Monday, September 20, 2010

God Is Not Contained Within Our Doctrine

The following words come from the mouth of Congregationalist Minister, John Ames, who is the fictional creation of Marilyyne Robinson in her novel Gilead.  (A great read!)

"The Lord absolutely transcends any understanding I have of Him, which makes loyalty to Him a different thing from loyalty to whatever customs and doctrines and memories I happen to associate with Him."

I wonder how much of our dissension and division and debates within churches is a result of not being aware of this truth.  How many times have we stood to defend a custom because we have equated it with God's will unaware of how deeply affected said custom has been by personal experience and interpretation.

Now, I am not opposed to tradition.  I am not opposed to local custom.  I am not opposed to the need for the Gospel to take on unique forms in particular contexts and cultures.  This, I think, is necessary for the Gospel to take on flesh in a given time and place.  It is part of God's condescending (I mean that positively) nature to speak our language and become flesh in our time and place.

What I am saddened by is how these customs and traditions - based on a very localized interpretation of Scripture or based on nothing more than repetition - become equated with God's immoveable truth.

To say that God is bigger than custom does not deny the need for customs.  To say that God is bigger than doctrine does not mean we should abandon coherent statements about who God is and what He wills.  To say God is bigger than our memories of being with Him and His people does not mean that we should not cherish these and continue to create more of them.

To say that God is bigger than these things is to tell us how we ought to hold them... carefully, honestly, humbly.  We have to be willing to admit when our traditions are just that.  We have to be willing to admit that our customs were meaningful at one time for a certain people but may not be useful anymore (or may even be a hinderance).

Let's see if I can offer a couple examples to illustrate this idea.

1. I remember once preaching at a congregation, and I had asked them to do Communion at the end of my sermon rather than before it.  I did this to place the Eucharist in its rightful place, as the primary focus of our gathering.  I wanted to preach the congregation to the Table.  There were a few people upset that Communion was moved.  Their custom of taking the Lord's Supper in the middle of the service disallowed them from the experience of hearing the Word and participating fully in the moment.  God is bigger that any order of worship and to worship Him rightly is to be able to receive Him in the familiar and in exotic circumstances (though this hardly qualifies as such!).

2. There still seems to be a number of folks upset about the fact that the Bible is not read in public schools, and prayer is no longer allowed as an officially sanctioned activity either.  This, for some, is very disconcerting and is worth lamenting.  This is seen as a sign of a culture abandoning God and is even used spitefully to explain why all the shootings have occurred and why schools are having such problems with discipline.  I think this is so bothersome because for some their memory of "better times" was when they were younger and these things were allowed.  It is assumed that their memories of God present in their life should be repeated for God to be present today.  I might suggest, though, that our society is actually more just and righteous now than it was then simply by pointing to racial equality.  I'd rather live in a country where all people are treated as equals that has no religion in the public sphere than in the reverse.  Either way, God is bigger than these laws and is not hamstrung by this.  He is just as present and alive as He has always been.  

3. The following statement is almost a total denial of the Robinson quote above: "I just read the Bible plainly.  I take it for what is says and I do what it says."  Comments like this terrify me.  Usually when it is made the person is totally unaware of how their own experience, their own culture, their own method of interpretation effects their reading of Scripture.  These are the people who get frustrated with culture being used to adjust our readings of passages and yet are unaware of how culture has effected their own.  They think they are just reading and applying with nothing in between.  This means that their customs, doctrines, and memories become sacred and holy and equal to the Scripture itself.  In my own tradition it is funny because even though the interpretive method is named - Command, Example, Inference - some still act like no man-made lens is used to come up with our traditions!  It is as if the Bible has a chapter that teaches us to read it this way.  All actions then become biblical truth.  It is dangerous to think this way.  Also, I have never seen this done consistently.  Just reading and applying "plainly and simply" always requires people to ignore evidence that would contradict their current stance.  We have to be humble enough to see how limited we are and be open to a continual re-exploration of the Word of God.

I would love to hear some more examples of how custom, doctrine, and memory have become elevated to God-status. Please post them.

1 comment:

  1. I'm loving where Father is leading you these days. It seems like there is indeed a stirring in many of His kids' hearts about stuff like this. I know that this is where He has me at the moment. I am doing a lot of pondering of these things.

    I think that your point here is even much larger than you realize. It goes way beyond the customs, traditions, and nostalgia that we have built based upon our understandings of the Bible and our experiences in the Church. Our very belief in what the Bible and the Church are create these customs and traditions.

    I feel about traditions and customs perhaps very much the same as you. What I am trying to get at is that I am climbing over the mountain of traditions and customs and am finding yet another "Everest" that stands in the way of my knowing God and experiencing Him in all of His fullness: the Bible. What I think is one thing, what the tradition is is another, what the Bible is is perhaps the most important.

    I am reading now about the canonization of the Bible and where it came from. I am curious to know why we have what we have. A thought occurred to me the other day that I am now meditating upon: "Did God ever intend for us to have what we know as the Bible?"

    I'm not sure I know the answer to that--or ever will. I just think that this is the next step in the journey of knowing God in His fullness. First, we must put traditions in their proper perspective (embrace them as such) and then we have to put the Bible in its proper perspective.

    Thanks for writing this. I love you and look forward to where Father leads you and me next.