“Belief Systems”

Yesterday, in my first week “on the ground” here in Tyler (see here), I went on an 8-mile run with some amazing members of the community here, ranging from age 55 to 28.

At one point during the run, the 28 year old man mentioned that he has been impressed by the teaching ministry of Ravi Zacharias (who also greatly influenced Bouquet and me in our college years at UT).

Of course, I said nothing disparaging about Ravi on that run, and I do have tremendous respect for him.

And yet, one of the interesting things about being here in Tyler is that I find myself in a new community, who have no idea what motivates me in ministry, or, for example, why I chose to become an Episcopal priest, thus having to leave the more “conservative” Presbyterian Church, the PCA.

So this afternoon I was re-reading Peter Leithart’s Against Christianity, and it hit me in fresh way: this is the real difficuIty I have with folks like Ravi: the church plays a very little role in their teaching, certainly not a central role, as it did for the Apostle Paul. Here’s the quotation:

“The Bible gives no hint that a Christian “belief system” might be isolated from the life of the Church, subjected to scientific analysis, and have its truth compared with competing “belief systems.”- Peter Leithart, Against Christianity, page 14.

The point is not at all that what we believe does not matter (2 Pet 3:15). Rather the point is that the enemies of the faith (colluding with gnosticism) have succeeded in disembodying what the book of Acts describes as “the Way.” Being a Christian is not simply about believing the right set of propositions, but rather about living a life in solidarity with the community of faith: confessing the faith with them, serving and being served by them, sharpening them, etc.

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Beck said, “Matthew – I’m gonna just say it. Half the time I don’t get what you’re saying. Could you explain this post to me? My brain’s often stalled out, and maybe if I started asking instead of just going along…I could get in sync.”

My response:

Thanks, Beck! OK, I am sure that you are familiar with the danger of liberalism (that is, the idea that real divine action in the world should be explained away according to modern sensibilities, thereby making the Christian faith more palatable to modern people). Indeed, that is a true danger that we ought to be vigilant against.

However, there is another danger (you might say, an equal and opposite danger). In some ways it is MORE DANGEROUS because it slips under the radar screen of almost all evangelical Christians in the West. This is the danger of turning (or “reducing”) the Christian life into to a set of beliefs. As if being a Christian consisted solely of avoiding false beliefs and affirming beliefs which are prepositionally true.

Now, there are two problems with this:

1. It is a half-truth at best. (CS Lewis discussed half-truths in Mere Christianity.) The New Testament, as well as Christian tradition, DOES INDEED discuss doctrine, and the importance of truth. However, this truth is NEVER the kind of thing we can rightly have in isolation from the worshiping community. There is no such thing as “armchair truth.” For the NT, there is only truth that is connected to other things: truth connected to our bodies; truth connected to obedience; truth connected to worship (including breaking bread together in the Eucharist); truth connected to serving the poor.

2. It is self-deceived. It pretends that “conservative” positions (like “absolute truth”) are from God, whereas “liberal positions” (like relativism) are anti-God. However, even absolute truth is a human construct, and therefore fallen and broken. The Creed and Scripture far transcend absolute truth. That is, they are bigger than that.

I really think that the greatest error in the church today is a under-appreciation for the life of Christians in community. On the right, this looks like “as long as you believe the right things and in absolute truth, you are OK,” and on the left (ie, liberal Christianity), this looks like, “We can confess the Creed on Sunday, but we can still go ahead and abuse the poor or be sexually unchaste in our day-to-day lives.”

Do you want to be a disciple? Then drag your self to Church on Sunday and participate fully in the life of the community. This is where God visits us. Pray to God with others. Serve God by serving others. Be nourished by God by feasting on Christ with others.

Hear the Word of God proclaimed, then go back during the week and go deeper with those passages.

Then, try to let this divine life flow out from Sunday into Monday through Saturday, as the waters flowed out from the Temple (see Joel 3:18; Ps 46:4-5; Ezek 47:1-12).

Nice, Matt. But I think “liberal Christianity” as you described it is a little worse than just “confess[ing] the Creed on Sunday…[and] still go[ing]ahead [to] abuse the poor or be sexually unchaste in our day-to-day lives”. I don’t think that that is specific of “liberal Christianity” (or Christians on ‘the left’). That’s basically any so-called Christian who is in hypocritical error (I think the “Right” maybe more guilty of those examples that you listed than the “Left”–i’m just sayin’).

I think it is (the danger of liberal Christianity) what you described it as earlier, the danger in describing “real divine action in the world [to fit] modern sensibilities”. And this is coming from a sociology student. The left de-mystifies, while the right fundamentalizes (just made that word up). They both are insufficient.

Anyway, I actually (for once) agree with Leithart (although carefully). Living it, is the most important thing.

Collins, I agree, 100%

“The New Testament, as well as Christian tradition, DOES INDEED discuss doctrine, and the importance of truth. However, this truth is NEVER the kind of thing we can rightly have in isolation from the worshiping community. There is no such thing as “armchair truth.” For the NT, there is only truth that is connected to other things: truth connected to our bodies; truth connected to obedience; truth connected to worship (including breaking bread together in the Eucharist); truth connected to serving the poor.”

What do you mean when you say that truth is connected to particular objects or acts?
What do you mean when you use the word “truth”?

“It pretends that “conservative” positions (like “absolute truth”) are from God, whereas “liberal positions” (like relativism) are anti-God. However, even absolute truth is a human construct, and therefore fallen and broken.

Is relativism preferable to believing that there are absolute truths?

“The Creed and Scripture far transcend absolute truth. That is, they are bigger than that.”

So is it correct to say that the Creeds and Scripture aren’t absolutely true?

What does it mean to be “bigger” than absolutely true?

Jason,

Watch the video, linked below, and read the articles, linked below, and we will talk more about language, truth, & God. Cool?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M65JTRhObV4

http://www.religiocity.org/2010/06/05/two-views-of-language/

http://www.religiocity.org/2009/11/06/the-names-of-god-st-thomas-on-how-language-works/

The bottom line is that, when it comes to talking about God, our language fails in a sense. All our language, even about “things” other than God, is analogical, or to use your word, “anthropomorphic.”

When secular thought tries to speak in terms of truth as “absolute,” it misses this fundamental Christian insight.

Just as God is “beyond being,” so also God is “beyond language.”

This does not mean that we cannot speak of God, or that the Scriptures (and Creeds) are not true, it just means that when we speak of God we should not take ourselves too seriously!

However, no, I don’t think that relativism is better than absolutism.

[…] is ironic is that O’Reilly is spot on, at least according to Peter Leithart’s book _Against Christianity_, in which Leithart argues that what the apostles, whose words are recorded in the New Testament, […]

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