Don: Mankind has always sought answers; and religion, through its doctrines, has always been more than willing to supply them. But God in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament repeatedly avoided giving direct answers. Instead, they answered questions with other questions, or with parables that suggested answers without being specific. The Bible is not a catechism: A catchism takes the form question, answer, question, answer.
From beginning to end, the Bible shows a God of Questions, not a God of Answers. Does He then bear some of the responsibility for there being so many doctrinal divisions? Could a doctrine be based on questions alone? Could a church function as effectively by questioning answers as it can by answering questions? Could a university base its existence on creating curious, creative minds that seek deep answers to life’s most perplexing questions, as much as it bases its existence on providing indoctrinating answers?
In the garden of Eden, God was deliberate, decisive, and directing. He created, day by day, with intention and deliberation:
Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. The Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones,
And flesh of my flesh;
She shall be called Woman,
Because she was taken out of Man.”
For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (Genesis 2:15-25)
God set the agenda for the garden, and He took deliberate action to implement His agenda. Man did not know he needed a helpmate, but God gave him one without so much as a by-your-leave. The fall of Man began with a question, put to Eve by the serpent:
“Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1)
In essence, the serpent was asking: “Has God been clear and unambiguous?” Eve answered: “Yes.” But after the Fall, things changed rapidly:
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” And He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” And the woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:8-13)
The Tree of Life is the Tree of Certainty, the Tree of Answers; while the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is the Tree of Uncertainty, the Tree of Questions, the Tree of Discernment and Discrimination.
From this point on God’s Plan and his modus operandi seemed to change. He was no longer the God of Command and Instruction, but instead a God of Questions: “Where are you? Who told you you were naked? Did you eat the forbidden fruit?” and “What have you done?” Why did God not simply tell them He knew what they had done and that therefore they must die? Why all the questions? Why no mention of death?
The questions have never stopped coming ever since. In the story of life, God ask the questions. To Cain: “Why are you angry?” “Where is your brother?” “What have you done?” To Adam and Sarah: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” To Moses: “What is that in your hand?” To Gideon: “Have I not sent you?” To Isaiah: “Who will go? Who can I send?” To Jacob: “What is your name?” To Jonah: “Do you have reason to be angry?” To Job, who was threatening to sue Him in court for answers to his questions of life, God responded with 77 existential questions about Man’s standing before God, and his place in the universe. It goes on.
Jesus in the New Testament relied on questions even more than God in the Old Testament. His first recorded words formed a question:
When they saw Him, they were astonished; and His mother said to Him, “Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You.” And He said to them, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” (Luke 2:48-49)
His last recorded words on the cross were also a question:
About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46)
In the New Testament Jesus asked 307 questions, and was Himself asked 183 questions, of which He directly answered only eight. Is it not frustrating?
- Q: “Jesus, should we pay tax?”
A: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; render unto God the things that are God’s.”
- Q: “Jesus, who is my neighbor?”
A: “There was this guy walking from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he got mugged…”
In a world where knowledge is changing rapidly, the dataset from which we draw answers changes too. What we know about the Earth, our bodies, our universe, is accelerating. Even what we know about God seems to be constantly changing.
Buckminster Fuller noted that up to about the year 1900, human knowledge doubled about every 100 years, but by the end of World War 2, it was doubling every 25 years. Today it’s a little more complex. We recognize that different domains of knowledge accelerate at different rates. Nanotechnology knowledge, for example, doubles every two years. Clinical medical knowledge doubles every 18 months. The average doubling across all domains of human knowledge is 13 months. According to IBM, the buildup of the Internet of Things will lead to a doubling every 12 hours. How will answers keep up? How will answers change with the expansion of knowledge?
Is it possible that the end product of doctrinal discovery is not the destination, but, rather, the journey? Might it be that God, anticipating this explosion of knowledge, established that the basis for our knowledge of Him would rest in questions rather than in answers? Can doctrine, can our relationship with God, be built on a scaffolding of questions rather than a scaffolding of answers? Does eternal relevance rest in answers or questions, given how rapidly answers change and may become irrelevant, while the questions stay the same?
Donald: Would we be better people if the Bible gave us a set of direct answers? Would humankind have the capacity to agree on those answers? Some people claim they follow the Bible, independent of doctrine. The Ten Commandments are not questions. Even when we are given such direct commands, we can and do debate what was meant by each command.
Robin: God is not a dictator and He did not create robots. It was appropriate that Jesus was called “Rabbi” because God (therefore Jesus) has a teaching style. Teachers know that younger students need answers they can learn by rote, but older students need to be taught how to figure out answers on their own. For parents, there is a time to show children how to work through a problem and where to find answers, and a (later) time to let them work it out for themselves.
Anonymous: There is great value in working questions out inside, rather than taking ready-made answers from outside. I think God wants us to gain insight, and that cannot be wrong because we reach that point under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and God trusts the insight we gain. God provides understanding through the heart. Church provides other people’s insights, but they are not our own.
David: I struggle in understanding the role doctrine might play when all that matters is an internal relationship with God. The important questions are not to be asked of priests, pastors, or elders: They are questions we ask of God, as Jacob did. The Jews called Jesus “Rabbi” in the expectation that he would provide textbook—public—answers, but clearly He would not. So what then is the role of a teacher who does not provide answers? The Socratic method of teaching by asking questions works, as Jesus knew, but does it require some basis of knowledge to be able to frame the questions? As Jacob grew older, he accumulated more knowledge about life, and the knowledge led him to his questions and his (internal) struggle with God. There’s no place for doctrine in any of this, it seems to me.
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
The tricky question is: What is inspired Scriptural doctrine, versus Man’s own doctrine?
Don: Does the explosion of knowledge alter the answers? If the answer is: “Yes,” then I think we have a basis for redesigning the doctrinal paradigm. But If the answer is: “No—the answers stay the same forever and will never become irrelevant,” then it takes us down a different path.
Donald: We can see changes in church doctrine over the historical long term, but it’s harder to see them happening in real time and to predict what doctrine will be like in future generations. Does that mean we have lost our grip on principle, or does culture modify what we think we know? Is culture knowledge?
Anonymous: Unless we live a doctrine to the extent that it becomes part of our lifestyle, our daily living, it will remain just doctrine. But if we do incorporate it as part of our being, it is no longer just doctrine. Doctrines are given to people who get their information from outside of themselves. It is just literature to them; even the Bible. When we adopt a life that accords with God’s words, we do not need doctrine. The ten Commandments are not mere suggestions, not options. We either follow them as doctrines, because they are what the Bible says, and because we will not be good if we do not follow them, or we follow them because we are convinced, internally, of their relevance to our life. Once we have internalized them, we no longer need the Church or even the Bible to remind us of them.
Donald: It seems like a diet. If we just follow the book, it is just a diet. But if it becomes an ordinary part of our life, it becomes a principle, a lifestyle.
David: In that light, I can see (as Don has maintained all along) that Scripture can indeed be intensely relevant—not because church or preacher says so, but because it can be internalized and form a part of one’s being. A church and its preachers and its doctrines probably, then, are meaningful—to those who have internalized Scripture through a personal connection with God. But the connection with God must come first, it seems to me, logically. But the tradition is the opposite: We go to church to find God. But what joy must church and the Bible be to those who have found God!
Don: Could that be any church?
David: I think so.
Anonymous: The closet is the church.
David: As it was for Jacob, I believe, in his wrestling match with God.
Donald: We may be born or converted to a church. The latter occurs on the basis that one has found God and therefore comes to His house. But this does not follow for one born into a church. Does it?
Anonymous: It is deeper and better for those who have found God.
Robin: People may experience different kinds of conversion, depending on many factors besides being born into a church. Education, cultural, environmental factors all affect the conversion. But the key element in a true conversion seems to be a dramatic moment in which God speaks directly to them and leads them to turn inwards and away from the factors that shaped their lives before. For someone raised in a “good” church environment, conversion still needs a true self-recognition of one’s sinful nature, but it might be less dramatic than for someone from a “bad” environment.
David: That is exactly the experience that Jacob had. His struggle was with his true, sinful, self. The sudden recognition of that self comes as a deeply humiliating shock, as it did to Jacob when God asked him his name—which was a way of saying “Who are you really? He was converted into understanding his true self, and it is through that that a relationship with God is achieved.
Robin: He was no longer just the child of Isaac, but his own man.
Don: It is a call by God for introspection. That was the purpose of his questions to Adam and Eve: “Why are you hiding?—What have you done?” God calls for self-reflection and conversion of the inner wo/man, rather than for recognition of Himself. Jesus also asked questions that cause us to look inside our hearts. They are not simple questions. They are deep questions that cause us to look inwards, to examine ourselves. This perspective is quite different from the external doctrinal perspective, it seems to me.
Donald: The AA’s 12-Step program focuses on personal introspection, too. In contrast, Weightwatchers focuses on points, collected by buying Weightwatchers’ products. We tend to much prefer the latter approach to the former. It is prepackaged, convenient, ready to go. We would rather pay others to take care of our issues.
Anonymous: And this gives external entities, from Weightwatchers to religious organizations, more control over individual lives. Churches control their followers by giving them rules and question/answer catechisms. Thought is discouraged. This is the opposite of what God intended for us. He gave us intelligent minds by which to think and question and grow as individuals. It is nowhere more clear than in the story of Adam and Eve that knowledge acquired from an external source is destructive to our growth with God, yet our appetite for knowledge is voracious so we look to churches to provide it. This diametrically opposite to what God intended, it seems to me. God wants to free our minds, but Satan wants to control them. We must look for the truth, for the answers to our questions, inside ourselves.
David: It seems to me vital to this discussion that we differentiate between worldly knowledge—the stuff that is accumulating at an exponential rate—and divine knowledge, which is complete and unchanging. Questions about my chances of dying from cancer, how cancer works, what therapies will cure it, etc., have different answers today than they had 100 or even 20 years ago, and will have different answers again, maybe in as few as five years hence. So the explosion of knowledge does make a difference in our daily, worldly, lives. It is life-changing.
It may be, though, that accumulating worldly knowledge can change our spiritual lives as well. As Anon has suggested, a truly fulfilled spiritual life depends on self-knowledge. It seems to me that scientific knowledge (no matter that it is ephemeral, that it may be true today but false tomorrow) can change the way we think about ourselves. Think of all the “coming out” that occurred a decade or more ago when scientific and even genetic explanations for homosexuality were added to the knowledge base. Was this not an example of worldly knowledge perhaps influencing self-knowledge, at least in some individuals?
Self-knowledge itself is not worldly knowledge about how the world works or how we work at the anatomical, genetic, and other physical and psychological levels. It is not about how people behave: It is about how we, our individual selves, behave and think and function. Age plays a role, in that we are bound to get to know ourselves better over time (as Jacob did). This has not changed, I believe, since humanity first appeared on Earth, and will not have changed by the time humanity last appears on Earth. We have a great deal more scientific, worldly knowledge than our ancestors, but I know my true self no better than Socrates knew his true self (probably worse).
In His “Render unto Caesar” response, did Jesus betray some testy frustration at the questioner’s failure to grasp the difference in the two types of question? “What have taxes got to do with your relationship with God?” I seem to hear Him saying. That which is Caesar’s can change when a new Caesar takes over, but that which is God’s never changes.
Don: Next week we will consider the components of a “good” or “important” question.
Donald: The existential questions have not changed. But the answers, provided by doctrines, have.
Dr. Singh: The Holy Spirit provides answers and direction, through prayer.
Donald: We celebrate the acquisition of worldly knowledge with elaborate, dressy graduation ceremonies at university.
Don: The knowledge rooted in doctrine is not internal knowledge. It seems to me that external knowledge is a flimsy foundation for doctrine, since it changes. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have a doctrine forbidding blood transfusions. But science seems set on providing an artificial blood substitute that would do the essential job of maintaining a supply of oxygen to the organs and tissues. When artificial blood is approved by the FDA, as it probably will be one day, how might that affect the JW doctrine? Will it become invalid and be changed? Will disease-free pork cells cloned in a sterile lab to form a chop be acceptable to Moslems? A shrimp grown in a petri dish to Buddhists?
So many doctrinal points regarding food and drink and medicine and so on are based on the shifting sands of knowledge concerning them.
David: I think the JW leadership in Bethel will certainly debate the issue of artificial blood transfusion and revise (or not) their doctrine. The result will be binding on every Witness. Will the JW parents of a child about to die in the emergency room if not transfused look—truly look—inside themselves for the answers, or will they look only as far as the doctrine? Most will turn to their doctrine. To me, that is a problem; to them, it is the answer.
The Watchtower magazine reflects the JW’s careful monitoring of science and its adjustment to new knowledge. It seems to me their solution is to spin the science as much as possible to make it fit the doctrine, rather than change the doctrine to fit the new knowledge.
Donald: The Amish simply stopped time.
Don: Doctrine defines not just who we are but also what holy book we read, what prophets we follow, how we worship, the rituals we use, what we think and do in this life and what we think about the after-life. Shared doctrine unites, different doctrines divide. Why doesn’t God simply make clear which doctrine is correct?
The Tower of Babel was built to try to reach God, to get to know Him and His ways so humans could put God’s ways to use for human purposes. After they had begun to build it, …
The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. The Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. (Genesis 11:5-8)
First, let it be noted that despite Man’s best efforts to reach Him, God was still a long way off. God had to “go down”, because the tower was nowhere near to reaching heaven.
Second, God’s plan is not for a world of sinful Man unified, a world of one people with a common language.
Third, His response to the Babelonians shows that God knows full well how readily Man weaponizes doctrine. We expect God to be clear and unambiguous about the correct doctrine, but He was clear and unambiguous that a single, unified, human doctrine would not be allowed to reach Him. God’s statement that if it were to do so: “nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them,” is similar to His statement after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit: “Behold, the man has become like one of Us” (Genesis 3:22).
God’s plan for Mankind was for for us to rely on Him to reach out to us, not the reverse. We wish to know God, to penetrate His secrets, to harness His power, to speak and act on His behalf, but it seems that this is not His plan; that how God sees us is more important than how we see God. Perhaps we should reconsider these passages, both of which report the same event:
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.For I came to set a man against his father, and a (Matthew 10:34-36)
Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division;for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51-53)
I am reminded of the movie A Few Good Men, where in response to Lt. Caffee’s demand for the truth, Colonel Jessop shouts: “You can’t handle the truth!” This seems to be what God was saying to the Babelonians. In the so-called High Priestly Prayer in Gethsemane on the eve of His arrest, Jesus prayed:
“Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.
“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word;that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.” (John 17:17-21)
This prayer is of unity around Truth, but the Truth is around mission more than message, and the mission and the unity is founded upon love:
“Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.
“O righteous Father, although the world has not known You, yet I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me;and I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:24-26)
God’s unity is not based upon doctrine, but upon love for one another:
“By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
We want to make it about what we believe, but God wants to make it about loving one another. Is it possible to conceive of a church built on a doctrine of unity and love? Can the Syriac Orthodox Church, whose members speak Arabic in daily life, continue to worship in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, as it has done ever since the Church was founded 1,500 years ago?
Thinking machines, artificial intelligence, a more thorough understanding of history and how the universe works, unlimited information at our fingertips… how will all of this help to inform us about God and about who He is and about the doctrines we hold about Him? Will God be needed? How? We He even be relevant?
Will our doctrines have any chance of standing up against time? A thousand years from now we will have more answers than ever before, but will the answers be enough? Most people seek answers from religion and its doctrines. Most Christians see the Bible as a book of answers. But how can a book written millennia ago provide answers in another millennium? Is doctrine based on answers at risk, given that answers (often changed answers) are coming at an ever-increasing pace? Should we be asking questions instead of seeking answers?
David: Through questions we may begin to perceive the vague outlines of an answer. They are valuable in that regard. But it depends on the question. For instance, when Jesus said He came to divide us, what did He mean? I don’t think we can answer the question any better today than His contemporaries could have answered it, and neither will our successors in another 2,000 years. The Bible asks many questions that lead not to answers but to a vague sense of enlightenment, of spiritual progress, but some of them seem to be to unanswerable even in principle. I cannot answer what Jesus—the epitome of love and forgiveness—meant when He said He came to divide us. It is contradictory and therefore makes no sense.
Donald: An evangelistic series is a sequence of answers spread over a sequence of nights. Churches (not just Adventism) evangelize on the basis that their doctrine has the answers. If we question whether we really have the answers, we question doctrine. Not all Christian churches evangelize, but those that do are saying: “Come, we’ll tell you what you need to know.”
Robin: Doctrine appears to be fluid. The more that we read and pray for the Spirit to enlighten us, the more we learn. Sometimes, that means the Church’s stand changes a little bit, but our understanding of God remains the same. Yet it is our understanding of Him that should grow. Growth is change.
Culture and doctrine influence one another. Even a young denomination such as ours has seen doctrinal change.
David: It changed famously with the end of the practice of dining on fat porkers!
Robin: The church accepts that its legalistic emphasis was on what we had to do and learn, as against what has been done already and what we should believe and emulate. We tend to worry about the effect of change on our numbers, but it seems to me the more important effect is on people’s spiritual closeness and awakening.
Anonymous: I remember as a young woman being afraid to be caught drinking tea! Today, everybody drinks coffee or tea.
Donald: Has the doctrine changed, or the culture? Culturally we have become more tolerant, but doctrine has not changed.
David: Jesus stressed the fundamentals of faith but was dismissive of the legal details. Could a Christian church do the same? The Universalist Unitarians do that, yet its membership is tiny. Then again, it does not evangelize—it does not actively recruit. Could it? Did Jesus send the disciples out to evangelize after His death, or to do something significantly different? Did He want them to go out and praise Him and His miracles, or did He want them to go out and spread a gospel of love?
Don: In His High-Priestly Prayer, He called not for the sharing of ideas but the sharing of love. He said the defining characteristic of the disciples was that they showed love for one another. Unfortunately, this seems not to be a very compelling message that “sells” well in the marketplace. It is easier to sell hard truth than soft truth—to sell five-times-a-day-prayer, 40-day fasts, prohibitions concerning food and drink and the Sabbath, and so on. The more detail, the more appealing people seem to find it. The fastest-growing religions and denominations are those that tend to be the most conservative, the most demanding of their members’ time and effort.
Robin: Scripture has many examples of God supporting the underdog and giving them victory. Twelve men changed the world. That’s some evangelizing! Today, numbers are tightly associated with wealth. The more members, the richer the church.
David: Were the disciples and apostles successful when they went out? One could argue that their work led to the founding (300 years later) of the Christian Church which became the biggest religion and changed the world. But did they add to the sum total of love in the world?
Robin: The mindset before they went out was that one had to be born a Jew, but they went out to the Gentiles as well. Thus, the message of love expanded.
Don: It has always been a work in progress. The New Testament Books of Acts and Galatians shows tremendous discourse among the disciples around the issue of whether Gentiles could be Christians, and whether the Jewish laws regarding circumcision and eating kosher foods should apply to Gentiles who sought to join the early Christian movement.
The constant backdrop to evangelism is the contention between “This is what you have to do” and “This is what God will do for you.” How do we keep the good of granularity? There is some good to be found in the granularity—the detailed doctrines—of all religions; things that benefit society and individuals. Yet we get so bogged down in granularity that we cannot see the forest for the trees. It becomes so easily weaponized against those who hold different grains. There is potential value in doctrine, but our irresponsibility with it leads us down some dark and dubious paths.
Donald: Is doctrine a commodity we append to fundamental Christian principles so we can call it our own? At weekly all-male and all-female meetings of the Bible Study Fellowship, politics, sports, and doctrine are taboo subjects. Fellows discuss their personal understanding of the Bible, their faith journey, and spirituality, all without reference to doctrine and how any particular denomination views those things. The only requirement is to have read the Scripture. It might surprise people constrained by their doctrine to learn that discussion of the Bible, Christianity, spirituality, and one’s faith journey is quite possible in a doctrine-free setting. If, for example, the Sabbath is mentioned in the Scripture under study, there is no discussion of the proper day of the week for it.
Don: What are the advantages to a denomination of holding, say, a trinitarian view of God vs. a non-trinitarian view?
Anonymous: At the personal level it doesn’t matter in the least. I have a beloved friend who is a Jehovah’s Witness. Our different views do not diminish our love.
David: But from the corporate perspective, a Jesus who is part of a divine trinity is far more powerful (and therefore attractive to followers) than a Jesus who is just a good man. The apostles went out to try to make some difference, but what difference could they make to the fundamentals of loving God and one’s neighbor? If theirs was a corporate as opposed to a personal effort, what difference could it make? A church cannot love or be loved, no matter what its members may think. Corporate evangelism can make no difference, it seems to me.
Don: Must doctrine have some utilitarian value? Must it make a practical difference, or is it just verbiage? What is the practical value of holding the doctrine that God is a trinity (or not)? That the Sabbath falls on Saturday (or not)? That pork may be eaten (or not)?
David: The razor blade is pretty fundamental. Whether it is a Gillette or a Schick, it will give a good shave. Their respective corporations insist that their blades are better, but that is mere marketing, just verbiage. I’ve tried both, so I know that the blades are equally good at giving a close shave. Take away the marketing and the corporate branding and leave plainly wrapped blades on the supermarket shelves and men would be just as well shaved as ever. They would get what they need without anguishing over which to choose.
Donald: We could extend the analogy to cars and trucks. The moment we add one “extra” to one of the trucks—Ford, Chevy, or Ram—then the others have to start embellishing their models with extras, too. But the fundamental truck, and its fundamental value as a means of helping people haul loads, does not change. Religions seek to help their members reach the truth, not by discussing the open-ended questions that might actually take them there, but by presenting far more popular doctrinally embellished answers guaranteed (says the marketing) to lead people to the truth. People are just not comfortable with the open-ended questions. What is love? Do we really need to discuss it?
David: Did the disciples really have to go out and teach people about love? Did mothers not love their children as much before Christianity came?
Don: We will talk more about questions. Is it possible to construct a doctrine based on questions? What is God’s modus operandi?
Donald: The non-doctrinal Bible study fellowship I mentioned provides a fundamental commodity rather than a brand.
Don: Part of the conundrum is that most of us in this class feel strongly connected to the corporate church, to our brand. Its doctrines and positions have worked well for us and bear up under Scriptural scrutiny. The question is whether ours is the only way.
Donald: Is not the denomination that has the Truth the only way? How do we account for the declines in religion described in an earlier class?
Anonymous: The truth is knowing and believing in Jesus. He said: “I am the truth.” It is really quite simple.
Mikiko: But let us not forget that Jesus acknowledged that he derived his power from God.
* * *
Don: We’ve talked about the meaning, the message, and the motivation of doctrine. We’ve talked about how it has emerged and evolved. We’ve discussed whether doctrine says more about us or more about God. We have looked at it in granular detail and from a 10,000-foot bird’s eye view. We’ve explored whether God wanted doctrinal diversity in order to prevent weaponization of a single, powerful doctrine.
The future of doctrine is related to the future of religion, and given recent research finding that Millennials are generally not as religious as older Americans, that future seems somewhat in doubt. (See the end of this post for an excerpt from the Pew report.)
Another Pew paper notes a significant increase in religious shifting among the generations from a similar study 9 years earlier, which itself noted significant shifts. Both studies show that switching religious profiles is a common occurrence in the United States. Among non-evangelical Protestants, Catholics, and nones, the latter have grown while the former two have shrunk.
Nearly one-in-five American adults (18%) were raised in a religion and are now unaffiliated, compared with just 4% who have moved in the other direction. In other words, for every person who has left the unaffiliated and now identifies with a religious group more than four people have joined the ranks of the religious “nones.” By contrast, both Catholicism and mainline Protestantism, the two groups whose shares of the overall population have declined most sharply in recent years, have lost more members to religious switching than they have gained.
The Christian share of the population is declining and the religiously unaffiliated share is growing. The decline is greater among whites than among Hispanics and Blacks. The declining rate is the same among men and women. The retention rate in the unaffiliated has increased. The number of nones calling themselves atheist or agnostic has increased. Evangelical Protestants have remained stable, compared to non-evangelical Protestants, whose numbers are significantly down. Evangelicals now outnumber non-evangelicals.
Another Pew poll found that generational changes in religious affiliation is greatest in the US and Western Europe, with fewer children identifying with the faith of their parents. In the Islamic world, the changes are minimal.
In short: In the West at least, there is less religious affiliation, less attendance, less belief, less adherence to doctrine, and less reliance on authority (governmental or religious). What does this imply for the future of doctrine and religion? What does it say for the granular versus the condensed doctrinal principles we have been discussing?
Robin: Things have changed since we were young. Doctrine should always be examined in the light of Scripture. God does not change, but we do. In fact, we see change all around us—and not necessarily for the better. How much effect the media and violent videogames and so on have on young people’s minds, I don’t know; but it does not seem to bode well in light of what the Book of Revelation talks about.
David: In social science it is wrong to simply extrapolate a documented trend—to assume it will continue into the future. We must think about what forces and factors might disrupt or even reverse the trend, because if there aren’t any, it is then reasonable to assume that the trend will continue to the point where everyone will be a “none” and there will be no organized religion left standing.
I agree that the media are a significant factor. Marshall McLuhan’s dictum: “The medium is the message” is apt. We now have a global, interpersonal communication medium (the Internet) that lets everyone see into the lives and cultures of everyone else. This was just not possible on any scale until mere decades ago, and I would hypothesize that it is the key factor driving the civilization-shaking trends revealed by Pew; that part of the diminution of faith in institutions has to do with our ability to see other faiths in action and learn their points of view.
For instance, except for a few insubstantial mentions of “Mussulmen” in the seafaring novels I was addicted to in my youth, I neither heard nor read a word about Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism until I joined the British Army and was sent to Malaysia, where I was surrounded by all three! There were no mosques or temples (that I was aware of) in the English city I grew up in. There were only Protestant and Catholic churches, plus a few synagogues huddled mainly in a more-or-less segregated part of town. Now, everyone is surrounded by every religion from birth, without having to travel to Malaysia. This must have some impact on everyone, and I think it is a key factor underlying the trends that Pew reports.
I tend to see this optimistically, as leading toward a better world.
Don: The trendline of inter-generational change is much flatter in the Middle East and Islamic countries in general. Children almost invariably adopt the faith of their parents. There are many potential factors that contribute to that finding, and it would seem constructive to compare and contrast the factors as they apply to all faiths and non-faiths.
David: There is clearly a strong parental obedience factor at work in Islam. Why not in other religions? I would hypothesize, based on my own observation, that in fact Islamic generations too are increasingly exposed to and affected by the Internet as well as by physical exposure to Western cultural influences through refugee flows/immigration, and therefore their obedience will increasingly be mediated by those factors. I suspect that they are in fact on the same trajectory but are simply behind the curve. I predict they will catch up.
Donald: Our younger generation is starting to waver. The younger Moslem generation may not be quite there, yet. But perhaps our older generation is wavering a little bit, too, and that is bound to have some effect on the younger generations. The future of religion and the future of doctrine may go hand-in-hand, but what about the future of faith? Can one truly be faithful but not religious? These are people who do not want to be tied to doctrine, but to faith. Doctrine seems to be up for grabs, but the mindset of America is broadening all the time. Education alone broadens it, not to mention Hollywood. What about in other countries? In my experience, Africa remains more tied to doctrine, but as we see this could change in a generation or two. Doctrine is losing ground.
It’s interesting that the millennials are going back to socialism and faith in government.
Don: Recent research seems to show that.
Donald: Millennials may have hit the bottom. They don’t see social security in their future, but they do see higher education loan debt in their future. To what entity can they turn?
KB: Millennials are practical. They think that their parents were not practical. They don’t see religion or doctrine as practical. Government, however, has at least the potential to be moved in a preferred direction, through the ballot box. They don’t look to religion for answers. Africa looks to the West for answers, because it was the West that gave them the idea of modernization—and religion was part of the package. African Adventists are viewed as modernized because of the way they live—they read Western books, they don’t eat or dress in the African tradition, they don’t mourn in the traditional way.
That makes it difficult to identify with traditional fellow Africans, who question our “white” ways, including our music. It is causing some Adventists to look for ways to re-affirm their African-ness in their worship and in life. The pastors generally don’t know how to respond. They understand—they are African, too—but they don’t want to get involved in something that might be frowned upon. I might want to introduce an African drum to liven up the hymn Chief Of Sinners Though I Be, to help me connect with it better, but they would be uncomfortable with that.
If a religion cannot respond to one’s true identity, can it be one’s true religion? African millennials think: “I am an African before I am a Christian How does this white religion accommodate me?” We have an addendum to our Adventist hymnal with about 90 hymns written in the Xhosa language. When we sing them, we give them a beat and we clap to the beat. But we are not allowed to sing those songs in the 11 o’clock Sabbath service. They make the older Adventists very uncomfortable when sung on the Sabbath, though they enjoy the music as much as anybody after Sabbath ends.
This is not just an Adventist issue, either. Lutheran friends have told me they play the drum in church, but hide it when the bishop visits.
Robin: It happens everywhere. We had a small group with a drummer once, but it was felt they did not belong on the church stage. Yet the people who objected to their music had no problem singing to the recorded music—which included drums!—played through the loudspeakers on the church stage.
Donald: So we must add culture to the doctrinal equation. It is coming it pretty strong for a doctrine to tell a culture that it is wrong. It would be like proselytizing the Amish—they cannot remain Amish while converting to Adventism.
Don: Some cultures allow polygamy. How does a polygamist become a Methodist or Catholic? Should doctrine rule in such cases?
KB: Zulus who have multiple wives can become church members but they cannot hold any kind of office in the church. The church sort-of hides them, but it does at least try to accommodate them.
Donald: The Old Testament makes frequent reference to polygamous relationships—without censure.
David: Scripture is the source of doctrine. If belief in doctrine is declining, is not belief in the Bible (and the Qur’an, etc.) not declining also? And could the decline be attributable, at least in part, to growing awareness of all doctrines?
At this year’s Jehovah’s Witnesses annual Memorial commemorating the death of Jesus, the speaker explained (as they do every year at Memorial) the Witnesses’ Revelation-based belief that 144,000 people will be anointed to sit alongside Jesus in heaven as administrators of the earthly paradise set up for everyone else who passes judgment. The anointed are all Christians, he said, because according to Revelation they all have the name Jesus stamped on their foreheads. Hence the JW doctrine regarding the anointed, and it seems to me a not unreasonable doctrine for anyone to hold who believes that Scripture is the everlastingly immutable word of God.
Don: Could technology throw a spanner in the works?
David: It is doing just that, but in what seems to me (not to everyone) to be a beneficial way. I am able to discuss such issues with a Moslem friend—because he speaks English. But the technology is almost here that would enable me to discuss such issues with Moslems who speak no English. Dialog—communication—makes a difference. It can throw spanners into a status quo. The status quo hitherto has been division, and the division is largely the result of lack of communication. The technology of instantaneous language interpretation will disrupt the divisions and tend to unite, rather than further divide, in my hypothesis.
KB: So the pendulum has swung too far, and needs to swing back?
David: Pendulums seek equilibrium. This is clearly the case in South Africa as you have described it so well. Africans are recovering some of the roots they abandoned, and Whites are abandoning some of their own roots, which they foisted on others. Music exemplifies this perfectly, with today’s African parents as upset over drums in church as yesterday’s White parents were upset about Chuck Berry’s music at high school proms! There was probably a racial component but parental fear of Chuck Berry was more cultural than racial. Those young whites who screamed in ecstasy at Chuck Berry’s songs are today’s parents and grandparents. They would probably be delighted if their children would only listen to the saintly Chuck Berry instead of the rubbish that masquerades as music today…. (Uh, oh; here we go again…! 😉 )
Donald: Is the pendulum swing linear? If our parents were in this room with us, would they be comfortable with what they hear us say?
Don: Probably not. Their presence might not change our minds, but we might be a bit more circumspect, a bit less forthright, in pursuing and presenting our views.
Donald: Perhaps we understand our parents better than they understand us. We can see how church has played a very positive role in their lives, but in a somewhat different way to the role it plays in our lives. Adventism was viewed as raising people up on the socioeconomic ladder, a laudable goal that people could subscribe to. But do millennials not have reason to doubt that it is any longer a viable goal for them, no matter how laudable?
I am inclined to be optimistic, but do we need to focus our energy on faith more than on doctrine—on the 15 fundamentals we discussed recently instead of on the 27 Beliefs?
David: I too am optimistic, in part because of the statistics Don quoted at the beginning of class about continuing belief in heaven and hell and in sharing faith—in spirituality. To me, this equates to belief in God. The world may be growing less religious, but is not growing less spiritual. Thank God for that!
Don: It is interesting that Adventists value education highly and promote it strongly. Education is the most liberalizing of influences on the mind, yet here we have a rather conservatively-minded faith group that emphasizes it, with considerable success. There is potential for a conflict of minds, clearly; and this conflict may be what we are seeing in relations between the liberally educated West and the conservatively minded East.
Donald: It seems to be a matter of balancing scientific research with religious indoctrination.
KB: Today’s class has begun to tie together many of the things we have been discussing.
Don: We will try to make this a feature of class going forward, so that we look not only at religion and religious practice through a historical lens but also through a futuristic one.
* * *
Excerpts from a Pew report:
By some key measures, Americans ages 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than older Americans. Fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people do today. They also are less likely to be affiliated than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations were when they were young. Fully one-in-four members of the Millennial generation – so called because they were born after 1980 and began to come of age around the year 2000 – are unaffiliated with any particular faith. Indeed, Millennials are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle (20% in the late 1990s) and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults (13% in the late 1970s). Young adults also attend religious services less often than older Americans today. And compared with their elders today, fewer young people say that religion is very important in their lives. (https://www.pewforum.org/2010/02/17/religion-among-the-millennials/)
Michael Hout, a professor of sociology at New York University, to examine possible reasons Millennials are generally not as religious as older Americans. Hout, who has spent years studying generational and religious changes in the United States, is the author or co-author of a number of books, including “Century of Difference: How America Changed in the Last One Hundred Years.”
By many measures of religious commitment, Millennials are less religious than older Americans. Why do you think this is?
Most age differences at any given time are the legacy of the times people grew up in. Many Millennials have parents who are Baby Boomers and Boomers expressed to their children that it’s important to think for themselves – that they find their own moral compass. Also, they rejected the idea that a good kid is an obedient kid. That’s at odds with organizations, like churches, that have a long tradition of official teaching and obedience. And more than any other group, Millennials have been and are still being formed in this cultural context. As a result, they are more likely to have a “do-it-yourself” attitude toward religion.
Is what we’re seeing with Millennials part of a broader rejection of traditional institutions or is organized religion the only institution being affected?
Oh, it is widespread. It’s just easier to quantify religious change because we have such good data on it. But Millennials’ faith in nonreligious institutions also is weaker than they used to be. You see evidence of their lack of trust in the labor market, with government, in marriage and in other aspects of life. General Social Survey data on confidence in the leadership of major institutions show that younger people particularly are not as confident as older adults when it comes to institutions like the press, government and churches. But I think trust is not the whole story.
For one thing, there has been a long list of scandals in recent decades, such as Watergate, that have undone the reputations of major institutions the Greatest Generation trusted. Millennials didn’t grow up trusting these institutions and then had that trust betrayed like older Americans might have. They didn’t trust them to begin with. And these institutions have let people, particularly young people, down.
Are these trends likely to be long term?
I’m reluctant to make predictions, but we can see how things have worked out lately. There used to be this view that there was a religious life cycle, that when you got older and married and had kids you got more active in organized religion. But that doesn’t seem to be happening. In the past 20 years, we really haven’t seen a lot of evidence of that cycle continuing.
With respect to the Catholic Church – lack of trust is fueled by the sexual abuse scandals in the church. What we see across all denominations is a gap emerging between politically liberal and moderate young people and leadership among conservative churches who are taking political positions on abortion, gay marriage and other social issues.
When that happens, people who are politically liberal and not active in a particular church often put distance between themselves and organized religion by answering “none of the above” to questions about religious preference. Moderates show the same tendency, just not as clearly. As a consequence, in the most recent General Social Survey (2014), 31% of political liberals who were raised in a religion had no religious preference compared to just 6% of political conservatives.
On a couple of measures of religiosity – namely belief in heaven and hell and willingness to share their faith with others – Millennials do seem more similar to older Americans. Why is this the case?
I think you see higher levels of these things among Millennials because they require very little in the way of institutional involvement. They also are harbingers of the “make your own way” or “do-it-yourself” religion that characterizes this group.
I think people assume that people who do not belong to an organized religious group reject religion altogether. But many “nones” believe in God and heaven. And spiritual experiences are still attractive for people who don’t go to church. Some people find God in the woods rather than in a church.
I have to admit that the data on “sharing faith” is a bit confounding. But I’m sure many Millennials who said they share their faith don’t mean that they engage in missionary work. The choice of the word “share” is vague, so maybe some of them who answered the question thought of it in a more casual way, as in they discuss religion with others.
Don: All religions are right. All religions are wrong. Some religions are right and some religions are wrong. How can we tell? Who is to judge?
Throughout history, worship, ritual, seeking of the divine—religion, if you will—has been ever present. The history of religion in general is of new religions emerging from older religions. Buddhism emerged out of Hinduism. Christianity from Judaism. But some of the native religions seem to arise out of a respect or even an adoration for Nature and its profound mysteries.
A new religion emerges from an older one usually because someone sees a need for reform, for cleaning up error, in the old one. It is not explained, though, how the new religion impacts the generations that lived and died under the old religion. Did Jesus, for example, die for those who lived before AD33? What about all those who did not pray five times a day as prescribed in the Quran?
What does religion want? What is it trying to so? What should it be trying to produce? Should it aim to produce a better life in the here and now? Greater knowledge of God? Greater knowledge of ourselves, our origin, and our destination? The path to eternal life? All of the above? None of the above? What is the goal, the end-product of religion?
In the garden of Eden, the religion of God was fairly simple. God evidently sought to be in direct communication with Mankind. The prohibition against eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was precisely a restriction on religious discrimination. It seems that God’s plan was to be in charge of religion. Man’s duty was to stay in touch with God. One might argue that eating the fruit was Man’s way of asserting his own control over religion, to discriminate between right and wrong, between truth and error, and to have divine insight into the mysteries of life. “Man,” God said, “has become like Us, knowing good and evil.” But knowing good and evil is not the same as knowing how to discriminate good from evil.
Since the Fall, God could have been much more explicit about religion. Why didn’t He write down all the rules precisely and unambiguously, so we could easily live by them? Why not correct this error in divine, dramatic ways—mountaintop declarations, highway billboards, and Internet popups telling us precisely and unambiguously what we are to do? Is it not irresponsible of God to leave us floundering? Does a responsible parent neglect to put his or her child on the right path?
Many people claim to know what God thinks, which writings are and are not His holy writings, what is and is not His Word. They claim to speak for Him, telling us what He wants us to do, to know, and how to behave. But when we ask God directly, ourselves, He is silent. Could His silence be on purpose? Might He not want us to know too much? Might He prefer thousands of religions over a single one? He would have good reason for supposing that a sinful, fallen people who knew the Truth of God might weaponize it and use it destructively, since we already weaponize what we think to be the truth and use it to destroy those who conceive of a different truth.
The Tower of Babel is a metaphor for religion:
Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words. It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. They said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. The Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:1-9)
This was an attempt to build a tower to reach into heaven; in other words, to reach God. Religion as we perceive it is all about our desire to penetrate the habitation of God. If Mankind were unified, there would seem to be no limit to his achievements, nothing to stop him achieving any goal. Religion is conceived and constructed by us. We employ technology in its construction.
But religion as God perceives it is not about Man seeking God; it is about God seeking Man. God came down to the city to find out what was going on with the tower-building. He did not sow destruction, as He did with the Flood. Instead, He sowed confusion. He undermined Mankind’s ability to build its own highway to heaven and weaponize the Truth by destroying its unity. By dispersing Mankind not just geographically but also linguistically and culturally, He dispersed the Truth.
We seek to understand the fragments of truth we retained. But what God wants is for us to know Him and for Him to know us.
‘“… in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’” (Matthew 15:8-10)
He also said:
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. (John 5:39-40)
If any of my conjectures are true, then what is the value and the role of religion in life? Does it have a place, and if so what place? Historically it has been ever-present, with accompanying worship and ritual. What is its value if it we cannot (or can we?) delve religion’s ultimate Truth?
Donald: All religions are right, all religions are wrong, or some religions are right. There is a fourth option: Only one religion is right.
Religions are often identified on the basis of the behavior of their members. Those behaviors may change over the generations, but the identification remains unless the behavioral change is such that the religion fractures and splinters into groups, in an evolutionary process.
Adventists have 27 core beliefs. Do they include the 15 beliefs said to be fundamental to all the major religions?
David: To me, the fundamental question is: Is religion necessary and/or inevitable? If so, why? If not, then their rightness or wrongness is moot.
Donald: Religion, in some form or other, seems to have arisen wherever Man has come to exist, so it would seem either necessary or inevitable or both.
Jay: There seems to be divine intent behind our religious division, disunity, and confusion.
David: The line in the Babel story, that if Mankind were united “…nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them,” is the key line. Perhaps the problem God sees is that it would be a human unity, not a divine unity. It would not include Him. Religion promotes unity, yet succeeds in unifying only relatively small numbers of humanity. If we are to seek unity with God rather than with ourselves, we can do this individually, in the closet, as Jesus said. Thus, to me, religion’s role is secular, not sacred.
Jay: Since the Fall, humans have been incapable of the kind of total and lasting unity that would reflect the divine unity that is the will of God. Unless, that is, it could be achieved through the fundamental principles common to all religions. If religions could focus on teaching those principles and showing how to live a life based on them. That, to me, is what Adventism seeks to do. We may do it in ways different from other religions, promoting different habits and behaviors and so on. If all religions did this, then perhaps we would achieve unity in diversity. But if any one claims that itw way, its doctrine, is the only right way, it breaks down.
David: Suppose a global ecumenical conference led all the major religions to agree on the 15 (+/-) common principles and to abandon their different “ways”—their itty-bitty doctrines about the Sabbath, about eating only kosher/halal/vegetarian foods, about blood transfusions, and so on. Would that make God happy? In fact (if the scholars are not mistaken) the major religions already agree to the common principles. But they seem unable to abandon their detailed doctrines, and the devil is in the detail. My point is that even if they agreed on common principles AND abandoned their detailed doctrines, God would not be happy. It would be the Tower of Babel all over again.
Donald: We look for unity only in the context of our beliefs.
Robin: The disciples were united at Pentecost. What were they united in?
David: In Luke 10, Jesus said we are to love God and love our neighbor. In Matthew, Jesus seems to me equate the two when He said “The second is like it.” I.e., loving your neighbor is like loving God. It seems to me they are one and the same. You cannot love God without loving your neighbor, and you cannot love your neighbor without (whether you admit it or not) loving God. Thus, there is only one fundamental principle, not the 15 or 27 or whatever number our need for granularity pulls out of the hat.
Chris: Perhaps what we should be striving for is acceptance, not unity. We don’t have to be unified to accept someone. Jesus never asked everyone to be the same. He accepted them for who and what they were, not because they were like Him, or met certain criteria. I suspect God knows that since the Fall we cannot be unified, and He does not expect us to be unified. He did not intend for us to be fractured, but we are, so He changed His plan and aimed for acceptance.
Robin: I think unity comes through sharing the heart and mind of Christ. We all have different personalities, gifts, and talents, so we are never going to be in unison. He did not ask for unity, except the unity that would come through following Him. Unity is not about having minds in perfect alignment. That’s the province of robots.
Dr. Singh: Jesus said to convert other religions because they are not good. But He died for everyone. Jesus said he came to divide us, but we would be united as his followers.
Mac: There is a saying that religious people are afraid of going to hell but spiritual people have been there. Doctrines complicate things. Alcoholics Anonymous has 12 steps, with the goal of reaching a higher power. Adventists have 27. But in the end, love is all.
Donald: If unity were the goal, toleration and acceptance would be key steps along the way, yet we seem incapable even of those.
Robin: I know someone who, having read the Bible, decided that no church had interpreted it correctly. It was as if he alone were the only holder of the perfect truth. Such people are frightening. They foment contention, which is hardly conducive to a spirit of love. The Bible can be used to justify any mindset.
Mac: Like politics.
Anonymous: In Gethsemane, Jesus prayed for the unity of the disciples. It was a unity based on love, not upon doctrine or religion or churches or titles. He also said that the world would know you as His if you love one another. His body is the church, the one true church. Doctrines don’t hurt, as long as we love one another. We must not just accept, not merely tolerate; we must love one another.
Mr. Singh: Salvation is not through the church, it is through Jesus. Unity is in following Him.
Don: Jesus came to give life to doctrine, He wanted the doctrines, teachings, and beliefs that guide us in life to be based on living, breathing, dynamic principles illumined by the inner light. He did not want us to be guided by lifeless and stagnant principles that act as a bushel to cover up the inner light. Dynamic doctrine is adaptable to the individual and to the times, yet it is based upon timeless and immutable principles, which Jesus named in this passage:
But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered themselves together.One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him,“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’This is the great and foremost commandment.The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”(Matthew 22:34-39)
This meeting with the Pharisees is also reported in the Books of Mark and Luke. Luke puts it in a different context:
And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?”And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”(Luke 10:25-28)
It’s been said that Jesus did not intend to start a new religion; that Christianity was really the work of Paul and other apostles. In these passages above, Jesus distilled religion to its very essence. Organized religions, however, go in the opposite direction. Instead of distilling, they compound. Instead of simplifying, they complexify. This is not necessarily from base motives; it merely reflects our human need for granularity, for detail. The lawyer who correctly identified the essence of the law could not just leave it at that, but had to start taking it apart:
But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”(Luke 10:29)
This led to the parable of the Good Samaritan–a statement of general principle, not a specific prescription.
We want prescription, we want detail, we want quantification. We are not satisfied with just the essentials. Is it impossible, then, to build and base a religion on the essentials? What are (here we go again!) the essentials? Scholars who have studied all major religions have identified 15:
1. The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
2. Honor your father and mother.
3. Always speak the truth.
4. It is more blessed to give than to receive.
5. Heaven lies within.
6. Love your neighbor.
7. Blessed are the peacemakers.
8. You reap what you sow.
9. Man does not live by bread alone.
10. Do no harm.
12. Judge not, lest ye be judged.
13. Be slow to anger.
14. There is only one God: a God of love.
15. Follow the spirit of Scriptures, not the words only.
Organized religions use doctrine to differentiate and discriminate; to give themselves an identity. They differentiate their beliefs, their name for God, their prophets, Scripture, holy places, rituals, and so on. They all have different answers to questions about birth, coming of age, marriage, death, the afterlife. Could any religion survive with a doctrine consisting of just the essential principles? Are our doctrines more about us than they are about God? Why did Jesus respond to the Pharisees as He did?—Why did He not reinforce the importance of the sacrificial system, of discriminating between kosher and un-kosher meats, of the importance of the personal cleansing ritual? Above all, what was His message for our church in His response? What can we learn from the two great principles He gave us to follow?
David: The Unitarian Universalist Church espouses just the essential principles, and would seem to be what Jesus wants in a religion. But why is it not the universal religion? I went to a UUC meeting many years ago, and liked it well enough. I identified with it. And yet, I did not return. I don’t know why. Perhaps I dislike the idea of identifying with any religion. Perhaps Jesus wanted us to abandon the very notion of identity and embrace instead our universal humanity. A universal unity can have no identity because identity implies differentiation and there is in logic nothing against which to differentiate a—the—universal unity.
Donald: …Which prompts the question: Who comes first—the Christian or the Adventist? We are comforted by identity with a group of like-minded people. Is comfort the cause of our need for identity?
Jay: Operating on a principles-based common ground would seem to provide less opportunity for strife and conflict than on a details-based common ground. We may all agree on the essential principles, but when did we start differentiating and discriminating? In the Bible, humanity was a unity at some point in history. When did it split into identified groups, and why? Did we reach a breaking point in our need for the comfort of identity?
All faith groups may have the same essential beliefs. All would agree with Jesus. Yet all have easy justifications for why their beliefs are better than others’ beliefs. It seems that the principles-based common ground is less important to us than the details-based common ground. Why?
David: That’s the key question. The UUC’s membership has been steady since 1961, fluctuating mildly around 160,000—a paltry number, compared to the major Christian sects and other religions, some of which are growing. This very Sabbath class at Oakwood SDA espouses universalist principles and welcomes people of all faiths, yet it is sparsely attended compared to other classes here, and it does not claim to represent (or to misrepresent, either!) the SDA Church.
Donald: The essential principles are not enough to provide identity. We want to know what is right and what is wrong, and this is where detail creeps in. Agreed-upon detail begets identity, and identity begets comfort in knowing one is not alone in one’s detailed beliefs; that one’s beliefs are endorsed through shared identification with a large number of like-minded people.
Jay: Judgment of right and wrong is central. Why is it so important to us? I think it boils down to fear of damnation. The 15 essential principles have nothing to say about salvation, so we look beyond them. Fear is the factor that drives us in particular spiritual and religious directions. It is hard to overcome.
KB: Our need for a sense of belonging is overwhelming. The Zion Christian Church (ZCC)—the largest African-initiated church in South Africa—fosters and proudly exhibits a strong sense of identity through uniform colors (green and yellow), distinctive lapel badges everyone wears, and a distinctive fusion of African traditions and values with Christian faith. Women wrap their hair in a certain way. They even have their own skin lotion, and will not accept lotion from non-ZCC sources.
The ZCC is expanding and makes a lot of money from tithes and products. It has received a government grant to build a church. Its principles sound universal. It is hard to fault them. They preach loving one’s neighbor, and so forth, so it is hard to take exception to them. The ZCC demonstrably appeals to people’s psychosocial need to belong to something big and “right.” How can something so big be wrong? Its members think their membership assures them of salvation.
As an Adventist, I was brought up to believe that anything non-Adventist is likely to be tainted by the devil. But we too boast of our global spread and numbers. When people say: “But you make up only 2% of Christians in South Africa” we reply: “True, but we are part of a vast global church.” We are addicted to the numbers game, too.
Jay: That is so true, yet so seldom commented upon. We pore over our membership numbers. Subconsciously, we take comfort from our strength in numbers as indicative of the rightness of our beliefs. “Our religion X is big, so it must be right. I am a member of X, so I must be right.”
Don: We too have our own uniforms for Pathfinders, our own schools, and so on. The Witnesses, the Catholics,… everyone has these detailed “truths.” Without them, you cannot be saved. You can’t get to heaven just by following the core common principles that all religions share, it seems. You need greater granularity, more definition, if you are ever to get through the Pearly Gates.
David: All religions “invite” people to join and belong. During the Weavers’ recent sojourn in India, I am told, they were invited to enter a temple, but to meditate, not to join in any formal sense. To me, this illustrates the supremacy of personal spiritual experience over doctrine (which Anonymous has pointed out before). If all religions would invite people into their places of worship not to be converted but simply to meditate—to have a personal, spiritual experience rather than a doctrinal lesson—perhaps we could approach that sense of universal unitarian belonging rather than sectarian belonging.
Don: You might have to conform to certain minimal sectarian rules such as to take off your shoes or cover your head when you enter the temple or mosque, but otherwise most if not all will welcome you in. At a Catholic mass, non-Catholics may not take the communion bread and wine but may go to down to receive the blessing.
Donald: The sense of belonging is the number one factor in student retention at colleges, according to studies. There is a process to turn the freshman into an alumnus. Throughout life, we all have stamped on our foreheads: “I am a member of ____.” The blank space is eventually filled with the name of a religion, a church, a college, and so on. It is difficult to live without filling in the blanks, or with filling them with small, obscure, unknown names. Most of us cannot afford it.
Jay: Logistically, it would seem easier to bring people together under common, universal general principles as opposed to a multitude of sectarian detailed principles. Yet in reality, it is demonstrably not the case. People just don’t want it. Something in our nature prevents us from wanting it. We want to propagate ourselves but can’t afford to. Organized religion has the financial means to propagate itself, and by extension, its individual members. We don’t like to think that evangelism is the engine of this selfish drive for more people and therefore more money and, oh, by the way, more rightness. But why do we evangelize the details as much or more than the general principles?
Robin: Jesus said:
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me,…(John 5:39)
We want to complexify, yet in due course Jesus will tell us who is right, and who is saved. They are going to be those who humbled themselves and learned to think and believe in the opposite of what the world trains us to think and believe. We have to humble ourselves, to serve with love and mercy, to feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, and visit those in gaol. It is amazing to me that in light of Jesus’ teaching people still believe that they can acquire righteousness and be saved simply by signing up to a powerful religion. I am reminded of someone who used to say: “You come to church, and you display love, and through study of the Scriptures you grow. But then, you go.” Mother Theresa is said to have said: “We can do no great things; we can only do small things with great love.”
Jay: It seems that Jesus wants us to think the opposite of how the world thinks. The world thinks in very detailed, granular terms. Is Jesus saying that the specificity of religion is a stumbling block?
David: The granularity is in the Scriptures—as Jesus implied in John 5:39. Gersham Nelson’s recent book about the history of Christianity describes how that Scriptural granularity was achieved through the efforts of largely self-serving clerics, first in Jerusalem and later at Nicaea, and does not represent the simple messages and principles of Jesus as He gave them in the Gospels. The Bible as compiled in Nicaea is contradictory and internally inconsistent. You can’t have both essence and granularity. You can’t turn the other cheek on a Crusade. Any religion based on detailed Scripture has this same problem.
Robin: Jesus did talk about Adam and Eve and David and Abraham…. He validated them as real, so we have to be careful about cherry-picking from Scripture.
Don: To be continued…
* * *
Note: Technical glitches led to the loss of the first 20 minutes or so of this meeting, comprising mainly Don’s introductory remarks.
Donald: We are engaged in a form of virtual reality right now, by meeting in a virtual place using Skype. On screen, I can see some of those physically present in the classroom looking at their smartphones. There was a time when we might have objected to that behavior, but today we assume they are simply reading the Bible on them. In like vein, the fulfillment of the law is understanding the experience as a whole, not all the little details. Doctrine is useless unless one believes in what it represents. We want virtual reality to get us as close as possible to the real thing, but that may not be good enough for a relationship with Christ.
David: If law is experience, then the contradiction goes away. If anyone changes the experience one iota, then s/he is in trouble; however, the experience is fundamentally something that can change of itself.
Donald: We all bring different experiences to the table.
Anonymous: I concluded some time ago that experience is the difference between evangelizing and witnessing. Witnessing stems from direct personal life experience; evangelizing is intermediated by the Bible, or a priest.
Donald: We experience the same thing in different ways. I might feel it’s too hot to venture out, while you do not. So we mistrust personal experience and seek objective data. We want a dashboard to guide us.
Robin: It’s application, is it not? Until we apply these words, ideals, and lessons at the personal level and experience the result, they remain just dry reading material. We don’t know what to do with the information if we are not experiencing it. It is like trivia.
Don: But is personal experience a foundation for an actionable effort by a church organization, with everyone having a different viewpoint? It seems to go counter to the notion of identity. When Jesus says that He is bringing fulfillment and life and an experience to the law, to doctrine, and to ideas, is that actionable in today’s spiritual and religious economy?
Donald: Is it about grouping people of similar thoughts who are thus able to relate, communicate, and concur with one another? Why group people of differing thoughts if they cannot agree with one another? The congregational church is group of people who have agreed upon what the experience is. But evangelism is saying: “You’ve got it wrong.” …I think…. (That’s really a question.)
David: It’s a matter of getting down to fundamentals. These are the things we need to agree on. The details don’t matter. Long ago I attended a Unitarian Universalist Church meeting. The fundamentals constitute their creed. You think it’s cold out? I happen to think it’s warm, but this is irrelevant, having nothing to do with the fundamentals. There is understanding and no conflict regarding different experiences, and there is agreement on the fundamentals of faith.
Don: The Jews accused Jesus of heresy.
Jay: Jesus said He came to fulfill the law, then went on to talk in terms that seemed to have nothing to do with the law as the Jews understood it. He talked instead about turning the other cheek, the first being last and vice versa, and so on. In essence, He talked about experiencing the law rather than just following it.
Robin: It’s like the difference between the spirit and the letter of the law.
Don: It’s the middle of the night, the street is empty of vehicular and foot traffic, except for a lone pedestrian arriving at a red pedestrian light blinking “Don’t Walk!” The purpose of the traffic law is to prevent an accident. If an accident is impossible in some circumstances, what is the purpose of the law?
Jay: But the circumstances usually require obedience to the law, or there would be accidents. The law covers most people most of the time.
Donald: But you can’t subjectively decide when it’s OK to obey or disobey the law.
Jay: That’s the problem with law.
Donald: We rely on experience to tell us whether it’s safe to cross the road.
David: It is the difference between law and judgment. I recall reading about a Welsh judge who, after a jury found a daughter guilty of the mercy killing of her mother who was in chronic pain and had long begged her daughter to do it, told the daughter: “The law has found you guilty, but I can show you mercy.” I don’t recall the sentence he imposed but it was exceptionally light if not suspended. The law and judgment ought to go together.
Robin: There is danger in growing accustomed to crossing red lights.
Anonymous: A value of the law is that breaking it leads to the experience of hurt and pain. It enriches our experience.
Robin: Is law to be followed only when it is convenient do do so?
Donald: That would be a guideline, not a law.
Robin: Or a suggestion. It can be accepted or rejected.
Jeff: It’s a guideline, a common, shared, acquiesced view of people who have collectively decided that this is the rule under which we will live.
Don: …most of the time.
Jeff: Right. But as you’ve illustrated, again and again, there are instances where the law just does not fit. It is humanly impossible to make a law that is universally applicable in all situations. We can probably come up with instances where what is morally, ethically correct goes against the law. But surely this cannot be said of God’s law.
Dr. Singh: According to the Bible, to break the law is to sin. When we break a family rule, the family will divide. If we break a church rule, the church will divide. God has given us the Holy Spirit to help us live according to God’s law by alerting us when our own sinful nature is tempted to sin. The Holy Spirit is our guide.
Don: God told Samuel to go and anoint David as the new king of Israel. Samuel replied that if Saul were to find out about it, Saul would have his head. So God told him to take a bullock with him, and to tell anyone who asked what he was up to that he was going to make a sacrifice. In other words, God told him to tell a blatant lie, in contravention of His own 9th Commandment. God also told Hosea to marry a prostitute, thereby committing adultery and breaking the 7th Commandment! Jesus said we should hate our parents and follow Him, which seems to contradict the 5th Commandment. These are just a few instances that come to mind when we start to think of the immutability of God’s law. Can God make a law that He cannot change?
Jeff: God might provide laws that fit the human race at certain times. Perhaps Jesus was saying that there is a higher law that He came to fulfill, that rendered the Jewish law null and void.
Don: When the Jews asked him to state the higher laws, He gave them:
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40, NKJV)
Are those laws actionable? Is there enough granularity in them? Shouldn’t He be a bit more specific?
Donald: It’s not a solid support for trying to prove something. It’s not the go-to verse when someone demands to be shown where it states in the Bible that X is the case.
Jeff: That’s why God gave us the Ten Commandments—to provide the granularity without which we cannot function. Especially corporately.
Jay: Right. Is it actionable to learn to love God with all one’s heart and one’s neighbor as oneself? Is it easier to do so individually than it is on a corporate basis?
Jay: To do it on a corporate basis requires agreement among the group as to what constitutes loving one’s neighbor as oneself?
Robin: Loving God encapsulates the first four Commandments; loving one’s neighbor the other six.
Jay: Perhaps that is why Christ said He did not come to destroy the law. He meant to show that we had turned the Commandments away from what God intended. We did so in order to reflect our human sense of right and wrong, salvation, and forgiveness, and our own need for identity. We’ve turned God’s law into a civics lesson. That is not its purpose.
Robin: So the Rich Young Ruler could not divest himself of his riches because he was not willing to love his neighbor as himself?
Jeff: That’s the problem. We don’t know. We can’t apply it to other people.
Jay: The Rich Young Ruler kept all the Commandments. Jesus did not contradict him but told him it was not enough. Did He mean it was not enough for the RYR? Or not enough for anybody?
Jeff: We use the RUR as a litmus test, and that’s where it falls apart. We can’t live with the higher law.
Jay: …because we need specific protocols to do that, which are bound in time and culture as well as to the individual.
Jeff: I’m not sure there is law in heaven.
David: There is none in Daoism.
Jeff: Law may be necessary only given our current situation.
Chris: It’s a man-created construct.
Donald: Would other religions agree?
Don: If law is there to show us our sin, as Paul said, then it is not necessary where there is no sin.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)
Don: There will be a hiatus in class until April 6, when we will resume the topic.
* * *
Don: Doctrine gives us rules to live by, and (to some extent) gives us an identity. Obedience and doctrine go together: The more rules, the more we have to obey, and the greater the risk of disobedience. But perhaps all rules can be summed up in the Golden Rule stated by Jesus:
In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)
The rule is “golden” because it is rich—the most comprehensive, the most complete doctrine. It summarizes Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. It is the unidoctrine. Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus condensing rules—doctrine—down to core principles. He was often asked by the Pharisees to define in greater depth some rule, belief, regulation, or law of Judaism, but He never gave a detailed or complex answer. He is a minimalist, a principlist.
This is why I think Scripture remains relevant even in the postmodern era. Answers to questions can change, depending on the availability of data at any given time and by the degree of understanding at that time; whereas questions are timeless.
God asked Adam: “Who told you you are naked?” and Moses: “What is that in your hand?” and Elijah: “What are you doing here?” and Jonah: “Do you have a right to be angry?” These questions have not grown old over the millennia. They are just as important and relevant to us today as they were to those individuals in ancient times. The answers may change with the times, but questions He asks for our own self-introspection—about the nakedness of Adam, about the tools He gave to Moses, about Elijah’s calling in life, and about the plight of the people around Jonah—never change.
Unfortunately, we don’t want questions. We want answers. We want them so badly we will make them up if necessary; not from malice, but because human nature abhors a knowledge vacuum, and because we fear uncertainty more than we fear erroneous knowledge. This would not be so bad if we had a system, a mechanism, and the resolve to correct error. Without such a system and resolve, made-up knowledge becomes accepted, permanent, doctrine. This leaves us highly vulnerable.
Religious organizations have never shied away from providing answers. Things of the spirit are the most uncertain, the most demanding of knowledge, of answers. Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? What does God expect of me? What must I do to inherit eternal life? These and many other existential questions seem built into our very nature.
Jesus told the disciples:
“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-20)
Jesus followed up with nearly 30 verses illustrating what He meant by saying He did not come to abolish law—doctrine, but to fulfill it. He took some specific laws/doctrines and generalized them into principles. It is the very opposite of what the Sadducees expected when they asked Jesus about the law regarding re-marriage of a widow. They expected a detailed analysis; He gave them a general principle.
This still does not seem to explain what Jesus meant when He said He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. His mission and His messages seem to show the opposite: He was careless about the laws of Sabbath-keeping, ritual purification, and any number of other rules and customs constituting Jewish law. So in what sense can it be said that He was “fulfilling” that law?
If He had said simply that He came to fulfill the law and then conducted His mission as He did, then it would seem reasonable to say that the fulfilling of the law meant getting rid of it. But He seemed to scuttle that by saying that there would not be the slightest change in the law and that whoever doesn’t teach it the way it was would be the least in the kingdom of heaven.
What kind of law was He talking about? As the passage unfolds, He contrasts time-honored viewpoints and traditional ideas with religious understanding of what a fulfilled law would look like. “The ancient prophets gave you laws that said this, but I tell you this,” He said.
Is it possible to build a religion around principles only? Around doctrinal simplification? Or does our identity demand more granularity? Scripture says:
He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
That’s about as simple and general as it gets.
David: Is it possible that Jesus was being sarcastic in saying that He came to uphold the law, not to abolish it? I am tempted to think so because the statement is utterly at odds with His other statements and behavior as described in the Gospels. He strongly implies in other passages that to be least in the kingdom of heaven is the right place to be, and to be more righteous than the Pharisees is the wrong thing to be. It sounds like sarcasm.
Donald: A patient really wants to understand from his or her physician exactly what is going on concerning his or her condition, so s/he is not likely to be satisfied with a generalized answer. Jesus seldom gave a direct answer, and was often not a little obscure. But we want answers, and religious organizations will provide them even if Jesus won’t. In doing so, they define their identity. Members of most religions are guided more by doctrinal detail than by general principles.
Jay: In a sense, Jesus did give straight answers about the particular laws He used to illustrate what He meant by His “fulfill, not abolish” statement. But He also made them harder to obey: It is much harder to turn the other cheek than it is to take an eye for an eye.
But as for sarcasm: Righteousness is not at all a sin if it is based upon practicing the principled law of Jesus, as opposed to the rule-based law of religion.
Donald: If we don’t like the answers we receive, we often ask our questions again, from a different angle.
Don: Doctors see patients with a wide range of inquisitiveness, from the very curious who want to know everything, to those who don’t want to hear an explanation at all—who just want to be told what to do. There seems to be an even spread between these two extremes, though increasingly patients come loaded with information from the Internet (which is a good thing because it involves them in their own care and care decisions).
KB: As I see it, Jesus wants us to know and understand what we are following and what we are doing, whether it is rules or principles. God doesn’t want us to pay tithes blindly.
Jay: On the other hand, we are called to be like little children, whose hallmark is innocence and lack of understanding.
Donald: We trust that Christ knows our hearts and motives, which takes us back to principle rather than rules.
Don: Perhaps God messed up in not laying out the rules in absolute and unambiguous detail.
Anonymous: We ask questions because we lack trust.
KB: The Rich Young Ruler had a valid question. Jesus did not give him a detailed list of things to do to earn eternal life.
Donald: If He did, we would be robots.
David: Some people treat their doctor as a God whose word is sacrosanct. Whatever the doctor says, this patient will obey. So it would be sufficient for the doctor to tell such a trusting patient: “Take this pill and start leading a good life (stop smoking, stop drinking, eat a balanced and nutritious diet, and exercise daily).” But other patients treat the doctor as though they have doubts about his or her godliness: “You’re telling me to do or take this, but on the Internet I read something different.” Such a patient requires more detailed explanation.
Don: Doctor God could demand of such a patient (especially one called Job): “Where were you when I went to medical school? Where were you when I was laboring over a cadaver dissection? Where were you when I was learning all the physiology and biochemistry and other things I had to learn and do in order to be a doctor?”
Donald: A prescription today comes with a long list of warnings about possible side effects, drug interactions, and so on. If one were to read the detail one might decide not to take the pill!
Don: Is it the same for things of the spirit? Do the details become frightening, disabling?
Jay: How does evangelism tie in to the notion of a religion formed around principles, vs. around rules? What is the message of the evangelist? Public evangelism tends to be scripted. Some is Christ-centered. Some want to stress Christian principles. We have certain doctrines that help us to operationalize the principles. If a religion or denomination structures its evangelism in this way, does it risk losing its distinctive identity?
Robin: If one is trying to say that we need humility—which is what the call to be as a little child is about—and knowledge, then Paul had this to say:
…so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:17-19)
But in the next several verses, Paul talks of spiritual gifts:
(Ephesians 4:7) But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift.
And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13)
But with our human minds we will get to the point where we cannot understand it, and at that point we must rest in faith that His love and grace will make up for our deficiencies. So we cannot say that one is more important than the other in our daily lives. Grace saves us, but it does not mean that we eschew knowledge and stay in a permanent stage of childhood. But when we do reach a point beyond our understanding, then we must accept that our Father understands.
Chris: Perhaps God has already revealed all that He wants us to know. Perhaps there isn’t more to it. We want to think there is, because in the garden of Eden we found out that there is more. Perhaps Jesus is telling us that there is nothing more that we need to know—that as long as we know what He tells us (which is simple enough) and live by it, nothing else matters. Indeed, if we all could live our lives as He did, what more could there be to learn?
Mikiko: Jesus opened his Sermon the Mount with a series of nine statements that describe persons who are truly happy. In the first of these “happinesses,” Jesus said: “Happy are those conscious of their spiritual need, since the kingdom of the heavens belongs to them.” (Matt. 5:3, NW; An American Translation.) So Jesus teaches people to be truly happy in life and to pray for God’s will to be done, to keep a focused eye, and more.
Anonymous: We chose our future in the garden of Eden. That’s why we’re in this world. We chose to know more. In the spiritual realm, faith is the key word. I don’t need to know anything and I can believe what is coming from God; and that is enough. I experience this in my own spiritual life. But with regard to daily life, we have been asking to know more and more since day 1. We want to know how to build, purify, heal,… everything.
Our problem is that we all left God’s way and look for other ways. If we just took God’s word! Worldly knowledge is a source of stress and misery, since we can’t help but want to know. But with God, we don’t need to know. Patients take the word of their doctor because they feel powerless, that they have no other choice. This is the curse we acquired at the Fall.
Donald: Churches say “We know more.”
Robin: People can get confused and even discouraged by the amount of knowledge their churches expect them to learn.
Jay: The giving of oneself to Christ can have nothing to do with the specific doctrine of any church, otherwise what about all those who lived before that particular church was established? Baptism in a church has a strong implication of giving oneself to the church. As long as this is made clear to the people being baptized, it is OK, but there is great danger in tying any particular church doctrine to salvation.
Anonymous: Good religious knowledge comes through experience more than through education. But worldly knowledge is acquired through education more than through experience. There is no need for an education with God. Churches should not be in the business of educating people about God. God is there to be experienced in people’s lives. He does not want to overwhelm us, but patiently to lead us to good knowledge through experience.
Don: We still haven’t figured out what Jesus meant by His abolish/fulfill statement. To be continued…
* * *
Jay: A team from Oxford University’s Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology analyzed ethnographic accounts of ethics from 60 societies, and discovered what they believe to be seven universal moral rules:
1. help your family, 2. help your group, 3. return favors, 4. be brave, 5. defer to superiors, 6. divide resources fairly, and 7. respect others’ property.
Previous studies have looked at some of these rules in some places – but none has looked at all of them in a large representative sample of societies. The present study, published in Current Anthropology, is the largest and most comprehensive cross-cultural survey of morals ever conducted….
Dr. Oliver Scott Curry, lead author and senior researcher at the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, said: “The debate between moral universalists and moral relativists has raged for centuries, but now we have some answers. People everywhere face a similar set of social problems, and use a similar set of moral rules to solve them. As predicted, these seven moral rules appear to be universal across cultures. Everyone everywhere shares a common moral code. All agree that cooperating, promoting the common good, is the right thing to do.”
The study tested the theory that morality evolved to promote cooperation, and that – because there are many types of cooperation – there are many types of morality. According to this theory of ‘morality as cooperation,” kin selection explains why we feel a special duty of care for our families, and why we abhor incest. Mutualism explains why we form groups and coalitions (there is strength and safety in numbers), and hence why we value unity, solidarity, and loyalty. Social exchange explains why we trust others, reciprocate favours, feel guilt and gratitude, make amends, and forgive. And conflict resolution explains why we engage in costly displays of prowess such as bravery and generosity, why we defer to our superiors, why we divide disputed resources fairly, and why we recognise prior possession.
The research found, first, that these seven cooperative behaviours were always considered morally good. Second, examples of most of these morals were found in most societies. Crucially, there were no counter-examples – no societies in which any of these behaviours were considered morally bad. And third, these morals were observed with equal frequency across continents; they were not the exclusive preserve of ‘the West’ or any other region.
Churches often grapple with the issue of unity. This moral code centers on unity. How does it compare (or contrast) with the unity that followed an outpouring of the holy spirit, recorded in the Book of Acts?
They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people…. (Acts 2:42-47)
Can the outpouring of the holy spirit be considered the outpouring of doctrine regarding unity and obedience? What exactly does it mean to “be of one accord”?
Donald: The small group of people upon whom the holy spirit descended and who then witnessed Christianity to the rest of the world was simply a gathering of Christians, not a church. Nowadays we tend to conflate church behavior and Christian behavior. Unity is my Christian yearning but it has very little to do with evangelism and trying to bring others into the fold of my church group. Most denominations seem to focus their evangelism more on spreading the denomination than on spreading Christianity.
Jay: Jesus said:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19)
How can one be a disciple and teach others without having a doctrine (which implies specific rules) to teach?
Don: One of the remarkable things about the seven moral rules is that they do not mention God at all. They also seem too general—insufficiently granular—to live by in practice. An example of our need for specifics was given when Jesus was asked for doctrine about how a widowed in-law should be treated. This was a cultural specific, that certainly spoke to the issue of unity, but today in our culture such a specific rule about widows would be considered bizarre and even creepy.
There seems to be a level of doctrinal definition that needs to be refined, made granular, before we are comfortable with it; otherwise we doubt it, or we find it impractical.
David: We should doubt conclusions from social science research studies until we have satisfied ourselves of their validity and reliability, by examining the study’s methodology and potential biases. The study that reported seven moral rules appears to have been well conducted, based upon the following limitations mentioned in the report itself and on its suggestions for future research into the issue that could overcome this study’s limitations:
And of course, the present study has its limits. First, the study investigated the moral valence of only seven cooperative behaviors—it did not investigate the moral valence or prevalence of the other cooperative traits encompassed by morality-as-cooperation (such as forgiveness or generosity). And it remains to be seen whether the theory can be extended to provide cooperative explanations of other moral phenomena, including those encountered in this ethnographic review—industry and laziness, truth-telling and honesty, chastity and fidelity, hospitality and gossip, the virtues expected of a leader, some forms of purity, and the behavior expected by gods, spirits, and ancestors.
Second, the present study employed a sample of 60 cultures to minimize “Galton’s problem” of the nonindependence of cross-cultural data points. Hence this review cannot exclude the possibility that there are other societies—beyond these 60—that have moral values that provide counterexamples that refute the theory. Nor does the selected sample of 60 cultures completely solve the problem of nonindependence of cross-cultural data points (Ember and Otterbein 1991).
Third, the nature of the source material meant that we were able to code only for the (binary) presence or absence of the cooperative moral; we were not able to measure within- or between-society variation in how strongly these various moral values were held or endorsed, or how conflict between these different moral values was resolved. As such, we were not able to test morality-as-cooperation’s further prediction that, far from being identical, moral systems will vary as a function of variation in the value of different types of cooperation under different conditions—in other words, to the extent that individuals (or societies) face different cooperative problems, and benefit from different solutions, they will prioritize different moral values (Curry 2016). Consistent with this view, our impression of the source material was that, even if all societies shared the same moral values, they varied in how they prioritized or ranked them. In some societies, family appeared to trump group; in other societies it was the other way around. In some societies there was an overwhelming obligation to seek revenge; in other societies this was trumped by the desire to maintain group solidarity. And of course our study found that moral obligations to members of one’s family, one’s group, and to senior members of one’s hierarchy were relatively frequent, but (positive) reciprocity and fairness were relatively rare. Morality-as-cooperation would predict that this was partly because, in our sample of societies, cooperative interactions with kin and group and high-status individuals occurred more frequently (or conferred greater benefits) than cooperative interactions with anonymous, mobile strangers of equal status.13 But further research will be needed to test this conjecture.
To overcome these limitations, future work should aim to investigate the moral valence of a wider range of cooperative behaviors, in more societies, using more sophisticated methods. Theorists should mine the game theory literature to look for further accounts of cooperation that could perhaps explain further aspects of morality, and they should investigate whether the cooperative approach can be extended to as yet undertheorized aspects of morality such as sexual, religious, and political ethics (McKay and Whitehouse 2014). Ethnographers should employ new statistical techniques, including multiple imputation and two-stage instrumental variables regression, that now make it possible to overcome Galton’s problem at the analysis stage (Brown and Eff 2010; Eff and Dow 2009) and thereby potentially test morality-as-cooperation against eHRAF’s full sample of approximately 200 ethnographically attested cultures.14 And psychologists, anthropologists, and historians should also investigate the relationship between particular moral values and the corresponding individual- and societal-level indicators of cooperation—such as family size and dispersal, group size, mobility, subsistence strategy, reliance on trade, frequency of warfare, degree of inequality, political structure, age structure, resource base, and territory size (Gelfand et al. 2011; Turchin et al. 2012; Turchin et al. 2015). These predictions could be further tested by gathering new data on the full range of moral values, using survey and questionnaire methods, from representative cross-cultural samples (Curry, Jones Chesters, and Van Lissa 2019). Such work would help to move the debate on from arguing about whether or not morality varies, to explaining precisely how and why it varies, and thereby steer a middle way between the extremes of unbending moral absolutism and anything-goes moral relativism, and toward a more theoretically nuanced, and empirically tractable, view of moral variation (for one such example, see Wong 2006).
These limitations notwithstanding, a study that has to the extent possible removed sources of bias and acknowledged its own shortcomings is valuable in enabling us to conclude that it points in the direction of truth, even if it is not “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” This study, it seems to me, points to the likelihood that universal ethics do indeed exist, even if the specific universals it names are not valid or reliable.
KB: French sociologist Émile Durkheim posited that societies create and develop morals as a functional unifying imperative. With a strong religious upbringing himself, he recognized that morals are based upon beliefs, such as belief in a God. I came from outside of American society but identify with most of its moral code, especially as a member of the Adventist Church; and that enables me to function in American society.
Donald: If we could abide by the seven moral rules it would help keep us together. But to most of us they look like Boy Scout rules, and we want to embellish them and make them more complex, deep, and sophisticated. Maybe that’s what we do with simple instructions such as “Love thy neighbor.” We get caught up in debates. We think we do that in order to make improvements, but maybe it’s just a distraction. So perhaps we should just stop the debates, stop making things more complex, because it’s not doing any good.
Don: On one side of such debates are those who claim that they are advancing, modernizing, the faith; on the other side are those who claim they are holding the line against change to retain the purity of the original faith. Both sides believe they are helping the faith, which is surely a moral principle. Jesus said “Love your neighbor as yourself and worship God,” but we get tied up in increasingly granular debates pitting one side against another.
David: In our discussions about doubt some years ago, we noted that going through a period of chaos (debates are a form of controlled chaos) can be a good thing in helping people jump to a more enlightened stage of faith, to progress spiritually. It’s an old formula: The core of Marxism/Leninism/Mao Zedong Thought is the dialectic Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis. So if debate is stopped—if chaos is ended—there will be no progress toward a better understanding.
Donald: What does the word “evangelism” bring to the young Adventist mind?
Jay: When I was young, it meant to make people become like us. We did not see this in a negative light. We said: “Look at me! Surely you must want to be like me!” Our motivation then seemed simple; to the mature mind, it is not so simple—we add motives, such as to help the Church expand and survive.
Don: It’s a natural human tendency to want to make a tribe, a club. It’s not just faith groups that have this tendency, and it’s not necessarily done for bad reasons. Evangelists sincerely believe they have something to offer—a point of view, a way of life, and so on. They share their faith with the best of intentions: To make life better for the other. But such harmony as evangelism may find seems superficial compared to that achieved by the earliest Christians in Acts 2 (quoted above)—until, that is, the cantankerous discussions seeking to let non-Jews into the Christian Club.
Jay: Being of “one accord” seems to be tied to—and breaks down over—the concept of being what God wants us to be. Accord disintegrates when we start getting into the detail of what God wants. If we have defined ourselves or our group as being in accord with what God wants then we open the door to dispute with others, who feel the same way about themselves and their group.
Mikiko: The Jehovah’s Witnesses believe there is urgent need for a global ethic:
An Urgent Need for “a Global Ethic”
Humanity’s survival “may depend on the acceptance of a global ethic,” says the journal Counseling and Values. “Perhaps the most agreed-upon universal moral value is the Golden Rule.” What is that rule? Taught by Jesus Christ, it says: “Do for others what you want them to do for you.” —Matthew 7:12, Good News Translation.
The moral values found in the Bible reflect our Creator’s deep love for us, for those values enable us to “walk in the way of good people.” (Proverbs 2:20; Isaiah 48:17, 18) When we follow that guidance, we, in turn, show our love for God and reap many rewards. In fact, the Bible makes this promise: “Keep [God’s] way, and he will exalt you to take possession of the earth. When the wicked ones are cut off, you will see it.” —Psalm 37:34.
Values That Elevate Us
• “Love your neighbor as yourself.” —Mark 12:31.
• “Return evil for evil to no one.” —Romans 12:17.
• “Continue . . . forgiving one another freely if anyone has a cause for complaint against another.” —Colossians 3:13.
David: The global ethic of the Golden Rule breaks down when we start to argue about its origin. Here, the claim seems to be that it was originated by Jesus. The point is irrelevant, but becomes a bone of contention. Simple Boy Scout homilies work; the devil is in the details we add.
Don: In Matthew 5, where Jesus said words to the effect: “This is what you were taught; now this is what you should really know…” He was basically suggesting a broad, universal Boy Scout code instead of the detailed doctrines of parochial Judaism. He said that this would fulfill the law, not destroy it. He was calling for a deeper yet less granular level of understanding.
Robin: Why do pastors quit their churches? Why do people stay away from church? Because there is no perfect church. And if there were, wouldn’t it be a lonely place? When we evangelize and baptize it should be in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is hard to learn not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Jay: It seems we are incapable of functioning at the non-granular, Boy Scout level. Yet we also need a granular identity, we need granular rules to live by. How do we reconcile the two?
David: It’s not inevitable that we function at a detailed, granular level, even though we tend that way. People like Jesus, Gandhi, and Mandela are revered because of their non-granular ethics. We tend to the opposite, but they prove that we can counter the tendency. If there were many people like them, how different the world would be!
Chris: We were not meant to live by rules, until we messed up in the garden of Eden. Now, we have to live in social groups and follow social constructs that require rules. They may not be bad, but they were not meant to be in the first place. God gave us grace so that we could overcome this dilemma.
Anonymous: Grace is the will of God. Loving one another proves that we are God’s children. It’s so easy and simple. The details are none of our business anyway.
Don: That’s essentially what Jesus said: “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.” It doesn’t get any simpler. But we want to dive down into the deep and find ourselves entangled in weeds.
Jay: How would we know how to be obedient if there were no doctrine? In researching this question in the Bible, I was surprised to discover that the New Testament has more to say about obedience than the Old. Paul was particularly prolific on the topic, but his focus was on obedience to faith.
Here are some examples from Scripture:
Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart,… (1 Peter 1:22)
Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; … (Romans 16:25-27)
For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:19)
Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. (Hebrews 5:8)
In our discussions of such topics, we often tend to focus on ideal solutions rather than practical solutions. For instance, we all agree (a) that we are required to try to emulate God, and (b) that God is a God of eternal love and grace. But on a day-to-day basis, where the rubber meets the road, we know we are incapable of maintaining obedience to this requirement. In our ideal (pre-Fall) state we might have been capable, but not in our Fallen state. Nevertheless, in our Fallen state we seem to need even more structure, more order, around us.
The earliest known legal code was the Code of the Sumerian ruler Ur-Nammu, written in 2050 BC. One of its 32 surviving rules established a 10-shekel fine for cutting off a person’s foot.
Without such laws, we seem incapable of maintaining order in society. But is it enough? The Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10:20) followed all the rules of his day but Jesus told him it was not enough to be admitted to the kingdom of heaven. For that, he had to give all his worldly wealth to the poor. It seems that obedience to the law is necessary for the functioning of society, but is not enough for entry to the kingdom of heaven. How do we reconcile obedience to law (doctrine) that is shaped by culture with obedience to the divine law of God?
Donald: Society was once close knit. It grew from family, to clan, to tribe, to nation, to the Internet-enabled global village. We reach internal agreement on our doctrines so that we can lead settled lives. But then, we seek to impose our doctrines on others. This is humanly driven, not divinely driven, but we often claim divine authority. It was not a problem when it was all internal, but when we seek to expand through evangelism, problems arise.
David: The Code of Ur-Nammu must have existed in someone’s head before it was written down. Pre-writing oral cultures still had to have rules to keep their societies in order. Ants have them. Law/doctrine is established for good order within a community, a church, a nation, an ants’ nest; not for good order within the heart of the individual. It seems to me that individual, internal, divinely inspired self rule was what Jesus was getting at when He told the adulteress He saved from stoning to “go and sin no more.” He did not say “go and obey the law.” That’s what a Pharisee would have said. Jesus knew that she knew what was right and what was wrong, without needing a law to tell her.
It is also what He was getting at when He told the rich young ruler that just obeying the law was not enough. The young man was saddened, but did not seem surprised, at the instruction to give his all to the poor. He was not surprised because he already knew it; he was saddened because he knew he couldn’t do it. We all have a conscience, an inner light that tells us what we ought to do. We suppress or ignore it to varying degrees, but we know that it is there.
Jay: Do the law and conscience overlap? How do we know what is divinely driven, and how can we agree on it? It seems that one is based upon the other. Rules of society seem generally to be for the peace and safety of others.
Donald: Bible college provides answers. University provides questions. We seem to be talking about something that sits on the border between them. Is my conscience the same as somebody else’s half-way around the world—someone whose cultural context is completely different?
Jay: Our typical programming in conscience is that it is not culturally dependent—that it might be divine in origin, it might be the Holy Spirit, the inner light.
Donald: Notions such as property rights can be completely different in different cultures. My conscience tells me I am stealing if I take someone’s property without asking, but it will not feel like stealing to a person in a culture that views property as communal.
KB: It seems that Jesus expected the adulteress to know how to behave. He did not have to spell it out for her. Our Creator put this knowledge into us. We are born with it, regardless of what culture and religion we are born into. But there is overlap. Societies with or without a religion all made laws and demanded obedience. God is patient. He planted the seed of obedience in all of us, but He does not force it to grow. He waits for us to accept and nurture it. We produce so many excuses for not doing so. There should be overlap. It should be easy—it should come natural to us since we are born with and God expects us to do what is natural to us.
Mikiko: Today, many people listen only to their intellect. But Scripture says:
Jesus, in turn, answered them and said: “What I teach is not mine, but belongs to him who sent me. If anyone desires to do His will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or I speak of my own originality.” (John 7:16-17; New World Translation)
In answer Peter and the other apostles said: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.” (Acts 5:29; New World Translation)
Many people today think only with their own minds.
David: That Scripture supports the argument that we know what is right and wrong. There is overlap, certainly. It arises because the ability to distinguish right from wrong has been in us since the Fall. Once we developed the cultural artifact of writing, we tried to capture and codify that knowledge in writing. But other cultural artifacts influence what we write and how we write it, so it becomes corrupted.
The Code of Hammurabi is the first known written record of the Golden Rule (treat others as you would have them treat you). It must have been in the Babylonian people’s hearts and minds before it was written into the Code. A millennium and a half later, Jesus essentially repeated this, in telling us that the most important rule is to love our neighbor. Two millennia after Jesus, we explicitly acknowledged the supremacy of this over any written law in the Nuremberg Trials, which (in effect, though not in these words) established that the defense of “superior orders” was not acceptable in cases of violation of the Golden Rule. Implicitly, Nuremberg recognized the supremacy of a higher power: The conscience. The overlap exists and is OK until we try to put our written law above the unwritten divine law.
Donald: The problem is in thinking that we know what God wants and then evangelizing. How can we tell other people what God wants? The world’s religions each have their take on what God wants.
David: I am with the majority of scholars who (according to Wikipedia) believe that verses 9–20 in Mark were not part of the original text but were added later. I do not believe that Jesus would ever have said:
“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16:15-18)
Or, as Matthew has it:
“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)
I believe that the true teachings of Jesus are contained in such stories as the stoning of the adulteress, where His message is personal: “You go and sin no more.” He did not add: “…and tell your sisters not to sin, either” because He knew that her sisters knew it anyway.
Dr. Singh: Jesus appointed preachers, pastors, and elders. He said: “Treat the flock of God and stand firmly in faith.” That is our responsibility. Society may try to convince us that faith is personal and should not influence our political decisions, but it is our responsibility as appointed preachers and elders to speak out.
Jay: The Great Commission calls upon us to go out and baptize everybody—to get people to follow the principles I follow, to think the things I think. To Christians, that does not seem to be a problem, but it may be a problem to those who think very differently.
Robin: God said:
I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, … but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. (Exodus 20:5-6)
…and Jesus said:
“If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:15)
It’s easy to be obedient for the big things, but not if someone says something to hurt me. I end up having to pray every day about my disobedience to the little things. We are all different. Some people are more emotional while others are more logical, and that affects obedience. We are at war with ourselves; our emotion sometimes overcoming our logic and making us do things we know we ought not to do.
Donald: We can say things to one another, in this class, that we might not say to (or be willing to hear from) people outside of it, because we have established relationships among ourselves. We have formed a community of mutual respect without needing a thicket of principles to maintain it. But if we leave things to our conscience, I don’t see how it can work, since everybody’s conscience is different.
Jay: It seems that the older we get, the less certain we become about what in youth we thought of as absolutes. We treat “divine” and “truth” and “conscience” as absolutes, which implies that they are a commonality, a universal, among all people. If we could find a Golden Rule we could all live by, then our ephemeral cultural artifacts would not matter. The problem is that we seem to think that we need to compromise in order to achieve commonality.
David: Indeed we compromise when we establish common law. People do differ in conscience, as Jesus taught in the parable of the soil and the seed. Some of us are fertile soil for the Word of God—our inner light—while others are stony and just can’t nurture the seed so well. But the seed is there, and all God wants (!) is that we turn to it. The common law is an OK substitute up to a point, but is not the ultimate authority in life.
Donald: Up to what point?
David: Up to the point where the inner light takes over—if we let it.
Donald: I think most of us would agree that we take the norms of our society to be synonymous with what should be the norms of the world. As the Internet spread knowledge of differing social norms around the entire world, people were shocked at other people’s norms. No wonder we are so divided, when what is normal in one culture is utterly abnormal in another. They are worlds apart.
David: They are worlds apart in terms of their codes of law. They are not worlds apart in terms of loving one another, loving their children, showing mercy at the individual level, and so on. This love is identical in all of us. Our various cultures may have a corrupting influence on love—people kill because a doctrine tells them to.
Donald: Doctrine defines churches.
Jay: We will continue the discussion next week.