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The Danger of Unchanging Truth

Recently, I’ve written a bit about the difference between science and theology. One of the key differences is that science expects to change, whereas if theology is not assuming it is founded on bedrock, it is usually looking for some bedrock. Religious people often criticize science on the basis that it changes too often. Its history is one of repeatedly overturned theories.

A scientific heretic has one simple thing to do: Amass the evidence to support his or her theory. The more deeply embedded the opposing view is in scientific thinking the more evidence and reasoning will be required to overturn it. My topic today is not intelligent design, but it is worthwhile noting that theories with much more foundation and data have had a more difficult time overcoming scientific orthodoxy. Intelligent design advocates may complain that they are not getting a hearing, but they are actually getting quite a substantial hearing when measured against the amount of substance they present.

This scientific resistance to heresies is often cited as a weakness of science, and indeed previous paradigms can be very dangerous to the process of discovery and growth of knowledge. But such scientific theories gain their place in thinking not merely because of age, but because they have proven useful repeatedly, and data from various areas fit with them.

In theology, on the other hand, we don’t have a working test. We cannot produce statistics, for example, on how many people have gone to heaven or hell, or even on the potentially easier subject of how many prayers are answered and in what way. (Note that I think that is the wrong way to discuss prayer, but a huge proportion of the literature on prayer suggests things that should be testable. See my Hand of God essays #1, #2, and #3, with further discussion in my book, Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic.) In fact for many people in many different religions, the age of an idea is the primary test of its veracity, which presents a great difficulty for progressive religion. In progressive Christianity, interpretation of the Bible and a view of church tradition frequently combine to make war on new ideas of any type.

I’d like to acknowledge in passing some posts that helped direct me toward this subject. John, of Locusts and Honey posted first on the topic of heresy in general and then followed up with a couple of specific items about heresy and the United Methodist Church. I run a risk in mentioning those threads, which have generated lively discussion, because I’m not really responding to the discussion as such. You’ll waste all the finger exercise if you point out aspects of those threads that I have not acknowledged here. I’m mentioning them because they pushed me along toward this post.

In the second post, John is really getting down to business, in my view, and points to specific doctrines, and specific articles from the Methodist doctrinal statements. That is a classic definition of heresy. You have a doctrinal standard, and somebody deviates from that standard. The person deviating is a heretic. I like that definition because it is fairly objective. Under it, I am a heretic, though not on the particular points that John is citing. “Heresy” is often used loosely to describe any belief that one finds particularly objectionable. As such, debates can go on endlessly. Normally, if one is not a member of the group that espouses the particular doctrinal statement, one is not normally a heretic, but is rather an apostate, an infidel, or a heathen. I can’t be a heretic in Islam because I am not Muslim. Though Catholics claim a broad authority over Christianity, I don’t concern myself with whether I’d be a heretic to the Catholic church or not–I’m not a member, though if I were I would have to be called heretical.

Now I wandered through all of this to show the difference between the approach of science and the approach of theology. A scientific “heretic” is not one who violates some kind of written code of ancient teaching, and the response of science is not to conduct heresy trials. Rather, the response is to demand evidence. Can you demonstrate that your heretical view is better than the current view? If so, it may become the new orthodoxy. Plate tectonics was once heresy in science and is now orthodoxy.

While many would see what I’m saying as a criticism of theology, because it lacks the evidentiary structure and processes of science, I do not see this as a problem in itself. Theology is a different field from science. There are those scientists who see scientific study and the scientific method as the be all and end all of all knowledge. I don’t agree. I think science is very good at describing, cataloging, and depicting what is. It is much less interested in what should be. Sometimes scientists step across that line with varying results. If they try to apply purely scientific reasoning to “should” questions, the rough edges definitely show.

Theologians, on the other hand, regularly get stuck with describing what is, or what they think is, and lose out to science on that score every time. That is why I predict a bad end for intelligent design. The evidences of theological thinking are rampant in intelligent design theory, and theological thinking is not well suited to solving scientific problems.

Progressive theologians, who come in many different hues, generally get in trouble form both sides on this issue. People who have rejected religion wonder why the progressive theologian (or progressive believer) doesn’t just throw the whole thing out. Obviously, it was proven to be wrong, and thus why should one hold onto it? If you have to adjust your doctrines, what is the point? Once you have discovered that some of your religious doctrines, held by family, friends, and spiritual leaders to be immutable, are wrong why not just throw it all out?

Let’s use the example of the virgin birth and the resurrection to look at this. On these issues I’m really pretty orthodox. While I believe that God made a universe that could run on its own, I also believe that God likes to communicate with his creatures. Thus I reject miracles that simply interfere with the ordinary functioning of the universe. I expect physical regularity. There are two reasons for this. First and foremost, I simply observe that the universe operates overwhelmingly in accordance with natural law. Such exceptions as may be claimed are few and far between. Even if I allow every miracle claim I’ve heard, it would only represent a minor ripple in terms of the operation of just this solar system, not to mention the universe. Second, however, even in religious tradition, story telling, and even myth making, the actual impact of divine action on the world is kept distinctly limited. Because miraculous events are outstanding, we tend to overemphasize their impact. It is quite rare for religious literature to claim that divine action is truly replacing the day to day activities of the natural world.

There is, however, a deeper claim that’s involved in both the virgin birth and the resurrection. These doctrines state that God is fundamentally interested in communion with human beings. In the virgin birth we have the statement that God is prepared to share our form and our condition and to become a part of that history. In the crucifixion, God says that he is prepared to carry that sharing all the way, to experience death. In the resurrection, he states that despite his willingness to share it, he’s above it, and thus able to be not just our commiserator, but also our redeemer. To those non-Christians who comment that the death of Jesus is not really a sacrifice because he knew he would be brought back to life, let me simply comment that from the Christian perspective, his sacrifice was equal at least to any of our physical deaths precisely because he also promised that we could return to life.

Now to maintain the unchanging nature of truth, we tend to focus on the physical facts of the resurrection. We maintain that Jesus truly died, that he truly was in the grave, and that he was miraculously and bodily brought back to life. Some people have problems affirming those things, though I do not, even though I cannot really test and prove them. At the same time, we can easily affirm all of those things and nonetheless miss the greater point of God’s interest in and participation with humanity. And if we really think about it, I think we have to acknowledge that what the virgin birth and the resurrection expresses is more mind-boggling, and truly more difficult to accept than the physical events involved.

After all someone can believe that Jesus was divine by virtue of adoption by the Spirit at his baptism. Others believe that Jesus was raised, but not in a physical body, but rather in a spiritual one. Others believe that the resurrection was somehow a spiritual event itself, in which Jesus would enter a different type of existence, if it can be called existence. In all of those positions one can still assert God’s interest in us mortal creatures on this tiny planet, an interest he was willing to carry through 100%.

The problem with the broad use of the term “heresy” to mean some kind of deviation from a defined orthodoxy is that it tends to prevent us from following that speculation through. It can prevent us from being in fellowship with someone who is one or two degrees farther down the line on a particular doctrine. The broader definition of heresy, which is commonly used in conversation, is “deviation from the (unchanging) truths of Christianity,” which truths are generally defined by the speaker. But however defined that view tells us that we nailed the absolute truth at some time in the past, and we are never going to have an opportunity to review it, and that we must be prevented from doing so.

When heresy is simply a deviation from a stated set of doctrinal statements, it is a definition of an organized body. An organized body needs some kind of definition. I think the United Methodist Church as constituted today is often in need of some definition. I could easily get defined out, but I’m quite capable of finding another body to associate with if that should happen. But when we broaden the concept of heresy as many do, then we are not merely discussing membership in a group, but one’s relationship to God. We are claiming that we see clearly, that we know the truth, and that we can now exclude those who disagree.

I simply don’t believe we can afford that level of certainty in theology. Theology itself also has a history of overturned positions. I think many of these overturned positions were in error, and should have been overturned. In other words, I don’t see that God’s truth has changed–just our conception of it.

People once believed that the sun orbitted the earth, and based this belief on the Bible. While some claim this was a misinterpretation of the Bible, I think it was quite correct. The cosmology of the Bible is not distinguishable from that of the other ancient near eastern cultures, and the earth was flat and round, like a dinner plate, and the sun passed under it at night and over it during the day. The problem was not that people misinterpreted the Bible, it was that they applied the Bible in a way that was inappropriate. It seems arrogant to say that they applied it in a way God never intended, but that’s how I see t.

People once used the Bible to support slavery. Many see that as a misinterpretation. But the Bible permits slavery, attempts to regulate it, but never outlaws it. I think it is morally wrong to hold slaves today, but this is based on working out principles into modern lives in ways that were never actually presented in scripture.

Currently we have struggles over the scientific role, if any, of the creation stories in the Bible. What do they tell us? Can we be certain? I think that the Bible really does say that the earth was created in a literal week. I suspect that those who first read those stories took that quite literally. Those who read it in that way today are not stupid. They simply hold a different view than I do of the role of scripture in knowledge.

Our nation and our churches struggle with the issue of homosexuality. The United Methodist Church, of which I’m a member, has an almost constant battle going on over this. Can our interpretations of the Bible change according to scientific knowledge? If homosexuality is genetically determined, can that change any of our views? I think we have to be able to examine what we believe God’s view of something is in the light of the evidence of science, just as we have had to reexamine other things.

God may not be bound by time, but we are, and thus when unbound divinity communicates with bound humanity, the communication is itself bound by time. It relates to the time, place, circumstances, and the participants in the act of communication. It is incredibly dangerous to take something that is not universal, that is not timeless and treat it as though it actually is.

It is my view that God continues to speak, sometimes in the very fabric of the universe, and sometimes in human minds. If we can’t follow along with the continuing conversation, religious people will become irrelevant. On the other hand if we continue to search for the best in our past and combine it with the best of our present, we will be able to give sound (for the moment!) answers to the “should” questions of our lives.

Unchanging truth is perceived by changing people. Giving up false perceptions is not a denial of truth, but an affirmation of it.

PS: For those who may have come to the end of this article wondering in just what sense I’m a heretic within the United Methodist Church, since I affirm the two doctrines I cited, let me refer you to Article VII of the doctrines of the United Methodist Church. Anyone who would like to start heresy proceedings, have fun, though I must warn you that I am not employed by the church. 🙂

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  1. John says:

    Actually, I never referred to anyone as a heretic in the second post. All I said was that one can only be a faithful United Methodist by upholding certain doctrines. For example, infant baptism. But rejecting infant baptism does not make one a heretic. More people than United Methodists are getting into heaven.

  2. It’s interesting how one can get misunderstood. First, of course, I wasn’t really responding to your post–just acknowledging that it has pushed me toward mine. But second and more important. Insofar as I was mentioning your post, I intended to refer to it favorably, which is to say that you used the correct definition of “heretic” in my view.

    I guess them’s the risks. I apologize for any negative reflection on your post in this case, which was entirely unintentional. I do disagree with you on some items, but not on the virgin birth or resurrection or on their place in United Methodist doctrine.

  3. Peter Kirk says:

    You wrote: It is quite rare for religious literature to claim that divine action is truly replacing the day to day activities of the natural world.

    I’m working on an exception to this! See my unfinished blog series on Kingdom Thermodynamics.

    Meanwhile, the UMC Article of Religion which you link to may reject Pelagianism, but it doesn’t seem to reject plagiarism! This article is taken almost word for word (including most but not all of the archaisms) from Article IX of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England – with no acknowledgement and a claim of copyright! The introductory page to the Methodist articles does note that they are taken from an 1808 document, which certainly means that they are out of copyright. And I can’t blame John Wesley for keeping to the doctrinal standards of the church which he was forced to leave. But some acknowledgement would be in order.

  4. Peter, I’ve been meaning to read that whole series, so I’ll comment on that part after I’ve read the whole series.

    On the Methodist doctrinal standards, I wonder if the judicial council would accept a defense of “you plagiarized that article” if someone in the UMC actually challenged me on it? 🙂

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