Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The fallout of credalism . . . a personal reflection

We've been having a lively debate on the authority of the ancient creeds and the church fathers who wrote them, on several blogs lately. Mason, Martin, Kurt, and I have been trading comments across all four, and we've all shown up on a few others as well. Though in general I prefer to keep the subject matter here away from excessive navel-gazing, I think a recent personal story might throw some light on why I'm quite as passionate about this particular issue, besides my basic predisposition to be careful what/who is ascribed spiritual authority.

Beyond the obvious (I hope) subjects of my faith and my family, my real passion is international health and development. I have had the privilege to serve in this capacity a few times in my life--a two-year stint in Tanzania 25 years ago being the most obvious, though I have also done shorter volunteer stints in both Africa and Latin America, and I worked in an international project for the Centers for Disease control for a couple years in the mid-90s. I did my master's in International Health (met my wife in grad school, in fact), and all of my "best laid plans" were to make that field my life's work.

Well, as we all know, life doesn't exactly hew to plan, and mine has not. Being all that as it may, a little over two years ago I had another chance to do a short-term trip to Africa, this time to rural Democratic Republic of the Congo. While there, I had the privilege of working with some absolutely amazing Congolese doctors at the hospital we visited, and to help them a bit with some concepts in monitoring and evaluation of their projects, and general epidemiology. I also got to teach an inservice class for the nurses who run the hospital's network of rural health centers, and we spent most of three days looking at sanitation, water, and basic community nursing issues. It was an incredibly fulfilling time for me, and I took away three significant lessons from the trip: one, that I still had both the passion and the ability to be of some use in developing-world health, two, that I really wanted to re-connect with that field in some career way; and three, that other believers who were with me saw and reinforced one and two.

Not long after that, I was actually approached to consider a position with a mission agency I will not name, that would have (to my way of thinking) really resonated with both my passion and my skills. I dove into the process of applying, even though the notion of going on a full-support-raising mission structure terrified me (still does).

The opportunity fell apart because I couldn't sign the statement of faith without reservation. It wasn't even the inspiration of scripture part that did me in (though if I had studied through it as much as I have since, that probably would have got me too). It was that I could not say with absolute certainty, that I'm sure anybody who hasn't heard Jesus' message, as well as anybody who's rejected it, will suffer eternal conscious punishment in hell (both issues are elucidated elsewhere on this blog if anyone wants to dig further).

Now, I fully understand that a Christian mission organization wants to have its workers, those that represent them in the field, to be faithful believers. Not only does that make sense, I think it's only right. But somehow, it seems to me there is a disconnect when I can't find a way to help people have clean water and healthier lives, all because I'm not convinced they'll burn forever in hell if they don't get their beliefs in line.

It certainly goes deeper than this. It's not just about my job prospects. A whole lot of people over the centuries have actually shed the blood of those who wouldn't hew to their creeds; a whole lot of others have created horrible schisms between fellow-believers, a multitude of denominations, and a downright nasty witness to the world. But the point is the same, even if the outworkings vary. We do a whole lot of dividing on the basis of stuff that, I still maintain, is beyond the boundaries Jesus or his first followers taught. Along the way, we've left a lot of damage.


Jc_Freak: said...

One think I could understand is a missionary organization that is concerned with putting proselytization before physical needs wanting to ensure that its members at least believed in Hell. But even if that is the case, I still think that the statement above is too doctrinally specific. There are so many people in America who are more concerned about people believing the right things than the work of the kingdom getting done. It is so sad.

Mason said...

“A whole lot of people over the centuries have actually shed the blood of those who wouldn't hew to their creeds”

Yes, and for many reasons (my position on nonviolence for one) I don’t think that is something we should even try to justify.
However I would make a distinction between the rule of faith/apostles creed type of doctrine which was brought together when the church was the persecuted not vice versa, and later creeds which were neither universal nor so basic, and usually involved a lot of infighting and schism.

Ben Bajarin said...

Dan I have been doing a great deal of statement of faith searching on church's websites lately.

One thing I have been thinking about regarding our conversations about this and I would love feedback from others when it comes to certain faith statements is why is it so important to believe that.

Hell for example, considering the doctrine of hell is greatly debated by Christian scholars today and there are all sorts of theories that can be argued, I don't understand why christians get their panties in a bunch when I challenge the traditional view. Why is it so important for them to be assured that the "wicked" we be in eternal conscious punishment. Why can't we just say God is judge and he will judge.

Even the idea of PSA (Penal substitutionary punishment) I don't understand why people need to hang on to this so desperately. Is it because they are guilty and need something to appease their guilt. This is exactly why God had people do burnt sacrifices, to help their human healing. I know Jesus death includes elements of that but the idea that God is first and foremost wrathful and needed to punish somebody for it is ridiculous and I just don't know why that is so centrally important for some people.

So yes I know points of doctrine are important but I still maintain when the story gets lost in a systematic theology to justify ones position then we are colluding with the world and working against God's redemptive efforts for the cosmos.

Lastly I am seriously shocked to see statements of faith that include a statement on the rapture and pre-millenialism. Honestly, what terrible exegesis in the first place and to put that in a statement of faith. I can't believe people would put as a core piece of their doctrine an idea that isn't found in the bible but that we get from Darby.

So any thoughts on why some things, especially ones that are no where near universally accepted in Christendom are so important for people to cling to?

Dan Martin said...

So any thoughts on why some things, especially ones that are no where near universally accepted in Christendom are so important for people to cling to?

Actually, Ben, I do have a thought on this (hell and penal-substitution, that is), though it's not going to be a popular one. Though by no means unique to now (I think of Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin as past examples), there is a stream of human thought that seems to live by the motto "there is nothing like a good hanging to focus the mind." (I can find the quote all over but can't source it, sorry). On a subconscious level (I hope), people want a doctrine of hell because they genuinely believe it's the most likely thing to convince others of their need for salvation. (Of course, the inherent contradiction is that many of the same people believe in Total Depravity and Limited Atonement, so why they care about motivating people at all is beyond me).

I actually have met people--the first was a Baptist guy I met on a short-term mission project 30 years ago--who have flat-out told me if they didn't believe in hell, they wouldn't be Christians. This has always struck me as terribly tragic, but there you have it.

This notion has a variety of outworkings, including the American tendency to build prisons and execute criminals but not to deal with poverty and disenfranchisement, including the conservative obsession with "a strong national defense" rather than examining why we have so many enemies and what we could do about being friendlier. . .I could go on but you get the drift. Without the threat of terrible punishment, people fear everything will fall apart.

Jc_Freak: said...

I have some thoughts on that Ben. First of all, some things are important to different people for different reasons.

Hell is a great example. Some people find hell very important simply because it is traditional. There is a large movement in our society which is attempting to keep a crumbling society together by enforcing certain Christian standards. We call these people fundamentalists mostly.

A second reason is, as Dan mentions, some simply think Hell is necessary to convince people that Christianity is real. If the danger is real to them, the solution seems more appealing.

A third reason is self-motivation, which I mentioned above. This is actually why I believe that some concept of Hell (though not necessarily Dante's Inferno) is important to Christian faith, since it motivates us to go out a do something about the lost.

Finally, a fourth reason is some people are just vindictive and want to see people burn. Its harsh, but those people are out there.

As far as penal-substitution is concerned, for most it seems to be a Scriptural issue. "It is the clearest teaching of Scripture, so you must believe it." Apart from that, I can't figure, other than the whole "traditional" reason I gave above for Hell (see reason one). I fine as long as someone has some concept of atonement.