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Columns

November 26, 2011

Dogma, theology can detract from Christ's true message

Here's a stat to make you gasp: By conservative count, the number of separate Christian denominations now exceeds 34,000.

How can that be? How can Jesus' blessedly simple command _ Love one another as I have loved you; treat others as you would be treated _ have produced all these scattered fragments, most claiming to hold solely his message to humankind?

The answer is theology, which literally means "talk about God." In every religion, devout theologians take hold of a simple belief, dissect and analyze it, and then recast it in language. They work to translate beliefs rooted in the heart into mental concepts and human words.

Theologians take faith, "the witness to things unseen," and try to make it understood. That's the flat opposite of what St. Augustine said in the fifth century: the infinite nature of God surpasses any idea that a finite mind can shape.

But humans grope to understand, and a medieval definition of theology affirms just this: Theology is "fidens quaerens intellectum" _ faith seeking understanding. We have to know, or to tell ourselves we do.

Hence it's never been enough for Christians to read Christ's magnificent, moving Gospel words and then seek him in their own hearts. They want, for instance, to comprehend their belief in a God somehow triune in form, to grasp how these three people are and are not separate. And Christ? Not at ease with simply accepting Jesus as Emmanuel, "God with us," they want to know how he ticks.

Tell me, they say, how Jesus is at once God and human; tell me if one part predominates. Is he a human chosen by God but so totally filled with the divine presence that he can cry out, "The Father and I are one"? Or is he infinite reality just costumed as a human, "God-in a-man-suit," moving among us for our sake?

A thousand such questions are grist for theologians' mills, grinding now for 21 centuries. And in stating unquestionable answers to unanswerable questions, the theologians have woven a dense, almost opaque cocoon around Jesus' teachings.

A million spidery filaments have enwrapped his teachings, almost obscuring them. And Christianity has become, for so many, not about how Christ wants us to live, but what we must believe to be saved. It's about fire insurance.

Forgive me, but Christian denominations have often so focused on teaching their own dogma, their own clinging strands, that they obscure Jesus' basic message. And then, when one faction of us disagrees about which strands are true and which are false, we break off and form a new fragment.

That's where the 34,000 separate denominations came from. Father, forgive us.

The church's early creeds, written in its first five centuries, show that cocooning of Jesus' teachings. He was hardly gone from us when brilliant, devout men started expanding and explaining. They took what "Jesus did and said" and wove around it a web of dogma, of doctrine.

Paul of Tarsus got dogma started. Drawing on the richness of his Hebraic and Greco-Roman philosophical education, Paul morphed the religion of Jesus into a religion about Jesus. And while certainly stressing the primacy of love in Jesus' message, he also insisted that, if people were to be called Christ's followers, they must buy the developing dogma, too.

We're told that contemporaries of the very first Christians wondered at the way they lived. ("See how they love one another!") But within two centuries, official Christianity was defining itself by theology. Buck the company line, and you were out. Doomed. Damned.

Beyond the work of Paul and the other epistle writers, dogmatists continued explaining through meetings of the church's first leadership. Since these councils often contradicted one another, they multiplied, affirming this point, condemning that. Church leaders rushed from one to another to make sure their version of the truth triumphed. One bemused pagan scholar said, "The roads were crowded with galloping bishops!"

In many Christian churches today, a telling relic of this period is recited each Sunday: the Apostle's Creed. It dates from about the third century A.D., and its very content demonstrates how opaque the cocoon had become. For there's a hole in that creed, right in the middle of it:

"I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and Earth. And in Jesus Christ, his only son, our lord, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate…"

Wait. WAIT! That creed just jumped from Christ's birth to his Passion! Not a WORD about his ministry, healings or his sublime basic commandment to love as he loved us.

That's not just a hole; it's a chasm, one showing the early church leadership's close focus on dogma. But far worse, it may show how a tight theology aimed the church toward being, for so many of us, a faith centered on ourselves.

Fire insurance. Just show me where to sign.

Brothers and sisters, we've got some rethinking to do before the master comes back for a reckoning.

Jim Atwell is an area recorded minister of The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

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