The Druid and the Wild Goose II: Conversation With Doctrine

In the previous post of this series about the emergent / progressive Christian Wild Goose festival, I talked about the courage of Christians facing moral contradictions between church authority and Biblical doctrine on one hand, and the call of heart and culture on the other. The Wild Goose was a place where they could come together, face the doctrine, and engage with it.

Richard Twiss, a devout Christian of Lakota heritage, showed this spirit when spoke movingly of how the invading Europeans justified the genocide of the Native Americans by comparing themselves to the Israelites invading Canaan, a slaughter carried out with God’s blessing. Does the Good Book really condone genocide? It certainly seems so, on the face of it. Most Christians ignore that part of the book, or assume it is a metaphor for… something or other, or no longer applies, or whatever. But Twiss said no, no: we need to face this.

Twiss also joined up with Lakota dancers to perform and lead ceremonies and dances at the festival. He said, “These may seem pagan or un-Christian to you. But they are the dances that God gave my people; and I do not apologize for them.” Twiss is still working on how to reconcile the ways of his people with the Bible, which he still believes in, and which says it is the only way to God.

Phyllis Tickle, I think, summarized the problem most succinctly. Christians, she said, must answer three questions today.

  1. What is a human being? Technology is blurring the line between human and nonhuman, and the line between male and female has always been blurrier than the church would like to admit. This creates a whole mess of problems — problems which will only get worse. Does a fetus have a soul? How about a clone? Could a transgendered man be Pope?
  2. What is the nature of atonement and sin? What punishments? Is there really a hell, and if so, is anyone in it? If you die without Jesus, are you really doomed forever, with no chance of redemption? What about all these other religions, which seem to have good people following them?
  3. What is the authority? Is it the church? Then which one? Is it the Bible? Whose reading of it, then? Is it in the hearts of the people? Which hearts?

What is Doctrine For?

Every religion has problems with doctrine — contradictory, vague, irrelevant, boneheaded doctrine. Perhaps doctrine must be this way, if it is going to simultaneously satisfy people’s desire for rules that (a) are simple and (b) work in the real world.

Elsewhere I wrote at length about the future of religion, and I argued that we are seeing a movement towards more organic religions — polytheistic in character, shamanistic, animistic, with lots of borrowing from other religions and cultures, and a relaxed attitude towards dogma. I tend to think that all religions evolve into forms of this sort over time; they more easily fit the shape of the human heart. If I am right, perhaps these courageous emergent Christians should give up their attempts to reconcile their dogma with their hearts. But then, would they truly be Christian? What is Christianity without its church and its book?

I have my own opinions. As a Zen-influenced Druid, I think of the story of the finger pointing at the moon. As was noted at the festival by Paul Knitter, who tries to be faithful to both Christianity and Buddhism: you may use the finger to find the moon, but do not confuse the moon with the finger. Doctrine is a direction, not a destination. Or, as the Buddha said, the doctrine is the raft to get you to the other shore; but once you are there, you can dispense with the raft.

Zen teaches that contemplation of stories (such as the famous koans) can lead to tremendous insight, and even enlightenment. The stories do not have to make sense: in fact, the crazier they appear on the surface, the deeper the insights that may be attained. Christian doctrine contains some pretty nutty, apparently self-contradictory stuff:

  • Blessed are the meek (Matthew 5:5). Turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39).
  • Woe unto ye, hypocrites! (Matthew 23:27)
  • Why do thy disciples… wash not their hands when they eat bread? “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.” (Matthew 15)
  • It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:24)
  • But when his disciples complained that he was living too richly: “Ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always.” (Matthew 26)
  • Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. (Matthew 5)
  • Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword… A man’s enemies will be the members of his household. (Matthew 10:34)
  • Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:54) Yum!

These are koans that would delight any Zen Master. Contemplation of these oddities and contradictions, holding both in tension and exploring the words in silence and humility, has brought wisdom to many Christian traditions. The tension between assisting the poor and celebrating the abundance of God has led to both worldwide missions of mercy for the destitute, and the artistic and architectural marvels of Gothic cathedrals and Vatican City. The tension between Jesus’s messages of non-violence and the wrathful vengeance of God has led to both the Peace testimony of the Quakers and the theory of “Just War” underlying the charter of the United Nations. The doctrine of the eucharist, which on the surface simply calls for Christians to literally cannibalize their God, is interpreted in many subtle and profound ways, most of which revolve around the sacrifice Jesus made for them and the presence of Jesus during the performance of the rite.

These are questions — koans — that Christians have been struggling with for two thousand years, with no small measure of success. But the old answers no longer work; and now there are new questions.

The bottom line, I think, is this. There are tremendous disconnects between Christian doctrine and the pull of the Christian heart. But at the Wild Goose, the disconnects were being faced and tackled, contemplated, and held, in tension, in humility, and in earnest seeking. The answers, when they are found, may be profound indeed.

The Christian conversation is getting down to business. It may yet be that the Wild Goose will lay a golden egg.

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