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A Pragmatic Faith

In my first post for this blog I talked about pragmatism in politics. Research suggests that pragmatism is better than ideology at producing the mindset needed to make good decisions. Can we apply the same principle to religious faith?

Crop Book of Isaiah 2006-06-06

In the case of the political pundits, the key to their success the willingness to question their assumptions. This idea might be unsettling to some, especially to those brought up in a faith tradition that discourages questioning. Questioning can lead to doubt, according to some traditions, and doubt to loss of faith. For these traditions, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it," is more reassuring than "Now we see in a mirror, dimly." But only one of those two statements can be found in the Bible, and it's not the former.

Being willing to question our assumptions does not mean being a relativist. We don't each have our own truth, where everybody is right and nobody is ever wrong. Quite the opposite: All of us are wrong about many things, and none of us have--or will ever have--the complete truth. Humility is a virtue, especially when speaking of things we cannot see or touch. Yet time and again church leaders have been willing to break fellowship over the smallest differences.

In the 11th century, Eastern and Western Christians clashed over a single world inserted into the Nicene Creed. The creed, a statement of the doctrines Christians are supposed to believe, contains the following line:

Καὶ εἰς τὸ Πνεῦμα τὸ Ἅγιον, τὸ κύριον, τὸ ζῳοποιόν, τὸ ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς ἐκπορευόμενον.

This translates to, "And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, from the Father proceeding."

But in and around Rome, most Christians spoke Latin, so the church prepared a Latin translation for Roman Christians to recite. The line about the Holy Spirit was rendered:

Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum, et vivificantem: qui ex Patre Filioque procedit.

This translates to, "And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who from the Father and the Son proceeds." That single word "Filioque," meaning, "and the Son," was the spark that split Christianity--which had long claimed One Holy Catholic (universal) and Orthdox Church--into two sects, the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. More recently, the invention of the printing press allowed church leaders to disagree with each other more efficiently, thus ushering in the Protestant Revolution and yielding some 20,000 denominations.

We would have had a lot more clarity if Jesus had outlined a systematic theology and written his own gospel. Instead he spoke in parables and aphorisms, often leaving his disciples to puzzle over the meaning.

As he said this, he called out, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” Then his disciples asked him what this parable meant. [Luke 8:8-9]

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? [Mark 7:14-18]

Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.” And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread?" [Matthew 16:6-8]

If grasping the finer points of doctrine had been essential to being a good disciple, we would have to say Jesus wasn't a good judge of character. If they didn't understand the metaphorical use of the word "yeast", how could they possibly be expected to discern whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son or just the Father? But Jesus' disciples, flawed as they were, had no trouble taking his message to the masses after his death. And that's because they grasped the big picture and didn't sweat the finer points. They knew their own limitations and transformed them into a strength. They understood, as the apostle Paul would later say,

Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. [2 Corinthians 3:5-6]

And they made Christianity the most successful religion the world has ever seen. It couldn't hurt if today's Christians took on the same humility.

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