One of the responses to my posting at the TitusOneNine blog was # 4, from Tim, who posed some good rhetorical questions about what new "revelations," over and above Scripture, should be deemed authoritative. The subtext of his questions seemed to be that none of them should be, and that only Scripture can have authoritative status. His questions were very helpful, and I've taken a stab at addressing them here.
The first and most serious objection is the issue of authority. To what new “revelation” would he appeal in order to set aside what even reappraisers admit is the plain teaching of Scripture? Common sense? Cultural consensus? Science? Psychology? Now just add the word “whose” to each, as in “Whose common sense?” or “Whose science?” In each case the answer usually seems to end up being: “The one that agrees with me.”
To summarize the conclusions at the end of this unfortunately-long essay, I think the only permissible answer is the classic lawyer hedge: It depends. I don't think we are allowed to elevate any revelation as an ultimate authority, an infallible guide to life -- not Scripture, not tradition, not reason, not experience, not even what my wife tells me :)
In trying to think through Tim's questions (with many thanks to him for posting them), I start with some premises:
Premise 1: Each of Us is Individually Accountable to God
I would submit that each of us has a personal, non-delegable responsibility to live our lives as "best" we can (quote unquote). It seems to me that we are accountable to God, and secondarily to our fellow man, for how we carry out this responsibility.
If someone can critique this premise, please do, because it troubles me a little. I can readily marshall evidence in support of the existence of God, e.g., here. But I'm not quite sure how to defend my assertion of individual, non-delegable accountability to God. It seems self-evident, but my professional background warns me that "self-evident facts" can sometimes lead us off a cliff. (Of course, I write these words on the day before we celebrate the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence.)
The best I can come up with is that our personal, individual relationships with God seem to be consistent with the Gospels, and are an underlying assumption of Judeo-Christian belief and certainly of Protestant and (I think) Anglican thought.
Premise 2: Life is a Movie, Not a Snapshot
Since the beginning of time, change has been one of the great, literally-universal constants of existence. The world we live in today is not the world we were born into, which was not the world that Jesus inhabited, which was not the world that Moses walked. This ties in with some of the other premises below in a way that I hope will become clear.
Premise 3: Human Knowledge Comes Up Short
If history has proved anything, it's that none of us knows everything, and that each of us is prone to error of almost-innumerable sorts. That which I think I know could turn out to be incomplete, out of date, or flat-out wrong. To name but a few examples:
- People used to take it for granted that the sun rises in the morning, moves across the sky, and sets in the evening. Those are still handy figures of speech, but they're based on incomplete evidence. Other evidence suggests, pretty compellingly, that it doesn't work quite that way.
- Doctors long thought that stomach ulcers were caused by diet and/or stress. But in the last few years, researchers have become convinced that ulcers are caused instead by a particular type of easily-treated bacterial infection.
- Some early Christians -- including scriptural authors -- were convinced that they were living in the last days and that Jesus's triumphant return was imminent. They were indisputably wrong about that.
Premise 4: We Still Have to Act
Our shortfalls in knowledge are not an excuse for indecision or inaction. In this life, we'll never know anything with absolute, 100% certainty. We still have to act -- to make the best judgments we can, using the best available information, and to proceed accordingly. We don't want to end up like the fictional donkey that starved to death because it couldn't decide which of two stacks of hay to eat.
Footnote: Judges and juries face this dilemna every day. They have to make decisions that can drastically affect people's lives -- or even end them -- on the basis of incomplete and sometimes contradictory evidence. Most such decisions are based on a simple preponderance of the evidence, sometimes called the "51%" standard or the "more likely than not" standard. Only in grave matters do we use the more rigorous standard of clear and convincing evidence (e.g., in fraud cases) or the still-more rigorous standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. (for criminal cases).
Premise 5: On-Going Learning -- Individually
and in Community -- is a Gift from God
As illustrated by the above examples of our knowledge limitations, God seems to have given us the gifts of evidence and of minds that can learn -- from the evidence, and from each other.
By using these gifts, as time progresses, we understand more and more about how God's creation really is, as opposed to how we think it is -- always keeping the limitations of our knowledge in mind.
Footnote: I argue here, citing Deut. 18:18-22, that at least one passage in Scripture actually commands us to take an empirical, scientific-method approach to life -- to look to the evidence of what actually occurs in God's creation, and not merely rely on prophets who think they are speaking for God.
And from such study, we can also hope for insights into the nature of God himself -- cf. Rom. 1:20: "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.'"
Footnote: In comment # 9, "Iranaeus" urges us to "[c]onsider the unspoken application of Toedt’s analogy: the original Apostles were the simple toddlers and ECUSA revisionists are the full-grown, sophisticated adults. One wonders just how Toedt knows this with such assurance."
It is beyond dispute that we understand far more about God's world than the Apostles did. Does that mean we understand more than they did about God himself, or about his will for us? I wouldn't presume to say, one way or the other, in part because there's no reliable way to test such an assertion.
Premise 6: Community Itself is Also a Gift from God
God also seems to have given us the gift of community, one of our major tools for dealing with the inevitable shortfalls in human knowledge. Instead of having to struggle through life alone, we cooperate and learn from one another, sharing information and insights and passing them on to future generations. Otherwise the human race would still be living in caves, if we were around at all.
Footnote: Community is a wondrous thing. To me the most likely explanation is that community is indeed one of God's gifts, part of his awe-inspiring engine of continuing creation. Go read the book Non-Zero, by Robert Wright (try here if it's out of stock at the previous link). It's a sophisticated yet entertaining and readable work about evolution, game theory, and social science. The author sticks to the facts, but concludes that the evolution of the human race, and especially its qualities of love and reciprocal altruism, seem to point to the existence of a God and perhaps even a divine plan. Reading it was a milestone event in my faith journey.)
This suggests it would be foolhardy to completely ignore our fellows who have different views. Neither can we afford to cavalierly disregard the recorded wisdom of the past, including but not limited to Scripture and tradition.
But the gift of community can't trump our individual responsibilities to God. So sometimes we'll just have to agree to disagree.
Premise 7: Standards Sometimes Change
Human society sometimes has a way of changing its collective mind over time about what's "best." For example:
- The Israelites thought it was their duty to stone to death their rebellious sons at the town gates, as commanded by Deut. 21:18-21. (I mentioned this to my mother not long ago; she laughed and responded, "so?")
- The Israelites took slavery for granted -- indeed, Leviticus explicitly permitted them to enslave foreigners (see Lev. 25:44-46). It also prohibited imposing punishment on a slave-owner for beating his slave, as long as the slave managed to recover in a day or two, "since the slave is his property" (see Lev. 21:20-21).
- The status of women has advanced considerably in the past 100 years, to say nothing of the past 1,000 or 10,000 years.
- We regard child labor in a much different light than we did 150 years ago.
Note what I'm not saying: I'm not arguing that all standards are always open for debate. But we have to recognize the historical fact that some standards have changed. It would be unwise to categorically rule out the possibility that other standards might change too.
So, Where Do We Come Out on Authority?
Where do the above premises take us in response to Tim's questions? Here's where I come out:
A. We need to take Scripture seriously. In the words of one of my favorite theologians, Scripture is "evidence, the record of foundational spiritual experience, the laboratory notebooks of gifted observers of God's ways with men and women." (J.C. Polkinghorne, Faith, Science, and Understanding, Yale Nota Bene edition 2001, ch. 2, p. 37 (emphasis original).) The same is true of tradition.
B. By the same token, we need to listen to others, especially when they disagree with us -- maybe they know something we don't.
C. But each of us is still individually accountable; none of us can abdicate our individual moral responsibilities. Consequently:
- We're not allowed to defer completely and absolutely to anyone else's views. This includes even the views of scriptural authors.
Footnote: I argue elsewhere that the writings of the New Testament authors give us ample reason for caution, including possible manuscript tampering and troubling internal inconsistencies, to say nothing of the problems of multi-generational, trans-lingual hearsay.
- By the same reasoning, neither can we slavishly follow the judgments of the (various) church leaders who canonized (various collections of) scriptural documents, or who recorded things we now call tradition.
- And we cannot justify a particular action or inaction solely on grounds that the rest of the church or communion -- or party or country -- thinks it's appropriate.
Our own individual powers of judgment are certainly fallible. But they are God-given gifts to each of us none the less. Each of us must use those gifts as best we can, not fearfully hide them in the ground like the unfortunate servant in Parable of the Talents (see Matt. 25:14-28).
D. Please don't get me wrong here. Sometimes it's necessary and appropriate to follow the judgments of others, as I note in more detail here. Life would be difficult if we couldn't rely on others' views in deciding which foods to eat, which medicines to take, which side of the road to drive on, etc. Judges follow precedent all the time, and sometimes are required to do so even if they disagree. In the military, one is supposed follow the orders of one's superiors, up to a point.
But under my first premise above, every time I decide to follow someone else's judgments or precedent or orders, I'm still individually accountable to God for my decision. If I made the best decision I could under the circumstances, I may be morally blameless, but even so, I can't evade my personal responsibility by claiming "I was just following [orders, Scripture, church law, or whatever]."
E. Returning to Tim's key question, to what new "revelation" would I appeal in order to set aside what even reappraisers admit [sic] is the plain teaching of Scripture? As I said at the beginning, I think the only permissible answer would have to be the classic lawyer hedge: It depends.
F. On the the specific question of same-sex relationships, I've found much food for thought in the writings of Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch. Do their views count as "revelation"? In the sense that God is continually revealing new information and insights to us, yes they do; in the sense that some revelations have stood the test of time, no they don't, at least not yet.
G. It seems to me that in view of all of the above, the best any of us can do in life is:
- try our best to follow Jesus's injunction to love God with our whole hearts, minds, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. This includes doing our best to discern just what that means in terms of real-world action;
- remain mindful of God's gift of community, but also of our individual responsibility to God for our actions or inactions;
- accept that, in any given matter, we may not know as much as we need to; that what we think we know could be mistaken; and that what we do could be the "wrong" thing -- while not letting those brute facts of life paralyze us;
- remain open to the truth and its consequences, whatever truth turns out to be (paraphrasing a comment by the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor);
- be willing to rethink our views and behavior when it seems called for -- this, of course, being the core meaning of the metanoia, the repentance, that Jesus preached;
- in cases where our views seem irreconcilably different from those of others in the community, make every effort to agree to disagree, with mutual respect, and then get back to (God's) work, trusting that the Holy Spirit will eventually show all of us the truth in his own good time; and
- as Jesus preached, trust in God that, in the end, things will work out unimaginably well (a subject beyond the scope of this essay).
This is undoubtedly easier to say than to do. But then, no one -- certainly not Jesus -- ever said it would be easy.
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Thanks again to Tim for posing his thought-provoking questions.