The Problem of Orthodoxy, Part 1--Identifying the Problem

There are many different ways to know whether you have stumbled upon an idea or insight of significance.  Sometimes, the idea itself is so compelling that it just stands out, such that you can't avoid it.  Other times it is precisely the right idea in the right circumstances--it fits like a key in a lock.  But other times, you come across an idea being presented by two or more entirely different people in two or more entirely different circumstances.  These people have little in common, and yet they find their way to the same basic conclusion about something, such that it makes you go "a ha, well, there is something that is really there and these folks have found it on their own."

About a week ago, I realized that two people that have almost nothing in common--James Alison and Rob Bell--have the same basic diagnosis of a problem in the way Christianity is thought about and expressed.  They use their own sets of terminology, and talk about their own specific contexts (Catholicism for Alison, American evangelical Protestantism for Bell), but it dawned on me that they are talking about the same thing.  I doubt they are familiar with each other's work--Alison is a British Catholic former Dominican theologian working in the narrow specialty of Girardian studies, while Bell is an American writer and speaker whose work began with an evangelical focus and has moved into a mainstream space, providing little overlap.

But they both share a basic idea in common, one that I am calling the "Problem of Orthodoxy."  Both Bell and Alison argue, separate and apart from difficulties causes by some specific formulation of what is or is not orthodox, that the idea of orthodoxy as the organizing and unifying principle of Christian life is itself problematic and likely (or perhaps assuredly) to lead to serious dysfunction.   In other words, the problem is not primarily that people subscribe to doctrine X when they should subscribe to doctrine Y; the problem is that using whether people subscribe to doctrine X or doctrine Y as the core standard for determining membership in the Christian Church is fundamentally a broken idea.

To unpack that a bit, we need to first understand what we mean by "orthodoxy."  Here is Bell's formulation of the idea, which I have transcribed from an interview/discussion he had on Luke Norsworthy's "Newsworthy with Norsworthy" podcast (dated May 12, 2015--begins at 8:40).

It came from me realizing that I was preaching year after year, sermon after sermon, and people kept saying "well, what do we really believe?  What do you believe?"  And then I would do another series of sermons..and over the years I was like "oh, this Protestant tradition--still protesting after 500 years!"  It locates. . . its nexus, its focal point is ultimately in the mind and how your mental furniture are arranged.  

So everything that I say..."I believe Jesus saves."  "Do you mean at death or do you mean this life?"  "Well, I believe Jesus saves us now and then."  "Well do you mean salvation..."  Every single thing you say, it splits it.  And then you can find, and the tradition's roots are, "you have your ten things, they have their thirteen statements"  And then there is always someone who comes along and says "there's only four things."  And they do the simplistic, the simple card "we are just about four things, we love God and we love others."  Oh, it's so simple, but then they have to split because someone says "well, what do you mean by love God?"  So they go down the street and start the Second Church of ..whatever...Simplicity Way.  

It never stops splitting because when you stay in the mind and the center is the statement and the way your mental furniture is arranged, you can never stop splitting it and find ways in which you disagree. And what I discovered is, no matter how much I talked, "here's what I mean," you had people going "yeah, but do you mean this or that?"  It never, ever, ever ended.  I would do ten weeks on a topic, and people would be like "so, where do we stand on that?  What do we believe about that?Theologically what are you saying?"

Here's Alison, from Jesus the Forgiving Victim:

Well, how this works out for us in the religious sphere is that we typically make assumptions about the forms of life and practice which would be perfectly appropriate to make if dealing with astronomy, but which are not at all appropriate for dealing with God and our neighbor.  For instance: according to this way of thinking, when it comes to theology, what we need to do is grasp a theory, get it right.  Once we work out the theory. then we can hold onto it, come hell or high water.  And once we've got it right, we should go and put it into practice.  So, first step: get your theory clear; once it's all tied up, and you know that your bridge will stand, now go off and put it into practice: build the damn thing. . . .

When it comes to understanding Christianity, this is absolutely fundamental.  If we are under the spell of "physics envy," then Christianity becomes a matter of grasping with our minds a particular soundness of theory, and then putting it into practice.  What happens is that very quickly indeed, Christianity becomes very boring.  And why wouldn't it?  For you can only get the theory right once, and then hold on to it.  Thereafter, everything is reduced to how you should behave, morals.  Christianity gets reduced to morals.  And this, in my humble opinion, is part of the great collapse of Christianity over the last two hundred years in the West:  it has become so exclusively linked to morals, and morals tied to a pre-existing theory, that it has been rendered boring. 

Both of these presentations express the same basic notion--that Christianity that is located exclusively in the mind, defined in terms of "arranging the mental furniture" or "getting the theory right," creates a series of problems.  Bell identifies the problem as an endless downward spiral of policing orthodoxy--for every proposition, there is a set of sub-propositions, and sub-sub-propositions, to be identified and fought over.  Alison argues that the problem can be found in how orthodoxy becomes reduced in practice to policing a set or moral principles.  I think both of the problems identified by Bell and Alison are real problems, but more importantly I think both of them are the products of the same core issue--locating the faith in the mind.  The problems Bell and Alison point to are inherent problems with defining faith in terms of assent to propositional statements.

To be clear, I am not saying that propositional statements and moral norms have no place in Christianity.  The problem is not that they are present; the problem is that they are presented as being the primary, or in some cases the exclusive, reason for the existence of the Christian faith.  For so many folks, and even many of the formal statements of Christian denominations and groups, Christianity is about believing a set of propositions and/or following a set of moral rules, period.  And, maybe more importantly, the foundation of identity and unity in the Christian world is to be found in one or both of those things--it is necessary for everyone to believe in the same way and follow the same rules in order to be part of the same "team."  Bell and Alison are suggesting that this sort of grounding doesn't work--as Bell says later in that discussion "it makes everyone crazy."

What I would like to do over the next couple of posts is spin out this Problem of Orthodoxy.  The first thing to tackle is Bell's notion of how orthodoxy tends to spiral down into increasingly small, narrow distinctions and divisions.  Bell notes one way this can play out in churches--what you might call the "Protestant" way, which is to split over divisions.  But there is another way, what you might call the "catholic" way (though to be clear, Roman Catholics are not the only ones to engage in this move), which is to overcome the splitting by chasing the dragon of authority.  Neither the Protestant nor catholic solutions fix the basic problem with a faith that is grounded entirely in the mind.

The second thing to look at is Alison's observation that a faith based in the mind ends up becoming focused on policing morality.  This is because, I believe, of an inherent problem with the idea of "believing"--what exactly does it mean to "believe" in a propositional statement?  And, more importantly, how can you know if someone "really" believes in a particular proposition?  Because "believing" is so inchoate, a supposedly objective, acts-based morality becomes a visible marker for the state of mind of a believer.  If we can't know what people are really thinking, then we can judge them on what they do.

Finally, I'd like to take a look at alternatives.  How do we build a church that avoids or minimizes the problems that Bell and Alison identify?  Helpfully, both Bell and Alison have useful suggestions, and we can draw on some strands of the tradition, especially the Anglican tradition, to point to a place beyond these problems.

Post Script:  Here's a video of James Alison reiterating the same passage quoted above in Jesus the Forgiving Victim.


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