Free To Think…Bound to Serve
Christianity is more Doing than Doctrine:
Half of every relationship with God is the individual. God, who is timeless and constant, is known “as in a mirror dimly” while we live. We, who change and die, find our knowledge of God change throughout our lives. And we not only differ from our younger selves or who we shall become. We differ from each other. Temperament, experience, inclination give our approach to life different emphases. We each have our own perspective.
Some Christian traditions address this fact by establishing doctrine as definitive. Individuals subscribe to set teachings, by an act of will, and forgive themselves privately for being puzzled or unpersuaded by some of the formulations. Personal conviction is in the authority of the church which has decreed dogma.
Our tradition takes a different approach. We urge that for religion to be real, it must be based on a person’s honest beliefs. This means that each individual trusts himself or herself as a reader of scripture and a thinker about what is revealed there about God. We know we shall each understand God a bit differently from each other, and that the inevitable limitation of our understanding will carry through all the concepts which are part of our religious life. We trust God’s grace and the Spirit’s work to keep us in community, and to keep us ministering to the world.
We are required, as followers of Jesus Christ, to love others. Feeding, healing, forgiving, clothing, and paying attention to those with needs is the way Jesus embodied God’s approach to life. We must do the same. The twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel states that it is caring for other people, and not profession of religious views, which counts with God.
The church long has aimed to make its Christianity a matter of active service, and long has accepted open, earnest inquiry as part of its character. For twenty years we’ve summed up this approach to discipleship with the credo “Free to Think, Bound to Serve.”
THIS MONTH’S ESSAY FROM THE PASTOR
The grass sometimes is greener on the other side of the fence. Now and then a person changes jobs, or residences, or something, and it turns out to have been a good idea. The appearance of promise was not deceptive.
The saying about the grass being greener, of course, refers not to any specific situation, but to a human tendency to perceive some other circumstance as being better than one’s own. The point of the saying usually is that this instinctive preference for what we believe the other situation to be will disappoint us if we act on it. We’ll learn, perhaps, the truth of another proverb–that we were better off with the devil we knew than with the devil we didn’t know.
Familiarity has something to do with this. Our intimacy with our own sphere means that its disadvantages and disappointments are obvious to us. Given the human presumption that things are supposed to go well for us, we’ll tend to take for granted the good in what we know, and be annoyed by any downside. Looking outward, we’ll exaggerate the benefits of another person’s reality, whether it’s a job, or mate, or how spare time is spent. The view across the fence ensures that we won’t see the whole picture, nor grasp what happens behind the surface.
The saying about the grass being greener on the other side of the fence, however, doesn’t adequately capture the temptation to envy other lives and imagine ours would be better if we could switch places. It identifies our sizing up an alternative and investing it with hope. It doesn’t say anything about our tendency to resent present realities without giving any consideration to what real alternatives would mean.
For instance, I know a man who resented a new payment policy by a local newspaper, and who marched down to the office to cancel his subscription. He employed the only effective protest available to him, and he felt good about teaching them a lesson.
He soon realized, however, that there was no other newspaper available. His daily routine had included the paper for so long he was unwilling to give it up. He returned to resume his subscription.
We don’t seem to be able to help doing this. It’s easier to see what’s wrong with something that exists than to imagine what could be wrong if the existing thing were not there. I’ve known more than a couple of people who sought divorces, and subsequently discovered that neither solitude nor the other people being single allowed in their life were any better than the marriage they had discarded. Something close occupies a big part of our field of vision, and more remote things simply are harder to see.
Purists are sitting ducks for this misapprehension. It’s easy to see in politics– the fringe beyond the policies of sitting politicians feel betrayed that the party closest to its platform doesn’t press it through intact. They are bitter if the opposition is given concessions. They are baffled that the candidate they were sure was conservative/liberal
has been party to weakening a bill, or working with the other side. It is so much more obvious to them what they don’t like about the way the country goes that it’s hard for them to grasp that legislation entails compromise. They are so eager for meaningful change that they are angered by incremental measures. It doesn’t occur to them that, were the other party to have more power, there would be incremental measures going the other way from the position they champion. They’ll withhold their support, or give their vote to a protest candidate, and strengthen the hand of their ideological enemies.
Moral and ethical purists, often motivated by religious intent, also tend to underestimate the possibility of alternatives unwelcome to them. Those who supported the Prohibition amendment had a vision of its ending slavery to drink, and economic disaster for the weak and poor, and a host of social evils. They didn’t see that it would encourage illegal drinking, illegal distilling and brewing, and the social costs of putting a huge percentage of the population on the wrong side of the law.
Religious purists are few. Who manages patience and pacifism, self-sacrifice and forgiveness, love of the miserable and goodwill toward enemies all the time? To the extent that we grasp that the changes in life about which we have some say will involve gains and losses, we have two duties. One is to do our best to see not only what is, but what will be–to make an effort to imagine the results of changes we intend, to decide if they will bring God’s kingdom closer or not. The other is to accept that there always will be a cost to improving the common lot, and to be more loath to impose it on another than to bear it ourselves. This is no last word on making the world better, nor perfect solutions to troubles, but our patience with that should be joined to hopeful work to relate to other children of God as if they were as loved as are we. They are. Love isn’t legislation, and it’s not always easy to apply, but it’s our best resource for upholding human dignity, and establishing