Friday Forum: Why should doctrine matter anyway?
It is growing increasingly favorable to assert that theological doctrine has lost all relevance and ability to engage with people. Rob Bell represents one voice talking about the differences between “brick-wall” doctrine where various axioms build together to create a unified truth and “trampoline-spring” doctrine where something has a bit of a living give that allows people to jump.
I am generally a proponent of a sense of being able to live out one’s doctrine. After all, the thoughts that we think are not necessarily the steps we walk. There is something about living one’s life with integrity that appeals to many of us. And when it comes to doctrine, I think we have to note that all of us put time and energy into believing something, which rarely happens in the context of an isolated individual.
To start… doc.trine (n.) a belief or system of beliefs held to be authoritative by some group or school.
I do think it matters how one teaches doctrine as not all paths to learning are created equal. For a while, I took the time to try to teach high school physics. Conveniently, Newtonian physics occurs mostly at the macro-level, can be readily observed and validated through an array of experiential (and experimental) methods, and has significant agreement about what we are supposed to see. Yet, most people focus on the places of significant agreement (which equally conveniently can get wrapped up in mathematical equations) at the expense of the macro-level experiences that can be afforded when trying to teach people about this doctrinal system. Invariably, solely talking about and discussing the authoritative beliefs of physicists amounts to an exercise in missing the point for most students (and teachers) because people do not learn what holds the tradition of learning about physics together.
From my vantage point as someone who has tried to teach people something, it seems that inviting people into a common experience where all can act and participate is an important part of learning.
And I have to wonder about Holy Week as I think about common experiences. Really I could back up and think about just about anything. Together, I await with my community the joys of the Easter proclamation… we have been actively anticipating it now for about 10 or so weeks. We preceded Holy Week by Lent; we preceded Lent by 3 weeks designed to announce to us all that Lent was coming. Tomorrow I get to hang out with a good friend as we prepare food for the Easter feast. Looking forward, looking backward, or looking at the moment, I clearly see that I journey with others.
Journeying with others requires an (almost) implicit trust. Currently I have three… no four… no wait FIVE! communities that I would love to complete the journey with in person. Each community differs; yet each community has a profound sense of sameness. One principal function of doctrine is to provide this sameness where it matters most.
All too often, I think we tend towards declaring more than is necessary “essential.” Our tendency to maximize our knowledge about something goes far beyond thinking about spiritual things. As a physics teacher who valued the experiences my students had, I was always accused of leaving out something “essential.” Presently I have 8 physics books in sight, all of which have at least 30 chapters of “essential” content that agrees across all 8 texts. Yet I can count identically zero times I taught through my whole text or found myself with working knowledge of the content contained in particular chapters on the first pass. I do remember though, profoundly, struggling with more open-ended laboratory experiences, learning how to ask my students questions rooted in their experiences, and frustration around technologies intended to illumine something that only managed to obscure the concept. As far as wisdom goes, I think the quest for simplicity could be honored as a life-long pursuit. Simplicity does not require checking one’s brain at the door or disregarding one’s development.
This week carries some profound truths. Depending on how you count (and who you ask), we start this week affirming Christ’s incarnation in that He wept at Lazarus’ tomb, sweat blood in the garden, and stumbled under the weight of His cross. We reflect deeply and profoundly on Christ’s crucifixion, focusing at least a day on the seemingly absolute darkness amidst our sinful condition. We celebrate and declare Christ’s resurrection through a vigorous and vibrant feast marked by love, forgiveness, and joy. And… we enter into a profound and joyful hope of God’s grace and mercy working in our own lives to resurrect even us who have fallen. This week invites us to participate in an experience that can be all too easy to minimize for the sake of expediency.
There is something about this week that brings us together, if only in the gathering of a crowd to partake of the feast. Yet, as this crowd gathers, Christ brings forth an amazing invitation. The content, terms and conditions of that invitation get represented by various communities in various ways to markedly different ends… may God in His infinite love and mercy for humankind show us all His most excellent way characterized by living our lives fully with Him. May we encounter the glory of Christ together as we seek to grow increasingly into His likeness.