Monday, April 29, 2013

More than a Three-Legged Stool

It used to be said that the Church of England, at least in its middle or "broad" manifestation, rested upon a three-legged stool of Scripture, tradition and reason.  One might hope that, at very least, Scripture would have been primes inter pares, though subsequent history leaves that very much in doubt.  In the church, Scripture must reign supreme.  And yet we make a big mistake if we ignore things like reason and tradition.

Tradition helps us guard against novelty for its own sake.  There seems to be a bias in favor of the new in today's church, not just in terms of worship, but in terms of doctrine and other things.  Ideas are not good simply because they are old (simony was an old idea, and it was pretty bad).  But, ideas that have lingered and stood the test of time often have done so because they are worthy ideas.  

Likewise, ideas that are new are not wrong because they are new, but the burden of proof should always be on the innovator.  Charging a theological idea with being a novelty is no light charge.  It would save the church a lot of controversy if those who saw things in a new way viewed the burden of proof as laying upon them to prove the worth of a new idea, instead of asking the courts of the church to prove it wrong.  Alas, that appears to be wishful thinking, but it would lend itself to keeping the peace and purity of the church.

I think much of the struggle in my own corner of the church world comes from a bias towards the old or the new.  One side guards the old, and is suspicious of anything new.  Another side is perhaps overly enamored with novelty.  Neither of those charges are probably entirely fair.

The truth is, personal balance and perspective is very hard to maintain.  It's more like a bench with many legs than a stool.  Being winsome, stubbornly orthodox,  and yet creative, and not closed off entirely to the new, or new expressions of the old, being self-critical and being able to laugh at one's own foibles is a difficult balance.  It means not locating the "problem" solely or primarily in others, but seeing it in ourselves, too.

How do I, a denizen of the old places, suspectful of the new, keep from becoming brittle and defensive?  That is the danger, you see, of closing off the mind.  My ability to defend truths I think are settled matters may be weaker than I think it is.  Then, it is challenged by something new.  And, because I am unsure of my own reasonings for believing how I do, I view it as an attack rather than an opportunity for interaction and a deeper understanding.  Or, a new way of thinking or presenting something eternally true appears, and my reflex is to dislike it, because it is not how I am used to thinking.

Lest any of you think I am doubting the fundamental core truths of God's Word, let me tell you those things are not on the table.  I will say, however, that one of the ways we strengthen our reasoning muscles is by allowing our faith to be challenged by the difficult questions, and reasoning our way back towards truth (Schaeffer's True Spirituality is a model of this).  Sadly, what I see in conservative Reformed quarters is to slough off dismissively any challenge to any way of thinking or doing things.  I think much of this is a result of two things.  First, we refuse to laugh at ourselves --we take ourselves too seriously.  This is nothing other than pride.  If we cannot see our own foibles and say "you know what?  I am a rigid jerk from time to time," then we are probably pretty insecure in what we really believe.  To do this about "We" as a group will get you excluded from the group as one who does not really belong, the one stubborn juror versus the twelve angry men.  Trust me.

We have put more faith in our ability to defend the truth than the truth itself.

Let me provide a couple of examples.  One is in the area of preaching.  One time, I was to give an interactive talk on preaching --a lunch with students.  I wanted to call it "Beyond Expository Preaching."  I got censored.  I got told by powers that be that "expository preaching is the only kind of preaching."  Now, I believe in expository preaching.  I am a fan of it.  I practice it (or try to).  But, I think our definition of it too narrow.  I think obsession with it makes us dry and dull.   I think the deductive (main point, 3 sub-points and a poem) actually damages communicating the text in many instances.  I wanted to press these aspiring ministers to think of preaching in a hortatory sense --true to the text, but also as building a credible case, more than just a lesson in what the text says.  But, this threatened some people.  They weren't used to thinking about it beyond what they have been taught --needless to say I reminded them that 3 points and a premise is found nowhere in Scripture.  I never received an answer on that one.  Score one for rigidity.

A more serious example.  I have had my eyes opened in recent years, both through reading and through life in the Deep South, of what one might call systemic race prejudice or (albeit an overused term) "white privilege."  Think the old Eddie Murphy SNL skit where he dressed up like a white guy, and people gave him things for free, etc.  Humorous, but he had a point.  African-Americans (or those of other races) face barriers and obstacles to success in our society, not because anyone means them particular ill will necessarily (though that still exists), but because we have placed barriers to entry that make it difficult.  The sea change in white thinking, by and large, is that "we've changed, we don't feel that way about other races anymore, now there, don't all you African Americans feel better?  You can drink from our water fountains now," without realizing that barriers we have built into our churches and societies make that difficult.  We fail to realize that our own networks have helped us get where we are, and "outsiders" of whatever kind lack those networks.  No man is an island, someone helped us somewhere along the way, and probably significantly.

We wonder why African Americans (or any other minority group) can't just get over it, pull themselves up by the bootstraps (after all, some have) and succeed.  We put the blame for the endemic problems of that community squarely back on that community without thinking of our own complicity in erecting barricades.  We lament affirmative action because it lowers barriers of entry but puts a person with an inferior education (perhaps) in a position to fail, or results in a lowering of the standard.  That begs the question --why not improve the educational opportunity on the front end, so the child is poised to succeed?  

The private school may not be off limits because of policy, but it is because of price.  Bad enough, doubly bad when it has the name "Christian" on the front of it.  The good neighborhood may not be blocked off by a realtor refusing to show a family a house, but it is because of cost.  The white church might desire to have black members, but won't groom them for leadership or surrender the reins of power, or think about doing things that may be reflective of a different culture and its values and comfort.  We want them to come (into all these arenas, and the desire is genuine) but to come they have to (in reverse of the old Burger King) have it our way.  

But, this is met with the rigid response.  "I don't bear any person of any race any particular ill will, therefore why should I be blamed for the way things were or are?"  That is a reactive ethic, sometimes called the silver rule --the Hippocratic oath of life-- "first do no harm," or "Don't do to others what you don't want them to do to you."  But Jesus calls us to a proactive ethic.  We are to seek out, to do unto others, not to lay back, and let others founder when we could, in fact, change things.

What is missing, I think, is not only the ability to laugh, but the ability to self-critique.  I cringe when I hear the well-meaning young seminarian say that he doesn't see any point in ever reading anything with which he disagrees.  We have to be able to examine ourselves, to test ourselves, to try all things, and hold fast to the good.  It's as if we view the truth itself as brittle, as liable to being defeated, as only as strong as our poor ability to defend it.  And our spiritual life and our communal life ossifies as a result.  If we never ask ourselves (about preaching or race relation, or a myriad of other things) --am I really right about this?  Is there something else I could be doing?  Am I blind to some of it?  Am I open to the possibility I am, in fact, wrong?  Humility demands humor and self-critique.  

Now, well and good, you say, but I know you.  You are the the worst example of what you just wrote above.  This looks like you are chastising others for that of which you, yourself, are guilty.  Yes, guilty.  I am.  But I see it, and am asking for change.  And that's all I ask.  God to God with stuff like this.  Part of his remaking us in his image must surely be what we might call an epistemological humility (yes I love to sound smart).  All I'm trying to say is this --the question is not the truthfulness of Truth, but the question is whether I know and hold and practice all the Truth in a way that does not hinder the Truth from shining forth in my life.


  1. Welfare and abortion are arguable the most destructive things that the powers that be have done to the poor of whatever race.

  2. Joel, I don't disagree necessarily, but it's somewhat irrelevant. We can cuss the government all day long for what it has done, and be right about it, and still we ourselves have not done what we are able to do. See post below on preaching.