Tuesday, June 25, 2013

New ideas…

I don’t recall how the conversation arose, but one comment struck me. It happened several weeks ago during my annual turn as Director of Equestrian Camp. This adventure involves a small group of middle and high schoolers sleeping in the woods, singing goofy songs, riding horses. Most summer camps our Region sponsors lack an equine component; sad for them. Ours is a great time!

It’s not all horsey games, though. We spend many hours in worship or spiritual conversation. Such was happening this year, when, for whatever reason, heresy was mentioned. One camper asked, “What’s heresy?” I tried to explain; said that, in the Christian history, churches have described several important ideas or doctrines as, basically, “true.” God is the world’s Creator; Jesus is Lord. I’m sure you have favorites. When people dissented from these established teachings, I offered, the “Church” labeled them heretics. Thus, heresy is the act of teaching a teaching that the “Church’s” approved teachers believe is wrong.

To which, one of my precocious campers responded with a gem. “You mean,” He said, “Heresy is having new ideas?” I reacted with as loud and joyful a laugh as any I’d produce that week. I think he hit upon a critical dynamic of Christian faith with eloquent ease and perceptive wit. Of course, I have a healthy tolerance for what others call “unorthodox.” It’d be a rare day for me to call another’s belief system “heresy,” and so judge them for it.

Not that I distrust every long-settled ‘teaching’ of the ‘Church,’ or disrespect religious tradition. A major reason I spend much leisure time reading large history books my wife finds boring is I’m enamored by our past, cultural and religious. It’s exciting, I feel, full of wisdom. Plus, I think way too many people in contemporary society cling to a persistent and stunningly dangerous conceit: new = good, old = dumb (or na├»ve, or oppressive, or worthless…).

Take the doctrine of resurrection. Modern science strongly argues against thinking people believing this. Thus, many good and faithful Christians say, “Jesus was a great teacher, but couldn’t have ‘risen again.’” They’ll talk of resurrection as metaphor, or as something spiritually but not physically accomplished. “We don’t need to believe in magic to put the Golden Rule into practice.” That’s not bad theology. It’s an interesting new idea. Some of you, I’m sure, think it’s right. Still, I worry about modern people dismissing the faithful convictions of billions of people over thousands of years. Pre-modern believers weren’t stupid, after all. They thought in different categories, believed different “rules.” But they experienced doubt, admitted confusion, as much as we do, sometimes more. To my mind, then, I think it worth our time to take them seriously, receive their gifts. Not acquiesce uncritically, but engage in conversation.

Yet many historic “defenders of the faith,” i.e. those people who loved charging others with heresy, forget that argument, newness and creativity were just as important to the development of Christianity as teaching “settled” doctrine. The Trinity, for instance, didn’t arise in Biblical times. It took three plus centuries of praying, fighting, bad ideas, good ideas that were rejected because it offended someone in power. Only then, and with a none-too-subtle nudge from a biased Emperor with a big army, did our current formulation of God’s Three-in-Oneness become “settled,” and still some held out. We wouldn’t have lit upon this beautifully mysterious notion without multiple people fervently seeking the truth of God independently. Some called those who didn’t win the argument “heretics.” I think they did us favors by constantly pushing new ideas. Well, many of them, at least…

The question for me, then, is one of salvation. Does God “save” only those who believe “the truth”? Or is God’s saving grace experienced in the free pursuit of God’s loving presence, wherever that leads? Surprise: I think the latter. No one knows the whole truth, so help us God. Modern or ancient, orthodox or heretic, we’d all do well to nurture humility. And maybe, while we’re at it, nurture respect for new ideas. Not all will be good. But some will. And we’ll be better for it.

Grace and Peace,
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