The Problem of Orthodoxy, Part 4--How About a Nice Game of Chess?

In the 80s movie War Games, a computer system (called, for reasons I don't remember, WOPR) is installed to take command of the nuclear arsenal of the United States.  A hacker played by a young Matthew Broderick accidentally triggers the "Global Thermonuclear War" scenario, and so WOPR attempts to run the scenario using real nuclear weapons.  In the climatic scene, Broderick "teaches" WOPR that nuclear war is an unwinnable game by causing the computer to replay itself Tic-Tac-Toe on a continuous loop.  Since Tic-Tac-Toe always ends up in a tie if the players understand the game, WOPR "learns" that all nuclear war scenarios, like Tic-Tac-Toe, always end in "ties," in that everyone is destroyed.  Having learned this lesson, WOPR provides the pithy lesson shown above: "A strange game.  The only winning move is not to play."

I am becoming increasingly convinced that this sentiment describes the focus on orthodoxy--the idea that the Christian faith is defined in terms of a set of propositional ideas held in the mind, and relies on that as a basis of unity and identity.  As laid out in the previous posts, this focus creates a set of problems.  It's a game in which the only winning move is not to play.

If that's true, then instead of endlessly following this spiral further and further down, we need to find a way to play a nice game of chess instead--some different way of being church that doesn't start from this problematic orthodoxy.  Here are some thoughts on how we might do that.

First, more than anything else, we have to find a way to back away from this constant and crippling obsession as a church with being right, and we can only do that if we are willing to look seriously at how we understand the great endgame that is salvation and eternal life.  The engine that powers the endless spiral of orthodoxy is the notion that the Christian life is like a law school class--a fast-paced treadmill designed to arm us with the information we need to pass the all-or-nothing final exam.  In such an environment, being right about stuff is actually more important than life-or-death--eternal life with God if we pass the test or eternal conscious torment if we fail it.  In a way, all of the anxiety and neurosis generated by the Problem of Orthodoxy is completely justified if you start from the premise that believing the right things might save you from burning in Hell.  You will never be able to get people to unclench their death-grip on being right unless and until you put forward some alternate vision of what it means to be saved by Jesus Christ beyond the evacuation theology that prevails in both Catholic and Protestant discourse.

Once we are able to disengage from this need to be right about everything, we can take a more humble posture toward our own knowledge and certainty.  I mentioned this recently, but we must always be aware that we see in a mirror, dimly, and one of the consequences of this principle is that we simply cannot be absolutely certain about any sort of doctrinal formulation.  This cuts to the heart of the entire project of orthodoxy--to posit that faith is about being absolutely sure about your doctrinal premises, you have to believe that such certainty is possible.  If it is not possible, really, then you have no choice but to back away and rethink your entire approach.

That's not to say that doctrinal formulations are not useful or appropriate.  The problem is not the doctrinal formulations themselves, but our relationship to those formulations.  There is a universe of difference between looking at doctrinal formulations as "this is our best understanding of what is true" and looking at them as "this is the one and only correct and true understanding."  That germ of uncertainty, even if small, in every formulation can act as a kind of vaccine against constantly doubling down on seeking greater and greater doctrinal surety.  If we all are a little unsure, and might even be a little bit wrong, then we don't have to split off over disputes or seek some exercise of authority to achieve unanimity.  We can live with an expansive understanding of what the faith is, and tolerate "play around the edges," without that fear that we will lose our grip on it.

If certainty about doctrinal principles is not the goal, and is not even possible, then we need a new understanding of faith.  James Alison's model of faith, which is "relaxing into a learned practice of trusting God," provides a way forward here.  It's no longer about any specific set of intellectual ideas so much as it is a disposition toward God and God's action in the world.  It's no longer about what I know, or how hard can I white knuckle away doubts and fend off contrary concepts.  It's about how much do I trust that God is present and is working in my life toward my ultimate good.  Theology gets reoriented from a life-or-death test back to Augustine's understanding of "faith seeking understanding"--our basic posture of trust exploring the nature of the reality in which we trust.  It can become, at the risk of sounding corny, an adventure, as opposed to something that must be pitched at this high level of anxiety.  We can all relax a bit.

Then, and Bell makes this point in the discussion I quote in the first post, we have to be very intentional and insistent that our unity and identity is to be found in gathering together as God's people, and in particular gathering together at the Eucharistic table.  If we remove the formal doctrinal statements as the locus of unity, we do need to find something else in which to ground ourselves.  Bell's suggestion, and I agree with him that it also happens to be Jesus's suggestion, is that our unity can be a unity of presence in and through the Eucharist.  A unity of presence as opposed to a unity of belief is still a unity.  What is important is that we are all here together in one place around one table; what's going on in our heads is less important.

Here I think classical Anglican theology can act as a model.  The basic idea of the Elizabethan settlement is that we all don't have to believe the same stuff so long as we all worship together, in the same way.  The famous quote attributed to her, "I would not open windows into other men's souls," reflects that basic idea.  True, the settlement was no doubt motivated by political expediency in the first instance, but there is a legitimate theological point behind it.  Elizabeth saw first hand the results of the death grip on orthodoxy in her own country in her own time--she lived the Problem of Orthodoxy.  She had to find a way to play a nice game of chess out of survival, and the one she found has been enduring, as well as (I would argue) perfectly in line with the example of the life of Jesus.  It makes it all the more tragic that the Anglican Communion is threatening to split apart over LGBT issues--precisely the kind of doctrinal question that the Problem of Orthodoxy magnifies to exaggerated importance, and precisely the sort of thing that the Elizabethan settlement can allow us to live with together around the altar--if we just allow it.  

Finally, we need a moral vision that is tied to personal transformation in Christ.  A moral vision that is tied to "following rules" creates too many opportunities for Temple Policing.  There is ample fodder for this in the broader Christian tradition, especially in the scholastic tradition and the way it incorporates Aristotle's notion of the virtues.  But these tools are so often complete ignored or glossed over in favor of a fetishization of rules and the "moral clarity" they allegedly provide.  Rules, even otherwise "good" rules, carry with them a host of baggage and problems.  It is surely the case that authentic transformation in Christ will end up forming a life that abides with many if not all of the various rules that have been thrown around as part of Christian morality.  But, again, the place where you start makes a huge difference in how you relate to others, particularly how you relate to folks that may not be as far along on the journey as others.  If we can say, "hey, God is working on me and God is working on you, and that's what is fundamental," you are less like to pick up the sword of the Temple Police in defense of some discrete rule.

It's not about changing the substance of Christianity, but it is about reorienting our approach and changing our point of entry.  Right now, so much of what goes on in Christianity passes through the singular lens of having the correct ideas in our mind.  There is more to the faith than that.  Let's recognize that.

Previous three posts:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three


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