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.