Friday, July 8, 2011
Trusting in Ourselves: The Religion of the World
One pastor commented that he does theology with the New York Times in one hand and the Bible in the other. He was merely commenting on the need to be relevant. Since I don’t get the Times, I sometimes listen to liberal, postmodern preachers. One was expounding on the essence of faith:
• “Faith is usually used to exclude others. We don’t need more exclusion. Faith is not best served by a narrow definition of who’s in and who’s out! It’s not about a rigid, mind-numbing set of doctrines.”
I knew he was talking about me and my type – Bible-believing Christians – and so I braced myself. Not that we want to exclude anybody – we want to include all in our faith – but we serve a God whose way is narrow. Nevertheless, it was hard not to feel a twinge of shame, whether it was deserved or not. I assured myself that it wasn’t. I wondered whether the preacher realized that he was excluding me with his sermon? That thought restored my courage enough to examine myself. Was I being unnecessarily exclusionary? Was I turning spiritual seekers into outcasts?
I found it strange that he was preaching against doctrine. Wasn’t that what preachers do – preach about truth? And wasn’t his sermon doctrinal, even if it’s not the kind you found in Sunday School class? Is it even possible to open my mouth without something that resembles doctrine coming out? I tried it to myself and found that I couldn’t.
His pounding became more insistent, and he waxed eloquent against a pastor who threatened one doubter in this manner: “Who are you to doubt the sacred Scriptures.” The post-modern preacher then contrasted this condemnable behavior with his ideal – giving others the freedom and encouragement to cobble together their own faith. However, he didn’t seem very encouraging about the pastor he had just condemned.
Are there pastors who react antagonistically when confronted with difficult questions? Most pastors I know welcome questions as opportunities to minister more intimately to those struggling for answers. However, this preacher didn’t talk as if he knew any of them. Perhaps he didn’t want to know them? Demonizing pastors on the other side of the tracks makes for spicier sermons.
Well, if faith doesn’t involve a divine revelation, what does it involve? What is the ideal? Fortunately, the preacher didn’t keep me in suspense for long:
• “Living at ease in mystery of the vast universe…Living comfortably and confidently in the cloud of the unknown without the need to set everything down in the form of a doctrine.”
I had little problem with this. After all, it’s certainly better to feel comfortable with the mysteries than uncomfortable. Besides, there are many things that we can’t even begin to understand. But isn’t faith something we believe in, something that’s supposed to guide our thinking and decision-making? We may be awed by what we don’t understand, but it hardly seems like an adequate basis for life. He cleared up my confusion a minute later:
• “Faith is trusting in ourselves to find the answers. Life unfolds as we learn to trust our deepest experiences and to count our lives as something to be appreciated.”
At least he acknowledged that there are answers. I was beginning to think that it was just about searching without any possibility of finding. But what if we can’t trust in ourselves? And what if we’ve tried to trust in ourselves but found that this placed an additional and impossible burden on our already hobbled shoulders? Or even worse, perhaps we’ve learned that our experiences haven’t been trustworthy?
Rather, shouldn’t we place our faith in the person who has more experience, wisdom and intelligence – in someone who has been leading a successful life? Also, isn’t it foolish to tell an impulsive teenager or a sex-crazed maniac to trust in his experiences? It seems that we would need a standard to measure whether our experiences are really trustworthy. When I studied math, I would look in the back of the book for the right answers. Was there any way of measuring whether my self-trust was leading me in the right direction? The preacher ignored this concern.
However, I noticed that everyone in the church was affirmatively nodding their heads. But I was having difficulty in understanding why this wasn’t a divisive doctrine, while believing in God was. If I found that I could live a fruitful life by trusting in myself, wouldn’t I be justified in looking down on those who weren’t living as well? It might become very tempting to exclude the “losers” from my company in favor of the “winners?”
I might not be able to answer all of these questions, but evidently the preacher could. He had several degrees, and everyone else seemed aware of this fact and sat riveted to his sermon. Oddly, even though he was preaching self-trust, it seemed that they were oddly “hearing” preacher-trust.