The Problem of Orthodoxy, Part 3--The Politics of Temple Policing

In the previous post, we looked at one part of what comes from having a focus on "believing the right stuff" as the foundation of Christianity.  But there is another dimension to this, one that is on some level on the opposite side of the coin from the Endless Spiral.  The Endless Spiral is, in many ways, the product of taking "believing the right stuff" hyper-seriously--it leads to a kind of neurosis that forces you to keep drilling further and further down to make sure that the "right stuff" that you are believing is indeed right.  But there is a dimension to this that transcends the specifics of any specific theological point, and it has to do with the image of God that lies behind that vision of "believing the right stuff."

I am coming around to a basic conviction with regard to any religious discussion or any analysis of a person's religious faith--the way you see God is the center of everything.  Now, that statement might seem trivial or vacuous, as of course the way you see God is going to have a large impact on how you look at religion.  But when I say "the way you see God," I'm not really talking about intellectual, structured vision of God that you find in theology textbooks; I'm talking about the deeply personal, perhaps even subconscious, picture that is generated in you mind's eye when the word "God" is said.  Everyone has a something of an instinctual reaction when the word "God" is uttered, even people who don't believe in God (or, perhaps, especially including people who don't believe in God).  It is the nature of that reaction, the content of that image, that colors everything that comes after it, including all of the intellectual stuff, in the world of religious faith.  Two people can subscribe to the same set of structured theological propositions (as embodied, let's say, in a particularly denomination or religious tradition) and express their faith in polar opposite ways if the image of God that they see when they close their eyes is polar opposite.

The reason for this, and the reason why the vision of God is so important, is three-fold.  First, each and every theological proposition that you might hold is going to be filtered through the lens of this underlying vision.  A person who closes his or her eyes and truly sees a God reaching out a set of loving arms to him or her is going to interpret each and every theological idea about God's action as an act of loving kindness--even if it is something as seemingly harsh as double-predestination Calvinism.  Likewise, a person who sees God has a harsh judge can take St. Francis's Canticle of the Sun and turn it into a set of inflexible rules (which is why you can find rigid, judgmental Franciscans, *cough* Charles Chaput *cough*).  But, second, the arrow also works the other way--the theological constructs that you have inform the vision of God that you see.  While it is true that a person who sees God as loving arms reaching out will put a loving "spin" on double-predestination Calvinism, double-predestination Calvinism tends to generate a vision of God that is not, in fact, loving arms reaching out to embrace everyone.

But the third element might have the most practical import--one's vision of God will inform the way they see themselves, and the way they see themselves in relation to other people.  If a person sees God as loving arms reaching out to them, then they will tend to see themselves as a person who is loving, and will tend to reach out those same loving arms to those around them.  The vision of God that you hold will form you in the image of that God.  My experience is that people tend to tack pretty closely to the faith that is implicit in the vision of God they hold; to the extent they are "hypocrites," it is more often that the faith in their mind's eye is incongruous with the structured, propositional statements of their official faith.

So, if you believe that what is important about faith is to believe the right stuff, two things tend to be true: (1) your vision of God either is, or has a tendency to become, one where God is basically giving humanity a constant series of pop quizzes to make sure that people are "doing it right," and (2) you are, or will tend to become, a person that cares very deeply about whether other people are "doing it right," consistent with the image of God that they hold.

But, you see, there is a problem.
What exactly does it mean to "believe" in something?  On some basic level, "believing" is generally defined as accepting something as true as an intellectual matter.  I can say, for example, that "I believe" that 2+2=4.  But that's not really the kind of belief we are talking about when we talk about faith questions.  After all, "2+2=4" is really just a way of expressing in mathematical terms an indisputable concrete reality--if I pick up two things, and then I pick up two more things, I know have four things.  It's not particularly meaningful, really, to say that you "don't believe" that 2+2=4, because if you add two things to another two things, you will always have four things.  There is nothing to disbelieve.

No, faith statements are much more like a statement such as "I believe my mother loves me."  Personally, I do accept that statement as true on an intellectual level as regards to my own mother, so I can say I "believe" in that statement.  Now, I can offer all sorts of evidence for why that statement is true, based on the entire course of our 39 year relationship together.  But all of those pieces of evidence are, on a certain level, ambiguous.  For example, my mother tells me she loves me, but I cannot logically exclude the possibility that she is, and has been for my whole life, lying to me for some unfathomable purpose.  So, "belief" in this context, unlike in the "2+2=4" context, requires me to discount a scenario that I cannot logically completely disprove.  Faith, on this reading, is about discounting a set of things that you cannot logically eliminate.  It is logically possible that there is no God, but I choose to discount that possibility.  Belief, defined this way, is this weird sort of negative process, where you identify an intellectual construct (i.e. "there is no God") and then you exclude the possibility of it being true through a kind of fiat.

Now, I would suggest (drawing on James Alison and others) that all of this is a bad definition of faith, and I will get to that in the next post, but for now let's stay on this process of excluding ideas.  How exactly does that work?  Does it mean that I never think of the idea that I have excluded?  Because, by that definition, it would be rare for anyone to believe in anything, as it is rare that someone will never consider the contrary idea, if only briefly.  I cannot swear that I have never doubted for a nano-second that my mother loves me, and yet I would protest quite forcefully that I don't actually believe my mother loves me.  But, if it is not the permanent banishing of an idea from your mind, what does it mean to exclude an idea?  That, more often than not, I reject the conclusion that my mother doesn't love me?  That, in all but the most profound levels of despair, I reject that conclusion?  How much exclusion is enough?

As a result, this process of "believing" is hopelessly internal.  If no one can give me a clear answer as to what it means to "really" believe in something, and I am constantly on shifting sands in my own mind to try to meet this unclear standard, it is truly impossible to figure out where anyone else is with all of this.  You might call this an "epistemological void."  We have this thing--belief--that is framed as the most important thing in the world, the thing that defines our entire relationship to the divine, the thing that determines our eternal destiny, and even the thing that forms of the heart of who God is.  And, yet, if "belief" is so amorphous that the person who is trying to believe can't even be sure that he or she is actually believing in the right way--let alone if anyone else is believing in the right way--we end up with a kind of paralysis.  This thing is super-important, and yet no one can be sure if anyone is doing it right.  It's like circling around a black hole.

Science teaches us that nature abhors a vacuum--when voids are formed, they tend to get filled.  People have an image of God that is all about constant pop quizzes, which tells them that they should be all about constant pop quizzes, and yet the thing that they are supposed to be testing is inchoate and impossible to test.  And here is where James Alison's insight comes into play--this epistemological void is filled with moral rules.  We cannot see whether another person is believing, or believing in the right way; we can't even know if we are believing in the right way.  But we can know (at least, in theory) if someone is stealing or not, committing adultery or not.  If your God requires tests, you need something to be testing, and moral rules are an easy and convenient thing to test.

This is why, for many people, the experience of Christianity is not about beliefs so much as it is about a set of rules of behavior.  Christianity has a tendency to whipsaw between highly abstract and theoretical discussions of the nature of the universe and hyper-specific policing of personal behavior.  We may talk about all of these abstract ideas that we are supposed to believe, but went it comes down to brass tacks what really matters is that you don't have the wrong kind of sex or you don't steal or whatever.  As Alison points out, the relationship between the intellectual propositions you are supposed to accept and the rules you are supposed to follow is often pretty ambiguous--to go from "Jesus is the Messiah" to "don't have pre-marital sex" requires a rather extensive set of intermediate arguments to bridge that gap.

That's because, for the people who are super concerned about "getting it right," the moral rules are often not an extension of the theoretical principles; they are a proxy for those principles.  Since we can't really know if people are "getting it right" with regard to the theoretical principles, moral rules become a convenient substitute benchmark for what is seen as the essential work of making sure people are "getting it right."  What is important, ultimately, is making sure that people get it right, because that's what God cares about.

To say this another way, for many people God is the ultimate divine police officer, who is primarily concerned with rules to be followed.  If you believe that God is the ultimate divine police officer, it is logical and natural for you to take on the role of deputy temple policeman, formed in the image of God as you understand it.  This God-as-ultimate-divine-police officer tells you that you need to be hyper-concerned with a set of theoretical concepts, which creates a big problem for you as a temple police deputy, since it is almost impossible to really know if people are believing in those theoretical concepts in the right way.  So, you engage in your own version of "broken windows" policing, and get super concerned about moral rules in the hope that you will end up sweeping in the really important theoretical stuff in the process.  As a result, Christianity becomes all about moral rules, without folks becoming particular aware of how it all happened.

So, the Problem of Orthodoxy has two basic components--the quest for "getting it right" leads to the Endless Spiral, and the quest for "getting it right" leads to people becoming the Temple Police.  I would argue that both of these experiences are endemic in modern Christianity.  So, what can we do?  I have some thoughts in the last post.  


Popular posts from this blog

A Post-Script to Yesterday's Post

How Did This Happen? Part 1

Jesus Doesn't Care if You Masturbate, and Other Provocations