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What we know and what we think

August 22, 2015

The intricate relationship between facts and doctrines

Doctrines determine our religious thinking, but what are they? We know they are beliefs taught by a religious institution or group, but how do they form and what are they made off? While some doctrines originated with the actual founder of a religion, others developed over time. In either case, doctrines tend to become increasingly complex, either due to developing misunderstandings, unforeseen consequences, or having to vie for legitimacy amongst competing doctrines. The clearest example might be the doctrine of the Trinity, a very complicated formula which emerged from a long struggle between alternative views. Another is baptism. For early Christianity it might have been the simple continuation of a previous tradition but, as time passed, there came disputes about the correct way to do it, who could preside it, which baptismal formula and so forth. Today the doctrine is more complex than ever, with as many disagreements as there are Christian denominations.

Just a few samples, but the list is endless, especially if we looked at the development of Christology, soteriology and eschatology (Nature of Christ, salvation and end-time). Even behind the simplest doctrines, there are volumes of theology, of hairsplitting arguments about the correct or incorrect way of looking at it, and why it must be so. At the end of the day, doctrines become a mixture of elements, proceeding from multiple sources. There is the influence of the original founder, of notable figures in the history of the church, of theologians, of tradition, rituals, etc. All this is woven into a coherent and cohesive interpretation, the best rational conclusion that can be drawn from all available sources.

Needless to say, the process has been impacted also by political concerns. It was the case when Christianity became Greek, then Roman and when Roman Catholicism broke with Greek Orthodoxy. Their schism was mainly for political reason, but required theological justifications, so each developed their own brand of doctrines. It happened again when the Reformation parted ways with the Catholic Church. Many protestant doctrines still have at their heart the need to withstand Catholic authority. The same for Catholic doctrines that were devised as a response to the Protestant challenge. When the Reformation further fragmented into multiple denominations, each needed its particular set of doctrines.

Being that so many doctrines came into being from disputes and schisms, doctrines became a badge of distinction and the defining feature of competing denominations. As a consequence, today there is an incredible array of doctrines, touching on a myriad of subjects, but which don’t agree with one another. Somewhat ironic, however, is the way in which each denomination presents its own set of doctrines, as evident truths: “The Bible says so, look, it’s right here, as clear as can be”. Clear it may be, to them, but why so many disagreements? “Because we are right and they are wrong!” is the usual answer, but you’d think that if something is so clear, there would be a general consensus on it, after all we read the same Bible; or do we? Instead, Christianity has been plagued by doctrinal disagreements from the very start, and it even went to war for them. This alone should demonstrate the amount of unchrist-like, speculative elements, which have come to be part of our “Christian” doctrines.

The issue is so complex that none can even be a priest or a pastor, not an effective one, unless he first undergoes years of theological studies. It’s imperative for them to know the nature and background of their doctrines, and know how to uphold them without straying into competing ones. Church members, in turn, are given just the bare essentials, a digest version of it. The Apostles ’ Creed makes a good illustration; while appearing as a simple creed to recite at liturgies, it would take an extensive course on Trinitarian theology to understand what’s behind it and what it really means.

Most churches realize that “understanding” doctrines is not for everyone, that most people are satisfied with the condensed version, and do not care to see what it’s made off. After all, there are other reasons for belonging to a church and one of them may be the actual experience of the divine. The fact, however, that the experience happens in an environment heavily imbued by doctrines, leads people to interpret it from the perspective of those doctrines. That’s why, in one church, the same experience can be attributed to a certain practice, cult or spiritual agent, while in another church it will be credited to something different. It could be said that God comes to those who seek him in whatever state they are, regardless of which doctrines they believe in. Doctrines, in any case, are what shapes our interpretation of such encounters; they impact our imagination and thinking of God.

So, how solid is that thinking? Depends on how much of it is based on facts, on actual experience, and how much of it is based on doctrine. Then it depends also on how solid those doctrines are, how much in them is based on experience, revelation and a living interaction with God, or how much of it is conjectures, arguments, speculations and politics. It’s a big question and the answer isn’t easy. It takes loads of time just to trail back to the origins of a doctrine, to understand how it came about and why; then, even more time to understand what effected its development to the present state, what counterarguments there were, etc. The most common fallacy is to think that present doctrines reflect the thoughts and beliefs of early Christians. Nothing further from the truth! Christianity has changed so much that to even begin to understand it would require extensive studies of its history.

In any case, no matter how much one studies, it is still unavoidable to confuse facts with doctrines, that which we know, with that which we merely think. How does it happen? Because even that which we actually know, is automatically interpreted, and interpretations change when more knowledge is added. Speaking for myself, I usually find it embarrassing when, after proclaiming something for a fact, and for an extended period of time, I then find out that it wasn’t exactly so. It has happened many times and I have seen it happen with others as well. It is odd how we can be so convinced of something we merely think, just because it is related to something we do know, and yet be so incapable of telling the two apart.

How is it that we struggle so much to tell the difference? When is it that we can actually say that we know something, as opposed to when we merely think so? Of course there are things that we do know, which we have seen and touched, and there are also things which we can’t sense but we have equally found them to be true; things like laws, principles, energies and entities that require other means of verification. In any case, whether of things visible or invisible, whatever we have come to know, we never have a complete knowledge of them. Learning never ends and there is always something more to discover, even about that which we know best. Nonetheless, it is correct to say that we know it, to whatever degree, if we have personally tried it, verified it and somehow interacted with it. Even a partial knowledge is knowledge nonetheless. It’s like the old adage about the iceberg, we may not know what the whole looks like but, by the small part that we see, we know what the whole is made of. The problem is that our thinking often exceeds actual observation, creating a mental image that surpasses available facts; so it’s natural for us to imagine the full shape of the iceberg and, perhaps, even sea creatures hiding beneath it.

What we observe, about anything, leads us to develop images of what we still don’t know about it. Our thinking, on many issues, is thus comprised of both, facts and theories. As one dictionary put it “facts are observations whereas theories are the explanations to those observations”. Naturally, as we move along and learn more about something, what we used to only theorize about it does change. Our thinking changes in direct proportion to the amount of data that we acquire on a given subject. It’s unavoidable, but when new data alters our perception of something, it’s not because what we knew before was wrong, but because it was partial and the rest we were only imagining it. Because our thinking was made of facts, as well as suppositions, when new facts emerge, our thinking changes. It’s not our initial observation that was incorrect, but what we theorized about it.

Let me make an example, for most of our history we used to think that the earth was flat and the sun moon and stars turned around it. Ancient literature is full of such references, including the Bible. With time we gained a different perspective and learned that things worked differently. The initial facts haven’t changed. From our human perspective the earth still appears flat and the sun, from our point of view, does turn around it. That is an observable fact, but our interpretation of it has changed, because of new data which the ancients didn’t have. It’s what they used to theorize, in the basis of their observations, but about what they couldn’t see, that has changed. Today we have more information but, because we still don’t know everything, we continue to develop theories about the universe, matter, space, time, etc. It’s a question of perspectives, of points of observation, and these will change in relation to the available data.

It isn’t something unique to astronomy; it applies to all of us. As children we had limited knowledge and our perspective was proportionate to it. As we grew older and gained better notions, our perspective expanded with it. As it happens individually, so it does with humanity at large, and we see it in history, where knowledge accumulates and perspectives improve. We may not always move forward but, with less that is speculative, we get better results in many areas, like medicine, technology, education, living conditions and so forth.

To a degree it’s the same with religion. To make an example, Jesus was born in a time when the nation of Israel had a particularly narrow understanding of itself, its history and the world. This limited perspective led them to think a certain way about God and their long awaited Messiah. They imagined God as a tribal divinity and the future Messiah as a conquering king, a military leader who would do them justice, restore them to their former glory, and cause them to rule over the world. Of course, there were variants to this interpretation, but nobody could really think out of the box of that cultural milieu.

Jesus’ first followers were no different; they also understood him that way and we see it all through the gospels. Some, thinking that he would soon become king, asked him for positions of power (Mark 10:37), others, thinking he would save the nation, were disappointed by his sudden death (Luke 24:21). It was only after Jesus’ apparent failure, when instead of becoming king he was executed as a criminal, that his followers underwent a major readjustment of their thinking. Disappointed in their former hopes, yet conscious of what they had experienced with Him, and did continued to experience, they began to elaborate a new perspective. What they had imagined was shattered, but they now had lots of new facts, so they just needed to re-figure things out. The New Testament is the record of this process, which didn’t stop there but continued on through the centuries, until today.

As the Jesus experience moved past the brief moment of His earthly life, there arose various speculations about the meaning of it all. Interpretations flourished until the fourth century, when the imperial church decided to standardize its doctrines. It was then that discrepancies between competing ideas were worked over into a single orthodoxy. It took an enormous amount of effort, time and deliberation, as well as political pressure, to finally come up with a reasonable interpretation of all available data. It was the most rational answer to the many questions arising out of the Jesus experience. There were historical facts, a mystical dimension and varying traditions. Making rational sense of that was a monumental job and that’s where our doctrine of the two natures of Christ, and the Trinity, came about.

It was like the illustration of the iceberg, where you see only a tiny part compared to the whole. Jesus, as human, had been visible, so they knew about his human nature. The spiritual experience was also real, so there was some evidence of another nature, but it was invisible. From this came the various suppositions about the rest of the iceberg, the part that couldn’t be seen. There were enough facts to somehow demonstrate God’s nature, but they still didn’t know what that looked like, if he was one, two or three. The Trinity was the best theory they could devise then. Out of all supposition, it was the one that made the most sense, but it’s still only a theory. That’s what most of our theology and doctrines are, theories, speculations, maybe even brilliant ones, but theories nonetheless.

At the personal level, this is also how our faith works. Some of it is based on facts, stems from a personal experience and interaction with the divine, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, etc.; then there is the influence of our religious environment, which isn’t much different from what the first disciples faced. Religion, for the most part, still rests on the accumulation of old ideas and speculations. What we think about the invisible God, is highly influenced by doctrines that made sense in antiquity, but hardly speak to us today.

Doctrines develop as a way of interpreting the experience of the divine. Indeed, they can be the best explanation for the time in which they are formulated, but doctrines, like the wine and wineskins that Jesus spoke of, don’t keep forever. Facts remain facts, but following generation may have more facts to go by and thus develop better interpretations. Everyone also experiences God in their own way, time and place, so facts and doctrines don’t always keep the same relation to one another. Relying on other’s interpretations, especially if from antiquity, may in fact prevent us from experiencing God, as a fact, in the present. Too strict a model of how such an experience should be, is like an old wineskin that cannot accommodate new wine. True, God does not change, but we do and our understanding of Him does too. Considering how little we know, it’s obvious that we must keep growing and learning, that there is a constant need of renewal, both of the wine and the wineskins, of the doctrines and the recipients.

It isn’t just a generational issue; it is so even during a person’s lifetime. An example: as a child, one may treasure the picture of Jesus by his bedside, imagining Him to be just like that, like the blond blue-eyed dude who posed for the painting, or played in the film. The story of David and Goliaths, or Jonah and the whale, may also define God’s character in the child’s mind. These may be his first steps into Christianity, his first ideas about God, and he may even experience the divine within the context of these images.

Invariably, as the child grows, his thinking will change, he will question almost everything, in order to get a better understanding. As childish things are left behind, so will his childish ideas about God. That’s why many people, as teenagers, will drift away from religion, even if only for a period, which is actually positive. If this didn’t happen, the person would remain spiritually undeveloped and stuck in a childish world.

In any case, whether the young person remains religious or not, the childish understanding must be put away, if one wishes to gain a better one. Doubts about childish narratives are healthy, and must be dealt with in order to find better answers, which translates into an adult’s faith. There has to be first a crisis of one’s beliefs, a quest for more, which then leads to personal discovery, some type of contact, of personal experience that propels the adult into a new level of faith.

Things, however, will not stop there. Any narrative about God, with time will always become insufficient and appear childish. Growing spiritually means constantly shedding the past, facing new challenges and finding new answers. Facts will not change; old knowledge neither, but speculative, doctrinal points, that which we thought the facts meant, will change and will be in constant flux. If it wasn’t so there would be no growth.

Returning to the analogy of the new wine and the old wineskins, Jesus said:

no man putteth new wine into old wineskins; else the new wine will burst the wineskins, and be spilled, and the wineskins shall perish. But new wine must be put into new wineskins; and both are preserved. No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better” (Matthew 9:14-17, Mark 2:21-22)

The usual interpretation is that Jesus’ new message was so radically different, that it required lots of stretching to accommodate it. It was thus more suitable for a younger crowd, than for those too set in their old ways. Jesus’ new wine required new followers, but the illustration leads also to a second preposition, which if often overlooked. Doesn’t all wine eventually get old, and doesn’t every new generations (wineskins) also need newer wine? New wine only remains new only for a short while. New ideas, concepts and discoveries, also age with time and are superseded by newer ones.

That which our forefather devised, to interpret the world as they saw it, is largely dated and no longer applicable. That which the Church Fathers, also devised to interpret the Jesus experience, is laced by dated knowledge, by how they saw the world then. The Jesus experience remains a fact, for whoever has come to know it, but its past interpretations are no longer viable today. Many Christians are painfully aware of this and long for a new reformation, a new Luther, or anything that would, once again, shift the paradigm of Christianity. There will be, it’s inevitable, but I scarcely imagine that most Christians would welcome it. Why? Because it won’t be as they imagine it.

Changes are never easy and not everyone has sufficient facts to hold them steady through them. That’s why most people fear them, because their “faith” is mainly in their heads, in their thinking, which is made of doctrines, and not actual experience. For most, loosing doctrines means losing faith, for there would be nothing else to rest it on.

Life, however, unfolds in such a way as to bring us all to change. Eventually we all grow past what we used to think and, willing or not, we adjust accordingly. Even so, not everyone desires learning as intensely, grows at the same rate, or even likes moving forward. We all go through similar stages but never at the same time ad sometimes we fight against it. Each of us has to first run out of resources, before we will look for new ones. Unless we realize the insufficiency of former ideas, we will not look for better answers.

That’s why it’s so hard to talk to fundamentalists, of any type… they are so full of their ideas that they can hardly listen to anything else. They have no doubts, no questions and, therefore, seek no answers. Their time will come but, to a degree, all of us are a bit like that. At different times or on different subjects, each of us can be both, an old and a new bottle. It all depends on how facts, in our life, relate to our thinking. If our experiences are satisfactorily interpreted by a set of doctrines, then we should probably live by them until new questions arise. Only then will we have the vacuum and desire for more. If the old wine still fills us, there is no room for the new, as Jesus said. Until one begins to recognize that the old has lost it’s effect, he will not seek for the new. Until one faces his own doubts, not treating them as weakness, but as opportunities for growth, he will not find answers to his questions. Real faith is vacuum, hunger, being empty and seeking to be filled.

To keep that vacuum alive, which is real faith, we must constantly remind ourselves of how little we really know, and how disproportionately bigger is what we merely think and suppose. We should certainly hold on to what we do know, and yet be willing to let go of what we think about it, if it no longer satisfies. It is by seeking to separate facts from thinking, hard as it may be, that we remain in that humbler posture in which one may continue to learn. We might thus progress a little faster and move through life a little smoother; at least we won’t fall into so many doctrinal arguments.

Doubts, after all, are steps to progress; they are like the vacuum that can be filled, like a new winesking that begs for new wine. Being full of oneself and one’s opinions, leaves no room for more. One must doubt the old to seek for the new. Like the man who said “Lord I believe… help me in my unbelief”, we must also face our doubts and yet ask God for help. That’s true faith, not one that hangs to an old thinking pattern, but one which dares to question it, which embraces uncertainty, for it needs it to reach up to better things.

PS: Some may ask: How can doubt and faith coexist if believing is seeing, if by faith we know, see the invisible, obtain miracles and receive salvation? The apparent contradiction stems from confusing faith with belief. Here is a fitting explanation, by Jaques Ellul:

Another possible question could stem from the fear of falling into relativism in our thinking of God, faith, the Bible, etc. For that I would like to add some excerpts by John S. Spong:

…two things are obvious. First, if we had not defined Jesus theologically and built institutional religion around him, his memory would probably not have survived. Second, because we defined Jesus theologically and built institutional religion around him, his memory might not survive.

What then can we do? We can separate the Christ experience from the Christ explanation and allow Christianity to become an ever-evolving religion that replaces its dated explanations in each generation.

That means that we recognize that the New Testament is a 1st century explanation of the Christ experience. It is not an objective record of truth and can never be called “inerrant” or be understood literally.

It means that we recognize that the creeds and all the doctrine and the dogma that flowed from the creeds are 4th century explanations of the Christ experience and can never define truth nor can they make or sustain the claim to possess “the one true faith.” We must thus dismiss any claims that these words or any interpretation of these words are or can ever be infallible.

It also means that we must become aware that almost all of our liturgical forms are 13th century explanations of the Christ experience, and must never be frozen in content or form. They can thus never be imposed as the norm for worship in another age.

The Christian faith is always a journey into the truth of God. None of us will ever arrive at our destination and those who think that they have arrived or who pretend to have arrived immediately become idolaters. The truth is that all of us will be forever pilgrims.

Can the Christian Church in any of its institutions ever deal with that? Most of the available evidence says no. Lone voices cry out yes. Will these lone voices be heard or will they remain voices crying out in the wilderness? Time will tell. In the meantime, keep your voice strong and vibrant.

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