Revisiting Christian doctrine – addition and subtraction?
Many of us struggle with the Christianity that is laid out before us in the Church (whichever denomination). Some of the concepts and doctrine comes from a world view which is far from our own. For example, the picture of God as ‘our Heavenly Father’ which we find in much of the liturgy, hymns and prayers that we use does not express how many of us think about God now. But ‘why change’, some say. Why should we ditch two-thousand-year-old concepts? The simple answer is that we understand so much more about the universe, our physiological and psychological make-up, and also about some of the ancient wisdom that had been lost, that many of the familiar ways of understanding no longer fit the purpose. And the purpose is to help us to awaken to the spiritual reality of the world we inhabit and are part of. Traditional Christianity has become a large square peg trying to fit into a round hole. In order to make it fit, the corners have to be taken off – we have to ditch some parts and revisit others with fresh eyes – and add some new insights.
But where do we start? We often witness people manipulating scripture to make it support what they feel are right values. To put it harshly, this is just dishonest. To put it more gently, it arises out of a belief or assumption that because it is in the Bible it must be right, as the whole of the Bible is the word of God.
This is the first assumption or belief within Christianity that we want to challenge. How do we feel, for example, about the God who commands, as we read in 1 Samuel 15:3, “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them: put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” (New International Version) Is this the God we really want to reverence and worship? Or is it a culturally determined and distorted view of God?
Instead of regarding the Bible as the word of God, we may regard it as texts written in a patriarchal society by men who felt inspired by what they believed to be divine revelation, and who sought and struggled to interpret what they had received. We should pause to consider whether the inspirations they received are life-affirming or life-denying. Because something appears to come to us from a transcendent source, it does not necessarily follow that it is good. To take extreme examples, murders have been committed by individuals who claimed to be guided by God. Some terrorist bombers make the same claim.
The process of interpretation is inevitably affected by a combination of the writer’s own personality and the thought-world of the times in which they live. Some biblical stories challenge that thought-world. For example, Job lived in a world which held that God always rewards the just and punishes the unjust, but his own experience showed him that bad things can happen to good people. Other stories go along with the thought-world of the time: for example, that Yahweh was the God of the Israelite tribe, and therefore it was alright for their God to order the genocide of the other tribes in the promised land of Canaan (as written in the book of Joshua).
Once we accept the view that the Bible is a product of the world view of its time, we have to find another way of finding what values and ideas we want to live by. In a number of places in the Hebrew scriptures, the writers indicate that the moral law is ‘written on our hearts’. We have an inner potential to discern what is life-affirming and what is life-denying, and which are the fundamental values from which we derive our sense of what is good and what is bad. However, we also have a huge capacity to make mistakes and to get locked into ideas we feel we ‘ought’ to hold (because they are our tradition, or everyone we know apparently holds them, or the penalty for not holding them is ostracism). The path of inner transformation includes witnessing our attachments to such ideas and loosening them so that we are free to use our inner organ of spiritual discernment.
From this standpoint, we may find that there are beliefs and doctrines in mainstream Christianity that are not life-affirming, and ways of interpreting the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth that likewise we do not find to be helpful to the human spirit or the well-being of the planet as a whole.
What was the process of the development of Christianity as it has been handed down to us? It all started with the Jesus event, the person of Jesus of Nazareth. But the only accounts we have of his life are in gospel texts written 40-70 years after his death, which have been hugely influenced by the Hebrew scriptures that were written down 100-600 years before his life. In fact you could say the gospel writers raided the Hebrew scriptures to fill out the account of his life to make it fit in with their thought-world of the time. This was further added to by the writers of the letters, bearing in mind that all of Paul’s letters were written before any of the gospels, so the concepts and ideas he developed were to some extent fleshed out in the gospel stories. Paul was an ex-Pharisee, steeped in the Hebrew scriptures and with a turn of mind that was mystically inspired at times, controlling at others, and sometimes confused.
Later came the early theologians of the church, who gradually decided what should be included in both scripture and doctrine, and, more pointedly, what should be eradicated as ‘heresy’. Much of this was arguably inspired more politically than spiritually, and the resulting ‘lost Christianities’ were all the ways of thinking that had flourished in the early centuries of Christianity. Some of these have recently been rediscovered through research and archaeological finds; others have continued to be practiced quietly in out-of-the-way places.
Gradually, over the first 700 years, Christianity hardened into a commanding body of doctrine and dogma. It was a long process. To challenge it meant accusations of blasphemy and heresy, and often death by unpleasant means. A long way from the call of the founder to ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’
So there are questions we have to ask.
1. What accretions have gathered during this process that are not helpful and life-affirming? Can we ditch them? Here are some examples that we feel need to be revisited:
- Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God.
- The inheritance of the idea from temple worship that God demands a sacrifice.
- The wrath of God.
- Salvation as a promise for the future afterlife rather than a path of wholeness for now.
- Male patriarchy and language derived from it.
- The virgin birth and the nativity story as literal, not metaphorical.
2. What omissions are there? What has been squashed or eradicated in the process? For example:
Jesus as a wisdom teacher of the path of transformation. This path has a long lineage in other indigenous and Mystery traditions.
The lost Christianities that were gradually quashed in the early centuries.
The other scriptures that were left out of the canon of the New Testament, such as the recently rediscovered Gospels of Thomas, Philip and Mary Magdalene.
The lost doctrine of reincarnation or rebirth.
3. What needs to be added from our current understanding? For example:
- New insights from areas of physics, biology, sociology, psychology and systems theory
- Insights from other faiths.
The core group of CANA are embarking on a project to flesh out all these areas in courses, retreats and experiential opportunities to begin to develop a resource bank. As the CANA strap-line indicates, we are in a process of transformation, from water to wine. The fermentation process has started.
Gillian Paschkes-Bell and Don MacGregor, 27 November 2015