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
Christian author G. K. Chesterton wrote “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing inanything.” Jesus recognized the human capacity to believe silly things when he accused hisreligious opponents of “straining out gnats and swallowing camels.”
The age of the internet has democratized the promotion of various truths, postures, principles, prejudices, and world views. It doesn.t take extensive education or careful credentialing to get a platform on line. Whatever a person wants to promote, for whatevermotives, is available. Google makes it easy for people who want to believe– in ghosts, moneymaking secrets, the reliability of Wikipedia, physics, news archives, conspiracytheories–(notice I.m not limiting the list to crazy stuff)–anything and everything– to find it.
This, in turn, makes it easy to see how belief doesn.t necessarily result fromconclusive evidence or logical argument, but to a large degree from the desire to believewith which a person engages an article of faith. There must be persons constitutionallyskeptical, whose Missouri origins never permit a moment.s suspicion that somethingsomeone else professes is entirely true, just as there are persons unsuitable as subjectsfor hypnosis. The majority, however, appear, despite themselves, to be eager to settle intheir minds the persuasiveness and substance of many claims; they inevitably will believea few things for reasons you and I would find unconvincing.
Those of us in the church know that faith is both a position we.ve achieved and a claim upon us we can.t resist. Were the people I loved from birth believers, and did theytake for granted that their Christianity was linked to their kindness, honesty, pleasure in life, and courage when afflicted? Wasn.t it evident that some part of their hope for me was that Iwould believe? It does not undermine religion to realize its roots include such things, forthat.s inevitable. It does, however, clarify how much the form of faith takes from our ownhistories, and how its emphases owe something to the character they help shape.
One feature of American religion, perhaps an element in its vitality compared to theOld World.s, is that it is a constant dialogue between theologies, competition betweenstyles, and contrast of priorities. This may not be obvious to the outsider, and go unnoticedby the routine worshiper. The distinct characteristics of different churches make a difference however, perhaps one that won.t be apparent until smaller and less popular varietiesvanish.
In addition to followers of Jesus discovering different responses to discipleship, allchurches urge that worship of God which, in Chesterton.s view, puts a useful perspectiveon other claims for attention or self-investment. There was a time when competition for theclaims of Christianity largely were the instinctive paganism of human nature, or the sanctuaryof a local tavern, a political cause or a community club. For a long time now, however, added to those have been other world religions, popular psychologies, esoteric shamans, countercultural notions, and the sway of media personalities.
What is truth? How should human beings be regarded? If our instincts are that everyone is equal, what.s the sense of that if we leave out “in the sight of God?” On what basis do we choose? How do we distinguish virtue from vice, moral deeds from immoral? Which of the qualities of a stranger are most important in our attitude toward that person?
Those are matters for which the Christian consults his religion. Once a Christian, itmakes a difference, again, which emphases our faith has. What.s more important, purity orcompassion? forgiveness or justification? individual conscience or collective concord?
Does it matter that “Christian” for some of our neighbors has come to connotenarrow-minded, simplistic, self-satisfied persons– or for others means nothing more than adiscarded perspective and obsolete observances? What kind of church can we be to build a community of humility, kindness, confidence, and sincerity? How can the church we are reinforce whatever germ of faith lives in another person, to offer that person something tobelieve in which is something in which we deeply believe?