Saturday, February 25, 2012


On a few occasions I've come across comments by writers musing over the fact that the Christian church has a tendency to swing back and forth between liberalism and conservatism, permissivism and legalism, never finding a middle ground that can satisfy both. It's a dilemma I've pondered myself more than once. Theology is neither as static nor as consistently progressive as most would like it to be.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this in modern times is the rise of American fundamentalism. The term 'fundamentalist' was originally coined in the early 20th century by those who wanted to reassert a relatively simple list of doctrines they considered to be fundamentals of the Christian faith, in response to the theological liberalism that had swept most of the mainline denominations in the late 19th century. It was a conservative movement, but a fairly straightforward call for doctrinal reform at the start.

By the 1920s, however, the fundamentalist movement had been taken over by the extreme legalists we now associate with the term. Fundamentalists became reactionaries who vocally condemned science as well as nearly every aspect of American society, advocating cultural isolationism and rigid codes of conduct. Evangelicals have since tried to extricate themselves from this portion of their history, with varying degrees of success. At present, the evangelical movement appears to be veering toward open schism between those that have thoroughly repudiated fundamentalism and those that have merely sanded down its rougher edges.

Even within the last half a century numerous movements have risen (and in some cases run their course and faded away again) within the Christian church, each one reacting to whatever trends preceded it. And so it's gone throughout church history, which is rife with schisms, heretic hunts, heated debates and even literal wars. No matter how reasonable the cause, we never seem to find that elusive center.

But what if in all of that we've missed the point? What if the real problem isn't heresy, but our driving need to be right? Don't get me wrong - at the end of the day we have to be able to reach conclusions on at least some matters, or else we'd be left with nothing but chaos and paralysis. But when the subject at hand is the Creator of everything, a being who exists beyond time and space and above dimensions we can only abstractly apprehend in complex mathematical models, how could it be anything other than the ultimate in hubris to claim that we could ever have such a One all figured out?

Perhaps the center eludes us, because in infinity there is no center. If we are all created in the image of God, perhaps every one of us is needed so that we can add our own unique reflection to the larger picture we're trying to create (and even then, it would be a picture that told only part of a far greater story). Acknowledging that doesn't have to mean that we think all forms of religious expression are equally valid; one need look no further than Fred Phelps or Osama Bin Laden to see the limits of such an absolute relativism.

Taking the humble stance that we need to learn from those outside of our own belief system may seem like a sellout - and it does require that we surrender our right to be right. But for those who are truly confident in their beliefs, it costs nothing of real value to admit the limits of one's own knowledge by humbly listening to other perspectives. It costs very little, but the potential rewards are vast.

The real danger lies in insisting that we have all the right answers, and need no further input. By doing so we devalue others who bear God's image by dismissing everything they have learned and experienced that we don't personally agree with, and by placing greater value on ideas and dogma than we do on people.

For those of us who believe that the Bible was in some manner inspired by the Infinite that we most commonly nickname God, the challenge is to rediscover that even a book so inspired is still finite and not to be conflated with the God it points to. By using the Bible as our starting point for learning more about God - as the foundation for that building rather than the entire structure - we open ourselves to discovering the wonders of a universe that's far larger than we dared imagine it could ever be.

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