“Experience” vs. “Doctrine”

There has long been a debate within the church about the value of spiritual experience.  To be more specific, the value of spiritual experience when it comes to shaping what we believe.  Is it something that we should be suspicious of?

Unfortunately we in the traditions of the West have come down with a bad case of rationalism.  I’m not talking about throwing out intellectual pursuits (I’m spending way too much money on a Masters degree to think that).  In a rush to be just as “scientific” as the culture, we’ve been too quick to throw off emotional and spiritual intelligence in order to find neat and tidy categories and systems to govern everything.  However, our own Christian history seems to tell us that spiritual experience is crucial to an evolving and (to borrow from Brian McLaren) generous orthodoxy.

And here’s something that is a large part of the problem with this “either/or” approach.  The Bible gives us precedent for “experience” radically reshaping accepted “doctrine.”

I think the most interesting example of this would be Peter’s vision in Acts 10 and subsequent affirmation of the Holy Spirit among the Gentiles. He had a mystical experience (the vision of the sheet), saw the Holy Spirit poured out on the household of Cornelius, then returned to the other believers to explain it.  They heard about his experience, rejoiced and proceeded to change their doctrine regarding Gentile believers.

 

When we systematize everything, we anchor ourselves to a particular cultural moment.  Eventually, the evolving and ever-flowing Spirit of God will ask us to move beyond the boundaries we have set for ourselves.  Then we find ourselves unable to go where the Spirit leads because we are tied to a system that is reflective of a specific time and place.  We are transformed from lovers of God’s image bearers into ideological soldiers who go to war for our limited perspective of truth.  We sacrifice humility on the altar of certainty.  And in my experience, a lack of humility immediately precedes a lack of both grace and love.

I’m not saying that we throw out discernment.  But we need to be humble enough to realize that doctrine and experience need each other.  It’s symbiotic relationship.  Doctrine divorced from the challenge of spiritual experience becomes stale (at best) and a weapon (at worst).  Experience without doctrine turns into “anything goes” and can descend into a kind of individualized spiritual narcissism.

Here’s the thing: We just need to be humble enough to realize that we need to hold doctrine loosely.  It’s not like the church doctrine isn’t in a constant state of flux.  I, for one, think that’s a really good thing.  There was once a time when the church believed slavery was ok.  Thank God for the people who challenged that “doctrine.”  I’m thankful for the people who continue to challenge the church on sexism, racism, and militarism.  We need the life and spiritual experiences of diverse peoples to continue to push us all towards more diverse and inclusive doctrine.

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Charity in Disagreement

In class this week we began a discussion of the principle of “charity in disagreement” put forward by an early Pietist preacher.  Further reflection has left me with the following question though:

What are the limits of “charity in disagreement?”

It is certainly easy to point to the so-called “flame wars” on social media platforms and argue that this should be a universally applicable principle.  I completely agree that many “keyboard warriors” would benefit from applying this ethos to their internet activity.  And, in keeping with the historical context of the phrase (Protestants killing each other over doctrine post-Reformation), I think there is some merit to applying the principle to doctrinal discussion.  No one should be disowning their brother or sister of pre-millennialism or speaking in tongues.

That being said, I want to raise a couple of issues that can add some nuance to this discussion.  The first of these is what I see as something of a complementary and competing principle depending on your view of “charity.”  That principle is “do no harm.”  Admittedly, “harm” is a subjective term so one should bear that in mind.  Is it possible to be “charitable” towards those whose ideas do “harm”?  

If I recall correctly Jesus was rarely “charitable” towards the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law.  In Galatians 5, Paul invites the neo-Judaic circumcisers to “go the whole way and emasculate themselves.”  The prophets spoke in ways that were decidedly “uncharitable” to the ruling elites and the oppressive economic masters that perpetrated harm to the poor and the marginalized.

I would also add that there are class, gender, and racial analyses that come to bear on this as well.  Am I to tell women to be “charitable” towards doctrines that see them as second-class citizens in the kingdom of God?  Am I to ask women to be charitable to those like Paige Patterson who argue that women should return to their abusive husbands?  Am I to ask LGBTQ people to be charitable towards those expounding derogatory ideas that deny their humanity? Am I  to ask black folks to be charitably disposed towards pastors and preachers who deny the problems of white supremacy in the church?  Am I to ask the poor to be charitable towards those preachers that tell them that their poverty is the result of their own moral and spiritual failings?  

I think these are valid questions and, in all humility, I think I should be reticent to answer these as I do not inhabit any of the aforementioned identities.

In order to make the principles of “Charity in Disagreement” and “Do No Harm” coexist as complementary ideas, I think we need a less individualized and more nuanced view of “charity.”  Yes, it is possible to disagree with someone without dishonouring the image of God in them.  That is absolutely possible.  However, “charity” shouldn’t be mistaken as a synonym for “politeness.”  We certainly can’t point to Jesus as “polite.”  He was very loving/charitable but he wasn’t “nice.”  Therefore in our quest for a more complete definition of “charity” I think we need to consider the thing that is the most “charitable” is what is “charitable” to the proverbial “least of these.”  And it isn’t “charitable” in the larger sense to allow ideas that have actual, real, and tangible harmful outcomes to stand unchallenged.

Why I Write Music

I’ve long since abandoned the empty pursuit of “success.” It was harmful for me and came from a broken and wounded place. In rediscovering a healthier relationship with music, I’m able to find purpose in it again. And this encounter sums it all up for me:

For me, I write and release music to share deeper truths, call out injustice, and to be radically vulnerable in hopes that I can help make space for others to tell their story and find healing.

#IfMyWoundsWereVisible

This sums up a lot of my journey. It’s only now, having healed and worked through the damage that I feel okay to talk about growing up in the kind of environment described here.

And it’s tough to talk about it because it’s subtle, constant and has a cumulative effect. It’s hard to talk about psychological and emotional abuse because the abusers are careful to avoid “leaving a mark” so to speak.

The gaslighting is maybe the worst part. I still don’t always feel that I can trust my own feelings and emotions. And I’m still learning to manage the physiological stress reactions from years of never knowing when the “other shoe would drop.”

Eventually I had to choose between my own mental and emotional well-being and remaining in relationship w/ my toxic and abusive family. I went no contact 4yrs ago and have experienced so much healing and beauty.

The fog cleared enough that I could reevaluate my journey. I went back to school, finished my BA and now I’m in the first year of seminary, working on my Masters.

I’m grateful to the therapists, friends and loved ones who helped me to see the abuse for what it was. They helped me to name it, confront it and heal.

And it feels good to not be scared anymore. It feels good to be able to talk about this. I’m also grateful for the community of survivors that I’m beginning to connect w/ on social media.

“Welcoming but Not Affirming”

Yesterday in my seminary class, I had an exchange with an adjunct faculty member who is the pastor of a rather large Canadian church about the question of LGBTQ folks and church.  I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the exchange and why I feel that full, unreserved inclusivity is so important.

I challenged this fellow on a statement he made equating being gay with “being in the army” or “being in the police force.”  In order to flesh this out, I should mention that his church has strong teachings on nonviolence and thus would believe that it is wrong to participate in state-sponsored violence.  My challenge to him was that orientation is not a “choice” and therefore I took issue with the comparison.

Although he walked back this statement when challenged, he still took time out to talk about “how hard it is to leave the police force” thus invalidating his equivocating of the earlier sentiment.  I find this baffling given the mountain of scientific evidence that orientation is not a conscious choice.  And even if he is not saying that orientation is wrong, even the appearance of equating it with the choice to enter a profession is deeply irresponsible.

Also he used the phrase “orientation is temptation” which is also very problematic.  As much as he protests that his church has gay pastors (as long as they are celibate), the subtext/fine print matters.  The message being communicated to LGBTQ people by this posture is not “you are sinful,” it is “sin is your identity.”  And that is so destructive.  In the article, “How Denying My Sexuality Destroyed My Ability To Love Those Most Like Me,” Patrick Gothman shares poignantly how damaging these ideas are.  “I wasn’t gay – not really…being a good son of the church was my identity now.”  Although high-minded, asking people to deny their core identity is wrong.  The message “you are more than just your sexuality” is primarily aimed at LGBTQ people.  Any denial of that is a mark of disingenuous privilege.

Heterosexual people are not told that their attraction to people of the opposite sex is innately sinful. (I want to acknowledge that there is nuance to this as purity doctrine has been very harmful, especially to women. However, I’m still hesitant to equate this with the LGBTQ experience). In the theological paradigm of the adjunct,  those who do not “feel called to singleness” have the opportunity to find holistic fulfillment of their sexual identity in a marriage context.  (while I also have some doubts about that theological paradigm, this is not the blog for that.  I would highly recommend the work of Bromleigh McCleneghan on this topic.)

Denying this right to LGBTQ people doesn’t make you “righteous” nor does it line up with the inclusive love of Jesus.  To be completely honest, there is more biblical precedent for polygamy than our current concept of marriage.  And given that women were treated as property in the cultures that gave us both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, I would treat the topic of marriage with much more care and discernment.  (I also find it interesting that even though LGBTQ people existed in the time of Christ, he never addresses them, in fact one of the first converts to Christianity in the book of Acts is an Ethiopian eunuch i.e. a racialized sexual minority but I digress)  The thing is, often in the church, the cultural preferences of the dominant social groups get grafted into theology and eventually evolve into “biblical” teaching.  This excellent article from Icthus (a journal of Christian thought produced by Harvard) on the church and interracial marriage provides some intriguing examples of this: When Culture Becomes Theology

Ultimately, it comes down to the fruit of these ideas.  And the fruit is universally bad.  A recent study of U.S. college students had the following alarming results:

“Lesbians and gays who reported that religion was important to them were 38 percent more likely to have had recent suicidal thoughts.  For lesbians only, religion was associated with a 52 percent increased likelihood of suicidal thinking.  Questioning individuals were almost three times as likely to have attempted suicide recently if they reported that religion was very important to them.”

LGBTQ youth make up a disproportionate amount of the homeless population in both Canada and the United States.  The True Colors Fund notes that “half of all teens get a negative reaction from their parents when they come out to them, and more than one in four are forced to leave their homes.”  And unfortunately, Christianity plays a large role in this problem. (Christianity and the Parental Rejection of LGBT Youth)

Full disclosure, I work in an affirming church so this is very close to my heart.  I’ve met multiple LGBTQ people who attend our church because they need a safe place to love Jesus.  We’ve had parents share about the grief of finding out about the suicide attempts of their gay and trans kids and how glad they are that our church exists.  I have sat in my pew, broken by their experiences and humbled by the fact that they can still love Jesus even after what the Church has put them through.

So I’ll conclude with this:  if your church is non-affirming, please be up front about it so that LGBTQ people know not to waste their time in a community that won’t let them be fully human.  The vague message of “everyone is welcome” when the reality is that they’re not, is not helpful.  In an article about Pentecostal Christianity in Australia, “Welcoming, but not affirming,”  one pastor said: “It’s almost like with one hand you’re shaking them by the hand, and with the other hand you’re slapping them in the face.”

I’d also recommend this excellent George Mikhail article which articulates the reasons why “Welcoming but not affirming” is unhelpful: Time’s Up For Politely Anti-LGBTQ Christianity.

Lastly, for those who are struggling with the scriptural basis of an affirming perspective: Check out the excellent Bible For Normal People episodes on Intersex Christians, the episode with Jen Hatmaker, as well as the work of Matthew Vines.