Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What Presbyterians Believe (except me) Part 3

This is the third post in this series. Here are the first two:

What Presbyterians Believe (except me)

What Presbyterians Believe (except me) Part 2

My series began in response to this special issue of Presbyterians Today.

You can go to the
Presbyterians Today website and read articles about various things "Presbyterians Believe."

These articles are not definitive statements about what Presbyterians believe. These articles are the opinions of particular authors about what they think Presbyterians believe or should believe.

Presbyterians in the PC(USA) have a
Book of Confessions and a Book of Order. They make up our constitution. Both of these books change as we vote to change them. Even the vows ordained officers affirm are subject to change. Views of the Bible change. Theological theories change. We could even decide to throw out some creeds and add books to the Bible. We could toss the Nicene Creed and add the Gospel of Thomas.

I cannot think of anything that is not theoretically subject to change. Actually, what I would really like to see is to change our approach to canon and creed and allow them to be porous and seen as resources for wisdom rather than sources for belief.

While these changes are theoretically possible, the denomination cannot handle too much change without splitting. Fracturing occurs even in response to small changes. This is a reason churches and denominations are so reticent to change. The pain of change is too great. It includes loss of people and resources and lots of nasty sniping along the way. But there comes a time when the pain of not changing becomes greater than the pain of changing, and change happens.

The points I am making are these:
  1. Presbyterians don't have a list of things we are supposed to believe, and
  2. What Presbyterians believe is not static. We are always in flux.
I love this video from the theology and worship unit that speaks about essential tenets. The message is that essential tenets are important but we don't have a list. There you have it. That is a survival technique for responding to change.

The challenge is that the world is changing so quickly and what we know and how we know it has changed so dramatically that compared to what we are learning through science traditional forms of theological reflection sound like quaint medieval fairy tales.

Through the 19th century (and in evangelical circles still today) the Bible was regarded as a fairly reliable account of the history of the world. Now we see it as mostly fiction. Rather than God being the author of the book, God becomes a character like Zeus or Athena in a book of dated mythology and legend.

The great Christian doctrines such as Trinity, Creation, Sin, Christology, Atonement, and Eschatology, are no longer great. They are shadows. They don't speak of reality on a grand scale like they once purported to do. They may fill an emotional or psychological niche here and there. For more and more people they hold little interest or suasion. The world has passed these doctrines by in the way that science has left alchemy.

The church is now pulled by a first group who wants to hold on to these doctrines and deny reality (ie. Creationism) and a second group who wants to change theology in response to the insights of science and the humanities. There may be a third group. These are the folks who are scientists six days a week and on Sunday put on the faith hat and believe even when it makes no sense. I have a soft spot for this third approach but I don't know if it is sustainable. Maybe. As to the first group I just hope they don't do too much damage in their panic while their worldview crumbles around them.

This second group is where I find myself. What can be salvaged from our Christian past? Are there resources within it that can help us make life more humane, meaningful, and prophetic? How might we appreciate the universe as itself holy and transcendent? Do we reclaim and reinterpret Jesus and God or do we let them go? How can we regard the Bible and our tradition both critically and as a source of wisdom? To use Karen Armstrong's language, how can we draw from the mythos so it can dance with the logos? I am speaking of the poetry, music, and heart of faith. Finally, what do we do with our faith communities, our churches and institutions? How do they adapt?

And the question with which I started this post, what do Presbyterians believe? It sounds rather small now. But I ask in the spirit of affection. What becomes of this institution that I have grown to love and that has served me as I have served it? Will we be stuck in "beliefs" and heresy trials or will we be able to embrace a posture of openness, learning, and compassion?

I think our denomination because of its polity and history is in a fairly good position to adapt to these changes. Because we don't have lists of essential tenets and because we allow freedom for our governing bodies to elect leadership and because we do embrace science and social justice we may be able to hang on and hang in. We may be smaller as the disaffected grow frustrated and find ways to leave with property but those who remain may find a new sense of intellectual vitality and a sense of purpose.


  1. "...the folks who are scientists six days a week and on Sunday put on the faith hat and believe even when it makes no sense."

    That's one way to see it, I suppose.

    But those of us falling into your third group might rather put it this way:

    Science and the scientific method produce true and objectively verifiable statements about a very wide range of phenomena which, for want of a better word, we can call the "natural world." This knowledge is not only theoretical, but has increased the technical power of the human race to such an extent that its prestige is immense.

    However, many of us believe that the realm of scientific statements is not the whole of reality. We aren't scientists six days a week and something else on Sunday, but our experience and reflection lead us to believe that reason and objective, empirical observation operate within self-imposed limits which do not exhaust reality (You can probably guess that I have been ruminating over Kant lately).

    For want of a better word, we can call that "beyond" by the name of the "supernatural." It of course, by definition, cannot be established by the scientific method. It encompasses things like love, morality, purposefulness, freedom, beauty, divinity, and mysticism. It is not in opposition to science, except when science claims for itself a comprehensiveness which is not itself a "scientifically-establishable" fact.

    Those of us holding this view who also call ourselves Christians can therefore take matters like the Trinity and the Atonement very seriously, and consider them far from meaningless. I don't say you need to. But you should understand that it's not a "right-wing" or "left-wing" thing, and certainly has nothing to do with making a stand against the scientific method or arbitrarily compartmentalizing one's mind.

  2. Hey Rick,

    Nicely stated.

    I think you give a good argument for the third group. There are times I like to go there myself.

    I wonder though if "beyond" or "supernatural" is the source or the place to find love, morality, purposefulness, freedom, beauty, etc.

    I think I still find that in the natural world. We may not approach it through scientific method but through the mythos, art, music, story, etc. Still natural, just another way of approaching it.

    Thanks again for the comment.

  3. John,
    I think Rick captured my point of view pretty well. My faith (rather traditional orthodoxy) and my belief in the value and validity of Science and the scientific method seem to be coexisting quite well without conflict.

  4. Thanks Kattie.

    I am thinking out loud as I write now, and I am not sure that I want to restrict experience to what I gain from the scientific method. I am not even very good at the scientific method. I just don't find the religious doctrines that I have inherited (and studied for the past 20+ years) are really that profound. What I learn as a layperson reading about evolutionary history, or watching the images from the Hubble telescope, or hearing poetry, studying the history of religious movements and of various people and reading the Bible as human created literature is far more interesting than the Trinity or the Atonement.

    I guess I keep coming back to this: The church and its doctrines and texts don't tell me much about reality including the reality of the "supernatural" if there is one. This isn't just the church. This goes for other religions I have studied and the esoteric new age theories. They represent human creativity, but it seems to me are encompassed by the natural universe. I don't think they found anything that transcends the universe. I still have not found anything in my experience that is better explained with supernaturalism than naturalism. The universe is mysterious enough for me to call it Divine.

  5. "The universe is mysterious enough for me to call it Divine."


  6. Rick,

    Nicely put. I think you summarize my views as well.

    But I do think the right wing would have us reject science rather than allow it to challenge church doctrine. Just as they would have us reject science rather than allow it to challenge right wing ideology.


    I keep coming back to Paul's methods which allowed him to use his best understanding of cosmology to supplement his vision of God's Kingdom.

    Somehow the Church decided that his cosmology was the end all last statement of our understanding of the universe. Then the Church made the mistake of basing a number of doctrines on his cosmology rather than his vision of the Kingdom of God.

    I think what we should be thinking about is re-establishing contact with the Vision, revising and deleting those doctrines based on 1st century cosmology, and allow our current understanding of cosmology to inform our faith, as Paul did with his faith.

    Just for fun.

  7. So Jodie, are you implying that being a Calvinist doesn't mean I should memorize the Institutes and regard it all as truth?

  8. Kattie,

    No more than needing to memorize Newton's Principia to be a rocket scientist.


  9. If I was a far right wing Physicist, would I have to believe in Galilean Relativity?

  10. The problem with this country is that we have too many right wing physicists. : )

  11. Galilean Relativity...

    I imagine so.

    Unless you are talking about the Man from Galilee, and the study of his parables of the Kingdom (as coordinate transformation problems)?

    Then you wrap around to the other side.