Friday, August 22, 2014

The Trinity, Creeds, and the major problem that's killing the church

To those of you who've been wondering about my inactivity on the blog - I've been slowly working on a massive project.  This is a project that will probably be bigger than my hell project and most likely even bigger than my Satan project.  To give you an idea of how big this might end up being, I had about 50 pages of notes for my Satan project before I wrote it, and I have over 100 pages for this one.  I think this project will be called "Judaism and the Mystical Christ", to wet your appetite.

But in the meantime, I wanted to write some quick thoughts I had on a phenomenon that upsets me.  I've written before about the statistical phenomenon dubbed the "Rise of the Nones", as well as writing a post about what I felt at the time was The Greatest Problem Western Christianity Faces.

What I want to write about now is building on those ideas.  To put it very simply, I think the issue that's really at the heart of just about all of the Church's problems (and when I say "the Church" here I'm talking about the church universal) is the idea that what we call "beliefs" are the most important thing that determines whether a person is good or not.  And the reason I put "beliefs" in quotes is because I think that the way we use this word today - speaking of ideas that one insists with their mouth (or keyboard) to be true whether or not they can back that up with reasoning or any kind of scientific evidence - is a distortion of what the word originally meant.  The original meaning of the word was "to be-love" (coming from the Old English "be loef", which meant to hold dear).  And we can illustrate the difference between the modern meaning and the pre-modern meaning of this word by thinking of the simple difference between believing someone and believing in someone.  Believing in Jesus means that we believe that the way he lived is a demonstration of "the Way" - the way which will heal the problems the world faces.  This is very different from insisting on ideas about Jesus.

But we've hammered into people's heads that what being Christian is all about is insisting on ideas - even if you act like a jerk when you do it.  Having the right ideas is what separates the good and the bad - or to put it the way a certain documentary is titled, "Good People Go to Hell, Saved People Go to Heaven".  This is, to put it bluntly, complete bullshit.  Insisting that right ideas is what separates the good from the bad is like saying: the sun is approximately 92,955,807 miles from the earth, and anyone who disagrees, quotes a different number (even if it's off by a single digit), or didn't know this fact is a bad person.

And Jesus couldn't have cared less if you had all the right ideas.  This is demonstrated by the fact that in the parable of the sheep and the goats, the only difference between the sheep and the goats was in the way they treated other people - not their ideas!  Jesus told another parable to demonstrate how a "neighbor" acted in which the person who best demonstrated this way of life was a Samaritan - someone of another religion!  Not only that, but someone that the majority of the Jews of Jesus' day would have considered an enemy!  If he told that story today, I daresay it would be called "the Good Muslim"!  And Jesus said that the defining characteristic of someone who was his disciple was love!  Jesus also said that the entirety of scripture was summed up in love (see Mt. 22:40), so if you want to still insist that theological ideas are important, than you're going to have to demonstrate to me how those ideas make you more loving before I'll accept that you've got the right ideas. 

This whole idea of "the Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it" has got to go - it's unrealistic and turns people into jerks, as well as lifting up ignorance and thoughtlessness and pretending that this is righteousness and intelligence.  What we call "the Bible" says things in a translation of a translation of a version of a collection of documents that have all gone through many many revisions and often we have no clue who wrote these things down in the first place (the statement you are looking at may not have even been a part of the original document); we interpret these sayings through our modern lens which all too often distorts the original meaning and intention of the sayings as they would have been heard within their historical context; and that definitely doesn't settle it - there's plenty of room for discussion.

I've seen this problem at work in the reactions on various web forums to an article recently published by Pastor Mark Sandlin - reactions like being told he's a heretic, isn't a Christian, etc.  In this article, Sandlin outlines some problems with the doctrine of the Trinity - mainly that there is no place in the Bible that even explicitly states this idea.  Oh, you might point out that in certain translations of the Bible, I John 5:7-8 says "the Father, the Word, and the Spirit" - but this was a later modification made by overzealous translators who wanted to "settle" this debate.  The phrase was added in during the debate within the church, and all the original version talked about was "the Spirit, the water, and the blood".  This shows you what length people will go to in order to win an argument about ideas, and it's disgusting to be honest. 

It's actually interesting to look into the history of the debate over the doctrine of the Trinity and find out just how ugly this history was!  You find out ugly little details like how the Emperor Constantine was pushing the church to come to a decision as soon as possible and exclude anyone who didn't agree with this idea, and he really didn't care what side won - he just wanted a unified church, in order to make it easier for him to control his empire.  You find out that during the debates over these issues, people were not only excommunicated from their church, but thrown out of their towns!  Character assassinations were rampantly used in order to make these expulsions easier to justify.  Secret meetings were held and people were kept from attending these by military force.  During the course of a debate over an issue, sometimes a bishop would say one thing, then later on say the opposite, and then insist this was what they had been saying all along.  This history is ugly!

Let me put this to you bluntly - believing in the Trinity or not has no bearing on whether you're a good person.  The way you treat other people does.  You want to believe in the Trinity, that's fine!  But don't think that this gives you a license to immediately dismiss people who don't!  You need to hear them out - actually listen to them and pay attention to their arguments, particularly if they've been well thought out - before you gently and humbly tell them you disagree with them.  And when you're doing that, make sure you've got a plan of action for explaining why you disagree with someone, and it better not be full of logical fallacies like appeals to authority and tradition!  Use evidence and logic!  And if you're going to use scripture or other writings, be open to considering other ways of interpreting ancient language - metaphor is not a bad word and is a device that was used all the time by ancient writers!

Please notice that I haven't said that I don't believe in the Trinity.  I would actually claim belief in the Trinity for myself, though I want to be given a chance to explain what I mean by the Trinity and explore the imagery, showing how a certain way of thinking about it meshes well with modern scientific views - and this is a topic I plan to explore in my upcoming series "Judaism and the Mystical Christ".  But I'm so tired of seeing people jump on the views of others and use them as a litmus test for "Christianity" without being willing or able to defend - using scientific methods of any kind - the reasons why their own views are correct!  I've had it with this refusal amongst Christians to use the brains that they supposedly believe God gave them!

The Problem with the Creeds
I think the issue I have been outlining is exasperated by the fact that the creeds reinforce this idea that the most important thing for a Christian is to affirm certain ideas.  It is astounding to me that the Apostle's Creed and Nicene Creed - and many churches have all their members say one of these every single Sunday - say absolutely nothing about Jesus' life and/or teachings!  They focus completely on affirming the Trinity and Jesus' divinity - neither of which are doctrines that Jesus himself taught!  These were not issues which he felt had to be pressed!  There were much more important issues at hand as far as Jesus was concerned, and yet his followers seem to think that following him means insisting that these doctrines are more important than the life he led which demonstrated the principles he taught!  And I don't hear many people questioning why these creeds that we say every Sunday do this - and I find that very, very disturbing!

As far as the Nicene Creed and the Apostle's Creed are concerned, the only reason Jesus lived was so that he could die!  They say he was born of a virgin (and that's questionable, unless you take it metaphorically) and then he died - that's it.  Nothing in between.  Born then died.  It's as if nothing else about Jesus mattered!

This is why I think modern churches should write their own creeds.  This is what the Maasai people did in 1960 when the missionaries who came to them realized that the language of the creeds had different meanings within their culture - meanings that didn't necessarily convey what the creeds were supposed to be about.  This isn't the only instance of an African tribe writing their own creed, either - I've read that South Africans as well will use the phrase "eldest brother" instead of "only son" or "only begotten son" about Jesus, because in their culture an only son was not as high of a social status as an eldest brother.  To them, an only son is an isolate, whereas an eldest brother was someone you had access to.

Missionaries tend to recognize that when you are a stranger in a strange land, you have to use the people's language the way they use it rather than insisting that they learn to understand you.  And they also recognized that because we are not living in the context in which the creeds were written, there may be other issues which are more important in our time.  The creeds were written as a response to debates that were going on inside of the church at the time, and so they were a way of enforcing the idea that the "true orthodox" were separated from the false believers by certain ideas - namely how one conceives of the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity.  But defining a "Christian" this way is not how Jesus defined the marking characteristics of his disciples - as I've mentioned earlier in this post!  So why should we continue to reinforce this idea Sunday after Sunday?  I think that if you're going to say a creed, at least put something in there about Jesus' life

Below is an English translation of the Masai Creed I've mentioned.  Besides the fact that it actually mentions some things about Jesus' life, I also appreciate that it mentions that God created out of love, loves the world and every nation and tribe, and wants Man to be happy in the world.  It also mentions in the final section that a Christian is supposed to live according to love - which you should already know is a must have for any creed in my book.  I'm not saying that this creed should become the new thing - I'm saying it should be considered as each church seeks to define their own statement of belief.  I'm saying we should stop exclusively saying creeds that were written hundreds of years ago in order to strike the final blow of a long and costly debate between factions of the church, and start trying to define what the important issues of being a follower of Jesus are in our context.

The Maasai Creed
We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created Man and wanted Man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the Earth. We have known this High God in darkness, and now we know Him in the light. God promised in the book of His word, the Bible, that He would save the world and all the nations and tribes.

We believe that God made good His promise by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left His home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, He rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.

We believe that all our sins are forgiven through Him. All who have faith in Him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love, to announce the Good News to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for Him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.

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