I suspect that some of the "unchurched" are that way because they don't accept that a particular set of church doctrines can be consecrated as infallible, unchallengeable dogma. The always-thoughtful Pontificator claimed earlier this week that the teachings of the early church are entitled to such exaltation. Sorry, I can't buy it.
Here's an excerpt from Pontificator's argument:
Our faith is grounded upon the faith and witness of the Apostles. Their witness enjoys a fundamental, primitive, foundational, axiomatic status. If they did not get the gospel right, then there is no gospel. * * *
... [T]he Apostles certainly understood the divine revelation in Christ better than anyone else subsequently and so their witness is rightly and authoritatively privileged. …
The teachings of the Church Fathers and the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils are also privileged. It was during the period of the Church Fathers that fundamental dogmatic and ecclesiological decisions were made that decisively and irreversibly determined the life of the Church. …
There really are infallible dogmas, which once defined cannot be undone and which shape all subsequent theological reflection.
(Emphasis added.) That’s definitely not a religious outlook I could ever adopt.
"Do Not Put the Lord Your God to the Test"
It seems to me that Pontificator's outlook is subject to theological objection. In another posting, he claims that we can supposedly rely on the Holy Spirit to guarantee the correctness of the early church's doctrines. Let's set aside for later whether this is a defensible assumption.
Pontificator's urging that we rely so absolutely on the Holy Spirit seems roughly analogous to the devil's urging, in Matthew 4, that Jesus hurl himself from the heights in reliance on the angels. (Of course I don't mean to imply that Pontificator, a fine gentleman, is the devil <g>.) Jesus refused, on grounds that seem quite relevant to our inquiry about infallibility:
5Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6"If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written:
" 'He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.' "
7Jesus answered him, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' "
Another way to phrase this might be: God may well come to your rescue if you get into trouble. But that doesn't mean you can be reckless about getting into trouble in the first place. My (fairly-orthodox) wife once said that God gave us brains, and he presumably expects us to use them. That would seem to apply as much to what the Fathers said as to anything else in this life.
There can be no reasonable dispute that we've been given the power to observe; to remember and think about our observations; and to make choices about how we conduct our lives, otherwise known as free will. I claim -- and it's surely not an original claim -- that we have a corresponding duty:
- to critically assess, as best we can, the evidence that is revealed to us, in consultation with the community present and past;
- to make life choices based on our assessments -- again in consultation with the community, but ultimately each of us for ourselves; and
- to accept responsibility for our choices -- which includes reassessing them if it seems appropriate in light of new evidence or new insights.
(Of course, this doesn't mean we should be constantly re-assessing our choices. That wouldn't be practicable. It merely means that all knowledge is provisional, and therefore can't be arbitrarily declared off-limits for possible reexamination.)
To shirk this duty of critical assessment, and instead to rely absolutely on the thinking of the Apostles and Church Fathers, because their thinking is supposedly guaranteed by the Holy Spirit, would be to put God to the test. Jesus refused to do that. So should we.
(Moreover, to abdicate our critical faculties would put us in the unhappy company of the hapless servant in the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 14: His master gave him an asset and commanded him to put it to good use, but instead of doing so, he fearfully buried it in the ground. We don't want to go down that path.)
(And it seems almost idolatrous to rely on the supposed infallibility of early church dogma: To do so exalts a particular group's beliefs about God and his works over the Real Thing -- which none of us will ever fully apprehend, at least not in this life.)
"Sunrise" and Human Fallibility
There are pragmatic as well as theological reasons not to believe in infallible dogma. I don't see how any individual or group could be regarded as infallible -- not the Apostles, not the Church Fathers, not the Pope, not anyone. Humanity has too much hard experience to the contrary.
Let me trot out again one of my favorite examples of human fallibility. For millennia, people talked about the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening. But we now know that the ancients' understanding of the astronomy involved was incomplete -- in fact, the sun neither rises nor sets (the earth rotates).
We still use "sunrise" and "sunset" as figures of speech. They're fine for everyday usage, because they accurately describe the phenomena we observe every day.
But most people acknowledge that there's more to observe than what we happen to see when we look up at the sky -- and therefore we shouldn't rely too heavily on our shorthand figures of speech.
More generally: The map is not the territory, and we should never delude ourselves that it is.
We still use the expression "as sure as the sun's
gonna rise in the morning." It denotes a future occurrence that we are
certain is going to happen. But strictly speaking, the expression is
false --thus providing an ironic illustration of fallibility in itself.
In view of this consistent experience of human fallibility, anyone claiming that the views of a particular man or group are infallible has an almost-impossible burden of proof to carry. Unfortunately, Pontificator and his like-minded colleagues haven't done so.