Saturday, March 31, 2012

Christian Authority

"Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure."    -- Philippians 2:4-5,12-13

I've been thinking a lot lately about authority.  To whom or what do we look as our ultimate guide in matters of faith and life?  Some Christians say we should look to the church, or to our leaders in the church, as our ultimate guide in matters of faith and life.  Others say we should look to the Bible as our ultimate guide in matters of faith and life.  I wonder why we Christians do not always say that God is our ultimate guide in matters of faith and life.

As Christian churches continue to split apart over differing beliefs, into smaller and smaller denominations, and even into single churches, under the direction of one leader, and as the Bible becomes more and more the tool used to separate people of faith from each other, I wonder about the future of our faith.  Does it take the breakdown of all institutions, before we are ready to put our ultimate trust in God, and listen to what God has to tell us?

Oddly enough, in my studies this week on the Greek city-state, I'm finding parallels to the Church and the Bible.  We can learn a lot from history.

In "Primitive Christianity In Its Contemporary Setting," Rudolph Bultmann writes that for ancient Greeks the institution of the city-state was believed to be divinely created.  It was not thought to be a product of human ingenuity.  "The State had an aura of sanctity about it, and the relation of the citizen to it was in effect his religion."  But the State relied on people to represent it faithfully, to always set the interests of the State as a whole above the interests of the individual or small group.  Once the democratic assembly began repealing old laws and passing new laws at will, "the State became increasingly the scene of party conflict and a scramble for power on the part of individuals." Bultmann writes, "...the city-state was cut adrift from its mooring when man forgot the transcendent ties which bound him to it."  (pg. 109)  When man forgot the divinity behind the institution, it began to crumble.

This made me think of the Church.  The Church was thought to be divinely instituted by Christ:  on this rock, I build my church.  Although, I doubt that Jesus intended to found a church, he trusted, at the very least, that Peter and his disciples would keep his teachings in their hearts and spread this message far and wide.  And yet, like the city-state, this relied on people representing these teachings faithfully, and setting the interests of all above the interests of individuals.  Unfortunately, the developing traditions of the Church strayed pretty far from the original simplicity of Jesus -- to the point that it was unrecognizable as the body of Christ.

Martin Luther, with the greatest intentions, tried to point out some of the ways in which the Church had strayed from Jesus' message.  With the stand of Martin Luther, however, the Church as an institution was no longer viewed as speaking infallibly for God.  Something else had to be an easily accessible authority in matters of faith and life.  Martin Luther trusted that the Bible would infallibly guide people along the straight path.  Sola Scriptura was the new motto.

And yet, it quickly became apparent that the Bible spoke differently to different people.  The Bible became, and still is to this day, the ultimate source for division between people of faith.  Clearly the Bible is not the infallible authority in all matters of faith and life if so many people of faith disagree so strongly about what it says!

I wonder if the period of the Enlightenment was driven by God as a way to get us beyond thinking about the Bible as the infallible authority in matters of faith and life.  Spurred on by the re-discovery of the works of Socrates and Plato, rational criticism and the study of empirical evidence became the tools for understanding the world around us.  Eventually, this led scholars to look at the Bible from an historical/critical point of view, discovering just how human it is.   Unfortunately, for people to whom the Bible was the ultimate authority, this created a crisis of faith.  For them, either one had to cling doggedly to the old understanding, or abandon God altogether.

Bultmann points out that the Greeks went through a similar crisis.  Regarding the city-states, "At first, the intention was to purify the myths from any ideas unworthy of the gods.  But so successful was this, that the myth itself was completely destroyed in the process."  Many people began to believe that the gods did not answer prayer, and that the gods were unjust. (pg 115)  Where could they turn?  As Socrates said, "Know thyself", find the divine within.  And as Plato taught, seek knowledge of "The Good", find the divine in the ideal.

And this is where we find ourselves still today.  On the one hand, we still have people of faith who cling to the ultimate authority of church leaders, or to the ultimate authority of the Bible.  On the other hand, we also have people aware that this authority is misplaced.  For some of these people, there seem to be only one of two choices:  loss of faith altogether, or loss of thinking of God as truly God.

This latter thinking continues to be promoted by scholars such as Bishop Spong, to whom Christianity is more about ethical behavior than about listening to God.  Spong does not believe that God answers prayer, or intervenes in the lives of men and women. Like Plato before him, Spong sees God as Love, but only as the feeling of love between a person and his or her neighbor.  Don't get me wrong:  loving our neighbor is what we are supposed to do.  However, when we remove divine intervention from the equation, it becomes entirely about our efforts alone.  Spong and others like him, who place ultimate authority within the individual (the divine is within us -- alone), reduce Christianity to a personal ethical philosophy.  But this only carries us so far.

This too is echoed in the history of the city-states.  As Bultmann concludes, "After the dissolution of the old myth and the disintegration of accepted law, the individual in thrown back upon himself.  But can he really be his own master?  Life is turned in upon itself and anxious about itself when it loses its sense of security against the external world and feels overwhelmed by its environment.  Hence it must learn anew its origin and goal and the road from one to the other as something beyond its control." (pg. 125)  If all I have is myself, if all you have is yourself, if we are each our own master, then what do we do when we are overwhelmed by our environment?

If we still have faith in a divine, intervening God, we will look beyond ourselves to God -- finally.

This has certainly been my own personal experience.  When I allowed God to be my ultimate authority, and put my trust entirely in God's good purpose, God, a being beyond my power to control, showed me the way.

I know God can work in and through imperfect beings:  through the leaders of a church, through the writers of the books of the Bible, through other people, and through us.  The church, the Bible, and individual people are meant to help us along our way.  God speaks to us through them all.  However, none of these are God.  They are all fallible. Therefore, none of these ought to be given ultimate authority.

So, how do we know God's will for us with any certainty, when God is not as easily accessible as the leaders and members of a church, or the Bible, or our own brains?   

Christians who believe that Jesus is the perfect conduit of God's word, God's word made flesh, God's living word, must know JesusBe of the same mind as Jesus, as Paul says above.  And just like Jesus, we must trust God.  That is what faith is all about.

Turn to God for answers.  Listen to what God brings into your life through and in the church, the Bible, and other people.  Work out humbly with God what you are to do.  And let the life and teachings of Jesus be a light along your path.    As Jesus said,  You have one Father, the one in heaven ... and one teacher, the Messiah. (Matt. 23:9)

Dear God, please help us remember that you are the One, you alone are God, and that you alone have the power to work within us imperfect beings to create a better world.  May we always turn to you for understanding, and put our trust in you.  Love always, Pam


Doug said...

Wow, now that is an interesting blog. I will be contemplating your words for several days no doubt. My first reaction tho is I believe I do accept God as my sole guide, authority in all of life. This being said it must be understood that I also seek out the "opinion" of others through church leadership, services, and bible studies. Once securing those opinions I revert to prayer, seeking God's guidance, final word. This will be tested this week as I more closely observe my actions.

You may want to chat with Jay H (pastor G's hubby). He is thinking about conducting a series he calls "Disarming the Bible". It would be most interesting.

Darn, no rest this week, you have got my wheels turning.

Pamela Keane said...

Hi Doug,

Yeah, this one still has my brain moving. I woke up this morning thinking about Spong again. He is not the only one to have come to the conclusion that God does not intervene in human affairs. He is kind of like a modern-day Transcendentalist. Now, that got me to thinking about Transcendentalism, which since Thoreau is one of my favorite writers (see the page "Books I Have Loved"), leads me to wonder if all Transcendentalists believe God does not intervene in the world. So far, this morning, I've learned that Transcendentalism seems to cover both belief in an intervening, immanent God, and no belief in an intervening, immanent God! Now, I'm of to the races, so to speak. Stay tuned...