One of my early mentors taught me that, when you're asking a deposition witness what he knows about X, the best follow-up question you can ask is, "anything else?" That quickly became my all-around favorite deposition question. It’s a singularly useful tool to help ferret out evidence in pursuit of the truth. You can ask it over and over again in a variety of contexts.
There's a similarly useful question we should ask whenever someone makes a categorical, take-it-or-leave-it assertion about theological matters. For an example of such a categorical assertion, check out a discussion over at TitusOneNine. Traditionalist commenters are excoriating the United Church of Christ for having the audacity to debate whether Jesus was God. By and large, the commenters’ view is that anyone who thinks Jesus was not God cannot claim to be a Christian. (Regular readers will know that a different view has been espoused in these pages, but I'm perfectly willing to agree to disagree about it.)
Whenever someone makes a categorical assertion like that in matters theological, my favorite single question is, "tell us how you know that." It encompasses several sub-questions, usually left unspoken out of tact, such as: Why should we assume your assertion isn’t the product of a vivid imagination? Even if what you’re saying is true in some respects, how do we know it’s always true in all possible circumstances?
The “how do you know” question is part of a healthy, show-me mindset that we see in most areas of human life when important matters are at stake. Consider, for example:
- The Law: Prosecutors are not allowed to send someone to prison without first offering admissible evidence to demonstrate guilt beyond a reasonable doubt;
- Medicine: Doctors generally won’t prescribe a treatment for an illness without seeing at least some evidence that the patient in fact suffers from the illness;
- Science: New scientific theories won’t be taken seriously, or even given the time of day, unless they’re supported by observational evidence and are coherent with past data.
We find a show-me mindset even in Scripture. Let me indulge in the guilty pleasure of proof-texting, from both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament — it’s not that I think Scripture settles the matter, but that so many traditionalists do think so:
You may say to yourselves, "How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD ?" If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him." [Deut. 18:20–21, emphasis added]
Do not put out the Spirit's fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. [1 Thess. 5:19–21, emphasis added]
That doesn’t mean we have to be from Missouri about everything in life. But in important matters, yes, we should be — with the degree of show-me attitude depending on the importance of the matter at hand
Asking the Question in Matters Theological
I can’t think of anything more important than foundational theological assertions, such as “Jesus is God.” It seems indisputable to me that a show-me attitude is called for.
So let’s test-drive the how-do-you-know question in that context.
In the debate about Jesus’s divinity, one TitusOneNine commenter offered support in the form of a quotation from Paul’s letter to the Phillipians:
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. - Phil. 2:9-11
We can ask the how-do-you-know question again, this time phrasing it as, "how did Paul know that?" Typically, a traditionalist's response will be something like, "Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit,” or sometimes “Paul was handing on what he himself received from the early church.”
One more time: "How do you know that,” or “how did the early church know that?” We can keep drilling down into the issue this way as long as we need to.
We likely won’t keep asking the how-do-you-know question forever. Presumably there’s some action we have to take, or not take, depending on whether Assertion X is true. If there’s no action whatsoever to be taken, one can wonder why anyone cares about debating the matter in the first place. But in any case, at some point we’ll decide one of two things:
1. it’s time to fish or cut bait, and we’re going to take action as though Assertion X were true (or as though it were false);
2. we don’t need to make a decision yet, and so we’re going to remain agnostic about Assertion X for the time being — or we’re going to agree to disagree about it — and instead move on to something else. We may decide this because:
(a) we don’t feel we have enough reliable evidence yet to support a conclusion about Assertion X,
(b) there’s nothing we need to do just yet that depends on whether Assertion X is true — as judges say, the truth or falsity of Assertion X is not a ripe issue.
To me, most theological doctrines fall squarely in both Categories 2(a) and 2(b).
Take the question whether Jesus was God. As I've written about elsewhere on this blog, I don’t regard the evidence in favor of Jesus’s deity as convincing, let alone compelling. Moreover, I can’t think of how I’d live my life any differently either way. Even if Jesus weren't God, I’ve made the choice to follow him, so there’s no need for me to decide whether I believe that to be true, and I therefore choose to remain agnostic on that question.
Jesus was what he was — or if you prefer, he is what he is. It doesn't bother me not to know whether he was God. That's because God seems to reveal things to humanity gradually, not unlike the way parents teach their children. I have faith that if we truly need to know whether Jesus was God Incarnate, we’ll eventually be shown persuasive evidence, in this life or the next.
What Would You Do Differently?
For those traditionalist Christians who insist that Jesus’s deity is indeed a ripe issue, here’s a question: What if anything would you do differently if Jesus were not God?
D.C., I'll repeat the same question I asked you over on TitusOneNine. Who do you say Jesus is, the one you profess to follow?
Posted by: Sleepless in SC | June 16, 2005 at 02:00 PM
Consider being a Jew, for one thing. Love God first, love your neighbor second, and submit your will to your Creator are ideas that you regularly credit to Jesus, yet He was just quoting the OT. Why bother with Jesus, who ran around claiming to be God, if He were not? Follow some sort of self-righteous kook? Kinda dumb, IMHO. You can get all the good stuff from the OT - and hey, good kosher food is fantastic! ;-)
Posted by: MJD_NV | June 16, 2005 at 02:09 PM
Sleepless in SC, I thought I answered the question in the main posting, but I'll summarize: Jesus was a prophet with an unusually insightful worldview, who trusted in God and was faithful to him unto death.
MJD_NV, I addressed your question in Why I Still Call Myself a Christian and an Episcopalian.
Thanks both of you for the comments.
Posted by: D. C. | June 16, 2005 at 02:24 PM
Um, no, DC, you don't adress my questions in the least. you say:
"that God exists;
that he's at least roughly analogous to a loving father;
that for at least the last 13.7 billion years or so, he’s been building a universe, for some purpose we don’t fathom;
that we get to help him with that project;
that he makes use even of our sins and our screw-ups;
that on the whole — not without exceptions, to be sure — life keeps getting better; and
in the end, things are going to turn out unimaginably well."
Jews and Unitarians believe this, too. Heck, I know some pretty dedicated pagans who wouldn't object to anything you've written, either, although they'd add a lot more to it. Jesus said He was God. Pretty crazy thing to do, especially in 1st century among the Jews. When you look at what He claimed, you have to come to one of three conclusions - He lied, making Him criminal, He was nuts, or He was God. Why on earth would you follow someone who was a liar or a lunatic when the same basics that you list above can be found elsewhere? Because you're comfortable in the ECUSA and you love your wife?!?
(BBTW - How do you KNOW that you love your wife, anyway? How do we know that?)
Your May 31 essay told me only that you are very comfortable manipulating meanings of things in order to hang out with people you like.
Then again, maybe you are comfortable following a liar or a lunatic...
Posted by: MJD_NV | June 16, 2005 at 02:47 PM
"Jesus was a prophet with an unusually insightful worldview, who trusted in God and was faithful to him unto death."
D.C., thanks for the prompt response clarifying the Jesus whom you profess to follow. I was only able to discern what you didn't believe about Him from your main posting.
Now, with this answer in hand, I am obliged to return the favor of your original question: How do you know what you claim about Jesus? How do you know it is true?Please believe me, I am not trying with this deflective question to be dismissive of your belief, but to point out the futility of your argument. You're in no better shape than we are.
I must assume you are not suggesting we delve deeply into the nature and origin of knowledge and the classical epistemological question of "how do we know what we know?" Alternatively, perhaps we could join 17th-century French philosopher Rene Descartes in his frustrating search for a statement that could not be doubted. His conclusion was that he could not doubt that he himself existed, since he was the one doing the doubting in the first place. The end of his search: "I think; therefore I am." In an unexpected kind of way, this is helpful to me in answering your original question.
After exhausting all the detours and cul-de-sacs of academic posturing, we are left finally with our faith in what the Scriptures tell us about who and what Jesus was. I read them, I think, and I believe. Yes, Jesus is God.
Posted by: Sleepless in SC | June 16, 2005 at 04:28 PM
Interesting discussion. I tend to come at it from a 3rd angle. Yes, I belive that Jesus is God, but this belief is really rootem more in my willingness to give my heart over to a theological expression rather than the fact that I have been convinced by any empirical evidence. I have read the Scriptures, listened to the testimony of the Church, read the scholars, and experienced the living Christ in my life through prayer and Sacrament...all of this has been put into my computer and the result is "believe." And so I try to...secure in the knowledge that faith is a gift.
Now, what would I do differently if Jesus were not God? Well, my own theology is so closely tied to the Incarnation and the Resurrection that I'd probably sleep in. ;-)
Grace and Peace,
Posted by: JTFS | June 16, 2005 at 04:51 PM
MJD_NV, obviously I can't stop you from characterizing my views as you please. Some points, though:
1. C.S. Lewis did Christianity a disservice in publishing his "liar, lunatic, or Lord" aphorism. Lewis assumes facts not in evidence, namely that Jesus ever claimed to be God in the first place. If Jesus had openly claimed to be God, I have to believe the New Testament would have fairly shouted it, explicitly and unequivocally -- and I also doubt Jesus would have survived even as long as he did.
(I'm inclined to credit Paula Frederiksen's thesis: Jesus likely was executed -- though his disciples weren't -- because the authorities were afraid that crowds thought he was the Messiah, and they found it expedient to dispose of him, very publicly, to discourage potentially-violent unrest.)
The only place where Jesus is reporeted even to come close to claiming to be God is in the stories of the Fourth Gospel. For reasons I've written about elsewhere, we would do well to be skeptical of long quotations of what someone allegedly said decades ago, especially when the crucial points are uncorroborated in any of the other surviving documentation.
Suppose that, today -- 40+ years after the fact -- someone purported to compile the text of JFK's inaugural address; his exhortation to Congress that we must go to the moon; and his Ich bin ein Berliner speech.
Now suppose that the compilation were written in French, by a person unknown; that the compilation claimed to have been based on the memories of an eyewitness to all of the speeches; and that the compilation did not cite any published texts, nor even the films, of the speeches.
Finally, suppose that the alleged eyewitness, on whose memories the compilation was based: (i) had been a senior staffer in the JFK White House; (ii) claimed to have been JFK's favorite; (iii) had once asked JFK to be named Vice President; (iv) was not known to have spoken French; and (v) played an unknown role in recounting the speeches to the French-language compiler.
Might we accept the French-language compilation as a reliable expression, more or less, of the broadest themes in JFK's speeches? Possibly -- but guardedly.
Would we assume the compiler correctly recorded all the substantive points of the speeches, let alone their verbatim texts? Not a snowball's chance.
(If you would make such an assumption, please contact me at once; I've got a large sum of money stashed in a Nigerian bank that I need your help in bringing to this country ....)
4. Jews, too, would add to what I've written. Many if not most UUs would balk at most of my list.
5. In the other posting that I linked to in response to your first comment, I explained why I haven't converted to Judaism -- see endnote 1.
Sleepless in SC, let me tackle your question how I purport to know anything, simultaneously with MJD_NV's question how I know I love my wife.
I don't pretend to know anything with certainty. Experience has persuaded me that none of us knows anything with absolute, pure, 100% certainty.
That doesn't bother me. Neither does it cause me to cower in a corner, fearfully refraining from acting (or from not-acting) because of the possibility that I might be wrong in what I think I know. Like most people, I have enough certainy to act on in day-to-day life.
How much certainty is enough, you ask? It depends. In a restaurant, I'll order a dish I've never heard of, because it's not a big deal and the downside is minimal. On the other hand, I doubt I'd ever take a new job without first finding out as much as I could about the company and its people.
All of us make bets in life, all the time. Every time we make a decision, it's on the basis of potentially-incomplete information. We try to get as much information as we think is reasonable and appropriate under the circumstances. Then we decide, and live with the uncertainty until events indicate whether we made the "right" choice. (Every married couple in history has gone through this process.) Most of us try to learn from our mistakes and shortcomings.
JTFS, I have no quarrel with your concluding that Jesus is God; what each of us chooses to believe is his or her own business. The problem arises when people want to put their beliefs into practice, in ways that affect others in ways they don't like.
A great example of this is when traditionalists insist that God wants homosexual to remain celibate -- and that noncelibate homosexuals therefore cannot be ordained to the priesthood or episcopate.
In that kind of situation, the rest of us have every right to demand that the believers and would-be actors prove their case before they take their actions.
* * *
I appreciate everyone's thoughtful comments.
Posted by: D. C. | June 16, 2005 at 06:15 PM
"Lewis assumes facts not in evidence, namely that Jesus ever claimed to be God in the first place. " Because you don't accept the writings of St. John and St. Paul, the Church should change their canon? Why do you accept the synoptic Gospels? How do you know that they do not all go back to the same source document and are really not three accounts, but one? Why, when the writings of Paul - some of our best documentation, since it predates oll the Gospel accounts - show us a more complete Christ reflected in BOTH John and the synoptics, why do you say John is uncorroborated?
The problem arises when people want to put their beliefs into practice, in ways that affect others in ways they don't like.
"The problem arises when people want to put their beliefs into practice, in ways that affect others in ways they don't like"
I totally agree - which is why those who do not believe Christianity should not be trying to change the Church with their beliefs, but instead should go to the communities with which their beliefs are compatible. Useing one's comfortable familial situation to mask hypocricy is hardly intellectually honest.
Posted by: MJD_NV | June 16, 2005 at 07:53 PM
Alas, it seems Sleepless & MJD do not have an argument for the divinity of Jesus--they seem rather to want to get the Questioning Christian to back away from his high epistemic standards.
But of course the Gospels underdetermine a single definite doctrine about the divinity of Jesus: no text, even Scripture, is free from fuzziness. Does John even do enough to rule out Arianism? Or Docetism? Or, God help us, Nestorianism? No, no, and no. Uniformity of belief had to be imposed from above with raw force, the force of the Empire, behind it. E.g. many Nestorians simply fled, heading east into Mesopotamia.
So where are the arguments for the Chalcedonian settlement? How many of us find them convincing? Do any of us even know what they are? Chalcedonianism is one doctrine you can get out of the NT, buit there are many others equally well grounded in the text--let alone the OT. Indeed, taking the Bible as a whole, it seems the Arians have a better textual case.
CS Lewis' trichotomy is ahistorical and fallacious--he pretends Arianism, Nestorianism, etc are not equally live options for readers of the Bible.
Posted by: Thw Anglican Scotist | June 16, 2005 at 08:45 PM
MJD_NV, your real issue seems to be this: Traditionalists wish they could enforce a monopoly on the term "Christian" according to their definition. They can't, just as Pat Buchanan and his crowd don't have exclusive rights to the term "Republican," nor do the Deaniacs have a lock on the label "Democrat." That seems to drive some of you absolutely bonkers; you just can't stand it that there are people who disagree with you, yet have the effrontery to use the title that you think belongs to you alone.
The Anglican Scotist's thumbnail summary of Nicaean Christianity's triumph certainly comports with what I've read over the years. (I recommend Richard Rubenstein's When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome). My own take is that the real apostates were the Pauline Christians and their theological heirs, up to and including the present-day traditionalists. But as I said above, I'm perfectly willing to agree to disagree -- and to continue to share a table and a communion with those holding other views, no matter how wrongheaded (g).
As to the historical value of Paul's writings: Paul started out as a fiery persecutor of Christians, then suddenly "flipped" and became equally zealous preaching his version of Christianity. Remember that he preached what he claimed to be his own gospel, not received from any man, but directly from Jesus himself -- whom he had never met in life (if he had, he surely would have trumpted the fact, in Galatians and elsewhere). Paul gets full marks for good intentions, but he's not a reliable source of information on the question whether Jesus claimed to be God.
This thread reminds me yet again of the debt I owe to the people who do hold other views, and who do me the favor of articulating them. They force me to think about issues in a way I could never do alone.
Posted by: D. C. | June 16, 2005 at 09:43 PM
"Alas, it seems Sleepless & MJD do not have an argument for the divinity of Jesus"
Wasn't trying to, Scotsman - may answer is actually very close to Joe's, as to my personal belief. But I DO take issue with Christianity making any sense if it's UNTRUE. That's why I chose to answer D.C.'s last question.
"they seem rather to want to get the Questioning Christian to back away from his high epistemic standards."
Nope, I just dislike selective epistimology; for example we can rely on the Synoptics because they corroborate each other (the fact that Mat. & Luke are most likely sourced from Mark not withstanding.) Call me crazy for wanting an answer as to why this is baby & not bathwater.
"MJD_NV, your real issue seems to be this: Traditionalists wish they could enforce a monopoly on the term "Christian" according to their definition."
D.C., why do you attack me instead of answer my question?
No, D.C., my real issue has to do with those people who insist on being part of a religion that defines itself by certain parameters, (in Anglican Christianity, the Old & New Testament, the Nicene & Apostles' Creed, the 39 Articles, and the witness of the Patristics) then claim that they do NOT believe in the majority of these parameters, but say they are equal members of the organization. That's like my self-identifying as a Muslim because I like the folks at the mosque and the cool chants, while at the same time I run around claiming that Mohammed was a wacko. It has nothing to do with epistomology, my friend - it has to do with logic!
The Church is not a democratic institution. It never has been. Or have you forgotten Mark's recordation of the Great Commission: "Go forth to every part of the world, and proclaim the Good News to the whole creation. Those who believe it and receive baptism will will find salvation; those who do not believe will be condemned." (16:15-16) Not particularly democratic.
This is not "Christian" according to "my definition." This is "Christian" as has been defined throughout the centuries. "Believe anything you want as long as I get to play, too" is not a "Christian" belief, either - it is universalist one. What you are doing, in effect, is saying that you want to join the game of tag, and when the Church said, "yes, some join," you replied, "thank-you, I am in - now I am going to play hide-and-go-seek, but I am still a part of YOUR game." We traditionalists are not saying you can't play. We're saying we're playing tag - have been for centuries - and we would love to have you play. But there are some basic rules to tag that need to be followed.
I'm sorry if that offends your sensibilities, D.C., but belief systems by definition DO have parameters, or else they are "unbelief" systems. And people saying. "Wouldn't you be happier in another belief system" does not mean, "You're not one of us, now please go away." It means, "Wouldn't you be happier in another belief system?" You seem to take great pains to understand why you believe what you believe, D.C. For the life of me, I do not understand why you do not honestly convert to Reformed Judaism. THEY are playing the game of hide-and seek you want. Claiming that no one from your family is in that game seems to me to be very shallow reasoning from someone who prides himself on being such a deep thinker. Frankly, D.C., it saddens me to see you be so untrue to yourself. If that's "trying to enforce a monopoly" to you, then it will just have to be.
Posted by: MJD_NV | June 17, 2005 at 09:38 AM
MJD_NV, thanks again for the new comment.
1. I'm sorry if I didn't answer your question. I have epistemological concerns about the Synoptics, too, but the Fourth Gospel is a category all to itself. I'm willing to accept a good bit of the narrative of the Synoptics, at least provisionally. Compared with the Fourth Gospel, that narrative is not nearly as dissonant with the rest of what we know about God's creation.
(I also have serious questions about the Pauline corpus, but not nearly to the extent that I do about the Fourth Gospel.)
2. You seem to define a religion by its doctrine. I define it more as a community that tries to serve and worship God together. To me, beliefs about other matters are largely incidental, so long as (i) they're at least minimally theistic, (ii) they conform to at least the spirit of the Great Commandment and Summary of the Law, and (iii) other people respect my views and don't try to insist that theirs are the only acceptable ones.
Does that make the church no more than a fraternal organization like the Rotary Club? Let me tell you, if I had to choose between the Rotary Club on the one hand, versus a church whose focus was primarily on right belief, and only secondarily on serving and worshipping God together, it'd be a no-brainer: I'd take the Rotary Club any day.
3. In any organization, the relevant ideology is going to be defined by the current membership. The definition will evolve along with the members' views, according to whatever governance processes are in place at the time. That's just the way it is in a democracy.
Y'all don't like the result of ECUSA's governance processes as manifested at GC 2003. I'm sorry about that, but that's just the way it is too.
4. In this cultural war, I'm actually more concerned about meta-beliefs concerning issues like the acceptability of doubt, the possibility of other answers, etc. Please keep in mind that the meta-beliefs of "Christian humanists" like me -- liberals, if you will -- are far more in the mainstream of the present-day Episcopal Church than are those of traditionalists such as yourself. If that were not the case, we wouldn't be suffering through what likely will prove to be a very ugly divorce.
Posted by: D. C. | June 17, 2005 at 01:31 PM
The fact that the Questioning Christian can think a person's medical condition an apt parallel with Christianity is, to my mind, a sufficient demonstration of the end to which an over-reliance on personal judgment and an etiolated ecclesiology naturally lead.
Posted by: Douglas Lewis | June 17, 2005 at 01:47 PM
If one were to reject Chalcedon or Nicea, only a certain particular view of Jesus' divinity, one not found exclusively in Scripture (trivially, since both councils did theology via neo-platonism and Aristotelian metaphysics), is set aside. Why think that the Nicene Creed is biblical, while Arainism, for example, isn't? One drawback of the Nicene Creed in relation to Arianism is the doctrine of the Trinity: go ahead and try to explain how three really distinct persons are share a nature without treating the nature as a species or falling into polytheism. Whatever your explanation of the Trinity's logical coherence, it will not be found solely in the Bible.
But from the earliest 16th century times, Anglicans were bound only by what could be shown from Scripture. Article VI says "Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation....whatsover is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man...." If you cannot show the Trinity from Scripture, and so if you cannot show the Nicene Creed from Scripture, confessing it is not required for Anglicans. Plain and simple.
The problem is this: Article VIII claims both the Apostles and Nicene Creeds can be shown from Scripture. That is mere fantasy--at least for the Nicene Creed. Thus, on the face of it, Episcopalian worship contains this tension between relying on Scripture and confessing what cannot be shown therein.
If so, then why not see the Questioning Christian's questions, at the very least, as performing a significant function, calling us to address this tension in our worship and resolve it. Called to worship in spirit and truth, we should not glide over such inconsistencies.
Posted by: The Anglican Scotist | June 17, 2005 at 01:52 PM
MJD_NV says "belief systems by definition DO have parameters, or else they are "unbelief" systems" Not sure if this is testable. If it is, it reeks of relativism. There are thin, linguistic parameters [for example, if I answered your question in Martian, or my interpretation of what Martian would sound like, we'd be outside a parameter.] But asking if bodies do get raised, and if so, where do they go, is a question that requires some degree of common sense. I do think there are closed sets of beliefs, but they are often exclusive, or require some shared beliefs to be comprehensible.
Hey DC - you a Rotarian?
Posted by: John Wilkins | June 17, 2005 at 09:04 PM
D.C., you’ve certainly cut to the heart of the fight in the episcopal church today. Which is between those who believe God is revealed to us in his Son—not, of course, reducible to doctrinal abstractions, but about whom doctrines may be true or false and known to be so, on the one hand; and, on the other hand, those who believe not perhaps that we can simply make it up as we go along, but that we ourselves are the touchstone of truth--as we may insist that others respect our views and not maintain that their own are the only acceptable ones. “The faith once delivered to the saints” is an illusion; Christianity is what it happens to be in any given community that calls itself such. We impose our own truths on the chaos without, including the chaos of scripture.
How odd this seems to we pesky traditionalists, who believe not only that God is out there, and that we can know something about him; but that it matters whether we get it right or not. True doctrine about God being just as important as true knowledge about any other aspect of the world—in the long run determining the character of the community adhering to it.
But it seems to me you’re making some effort to find support for those doctrines that you prefer by casting doubt upon the scripture that happens to be inconvenient to them. So perhaps its not that doctrine is unimportant, just that we can all determine our own as we please—this makes about as much sense as deciding between copernican and ptolemaic astronomy by vote—or pretending that one can have a discipline of knowledge without agreement about its basic tenets and methods. You suggest that as long as we all worship God together, diversity of doctrine doesn’t matter. But, under those conditions, why would you suppose us to be worshipping the same being?
Posted by: Tom Huddle | June 18, 2005 at 09:01 AM
Tom, thanks for the thoughtful comment.
1. I agree with you completely on one particular point. I firmly believe, as you say:
We seem to differ on two related points:
First, my professional training and experience, together with a certain knowledge of human history, have led me to disbelieve almost any claim that someone has arrived at THE answer about something, let alone about God. History shows us plenty of examples in which we've had to change our minds about things as we've learned more about God's creation. A fairly recent example is the discovery that most stomach ulcers are caused, not by diet or stress, but by a common bacterium, and that an inexpensive antibiotic can usually take care of the problem.
As near as I can tell, the most fruitful approach to life seems to be (i) to assume that yes, there is an objective truth out there, but (ii) to treat our knowledge of that truth as provisional, subject to change as more information is revealed to us. We have no reason to treat our knowledge of God as other than provisional -- in fact, a proper spirit of humility demands that we do so.
Second, I agree that "it matters whether we get it right or not" about God. But we differ about what the consequences should be when we think someone has gotten it wrong. Suppose that (i) you hold what I regard as a wrong belief about God, but (ii) your wrong belief is harmless, that is, it doesn't inspire you to do things that harm others. In that situation, I'll let God worry about what consequences you should suffer, if any. And I expect -- no, I insist -- that others do the same for me.
It reminds me of when my kids were little. My son would sometimes complain to me about his younger sister's behavior -- she was smarting off to her mother, she was not eating her dinner, things like that. My son has always had a strong sense of fairness and justice. As little kids often do, he felt that, if my wife and I were going to shirk our duty of punishing his sister for her transgressions (he wasn't allowed to smart off, and had to eat his dinner, after all), then it was incumbent on him to do so. Needless to say, we didn't let him.
For all we know, getting it wrong about God, in itself, might constitute bad behavior that needs to be "consequenced." But we need to let the Father take care of the consequences; it's not our job, any more than it was my son's job to punish his sister.
2. On another point, I think we may be talking past one another. You describe what I'll call Episcopalian humanists (EH-ers?) as:
Not at all. If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you'll have noticed a major recurring theme: Truth is found in the reality that God has created, not in our wishful thinking about what we think it is or what we'd prefer it to be. Part of our job is to try to discern, and humbly deal with, what God has actually wrought, as best we can.
* * *
I appreciate your having taken the time to comment.
Posted by: D. C. | June 18, 2005 at 11:56 AM
John Wilkins, I'm not a Rotarian; I know virtually nothing about them except what I've read about them -- which is mostly that they quietly go about doing a lot of good in the world.
Posted by: D. C. | June 18, 2005 at 12:05 PM
well... i'm flattered. I think its a pretty good organization, myself.
Posted by: John Wilkins | June 18, 2005 at 03:54 PM
tome writes: "But, under those conditions, why would you suppose us to be worshipping the same being?"
First - are there other beings? Surely we both worship. We both worship God; and probably envision Jesus, or a burning bush; or a soldier on horseback; a mother hen. Lots of images of God in scripture. It's an interesting question - how do we communicate to and what is the form of communication. One would argue that worship [as many have] is a response to God. And there is one God.
There is a theory of truth implicit. If it is true that God is real and true and responds to prayer, and the prayer of an imperfect person or a sinner, then I'm not sure what we have to worry about. But if, as you seem to allude, there are as many Gods as persons [as the Hindus do] then we have a controversy, especially if one of the 6 billion Gods is true and answers prayers correctly, while the rest are demons. But if I am praying, and actually praying to a demon [because I'm a humanist also], does the demon respond to my prayers? Do demons have wills? I understood that ONLY GOD is completely free to respond to prayers. Demons only cause trouble and misinterpretation.
for me, diversity is not really a choice. Insofar as we are differently bodied [I inhabit my body and not yours] there is no certainty that we have the same mode of communication to God, which is why there is, even when we use the same words, miscommunication. I am skeptical about the existence of perfect communication, but I'm confident in communication that is good enough, and that is, I pray, good enough for God. Lord have mercy.
Posted by: John Wilkins | June 18, 2005 at 04:05 PM
I've responded at greater length to MJD_NV in a new posting, Community Matters More Than Doctrine. I'm grateful to MJD_NV for having provoked me into sorting out and articulating my thinking.
Posted by: D. C. | June 19, 2005 at 08:46 AM
D.C., I've posted a few thoughts here.
Posted by: Todd Granger | June 21, 2005 at 07:49 AM
D.C., I think that Bishop Tom Wright has answered my rephrasing of your final question to traditional Christians.
Posted by: Todd Granger | June 29, 2005 at 09:26 PM