Monday, February 13, 2012

Uniformity and Unity in Diversity In the Context of The New Calvinism

Black and White

Many years ago, I worked for a supervisor who displayed a quote without an attribution that I found fascinating, noting that great minds were preoccupied with ideas, average minds talked of events, and small minded people talked about other people. I still admire the quote and find it insightful, but I have to admit, given my political bend, I was disappointed to eventually learn that the quote is attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt. 

It would be so much easier in my own mind and heart if the quote that I liked so much had come from an interesting someone who was known for witty quips – someone more like Winston Churchill – or even Dorothy Parker or Theodore Roosevelt! It requires less mental work and less maturity on our part if things and people are simple and easily dropped into a safe category. We don't want to have to think about things to much, and we don't want to be burdened with rethinking them. This is why the Weapons of Influence work so well to trap us. Complex people with lots of talent become harder to pigeon hole and categorize in our brains, and our emotions cloud that process and make it far more complicated as well. Our thoughts are so often captive to people we like.

A few years ago, on this blog, I'd decided to post single, astute quotes from a wide variety of different people including deists, a Catholic, and a couple of theologians – none of whom held larger perspectives and general views that were consistent with Evangelical Christianity. The quotes were cutting and true, and they applied well to the discussion of spiritual abuse, legalism, and liberty of thought as an American which pointed out the limitations of Christian Reconstruction. I was rather shocked at the mail I received, for people assumed that if I agreed with one wise and accurate statement made by these individuals, I had to believe everything that they ever said and believed about everything. I've received similar mail in response to my previous blog post concerning The New Calvinism.

I definitely met my objective for selecting these quotes – for I pushed people to think and challenged their biases. I also challenged the simplicity of black and white thought that evangelicals tend to follow (e.g., All deists and Catholics are evil; therefore, they can never make a meaningful statement on any subject.). There is also the consideration of the change in people over time, growing older and wiser, coming to new conclusions over time, and we are also subject to the learning curve, because it takes time to study everything that a person has written. A notable person or teacher may start out in one tradition and change over time, making one era of their work quite different from another. History may judge them on only their worst or their best contributions, and the evil that men do lives after them. But people are not that simple, and we are always dependent on context. A single quote may be valid and true, but the context may ruin it. Then there are writers like Ayn Rand, who from my vantage and beliefs, presents a fascinating example of contrasts, appreciating so many good things (freedom, free capitalism, individualism), yet getting so many other things so very wrong at the same time. Because I've thoughtfully consider, challenge, and reaffirm my own beliefs, I find that I can be discerning and tolerant of those ideas that don't match my own. But how does one stay grounded?

Unity, Liberty and Love

Hermeneutics and a commitment to Christian unity show their great worth when we guard against oversimplifying people and ideas, plugging them into pre-defined pigeon holes of our preference and remembering that people are dynamic, changing and growing over time. When we look at dynamic people as static representations of a doctrine and then try to place them in pigeon holes of absolutes, we oversimplify. When we try to find people who only believe all of the same things that we believe in on all counts, not only do we oversimplfy, we seek uniformity. Uniformity differs much from unity, as unity requires a degree of maturity and self-assurance to tolerate the discomfort that arises as well as the mental work we must do when we realize that we are not all identical. It is easier when all things are uniform, but people are not uniform creatures. We are complicated and diverse.

I discuss this in more length in this post and at the top of the webpage in the note to new readers, but the topic needs revisiting from time to time. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans about eating meat sacrificed to idols, giving us liberty to follow our individual consciences in certain practices within Christianity that were not mandatory while refraining from hindering others through our own conduct. Paul spent a great deal of his time sorting out these same kinds of issues with other churches, with the problems in Galatia providing another example of this sorting out of what was mandatory and what was left up to the individual to follow through the guidance of the Word and the Spirit. In that same spirit of thought, Augustine framed out his quotable statement:

In essentials, unity.
In non-essentials, liberty.
In all things, love.

Avoiding Oversimplification

We now live in an age in Christianity where we seek oversimplified reductions of people so that we can categorize them, primarily because we are bombarded with all sorts of different kinds of information. Influence The Psychology of Persuasion provides an excellent discussion of these tendencies, and the writings of Neil Postman also touch on this material in a different way. It's hard to keep up with it all, and we tend to like to take shortcuts through that information. In many cases we must. We don't re-think which way we have to turn the faucet to get hot water, and we don't ponder why the sun rises every morning. We make assumptions about such things, or we would get very little accomplished.

Thanks to men like John Hus and Martin Luther who followed him, and many of the Reformers, Protestants enjoy the reaffirmed concept of the “priesthood of all believers” and the liberty in the Spirit about which Paul taught the early church. We're not intended to be uniform but are called to unity. As Christians, we are called to remain in unity concerning central doctrine while also affirming liberty. This makes the job tougher, because we can't just plunk people into a static category when we consider their doctrine. There's also the learning curve, as we cannot know all we need to know about a teacher or a ministry from just a few encounters. As individuals grow and their interests change, their message will change over time, so while we might like what someone says today, but their original message may have been very different. We may agree with them solidly one doctrine and disagree heartily on others. We may be taken in by labels, using them as a shortcut or rule of thumb, making the wrong assumptions about all that a person teaches. This presents a host of potential pitfalls for misunderstanding a teacher or ministry's position or intent. People might be much more complex than we thought which may become uncomfortable to us. And we might hold false expectations that those leaders or teachers who are gifted in one area should or are gifted in every area.

Add to that our human limitations of cognitive biases, the ways in which our perceptions, our human nature, and our own preferences shape how we see the world. I often feel like a broken record repeating over and over that the most amazing thing about the human mind is not so much it's ability to realize things but its remarkable, creative ability to avoid ideas that seem threatening to us. I've discussed cognitive dissonance in recent posts, but there are lists and lists of distortions and biases of thought that color how we see the world. None of us sees it through pure objectivity. Wikipedia offers an almost overwhelmingly long list of human tendencies by which we oversimplify the world through our own subjective side. We're all subject to error, misunderstanding, and mistakes in our assumptions. Hopefully, over time, we become less subject to the our human failings and grow into greater mastery and maturity which age and experience enhances. If we are humble, we can learn from our mistakes, admitting them to others along the way. Changes will hopefully hallmark our growth.

Unity in the Essentials

I believe that it is possible to affirm a fellow believer in the essential elements of the faith, those things that are non-optional in terms of unity, the most notable one being God's identity and how that contrasts with mankind or other created beings. Another essential involves an understanding about what salvation means and how it is mediated. I can stand in agreement with a Roman Catholic on the identity of Christ, but I don't stand in agreement with them on the details of how God bestows salvation on us or the role that man plays in that process. Things become more complicated with Protestants, not less, because we allow for liberty and personal conviction which leads to the development of varied doctrines, sometimes concerning the essentials. For example, I stand in agreement concerning many doctrines of the Church with many involved in the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), but I stand against them concerning the Doctrine of the Eternal Subordination of the Son and concerning their claims that their gender preferences are essential as opposed to intramural. I have far more in common in terms of doctrine with CBMW than I do with someone who is Catholic, but I agree with a Catholic far more strongly about Christ's identity. And just to bake your noodle, I suspect that I share nearly the same concept of Christ's identity with Doug Phillips of Vision Forum more consistently than with CBMW or Catholicism, though I stand at odds with so many other doctrines taught by the group.

With the New Calvinists, many of whom are involved in CBMW, I believe that their doctrines threaten and chip away at central doctrine and the core beliefs that support those doctrines. The various discussions of how God mediates salvation which involves an understanding of justification, sanctification, and what role human agency (our works) play in that mix speak to God's identity, so they become very important in establishing and supporting essential doctrine. Seventh Day Adventism in particular presents unique challenges because they maintain other doctrines that also chip away at what men like Walter Martin consider to be orthodox and traditional Christianity (in the Protestant sense), without perhaps a direct challenge, denying central doctrine. Ravi Zacharias, the new editor of the late Dr. Martin's seminal book on theological cults, was criticized for his liberty to pray without naming Jesus when he participated in an ecumenical event– so when we Protestants agree on the essentials, we face an even greater challenge as to how those essential ideas flesh out in practice in the proper and best way.

I stand strongly with those who speak the truth about the abuses of power within groups like the Southern Baptist Convention concerning gender and the tendency toward a top-down, Roman Catholic like system where leaders seek to become the new Protestant popes. I stand against the heavy handed measures these groups have used to crush criticism. I stand with them regarding their calling out of the abuses within aberrant patriarchal homeschooling oriented special purpose religions that are passed off as orthodox. But I do not stand with them when they make claims that challenge essential Christian doctrine or defend doctrines that speak to the doctrines that lend strong support the essentials.  That's not a repudiation of individuals on a personal level but a matter of conviction and iron sharpening iron.

It would be easier and more pleasant to share the same views on every matter, but like Martin Luther, I am also captive to my conscience and the Word as I understand it. Under liberty also, I reject some of the things that even Martin Luther wrote and believed, because I am accountable to the Word and the Spirit, not how Luther parsed it while facing the matters of his day and in his time. Though my beliefs and how I understand the Bible in all conscience may largely conform to a particular theology, I don't feel the necessity to be bound to any Systematic Theology or system.

I will not answer to Arthur Pink, John Calvin, or John Gill about how I followed Covenant Theology or Calvinism, nor will I answer to Cyrus Scofield or Dwight L. Moody about whether or not I followed Dispensationalism. My beliefs and convictions don't fit in with any of the available options, as they are framed out in the set theologies of Protestantism. (Gasp!) Though I affirm Biblical truth in all three of the theologies, I do not look to them first to understand doctrine, but rather look to Scripture.  And my understanding of these matters has changed and will likely change over time as I grow and continue to mature in the faith.  I believe that I will stand to give an account of how I lived my life, whether I followed the full counsel of the Word of God and the intent of my heart with confidence towards God, how I did that over time as I grew in wisdom, and will give that account to God Himself. No Reformer will be there to make intercession for me, pleading my case before God. I don't think I'm going to get a pass if I trusted, lived out and repeated what a leader taught, especially if my conscience convicted me that a particular belief of theirs was problematic.

No Place or Time to Coast

In the world of ideas, especially Christian ideas, we cannot afford to find a safe zone in which we can coast. We have to be Bereans every day, always on guard and always weighing ideas against the standard of truth. Human beings change and grow, and we are fragile. We change and grow in our own journey and spiritual walk. We are all open to falling into error when we take strong stands and are not careful and wise about doing so. We love novelty. We love to find systems and formulas to help us understand things and to help us get things done more efficiently with fewer errors. But we have to maintain perspective and remain grounded as we work through all of these matters.

We risk deception when we stop. We risk deception whenever we let someone else handle the burden of thinking and discernment for us. But ultimately, we are responsible, and the only safe place as a Christian comes through the dynamic relationship we maintain through our knowledge of the Word in a renewed mind and the illuminating guidance of the Holy Spirit. We are lucky to find those discerning mentors who stand with us consistently, but those relationships are not without their risks.