Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Importance of Right Doctrine

It has often been said that right doctrine is not as important to Christian faith as right relation. However, right relation seems to be based upon proper understanding. Assume that you enter into a relationship with person X. Let’s say that this is the common relationship of friendship. You might assume that X desires to share ideas, interests, maybe even sorrows, but X assumes that this relationship also entails that the two of you will participate in certain morally wrong actions such as robbing others of valuable items. Unfortunately for you, this assumption is only made clear when X steals from a stranger and you are obligated to respond justly, breaking what X thinks is a commonly held tenet of the friendship. Obviously, this situation was based on false assumptions of or ignorance to this facet of X’s character that might have been avoided if you had attempted to learn more about X.

Relational interaction between personal beings is heavily impacted by the shared assumptions of each person, and knowing each other’s character can help inform what the person might expect out of a relationship. If the character of God cannot be separated from the being of God, and I suspect it cannot, since God is defined by such characteristics as love, then right study of God and right understanding of His character will lend to better relation with Him. Being in Christian faith is being in a relationship with God, and for any two beings to be in proper relation to the other, it is beneficial for each person to understand the other, especially when one being offers relation based on certain principles to which he or she expects the other to agree. It goes without saying that God knows our character and what is best for us since He is our Creator. However, as humans, we often lack understanding or have misunderstandings concerning God’s character.

Christian doctrine helps us to rightly express God’s character as well as His purposes for being in relationship with humanity, but often we observe that many in relationship with Him do not hold to certain doctrines that have been affirmed by the majority of the church. Some presuppose that such lack of understanding in a saint points to the fact that doctrines are not important. In fact, the church at large has various denominations that differ on many theological doctrines. However, is unimportance the only logical inference that can be extracted from this sort of situation?

Doctrines are human expressions of a greater truth. The truth precedes our understanding. A truth does not depend on our ability to affirm such a truth. In other words, humans do not arbitrarily create doctrine, but form doctrinal understanding and formulas based on an established truth concerning God and His will for humanity, as revealed in Scripture. If there exists person who are in relation to the Father and yet are not willing to confirm or are ignorant to a certain doctrine, then they are in relation to God by His grace and mercy, not merely because the doctrine is of no importance. The truth that is affirmed by the doctrine still presses upon and has consequences for this person, whether he or she wishes to affirm this truth or not.

I suspect that each of us have certain misunderstandings because of our ignorance, and God is gracious enough to allow us an opportunity to learn, not before we enter into relationship, but while we are in relationship. Although God is gracious enough to allow us our ignorance, it is not beneficial for us to remain in such a state. It is better to come to right understanding of doctrine through study and prayer than to find out the hard way by assuming an incorrect reality of God only to painfully stumble when we wrongfully suspect we are in His will when we are not. Thankfully, when we wonder so far due to misunderstanding we experience pain so that we might realize our mistake, but I suspect each of us would rather properly avoid the pain in the first place.

With this in mind, proper doctrinal affirmations are of much benefit to the believers and can help believers in leading others into a proper relationship with God.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Christianity and the Reality of Death

Christianity and the Reality of Death

"Die before you die. There is no chance after." C. S. Lewis

I recently heard some talk over a program airing on television that demonstrated that psychologist have the ability to manipulate and stimulate a subject’s mind in such a way, I assume through electronic signal, that the subject begins to believe he or she is having a religious experience. Specifically, the subject assumes he or she is in the presence of God. Once again, this is hearsay, but as it was reported to me, the thrust of the program was set out to prove that humans have naturally developed the concept of a divine being so that we might feel comforted in light of certain fears, such as the reality of death and persecution. Of course, this is nothing new. Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud are among many who have suggested such theories, both for various reasons.

I do not have much time to watch such programming, nor do I have much to say on the matter, mainly because I think these sorts of theories warrant little attention due to their distortion of the issue. However, out of frustration, I do feel the need to briefly address this topic and share what I think is an obvious, albeit theological, rebuttal to such notions. The one major fact that secular psychology is overlooking is that the claim that Christianity is a religion that somehow comforts us in the knowledge of inevitable death is a straw man. If one has this sort of understanding of Christianity, he or she is missing the point.

For many persons struggling with doubt or disbelief in the divine and the supernatural, this program seems to offer some major implications as to how we are to understand the phenomenon of religion. However, are the results from such experimentation really detrimental to Christian belief? Are not the scientists’ analysis of the results presupposing that such a result, manipulation of mind in a certain way produces the feeling of the divine, points to there not being a God. Why should it be the case that the “discovery” of the mind’s having a natural, built-in concept of God be understood as pointing to a mechanism developed by evolution that helps humans cope with fears? Have not theologians been suggesting that humans have the natural concept of God precisely because God gave humans this capability?

However, my own issues with this line of thought are not even based in the question of whether or not we are given this sense or not. I find the assumption that Christianity is a crutch for humans to deal with the concept of death to be a gross misunderstanding of the true message of the faith.

Christianity, in many ways, is a call to death. Death is not an avoidable reality. Instead, we are called to die to self so that we might become Christ-centered beings. We are to become so Christ like, as Saint Paul suggests, that when we act and live, it will be Christ who is living in and through us (For more on this topic, please refer to my essay, “If Christ is All, What Does that Make Me?”). Persons entering into the faith, as well as Christians at various points in our walk MUST face death. We are called to become radically new beings that result from a giving up of all the self wants and desires, which is to keep the status quo.

Secular psychology is not interested in this fact. Spirituality might be taken into consideration in evaluating humans, and I do not want to belittle any secular psychologist who does consider the possibility of the life-changing aspect of faith. However, I doubt many psychologists do take such accounts of one becoming a new creation seriously. Therefore, they study men and women in their natural state. In our natural state, humanity has been left wanting, knowing there must be something else out there, but also knowing of the ultimate reality of death. This does lead to fear, but Christians have never denied the fact, as these scientists seem to be presupposing, that each and ever person must face this fear and die. We only suggest that death might be more than what the secular definition seems to suggest. Death is frightening because we lose ourselves. The self wants to survive, but it cannot. Christians affirm this, and our faith does not suggest any way around this fact. We merely suggest that this sort of death can happen during this life. The natural self (the sin-oriented self) can, in this very life, die and be born anew, but we still lose that self that so desperately wishes to be in control, or at least we should.

Psychologists by-and-large have been suggesting, as the television program suggested, that humans must find a way to cope with the void left by the self-realization of our finitude, but Christians do not find that finitude is the root of the void. Instead, there exists a hole left by our separation from God.

Therefore, to commit to Christ, one must be willing to give up his or her life as he or she wishes it to be, and this is a very scary reality to face indeed. All the self-oriented desires must pass away. In a real sense, to pass into Christianity is to face, once-and-for-all, the finitude of the self. It is at the moment of committing to Christ that we die to self and begin life anew, reborn and converted to a new way of life. We do not die in a mere metaphorical sense; it is a true passing into another life. While physical death still awaits us, that does not deny the fact that we have already faced the reality of death. Maybe this reality is more hopeful than the secular understanding, but that does not mean it is wrong.

Thus, secular psychology gets it wrong when it suggests Christians are not willing to let go. For letting go is the very purpose we are called into this faith. It is the very essence of the faith. So, what then do I make of the claims of this television show? What if science has proven that it is in our very nature to have the desire for a divine presence in our life? Well, that makes sense to me. Does it not to you? God has given us the ability to desire and know of Him. As for such claims that we, or better yet, evolutionary process created our notion of God, well, I do not have much more time to discuss such nonsense.