Every few weeks, a scholar of religion named T.M. Luhrmann writes an op ed column in the New York Times. This week, she is examining the line between belief and unbelief, specifically, what she calls the “boggle line” between things we are willing to take on faith and things that each of us considers utterly impossible. She writes, “Gods are invisible, the future is inscrutable, and much of life is bushwhacking over uncertain terrain. In the face of your own uncertainty, being precise about what you don’t believe in can shore up your confidence in what you do.”*
Her words have inspired me to spend my next few weeks’ worth of Daily Cups discussing things that orthodox Christianity does not believe. I do not mean to say that no Christians believe these things; I know for a fact that many do. For each of us, our faith tends to be a distillation of what we are taught in the doctrines of our faith, run through the crucible of our own lived experience — of what seems credible based on the evidence of our lives. For example, a person who grew up in an abusive family is likely to have a strong reaction to the image of an angry God, either accepting or rejecting it from a very deep place in his or her being.
Indeed, the Anglican tradition even enshrines this into its teachings: our church is to be guided by Scripture (the Word of God as recorded by the human beings who have encountered God in various ways), Reason (the lived and thought-through experience of the faithful, informed by the best intellectual traditions of our time and of human history), and Tradition (what Christians in previous ages have found to be of lasting spiritual value).
However (and this is a big “however”), the teachings of the church must be able to transcend and correct the distortions and damage that necessarily characterize the life of any one individual; that’s the only way our faith can help us to reach a state of greater spiritual health. (In the case above, a person who grew up in a loving and supportive home may have an easier time perceiving the transcendent love of God, while the person raised in an abusive home may have a deeper understanding of the truly corrosive effects of sin). Thus, the Scripture, Reason, and Tradition I mentioned above are always to be interpreted as the consensus of the faithful, not as the opinion of one individual. Most of us have areas in which we find ourselves believing something different than that consensus; in such cases, we have to think and pray hard about whether we have been given an insight that needs to be shared widely (ie, Martin Luther) or whether we are just asserting the claims of our own ego when, really, what we need is some humility.
So, over the next few weeks, we are going to look at what the Church has chosen not to believe — and why. Doctrines are not arbitrary, and understanding the reasons that we reject what we have weeded out can help us to understand the holiness that we seek. Even if, after considering the reasons not to accept an idea as true, you still believe it is true for you, you will at least have gained insight into what your own spiritual commitments are at this present time. (I write “at this present time” because, in a healthy faith, those commitments will deepen, grow, or change. There is no one so spiritually perfect that they do not need to reject some of what they currently believe to be true.)
Gregory of Nyssa, one of the great saints of the church, defined “sin” as the failure or refusal to grow. My hope is that, over the next few weeks, we will grow. Together.
* “Where Reason Ends and Faith Begins,” July 26 2014.