Sunday, July 18, 2010

Basic Christian Doctrine

The Christianity I grew up with subscribed quite explicitly to all the Fundamentals and more or less to Calvin’s TULIP.  When I began to understand these doctrines, rather than to just recite them, and to see their logical conclusions for the world, I concluded that the God that must derive from them was a petty, tyrannical, malicious egomaniac.  Rather like a very overgrown playground bully. Such a judgmental, capricious deity is often at odds with the absolute attributes of God that I also learned in Sunday School: omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, immutable, ineffable, impassionate, and infinite. And completely antithetical to the God Is Love refrain. As soon as my neurology accommodated analytical thinking, I began questioning how all these disparate things could be simultaneously Truth.  The answer was, according to those wiser elders whom I asked, “Ahh, that is the mystery of God.”  Or the confusion wrought by man, more likely.

In the back of my mind, like a holy descant, was a visceral knowing of the Divine.  Despite my constant vigilance against the clairvoyance, prophecy, and knowledge of things I shouldn’t, no matter how I prayed for protection against these manifestations of the Evil One, God never “delivered” me from my unwanted mysticism, my forbidden psychic nature.  Against all attempts at unknowing, like I knew water was wet, I knew the Divine.

It wasn’t until I renounced Christianity and shoved the shouting, shaming god of the doctrines into a locked up corner of my mind that I could take notice of that holy descant. When I lay in savasana at the end of a yoga class and heard the empty fullness of my mind, when I sat in silent communion with my baby in the dark of the night, after sex when I was only half in my body, the tears would flow.  A healing rain for my soul.  There was Love.  A constantly moving but never changing river of Love flowing through, over, in, around, under everything in the universe.  That was a Love I could trust. 

Yet, just as my mystical, psychic knowing leaked uncomfortably into my rigid Christian worldview, so too did that shaming god of Christian creedal doctrine continue to control my very way of being in the world.  He may no longer have used Christian vocabulary or take issue with the same lifestyle points, but always he/I preached whatever cause I espoused with the same religious fervor as any Evangelical in a pulpit: organic agriculture, buy local, natural materials for children’s toys, holistic medicine, nutrition, homebirth, homeschool, environmental awareness.  Each and every cause had its own dogma and legalisms that I worked tirelessly to uphold, all in order to be recognized as the best, most-natural, most organic, most homegrown… let’s face it… the most holy mother in the community.  I guilt-tripped newcomers and “heathens” frequently, publicly, and with much self-righteous gratification.  I didn’t use the bible to thump anyone but I sure knew how to quote appropriate texts for whatever sermon I was preaching.

Fortunately, my children refused to live in the same kind of box I was aggressively marketing to other families.  No matter what rules I picked to uphold, my family insisted on blasting through them.  When, finally, my health broke down and my sanity was more than suspect, I couldn’t follow any more rules and I certainly couldn’t try to bully or bribe my family into adherence either.  For the better part of two years, I lived just trying to get through the day.  Everyone fed themselves, managed their own schooling, and hid out in their rooms.  Everything I thought was so important, that made us better than the rest, went right out the window.  Apparently I hadn’t trusted that Love much at all. 

The true breaking point was early in that Dark Night of the Soul when I couldn’t hear the descant anymore.  All my knowing disappeared.  I couldn’t read people, couldn’t feel their emotions or sense their internal dramas; I had no more dreams or visions. I no longer knew the Wet of the River of Love.  It was like suddenly losing my sense of taste and smell—something you don’t think you rely on to make sense (pun intended) of the world until it is gone.  Obviously, despite my avid denials, I had become accustomed to that psychic sense of the world.  After that, my brain function really dried up and I began to beg whatever God there might still be just to let me die.

By spring 2009, just over a year ago, the protocol for recovery was working well enough that I could look at the bigger picture—beyond just my physical functioning, what were the more fundamental problems that disposed me to ruin my health?  And more importantly, how to transform them into factors of healing rather than of disease?  I was genuinely bewildered; there seemed nowhere to look.  I had been doing everything right, followed all the rules: ate well, exercised, lived for others, tried to save the world. I should have been the healthiest person in town.

Then the book that I started this blog with jumped off a table at me and I started this quest into fundamentalism and Christianity (and, of course, where the two converge in my life). Through the summer and fall last year, I began acknowledging how deeply and completely Fear had ruled my life and how my vain were my attempts to control the fears by perfecting the rules.  By the time I was ready to claim being a Christian again, I was only willing to do so on the condition that I not be ruled by the legalisms that Fear begets as well as is begotten of. 

The Rules of any fundamentalism, however well-intentioned originally, always miss the point of the cause.  Just as navel-gazing became the hilarious euphemism for trying to fake enlightenment in the hippy oriental-flavored 60’s spirituality, so too is biblical literalism and other idolatrous adherence to doctrine over Divine communion.  Many people do find enlightenment through meditating on the breath in the belly, of course, that’s how the stereotype came to be.  Similarly, many Christians have found the images of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, Crucifixion as Propitiation, and other doctrines to be devices that facilitated communion with both the Divine and humanity.  But for those for whom the device doesn’t succeed, dogmatic practice of the device becomes ritualized. Rules become the standard rather than relationship. When a device becomes divisive, idolatry occurs.

Being so ill for so long, trying so hard to follow the doctor’s advice, only to have it make me sicker and crazier, made me realize, as nothing else could, that rules never work.  Only principles work.  The rules hadn’t kept me from sickness, rather they’d caused it.  Rules didn’t keep my family functioning during my disability, but having understood principles of taking care of oneself and others was what allowed everyone to pull together to do what needed doing.

Therefore, when I came back to Christianity, I accepted no rules only essential principles.  Creeds and doctrines are more rules than principle.  Creeds state what must be believed—a rule.  Christian principles are those essential mantras that Jesus taught—love God and neighbor, forgive the brother, do good to those who hurt you, do unto others.  I didn't agree that the creedal doctrines are inherent in what Jesus said—rather as what later, sometimes much later, theologians said he meant. It doesn't make the creeds wrong—if they lead to the kind of radically loving life that Jesus did teach. I think ANY doctrine that fosters its believers in a deeply loving life is great—for them. 

For me, I am not convinced that the bible necessarily teaches a Trinity, Original Sin, or Final Judgement. I wanted to start at the absolute foundation and rebuild my new Christian theology from there. My fundamental, doesn’t-get-any-more-elemental foundation I defined as “some kind of God exists and there's this collection of Middle Eastern Antiquities writings about this guy who appears to have been a radical itinerant preacher who taught about this God.”

Starting from that incredibly skeletal beginning, I began reading the scholars of Bible, historians of religion, and mystics (again, still, always).  The one thing they all agreed on—even when they didn’t even agree on a single other point—was that this iterant preacher taught a radical kind of love for God and for fellow man.  So that single point, radical “wasteful loving” as Jack Spong calls it, became my Basic Christian Doctrine.


  1. "so too is biblical literalism and other idolatrous adherence to doctrine over Divine communion"

    I love this post! Yes, yes, yes- the point is communion with Divine Love and letting that flow through you to the rest of the world God loves.

    I know that God by the name of Jesus. The Trinity and the Atonement are richly fulfilling to me; one a picture of eternal community, love and mutual submission- the other a condemnation of our cruelty and a focal point for forgiveness for myself and others.

    BUT- and I know this is heretical- if those images are poison to you, then commune with Divine Love without them.

    Mental assent to Christian creeds is not salvation- all Christians agree with that. What most of the rest of Christendom denies is that you can have a heart communion in and with the Living God without the creeds. That I affirm.

    Personally, if one is rejecting a false Christ, and I agree with you that Calvinism paints the ugliest picture of Christ one could possibly come up with, then one is not rejecting the true Christ at all.

    In fact, I would not be at all surprised if God does not thank all those who rejected that caricature for not believing lies about him. <3

    God is love. God so loved the whole world that he sent his only begotten son, that the world might be saved through him. Jesus' own words call for commitment to Divine Love, first for God, then our selves and our neighbor, finally for our enemies. Would God hold us to a higher standard than He himself lives by? No.

    Love you, Sandra! =)

  2. "Mental assent to Christian creeds is not salvation- all Christians agree with that"

    Perhaps all Christian agree in theory. But just try to say "I think Jesus was a man like you and me. No particular non-human divinity involved" or "I think the bodily resurrection never happened" or "I think mankind is neither essentially good nor desperately wicked (ie no Original Sin)" and see everyone freeze, doubt your "salvation" or sanity and brand you a heretic--which is worse than a heathen and gets its own special circle in Hell.

    But I can only preach it how I see it: Love makes the world go 'round.

  3. That's cause their focus is that mental assent is NOT ENOUGH, rather than mental assent is not necessary. =)

    (Kinda reminds me of the joke where St Peter is giving a newcomer a tour of heaven. He passes a group shouting and jumping and he says, these are the Pentecostals. He passes a group eating a potluck and he says, there are the Baptists. He passes a group drinking wine and laughing and he says, these are the Anglicans. Then he askes the newcomer to please be very quiet and tiptoe, because they are about to pass the Church of Christ and they think they are the only ones here. Do you think we'll have to tiptoe in eternity, Sandra? Cause it will freak out any fundies who make it that we are there too!)

  4. ps Yes I know that is totally predicated on a Christian view of eternity. It's just a joke! =D

  5. Sandra,I think you are getting somewhere here, somewhere basic, where we all need to be. Yes, to the winds with narrow doctrines and restrictive rules! But for those like you and me, who were raised in fundamentalism, it seems damning to toss these things to the winds. But, it is necessary; I'm finding it so, but it sure is not easy to do. Hang in there. Terry Gray

  6. "it is necessary; I'm finding it so, but it sure is not easy to do."

    It was easier to toss the creeds to the wind when I was not Christian--or so I thought. Seems I might actually have tossed the baby and kept the bathwater. So now I'm having to sort through my cobwebby psyche and find out what I can keep and what I toss.

    Sure would be nice if I could enter into the usual doctrines in a nourishing way--for some two thousand years, people have found them spiritually beneficial, or at least enough people that the religion hasn't faded away like the worship of Mithras or Osirus.

    But when you've been beat with a stick, even if you've been the one wielding the stick yourself for most of the time, it's hard to see the stick as supportive rather than punitive.

  7. You are a very talented writer and thinker. I really did get a lot out of that post. Thank you!

  8. Hi, Little M, I'm glad you found this post pertinant. Thanks for stopping by and feel free to drop in often.

  9. Wow, Sandra -- you and I have been through very similar journeys. Not sure where I am at the moment... I've been working on my #1 and #2 principles (Love and Forgive) inside the institutional, creedal church, and I'm just not sure I am or have ever been a good fit. Sad thing is, the longer I'm in church, the more I feel my faith in even my most basic beliefs slipping away.

    I'm in a ministry I like; I keep thinking I'll finish out my term and quit church altogether. Sometimes that sounds (pardon the pun) heavenly!


  10. Final Anonymous,

    Welcome to the conversation. :) I certainly hear you about staying in or leaving a church where you don't feel like you belong (in a theological sense--like you can't confirm the doctrines or creeds) yet you feel you have a healthy and worthy ministry. I stayed in the organized church for years past when I accepted a traditional theistic interventionist God or a substitutionary crucifixion/resurrection--largely because I was heavily involved in the music and worship. Due to life circumstances, I left the church of my involvement and when I couldn't find a similar involvement in churches in my new communities, the trade-off of ministry vs personal spiritual nourishment was no longer relevant and I couldn't stay anymore.

    It wasn't until I left that I realized how burnt out I was--always giving of myself to the church community and never or very rarely getting nourished in return. Although there have been moments of guilt and shame, I have found having Sundays (and Saturday nights and Wednesdays and...) to be with, truly present for, my family hugely nourishing for my soul in a way that I never would have thought possible for the "unchurched".

  11. Oh, I'm definitely way way waaaay burnt out. Skip church whenever I have a semi-plausible excuse. Have taken to reading the Bible during the sermon to keep from getting pissed off at every other word. I distance myself from the whole experience just to avoid getting so angry or so hurt afterward that I make myself sick.

    Why do we go? Mainly because it's been hard to leave. We had really good friends there and felt lots of love during some particularly difficult times. The people are still there but the real love and friendships disappeared long ago and I guess I keep hoping they'll come back. It's of God, right? Christian relationships are the REAL ones, the lasting ones, right?

    Also, the ministry I am in reflects so much of what I feel Christianity is supposed to be. It also requires a time and attendance commitment. I don't want to break those, although I know the date I'm finished! God knows it too, so if He really gives a damn where or whether I go to church, I figure He'll give me a reason to stay before then.

    Mostly I stay because of my kids. They've already endured a divorce and other family breakups... I don't want them to think the church family that loved them through all that has abandoned them now. It took a long time and a lot of church heartbreak to get me this cynical; I don't want to start them on the road to it this early in life.

    Hey, the good news is... Monday thru Saturday are usually pretty fun days! ; )