AHA! Moments by people who are well trained intellectually in their fields. But all the training cannot produce a moment like the Theory of Relativity. So anyway, I was trained to think and reason and I have intellectual faith and doubt.

That means that sometimes I am absolutely sure in my mind that Jesus rose from the dead. I know, I can’t prove it, but I can see historical evidence suggesting that it happened. Nevertheless, I have my moments when I think, “What if it isn’t true? Then I have wasted my whole life and made promises that aren’t true.” I stand up at funerals and talk about the resurrection and God’s promise of life beyond life, given through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Usually I believe it at the time but I do have my moments when I think it isn’t true. And frankly, particularly when I’m depressed a long cold nothingness seems like it would be better than eternal life. I know, God will probably take away my bipolar disorder in the Kingdom of God and maybe even let me play the bagpipes! But yes, sometimes I wonder if it is all a lie.

Sometimes I have moments of feeling God’s presence and grace. Other times I feel like God could not possibly love me. Other people sure, even the people I pray with in prisons! But not me. While I preach grace, I have this place in the back of my head and way down in my heart that says that there are different rules for me, that I have to earn God’s love. And then I sit in the sanctuary during the Lord’s Supper, holding the bread and I feel the presence of the Holy Spirit surrounding me with love, taking me into the center of the Trinity and time seems to stop. (It doesn’t. Often at those times I forget to look up and see the elders waiting to walk back to the chancel with the plates of bread!) Faith and doubt can come as feelings.

Faith and doubt can be expressed in actions. Even if I don’t feel God’s presence, even if I doubt the promises of Jesus I still can go forward and act according to the commands of Jesus. I’m trying an experiment right now! I promised God I would try to stop saying nasty things about my fellow drives and that I would try to have more patience while driving. The not verbalizing is going pretty well. The thoughts still cross my mind but I keep my big mouth shut, most of the time. The patience is coming slower. Fortunately I no longer live in So Cal! Stop and go on the freeways would probably be my undoing. (For those of you who know the Philadelphia area, I avoid the Schuylkill Expressway from 6 AM until 7 PM on weekdays!) So no matter what I feel or think I can still obey.

And then there is worldview. As I think about it that is the area in which I am fairly faithful. I tend to look at the world through Christian eyes. I’ve been living in this worldview for so long that trying to look at it like an atheist or a Muslim feels almost impossible.

I agree with you, John, I think the roller coaster ride of faith and doubt, is part of God’s intention for us. Times when we doubt, if we insist to ourselves that the faith is true, if we live as Christians no matter what we may think or feel, we can grow in faith. In fact I think faithful doubting is a gift from God that actually strengthens faith.

Something we have not talked about is the effect of being part of a community on our faith. We Americans tend to think of ourselves as individuals first and members of a community second. That is not the case through most of the world. In many places people see themselves as part of a family or village or tribe first and as individuals second. I suspect this is definitely and Old Testament viewpoint and probably a New Testament viewpoint as well. While I do see emphasis on individual decision making in the New Testament, (Jesus’ statements about hating parents, siblings and wives and giving up all including family to follow him), I also see family emphases too. There are hints in Acts that suggest that households became Christian because the leader of the household became a Christian, like Lydia’s household in Philippi. (Acts 15:11-15) While I see myself like most Americans, as an individual first, I think we need to reclaim at least a balance between being a part of a community and an individual. The community of faith is vital to the well being of the individual and vice versa. I’ve even suggested that the congregation sell their houses and buy an apartment building! Strange, but there were no takers. We exist as part of the community.

And yes, I used the word dogma up there in the title. I’ve read the responses to your last post that talk about the movie. Thanks flycandler! Most of the time Americans hear the word dogma and think of the Spanish Inquisition. (Okay, it has to be said: “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”) What I see and hear in these post modern times is that if you say what you think, particularly on religious issues, people think that you are persecuting them if you make a claim of absolute truth. I think dogma has a place in the life of the Church. We make truth claims. Yes they are claims of faith and people can freely disagree with them. But part of the job of the Church is to assert those truth claims. We have learned, at least here in America, that everyone has the right to say what they think, (as does the president of Iran. I may think he is a fanatical anti-Semitic . . . hmm, I better stop there, but I think Columbia was right to let him speak.) One of the best things about America is our tolerance for diversity, even if someone asserts something as true that most think is absolute bunk.

Of course, what I just said means that I think there are essentials of faith in the Church. And in the PCUSA presbyteries and sessions are guardians of that truth. As I’ve said before, I get one vote. We make decisions together. But there are things that we decide together are essential. I assert that faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior is essential. I’m not going to spell out what Lord and Savior means in this post. I’ll save that for later. But faith is an essential, even as we ride the roller coaster of faith and doubt. May our doubts lead us to greater faith.

Grace and Peace



  1. Interesting thoughts, Bob. I myself have (to paraphrase Buddy Enniss, a good friend of the family) "started from childhood with an unshakeable, unquestioning truth, then began asking questions as a teenager, finally going through a period of atheism, and then an uneasy agnosticism, and finally starting to find faith again."

    I think one of the crucial elements of faith is hope (sorry, John, I just can't say "essentials" without breaking out in hives). Am I certain that there is eternal life or even that God exists? No. Do I hope those things are true? Yes. More often than that, the hope is a good enough starting point. I liken it to taking a step into darkness. It's scary, there are all kinds of doubts, but ultimately, you have to take a deep breath, move forward and hope--trust--that there is solid ground ahead. I'm trying hard to avoid stretching this image too far (and I know I haven't thought of the possibilities of rakes on the floor or brick walls, but it's my metaphor, dammit).

    I hope, and I find it helpful to be in a community of other hopeful people, all uncertain to varying degrees, but still hoping the Good News is true.

  2. flycandler

    I put emphasis on the Church as community in part because of what I learned from the Yale School of thought from the 70's to the 90's. They emphasize that faith is learned in community. So if you want to learn to pray, you join a worshiping community and learn to pray in community prayer. The dogma of the faith and the practice of the faith are learned in community.

    Oddly enough this was an emphasis in Westminster as well. When talking about Scripture and learning the meaning of it Westminster places emphasis on "the means of grace" which in that day meant worship including preaching and the sacraments.

  3. I recently wrote an entry in my blog where I argued that the whole quest for "essentials" in a faith is an intellectual dead end.

    I want to say that I don't think that people are "persecuting" me when they make a claim of absolute truth. Rather than persecuting, I would instead say they are simply being exclusionary; and I've had a problem with exclusionary behavior ever since I was a kid playing at recess and discovered that there would groups who wouldn't accept me as one of them because I didn't meet whatever arbitrary criterion they came up with. Okay, so I carry baggage from my childhood. So be it. But I've always believed since then that it is better to welcome people than to turn them away, and I tend to sympathize with and take the side of those who are excluded rather than the excluders. Actually, so did Jesus, come to think of it.

    I think that those who insist on "essentials" in Christianity have effectively excluded me from their community. Personally, I am happy to happily walk away from those who would exclude me. But even as I walk away I feel obliged to explain why I so passionately object to that attitude, and why I would choose to be part of a faith community that viewed things differently. So I don't just walk away--I explain why I think it is wrong. And from my point of view, we aren't children on the playgrounds anymore, and I think it is time to put those gatekeeping tendencies behind us.

    Aside from that, I would also suggest that one is committing the sin of hubris by making such an assertion of having the absolute truth. Bob says, "And in the PCUSA presbyteries and sessions are guardians of that truth. As I’ve said before, I get one vote." Which strikes me as odd, because it says that the absolute truth is subject to majority vote by human beings. Votes are contingent; absolute truth is not. There seems to me to be a little contradiction there. But then, throughout Christian history, that's the way it has been.

    Last, but not least, in response to the comment

    But part of the job of the Church is to assert those truth claims.

    I would ask: Is it? Says who? Why does it have to be that way? There is nothing inherent in the definition of "church" that says that it has to be that way. A church could instead be about the collective exploration by a community of faith, and a dialogue between members of that community with each other and with God, rather than the assertion of dogma. As I suggested earlier, I think the very idea of essentials in a religion is a fundamentally untenable notion. This notion that you can reduce a religion to "essentials" is in my view a myth that is used to assert power over others and to stifle dissent and thinking among church members.

  4. Seeker, I tend to agree. One of the recommendations of the Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity (affectionately known as the PUP) was that the church look into alternative methods of decisionmaking other than Roberts Rules on seriously divisive issues. It's led to a 50%+1 mentality in the church, which doesn't help efforts to prevent schism.

    I don't know how many more times I can beat this particular dead horse, but that's exactly what happened the last time we Presbyterians tried to enforce "Essentials". I think that ultimately, the mainline church made the right decision in this regard. It's frustrating not to have a clear-cut, strictly-defined list of doctrines, but I think it's a more honest approach, intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. It challenges us (but presbyters in particular) to stay on their toes and be discerning, rather than ticking off little boxes on a form.

  5. Mystical

    Several comments:

    1. While presbyteries and sessions do make decisions that involve issues of what is essential, and we do believe that God speaks more often through the group than the individual, we also assert, as fly has pointed out several times, that "synods and councils to err." So while we trust the process we also admit that decisions by presbyteries and sessions can be wrong.

    2. In my opinion Christianity is both a religion of inclusion and exclusion. We are inclusive in the sense that all who believe in Christ as Lord and Savior and promise to be disciples are welcome. Yes, we've had to deal with racial issues and sin around racial issues over the years but the very fact that we do evangelism in all cultures says that we are inclusive of all races. On the other hand the Church is also exclusive. We do make truth claims. In fact I would suggest that everyone makes truth claims. Do I think my faith, in the abstract, might be wrong? Yes. In fact I talked about my moments of doubt. But Christianity does make absolute truth claims. All religions do. When you say Christianity should not be exclusive on the basis of absolute truth claims you are making a truth claim. So, for example, when the Mormons claim that God the Father was once a human being, they make a truth claim that I believe is incorrect.

    3. As to exclusion from community, it depends on what you mean. You are certainly welcome in worship, fellowship and all other activities in the Church. You will, I hope, be loved. But people will urge you to change what you believe, again I hope in a loving manner. But as for membership, you have to make a statement of faith.

    4. I think that flycandler and I disagree on the use of the word essentials. I'm not looking for a shorthand list. I'm looking for a deep explanation and conversation about beliefs that I believe are part and parcel of what it means to be a Christian. Does God exist as a Trinity? You could answer the question yes or no but I would rather have an answer that is an explanation rather than a simple assertion. That's what I look for in essentials.

    One last thing: there was a case in a congregation down in Texas in which, if the media are to be believed, a man said he was an atheist but became a member of a presbyterian church. I don't see how that is possible. To join a congregation you have to be a Christian. So while this man would be more than welcome at all events in my congregation and would be loved, he would not be accepted as a member.

    Christians make affirmations about truth. The Bible does so and we do so too.

  6. But Christianity does make absolute truth claims. All religions do. When you say Christianity should not be exclusive on the basis of absolute truth claims you are making a truth claim.

    Many Christians do make absolute truth claims; I would argue that there is nothing inherent about the faith to do so. I am not opposed to making truth claims. We all make truth claims all the time. What I have a problem with is making "absolute" truth claims, especially when they are simply the product of some vote that was taken. Also, I would contend that saying that a church should not make absolute truth claims is a kind of truth claim of a different order than the absolute truth claims that churches often make--a meta-claim, if you will, since it is a claim about the nature of claims themselves and when it is appropriate to make them.

    I would question that it is inherent to the nature of religion to make absolute truth claims. I see no reason why religions can't make provisional truth claims rather than absolute ones. Religions can be more flexible than we sometimes give credit for, and in fact, historically, religions have altered their theological positions over the course of history. Religions tend to be in denial about this, of course, and this is to their detriment. In reality, we need simply to recognize the process of progressive revelation. That's what makes revelation progressive in the first place.

    The basic problem I have with the concept of establishing "essentials" is that I believe that no religion can really be reduced to a set of common essentials in the way that is often touted. I think it is an elusive goal to try to find these common "essentials". I made this argument in my blog when I cited Wittgenstein's example of the strands in a rope. I think that reducing a religion to absolute essentials is always going to be a failed enterprise. I might have certain "essentials" to my own understanding of the faith, but it will be impossible to impose any single set of essentials across the entire spectrum of Christian belief.

    You are certainly welcome in worship, fellowship and all other activities in the Church. You will, I hope, be loved. But people will urge you to change what you believe, again I hope in a loving manner.

    That isn't welcoming. What that means is that I am "welcome" to a community of faith as a second class citizen. But I am not being welcomed in that case as an equal member of the community. In a welcoming community, if they will urge me to change what I believe (loving fashion or not), I would have the exact same right to urge them to change their beliefs in turn. Look, I'm a thinking person. I did not come to my positions on theology willy nilly, without actually contemplating them. This notion that I must be "urged" to change the way I think assumes otherwise. I am certainly open to changing my views on theology, but I expect the process to be a two-way street. If there is dialogue, than all parties can reflect on the issues and respond and adapt. But what you are talking about is a one-way street, and if I am not granted to same right to participate in the dialogue from my perspective as others are from theirs, then I am not really being welcomed into the community--because my own theological journey and how I got to where I am is something I take seriously. And I want to be part of a community that also takes me and my views seriously and respectfully.

    As I said before, if someone doesn't want me in their community as a fully participating, thinking member, then I will gladly take my butt elsewhere. I don't want to be a member of a club that won't have me as a member.

  7. Pastor Bob,

    **We have learned, at least here in America, that everyone has the right to say what they think**

    I may be reading too much into this, but do you think that's true across the board? While I agree that diversity is a good thing, I wouldnt' say that we have the right to say anything we want. For instance, a manager doesn't have the right to make sexually suggestive comments to an employee. I just comment on this because tolerance seems to be seen as interchanable with "All things are acceptable" in some areas (not that I'm saying you see it this way).

    **You will, I hope, be loved. But people will urge you to change what you believe, again I hope in a loving manner.**

    This is general, but I don't think all exclusive claims are bad. For instance, saying that God is love and those who hate are not currently a part of God -- that is excluding, but it's also the truth. God still loves the person who hates, but the person who is hating cannot really "access" God.

    So if I'm the one hating, then yes, people would be urging me to change my belief about the hate in a loving fashion.

    Where it gets tricky are the "narrow" beliefs. The belief of God is love is very broad, because of all the applications it can be used in. When the beliefs get narrower, then it becomes a lot less welcoming. Like mystical, I would no doubt be urged to change my perception of the Trinity. To many people, that makes or breaks my salvation. It doesn't matter how many encounters I might have had with God, the grace I've seen or expressed, the journey I'm on. It doesn't matter who I am, because of my beliefs on the Trinity will ultimately decide my "fate." That's the exclusion that's troubling.

  8. heather

    You are correct, there is some speech in some contexts that should not be allowed. Sexual harassment is certainly one such case. Can you give me examples of religious speech that does not include action that fits in this category? I was thinking of a crowd chanting, "death to all infidels" might fit in this category but came to the conclusion that unless the chant is accompanied by some threatening action it should be allowed.

    I agree that if I or a group of people say one must believe in the Trinity to be saved, such a statement is exclusionary. Like I said, religion in general and Christianity in particular is a mixture of inclusion and exclusion.


    Communities tend to have some inclusionary and some exclusionary bases. I live in a particular town. To be a full member of the community, such as being allowed the right to vote in town elections, you have to live in the town. To be a member of the Mayflower Society you have to have an ancestor that came over on the Mayflower. To be Jewish you have to either be able to prove matrilineal descent from Jews or convert. Christianity has some behavioral bases for inclusion or exclusion, (you have to be baptized) and some intellectual bases for inclusion and exclusion (you have to believe Jesus is Lord and Savior). This isn't hate speech but it is, as you say, exclusionary. It's the nature of the beast.

  9. Claiming that the historically contingent dogma of the Christian church is The Truth—Absolute Truth—is like claiming a voice whispered in the night: “There is no such thing as a voice whispering in the night.”

  10. Bob,

    You alluded to the case at St. Andrews Church in Texas. The session and the congregation of that church received a person into membership. It was folks outside of the congregation that didn't feel he met "their" criteria.

    Thus, the session was dragged through the judicial process.

    I defend the St. Andrews church's freedom to receive its members as they know the individual.

    Your session and congregation should also have that same freedom to accept or reject individuals to membership.

  11. **I was thinking of a crowd chanting, "death to all infidels" might fit in this category but came to the conclusion that unless the chant is accompanied by some threatening action it should be allowed.**

    Well, I would find talk like this troubling, as well, because if one can say this with no problem, then it's going to affect how one treats certain groups. I got into a discussion with a co-worker a few months back, on the Muslim fundamentalists, and how dangerous they were, and how we were more civilized, and such. I told him that in some ways, we weren't -- there was a politician, or someone, who advocated the assassination of ... a South American leader? I want to say Hugo Chavez, and how much better it would be if that person were dead. I pointed out that the same principle was there -- death to the person who we radically disagree with.

    It's one of the things I've always found interesting about Jesus' words of saying fool puts one in danger of hell/hellfire: it's the first step towards eliminating that person's humanity, and the first step towards seeing them as someone less than the image of God.

  12. As an aside, I think it might be worth mentioning what the definition of "membership" means, specifically, in the Presbyterian Church (USA). "Membership" brings with it very specific constitutional rights and responsibilities. When one becomes a "member" of a Presbyterian Church, s/he is given the right to vote in congregational meetings (which can range from budgets, to hiring or firing a minister, to selecting Elders to represent the Congregation on the Session, etc.). The bar to this particular "office" is the least restrictive of all the bars (becoming a deacon, elder or Minister of Word & Sacrament is progressively harder). Essentially, one must be baptized (in any church) and (to grossly oversimplify) tell the Session that they believe in Christ.

    The Book of Order makes it very clear, however, that one does not have to be a member to attend the church, noting that "all persons are welcome to participate in the life and worship of this church. All baptized persons...are entitled to participation in the Lord's Supper, to pastoral care and instruction of the church" (G5.0301). The biggest difference is that a nonmember does not have the right to vote. By declining to join the church officially, one is basically agreeing to refrain from the internal political processes of the church. S/he is still more than welcome to join in the life and worship of the church. I wish there was a way to make it sound less condescending.

    Por ejemplo, my pastor is a good friend of the Jewish Temple down the street. She and the rabbi have occasional "The Rabbi & The Reverend" Bible discussions, hosted alternately by our church and his synagogue (anyone is welcome to attend). The folks at the Temple are welcomed with open arms into our church (and vv), and the dialogue has been incredible. We respect each other's theological differences and have a great "two-way street".
    On "essentials", Bob, you're right in that we're kinda sorta talking about two different concepts, and I realize where you're coming from. The problem I have with discussing "essentials" is that thanks to the likes of J. Gresham Machen, the word has become so incredibly loaded. Talk of "essentials" seems to invariably degrade to the point of "Essentials", a hard-n-fast list of no-compromise rules. And I don't think that's what the PC(USA) is about.

  13. John

    As I remember the St. Andrew's case the presbytery didn't actually go through the judicial process. I think either the COM or the presbytery instructed St. Andrew's to remove that member from the roll. I get very upset about this misuse of the process. In fact, if I'm remembering what happened correctly, the presbytery didn't follow the process. Someone should have brought a charge of irregularity against the St. Andrew's session and it should have gone through the judicial system

    As to whether each session should have the right to its own criteria for membership, I agree and disagree. We presbyterians aren't congregationalists. While a session has the right and responsibility to make its own decisions the session is always subject to the review of the higher governing body. That's how connectionalism works.


    I think I agree with you. I get very concerned when people use hate speech. I agree with you that Jesus would say that people who use hate speech have condemned themselves to eternal life outside the kingdom of God. But I get concerned (and I don't think you are saying this) when people suggest we should make hate speech a criminal offense. Hate speech combined with action, yes. Here I agree with the ACLU.

  14. Communities tend to have some inclusionary and some exclusionary bases

    You are right, Bob, but I choose to be in a community where I feel welcome and included, not where I am excluded. It seems clear from your comments on essentials that I would not feel welcome in your church. My guess is that I would feel welcome in John's, although without actually attending one never knows. The choice I make in deciding to attend a church very much hinges on whether I would feel welcome there.

    And I want to be part of a community that doesn't spend so much time trying to be a gatekeeper of this elusive "absolute truth". That is my choice. The wonderful thing about free association is that you can be a part of a community that meets your needs, and I can try to find a community that meets mine.

  15. Pastor Bob,

    **But I get concerned (and I don't think you are saying this) when people suggest we should make hate speech a criminal offense. Hate speech combined with action, yes. Here I agree with the ACLU.**

    Here's where I think it gets very tricky. I do think there are some forms of hate speech that should be a criminal offense, because they are used that way. However, we also can't make a blanket statement of anyone who says something along a particular line is thus a criminal. Something that's hateful can be said in ignorance -- the person could be honestly unaware of what the comment means, or how the comment can be interpreted. So as much I think some speech should fall on those lines, I think it would be too dangerous, overall. Who would determine what is hate speech and what's not? What would the spectrum be? How harsh would the rules be? Would intention be taken into account?

    In this area, it seems safer to error on caution and leave confronting hate speech up to the individuals, rather than a criminal offense. There's too many ways in which innocent people could get arrested.

  16. mystical

    No one is going to exclude you in my congregation. You might feel uncomfortable with some of my preaching. But remember in the PCUSA governing tradition I don't get a say in who becomes a member. And my session isn't going to ask what you believe.

  17. Bob, I'm not saying that anyone would explicitly exclude me from your congregation. What I'm saying is that I don't think I would feel welcome there because I would be told that my beliefs were outside acceptable limits for the community of faith. And I know that there are communities of faith where I would not be told that.