Thursday, January 24, 2008

Sound doctrines are all useless

This is from my earlier book - and I realise that there's rather a lot of material there which has never been posted. Reading something that Scott has written has prompted me to post it. It's quite long but, if I might be so bold, I think it's worth reading!


‘I believe that one of the things Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless. That you have to change your life. (Or the direction of your life)’
Wittgenstein, 1946


In much of what I have written so far I have explained the way in which certain Christian doctrines have come to be held, and the way in which the rite of the Eucharist has come to be understood. However, the most important part of Christianity is not the doctrine, or the rite, but the life lived as a result. That is the subject of this chapter.

In many ways, Jesus inherited the criticisms of Jewish practice that were first articulated by the prophets. One of their principal objections related to the way in which certain cultic practices were allowed to override the claims of justice. Consider the prophet Amos, who is generally considered to be the oldest of the prophets who have their utterances preserved in a separate book. He was active c. 750BC during the reign of Jeroboam II, at the end of a fairly long period of peace and prosperity. The prophet himself might be considered to be fairly well off as he is described as being a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees, and therefore a property owner. The people were quite ostentatiously ‘religious’ in that they paid their tithes, made elaborate sacrifices and so on, and yet there was a significant degree of corruption and social injustice. According to Amos:
‘Thus says the Lord: for three transgressions and for four I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver and the poor for a pair of shoes – they that trample the head of the needy into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the humiliated; a man and his father go in to the same maiden, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar upon garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink the wine of those who have been fined’ (Amos 2.6-8)

Amos’ concern is with the humble and the needy, who are being excluded from the community and exploited by the wealthy. As a consequence of this injustice Amos proclaims the imminent judgment of God:
‘Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are in the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the needy, who crush the poor, who say to their husbands ‘bring that we may drink!’ The Lord God has sworn by his Holiness that, behold, the days are coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks. And you shall go out through the breaches, every one straight before her; and you shall be cast forth into Harmon, says the Lord.’ (Amos 4.1-3)

A key aspect of Amos’ criticism relates to the sanctuary of Bethel, which under Jeroboam II was being built up as a rival to the temple in Jerusalem. The priests there were being employed in the service of the king and at one point they drive Amos away from the sanctuary (Amos 7.13). As such this place was the centre of the ‘cultic’ aspects of worship, which Amos denounces: ‘Come to Bethel and transgress’. It is this criticism of the cult in all its aspects which is so unprecedented:
‘I hate, I despise your pilgrimages, and I cannot feel your solemn assemblies. When you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, nothing pleases me, from the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I turn away my eyes. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I cannot listen.’ (Amos 5.21-23)

This message is echoed in many parts of the New Testament, and is at the heart of the criticism of the Pharisees and Sadducees offered there. For example:
‘And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men”.’

‘When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’

And most clearly of all:
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?” And then the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sickand in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they too will answer, “Lord, when did we see the hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.” And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

As Jesus puts it on another occasion, ‘Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my father who is in heaven.’

The point of these references is to indicate that Christianity is not a matter of believing certain propositions to be true, still less is it a matter of being a member of a particular institution. All the language used is there to explain a picture, a way of understanding life and the world. To claim that Jesus Christ is the Son of God is to say something about the way life should be lived. That claim, as a form of words, is irrelevant. If ‘Jesus Christ is a neo-maxi-zoom-dweebie’ had the same result in terms of the way life was lived then it would have equal doctrinal merit.

Christianity is about a way of living life, so that the life is lived in imitation of Christ, acting in accordance with his Spirit. In essence, it means that the faithful person lives their life in a way that has love at the centre, firstly a love for God, and secondly love for the neighbour. The first is crucial, for it is the relationship with God that constitutes the faith which Paul describes as necessary for salvation. To have that relationship with God is to perceive that the most fundamental feature of the universe is that it was created by a God of love, whose nature is revealed in the life of Jesus. ‘Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God and he who loves is born of God and knows God.’ Much of the early Christian writing was concerned with spelling out what this primacy of love meant in practice. For example, Paul writes in Galatians:
‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control’;
and in Colossians,
‘Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forebearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also forgive’;
and most famously of all, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:
‘If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love,I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all that I have, and if I deliver my body that I may be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, endures all things.’


These are all examples of Christian virtues, but of course, these words, these descriptions do not amount to much on their own – they require a life to be lived out in order to demonstrate their nature. Our culture suffers from the illusion, ultimately derived from Platonism, that the way to God is through the intellectual path. If we could only understand correctly, then we might be saved. Christianity is opposed to this, for ultimately that aspect of Platonism is idolatrous – it is the search for a truth which can be held with certainty in our own human sphere.

The Body of Christ is made up of all those who act in a way concordant with the Spirit of Christ, ie who exercise and demonstrate these virtues. It is by actions that faith is borne forth. As Paul writes,
‘For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury…It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law unto themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts…’


In this way, Christianity is very much a product of the Hebrew faith from which it sprang. In the opening chapter I argued for three elements in the Hebrew faith: anti-idolatry, relationship, and praxis. Those three elements are retained within Christianity, although the understanding of God is now lensed through the life of Jesus and not through the Law as delivered to Moses. As such, Christianity is a dynamic religion – it requires active moral judgement each day.

As Christianity developed this aspect was at the forefront. If you read the Church fathers their concerns are with this shaping of a life. The Church exists to serve the world by demonstrating this understanding of God – by acting in a righteous manner and showing the nature of love. Of course, if this is what the Church is about, how come we have ended up in such a mess?

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