This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Doctrine is a guide to practice

I am wondering if the whole point of doctrine is as a guide to practice.

Surely doctrine cannot be an end in itself. This is the fallacy of those who would make cognitive assent to certain doctrines tantamount to faith. Or the assumption that doctrines are framed propositions which summarize the essential truths found in Scripture. Then cognitive assent to these truths is tantamount to faith.

Clearly faith is not merely propositional in the sense that it is just a matter of mental agreement to a set of facts. Faith is better understood as "trust" in that it involves the whole person and actual, bodily commitments and actions.

Therefore, to have faith or to believe has to do with more than something that happens in your brain; it has to do with something that has extension into the world in our practices and actions.

Among the plethora Scripture passages which support this understanding I present two of my favorites: Jesus says that it is not those who say "Lord, Lord," who inherit the Kingdom of God but those who do the will of my father in heaven. And the parable of the two brothers who were requested by their father to work in the field. One assented, but later didn’t actually go to the field; the other refused, but later actually did go to the field. Obviously, it was the one who did the work, not the one who merely talked the talk, who did the father’s will.

Practice, lifestyle, actions, what we do: this is the point of Christian faith. If it serves any purpose then theological doctrines must relate to practice. They must guide and inform correct — that is, effective, fruitful, faithful — practice. Practice that actually reflects and brings the practitioner and others closer to the Kingdom of God.

The basic doctrines of Christianity, such as the Trinity and the dual natures of Christ, are not just descriptive about a truth that is irrelevant or immaterial to practice. They have to guide and inform practice. That is in fact why we have them. Not to think of the faith in these ways leads to bad practices which do not reflect the Kingdom of God.

The simple idea that the universe is created by God leads to a whole set of attitudes which govern practice and our activity in the world. To wit: the creation is good, the creation is not identical with God, we are part of creation, the creation belongs to God and should be addressed with the respect and awe accorded the property of another which we are graciously allowed to use, etc.

This and other inferences from the doctrine that says God created the universe lead people and communities to live in certain ways and to reject other ways of living. The creation is not an indifferent, amoral, object we may dispose of as we please. It is not an evil prison in which we are trapped from which we need to escape. And so forth.

The gathered community of believers then needs to take the doctrine and, always holding it up to the standard of the Word of God, Jesus Christ (another doctrinal commitment itself), measure and evaluate our individual and communal practice. Do our actions reflect this thing we claim is true? Do we live in the world as if God created it and gave it to us as stewards? Do we cherish and respect the creation and everything in it as Christ did? Where do we fall short in this effort and how do we improve?

This is just one example examined very perfunctorily. The point is that doctrine is a guide to practice.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Sailing Analogy

I do not sail. I have been sailing maybe a couple of times. But I hope I know enough to make the following analogy:

When attempting to guide a sailboat across a span of water to a particular destination it is only rarely that a straight line is maintained. Rather, the captain has to account for the movements of the currents and the wind. This means that in order to make progress in attaining the goal, the boat has often to move in different directions. Thus if the rudder and sail are set in specific ways in one part of the journey, these must be continually adjusted in order to keep the boat moving towards the desired goal. To keep the rudder and sail in the same position when the conditions have changed is counterproductive. Not only will progress towards the goal cease, but the boat itself might capsize.

The church is also on a journey towards a goal which is the Kingdom of God. In order to keep moving positively towards this goal when the conditions are continually changing it is necessary to change the navigational tactics. In short, if we left the rudder and sail exactly where Calvin set them, we might be faithful to Calvin, but we would no longer make progress towards our goal. In Calvin's day the wind and the current and other seascape factors were configured in a particular way. Today that configuration is completely different. Therefore, the boat must configure its steering capabilities differently.

The church has always done this. Each generation has a set of challenges that are different from the generation before. It has to come up with its own answers in order to keep the ship headed towards the goal. It takes into account what it has learned along the journey.

To be faithful to our Christian forebears does not mean uncritically mimicking their approach. It means having the same goal and managing the navigation so that this goal remains our destination, even if the way the boat is managed, and even the immediate direction in which it is going, is very different. The point is whether we are attaining the goal, not whether we are in perfect imitation of our forebears' tactics.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Response to Beau Weston's article

Weston's original article may be read at http://www.pcusa.org/re-formingministry/papers/rebuilding.pdf .

While he suggests we have a ready-made establishment-in-waiting in our "tall-steeple pastors," I do not share his confidence that this is the group best equipped to lead the church into the future. Weston counts it a positive that these folks have worked their way up through the "market" system, demonstrating certain loyalties and competencies. In a former age it might have been a benefit to have the "insiders" rule. Maybe they were integrated into the larger "insider" group in society, and were thus able to exert substantial influence by means of these connections.

Those days are gone, however. The mainline church has become disestablished, marginalized, and increasingly considered "outsiders" in American culture. The ones we need lift up as leaders are those who are cognizant of this reality and who have demonatrated effectiveness in witnessing to the gospel in this new context. Those who know how to function as a minority, even exilic, community, who can embrace being on the edge, who are not totally invested in culturally dominant economic values and views of success... these are the ones we need to set the agenda now. Call them the anti-establishment.

I am thinking redevelopment & New Church Development pastors and other leaders, where we find creative worship, spreading of spiritual practices, increases in hands-on service activities, new ways to be organized and govern the church, and other examples of serious and faithful witness. A church that is now called to be counter-cultural must be led by those who have the proven experise in being counter-cultural.

Kester Brewin's categories identifying the emerging church come to mind: organic, networked, decentralized, bottom-up, communal, flexible, and always evolving. I humbly suggest that it is not likely that we will find leaders who relate to these categories who are "tall-steeple pastors."

Paul+