The following is one of a multi-part response to an article by Jim Burklo entitled “How To Live As a Christian Without Having to Believe the Unbelievable.” For an introduction to these thoughts, see Burklo’s Bible.
In reading Burklo’s article, one of the first things that became immediately apparent, is that Burklo sees believing creeds, dogmas, and fantastic stories as somehow and to some degree opposed to living like Christ.
Christianity asks you to do very hard things that are supremely worth the effort. Loving your enemies – that often seems impossible. Willingly giving up your power and money and time and influence in order to serve the poor and the sick and the oppressed – that can be downright scary. Having a heart full of pure love in all circumstances – how can we do it? But if we do it, we build heaven on earth. These are things that matter, things Jesus asks us to do. It takes a lifetime of serious spiritual and physical and emotional work to come even close to rising to these challenges.
Compared to them, believing in the factuality of the fantastic stories in the Bible is trivial. And that is exactly why it makes no sense to let such questions matter very much in living a faithful Christian life…Don’t let dogma and doctrine get in the way of practicing Love, who is God. Doctrines can be interesting. They help us understand the origins and background of our religion. But repeating creeds is not the price of admission into Christianity.
Burklo is right to say that repeating creeds isn’t the price of admission into Christianity, but there are at least two reasons why, pragmatically, that assertion is meaningless. First, the majority of churches do not use creeds as the terms of admission. The majority of Christians still belong to churches where admission to the faith is managed through baptism, at various ages. A creed may be read during the process, but it is not the central feature of admission into the faith. What’s more, they aren’t even necessary for continuance in the faith in most denominations. Anyone can walk into the high holy service at an Episcopal church and refuse to say all or part of the creed during the service (and I always refuse to say at least part during my frequent visits) without being asked to leave or denied the Eucharist. In fact, barely over a week ago I was at an Episcopal wedding and the priest made a point of reading what has been in every bulletin at every Episcopal service I’ve attended: anyone who is baptized is welcome to partake of the Lord’s Supper. That has been my experience at a variety of denominations. Some require baptism in their particular sect, but I have never once been asked to recite a creed to determine my status as a Christian. If you walked into a Methodist Church today and they happened to be reciting a creed, you could repeat “watermelon” over and over like a kid who doesn’t know the words to a song and not receive so much as a sidelong glance from an usher.
Even if none of that were true, however, the greater pragmatic truth is that the overwhelming majority of Christians accept the overwhelming majority of the creeds, even churches that are non-creedal, even churches that are anti-creedal. The Apostle’s Creed does little more than copy and paste statements from the Gospels and Paul. If you can’t affirm those truths, with whatever interpretation you want to wash them over with, then you find yourselves on the most extreme margins of what might be considered Christianity.
And having wasted too much time on those considerations, the true flaw in the argument is to suggest that believing a central Christian doctrine or a biblical story might ever impede “practicing Love.” Just the opposite, every word of Scripture was canonized precisely because the teachings and stories therein were shown to be conducive to living the Christian life. The church historical has always understood there to be a harmonious relationship between faith and practice, between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. It is a fallacy of modernity, and particularly in our day of emerging Christians, that believing in the Trinity might somehow be contrary to turning the other cheek. The Trinity was not a doctrine arrived at in a void of philosophical speculation. If Burklo would turn to the history he encourages others to study, he would find Trinitarian dogma the result of centuries of struggle against beliefs that were set to gut Christianity, soteriologically, theologically, and, yes, even ethically. Fashionable as Arianism has become once again, the ancients saw in it the potential to utterly distort everything that Jesus had come to offer the world (a trap which I intend to demonstrate later this week Burklo has fallen into). The same, of course, is true of the other dogma which have formed the core of Christianity for lo these many centuries since Chalcedon.
Dogma, particularly those enshrined in the central creeds, was not established to force conformity of belief on “trivial” matters. They were established precisely because the early church realized how far-reaching the effects of wrong belief can be. That is not to say there isn’t some validity in moving toward a greater balance. Certainly the doctrines and stories of Scripture exist almost exclusively to shape behavior, but that they exist should be a reminder to us of just how much our behavior needs shaping. Ideological purity, as Orwellian as that term sounds, serves a legitimate ethical and existential function. Who God is, who Christ is, should have a profound effect on what it means to seek God and to be Christlike. If it doesn’t, then our faith has become unthinking, non-specific, and worthless. Burklo encourages spiritual disciplines like prayer, but in a doctrinal void, does he know who he is praying to?
Jesus did not come to reveal to us and reconcile us to the idea of a deity but to a particular, engaged, personal God with particular attributes and about whom particular statements are either relatively true or relatively false. Who that God is and how He has chosen to reveal Himself is the content of doctrine. How He has intervened in human history and the human condition is the fantastic biblical narrative. When who God is and what God has done are set in opposition to how God wants us to live, Christianity implodes.