Principles of Dynamic Doctrine

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. 

11. Forgive. 

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…

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