Saving Jesus from Doctrine – 10/3/21

As NCC has begun discussing its identity as a progressive Christian congregation, I have been thinking more about my own identity and the journey which has brought me to the place I am today.  Christianity to me was a set of doctrines.  And there were only a few doctrines that I repeatedly heard – that Jesus is the Son of God, that he died for my sins, and that if I believe and confess those sins I will not go to hell.  The rest of my life was about proving I really did believe – because if I did I would not be engaging in sin.  But as I got older, this approach to faith became empty.  Conforming my beliefs to a set of doctrine did little to impact the way I experienced life.  Believing doctrines did not push me to make a difference in the lives of those around me.

Our doctrines gave us a sense of privilege as well.  Because of what we believed, we were inherently right.  We were inherently leading better lives.  We were born into the right religion, born into the right denomination within that religion.  And thus we alone were living in a manner which pleased God, we alone would receive eternal rewards based simply on what we believed even if in practice our lives failed to reflect the manner in which Jesus lived.

One of the most powerful teachings of Jesus we find in the scriptures does not relate to what we are supposed to believe.  It relates to what we are supposed to do.  When we think about the divisions which exist between us as denominations, the divisions which have led to conflict throughout centuries of church history, it is doctrine which has been the source.

But when I think about the reasons I have attended church throughout my life, even in the times when I was in one espousing a rigid theology, it was not the doctrine which drew me.  It was not the sense that I was right.  What drew me was a sense that I was part of a community.  What attracted me was an experience of healing, a source of hope.

Why many of us now struggle with Christianity is that it has moved to passive acceptance of a belief system rather than a commitment to a changed life.  I believe that if Jesus spoke to us today he would tell us we need a shift in focus from the goal of accumulating wealth, that we need to adopt a way of living which runs counter to the American system of rugged individualism.  Christianity has become an exercise in believing things in order to receive things.  It has become seeking favors in exchange for committing to doctrines.

Work like that done by the Jesus Seminar to learn about the historical Jesus is necessary for the church to maintain its relevance, to move past seeing Jesus only through the lens of doctrines which have developed in the centuries after he lived.  Through this scholarship, we seek a more authentic reading of Biblical texts.  We begin to base our faith not upon fictions that have not been able to be challenged but upon an honest assessment of history.  Progressive Christianity for me is not a movement away from the Scriptures.  It is movement toward a more informed understanding of these sacred texts.  I believe that the reason many Christians are at odds with science today is due to the fear that scientific discoveries have the possibility of undermining their faith.  It is for this same reason that biblical scholarship and higher criticism is decried.  Conservative Christians often assert progressive Christians are seeking to undermine Biblical authority.  But I do not see that as the case.  We honor the Scriptures by not setting aside our intellect in discerning its meaning and value.

As I began to understand the gospels in a new way, they became more valuable to me, less a source of angst.  The gospels are not historical books, they are testimonies of a spiritual experience.  The gospels were not written for us.  We are not their target audience.  Written between 40 and 70 years after the death of Jesus, these stories are not simply memories of the experiences of Jesus’s early followers.  They are a blend of those memories with an exposition of what those experiences meant and how those early followers continued to experience the power of that ministry in the years which followed.  And these four gospels are part of twenty gospels written which did not make it into the cannon of Scripture.

Over time the ministry of Jesus was reduced to creeds centered on his identity.  And what is lost in all that dogma is the Sermon on the Mount, his reaching out to those on the margins, his breaking bread with all people, the power of love to bring healing and restoration.   In his ministry, Jesus modeled a new relationship with the Divine to his followers.  Robin Meyers wrote, “The creeds have offered us a deal instead of a dialogue, salvation in place of an encounter, a pension in place of a purpose.”  To reclaim the purpose of Jesus’s ministry, “[w]e need to turn away from the institutional forgeries that constitute orthodoxy for millions: the blood atonement, fear-based fantasies of the afterlife, “vertical” notions of heaven and hell, selective providence based on human ignorance, and a God who pimps for us on the battlefield.”

In place of centering our faith on doctrine, the ministry of Jesus suggests a different way.  I once read that the most sacred space which exists is the space in between, meaning it is relationship in which we find meaning.  That it is not through seeking salvation and avoiding sin that we give our lives significance.  By turning the Scriptures into an object to be adored than a conversation we can participate in, faith stops being a journey and becomes a destination.  By seeking adherence to doctrine, we cannot interact meaningfully with one another.   Martin Buber said, “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.”

But despite these problems with embracing doctrine, we see that churches which most propagate it often experience the most growth while progressive churches decline.  In her book Christianity for the Rest of Us, Diana Butler Bass identifies three elements found in churches which are not languishing in midst of so much decline in mainline churches.  The first factor is somewhat surprising, an embrace of tradition.  A progressive view of Biblical interpretation, of understanding the life and ministry of Jesus, of what it means to live as a Christian does not mean that the traditions of the Christian faith must be abandoned.

Many of the rituals of the Christian tradition continue to have a deep meaning to me and many others.  But the manner in which those rituals are understood can shift with our theology.  For example, in my denomination baptism is practiced by immersion.  In a previous context, a couple began attending our church. One member of the couple held a more traditional theology and wanted to be baptized.  Her husband was also considering baptism, but struggled with his wife’s understanding of its meaning.  The man had previously shared with me stories of a painful past and how he has begun to move past those experiences with the help of his wife and the renewal of his spirituality through engagement in that community.  And I asked him to consider whether the ritual of baptism may be a way for him to mark that shift, to leave behind his past and embrace the new future that has emerged.  Baptism then became a meaningful ritual, although understood in a way specific to his beliefs and life experience.

Many of us still find meaning in the ritual of communion.  Even if we can no longer embrace the imagery of Jesus’ body broken for us for the forgiveness of sin, we can view the one loaf as a celebration that we are all one body which recognizes our futures are bound together.  The Christian year can maintain its relevance.  Lent becomes a time of self-examination for change we seek to make in our outlooks or attitudes.  Easter can become a celebration of the knowledge that we can be resurrected in this life from whatever has been death dealing in our past.  Advent becomes a time of anticipation, a renewal of our hope in the knowledge that a single person can make a significant difference.

The second factor is an emphasis on practice rather than rule following.  Leaving behind the traditional understanding of sin can leave a void for some in terms of how we are to live in keeping with the teachings of Jesus.  But identifying spiritual practices, ways of being in the world, returns a sense of purpose to engaging in a spiritual community.  And a faith community is in a unique position to offer opportunities to explore those practices and provide support in that journey.

The final factor is shifting the focus from certainty and dogma to wisdom.  By moving the center of our faith from a belief in a set of doctrines to learning from spiritual truths which can be found in community, progressive Christianity makes itself relevant both to those who have left the Christian church and those who do not identify with a faith background but are seeking something beyond themselves.  While we can find wisdom in sacred texts, we can also recognize that the Divine continues to speak today.  Diana Bass writes, “Counter to the prevailing view that people want certain answers, mainline pilgrims rest comfortably with ambiguity. They resist dogmatism in favor of being part of a community where they can ask life’s questions—a circumstance that they identify as necessary for the spiritual life.”

We recognize that our duty is not to believe a certain thing, but to act in a certain way.  To do justice in the world, which Walter Brueggemann says we do when we “sort out what belongs to whom, and return it to them.”  That may include a person’s dignity, a person’s rights, the things one needs to survive.  Meyers writes, “We do not become a good person by believing in God; we become a good person by loving God, especially the God we meet in every living thing. For the prophet Micah, his successor Jesus, and all the rest of us who are praying for a new day in the church, the most important question we can ask now is not about what we believe. It is about how we relate.”  If we are to save Jesus from the danger of doctrine, may we part of the shift in that understanding and move from religion to relationship.


What do you see as the danger of doctrine?

How have you saved Jesus from doctrine in your own spiritual journey?