In his Confessions, Augustine famously prayed, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
There is such profound truth in this prayer. I believe it with every fiber of my being. And yet, as we think through what this prayer might mean, there are certain questions that we must answer. Who is this God to whom Augustine prayed? What does it mean to say that this same God has “made us,” and, moreover, made us for himself? Why do we desire so greatly to rest in this God, and why are we restless until we do so?
Augustine is presuming in this statement a set of beliefs shared widely by people of faith across the Christian world. In other words, the statement depends for its meaning upon certain doctrines, beliefs that have been handed on to us by those who have gone before us in the faith, and which have sustained the Church through the centuries.
My first post in this series had to do with the need for greater intellectual rigor and the role of the “renewed mind” in the Christian life. In this post, I want to talk about how greater intellectual rigor, particularly with regard to our foundational faith claims, would help us in a variety of ways, including in the resolution of some of our internecine debates.
It has been the tendency of mainline Protestants to downplay the significance of Christian doctrine. Among the common reasons for this tendency are that these doctrines are outdated and unbelievable, that doctrine itself is divisive, and that we should focus on what unites us. I’ve never been convinced by these or other claims downplaying the significance of Christian doctrine. In fact, I think rigorous engagement with the faith of the ages is as important now as it ever was. Just as in the Greco-Roman world, we in Western culture now live in a world full of gods. If we don’t know who it is we worship and why we do so, we will soon be lost in a metaphysical and ethical labyrinth, perhaps never to return.
The Christian mind is necessarily doctrinal. Without an understanding of proper teaching about God and what this God has done for us in Jesus Christ, it makes no sense to talk about a Christian mind at all. We may claim to love God, but who is this God whom we love? Why do we love God? Why should other people do so? How do we know any of these things? The answers to these questions don’t just shape what we believe, but how we live.
The Wisdom of the Ages
Fortunately, we are not alone as we seek God with our minds. Through the centuries the fathers and mothers of our faith have passed down a great treasury of Christian teaching that helps us to comprehend something of God, ourselves, and other people according to the witness of our faith. The need to learn from and engage those who have gone before us is an idea that developed very early in Christian history. Take, for example, this passage from Hebrews (2:1, 3-4):
Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it…. It was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, while God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will.
We build upon the beliefs of those who came before us. We honor their work, their lives, and sometimes their martyrdom. Though many have succumbed to the temptation to try to reinvent the Church’s faith based upon foundations more palatable to the modern or postmodern mind, these attempts have been unable to sustain the Church. They have neglected the wisdom of the ages.
The end of such revisionism can only be division. If each culture, each era, each philosophical movement reinvents the faith on its own terms, Christian unity is impossible. True Christian unity can only come about when we share common beliefs about the nature of God, human life, and salvation. If we continue to de-emphasize doctrine in our faith communities, we will continue on the painful road of denominational fragmentation. As my colleague Justus Hunter has written, doctrine unites us. The neglect of it inevitably leads to division.
A Few Examples from the UMC
In The United Methodist Church, we have begun over time to develop a clearer set of teachings on a few issues. This Holy Mystery and By Water and the Spirit helped us to clarify our church’s teachings on the two sacraments that we recognize, the Lord’s Supper and baptism. We now have a teaching document on ecclesiology (our doctrine of the church): Wonder, Love, and Praise. It is set for approval at the 2020 General Conference. I haven’t read this yet, so I won’t comment on it. I hope to read it in the next couple of weeks and then offer some reflections.
I’m glad we’ve produced these documents. I just wish we had done this decades ago, particularly with regard to ecclesiology. At this moment we find ourselves in a serious ecclesiological crisis. We have both pastors and bishops, ordained by and through the church, acting in contradiction to the church’s teachings. The resulting crisis has led us to the brink of division. While developing a teaching document on ecclesiology is in and of itself a noble undertaking, the fact is that it may simply be too late for it to do any good. We are set to receive and act on the report from the Bishop’s Commission on a Way Forward in 2019. The commission will have to make recommendations absent a ratified ecclesiological document, and its recommendations may render this document irrelevant. The way we envision ourselves as a church–if we remain one church–will likely be quite different after the commission does its work.
Nevertheless, while it would likely have helped, an agreed-upon ecclesiology would not have allowed us to avert the present crisis. Part of the problem is that we think we are arguing about “homosexual practice,” to use the language of the Book of Discipline. In truth, our disagreements are much deeper than this. For one thing, we disagree in serious ways about the nature and function of Scripture. Traditionalists claim that the Bible prohibits homosexual behavior, while progressives have undertaken a campaign they call “biblical obedience” in defiance of the denomination’s teachings on sexual ethics. In other words, both groups are using the Bible to make ethical claims that are exactly the opposite of one another. There is yet another group, those who self-identify as “centrists,” who want to claim that the biblical teachings on the unity of the Church supersede our disagreements about other biblical passages. Without clearer guiding principles on the nature and function of Scripture, it is hard to see how we might resolve this disagreement.