From Stasis Toward Generosity
by Nathan Key
Much of what follows is a reaction to certain literature I have been reading lately. To avoid taking complete credit for the intellectual content presented here, I want to acknowledge some of the thinkers and writers who have shaped my thinking as I have been contemplating the topic of static belief.
Isaac Asimov’s novel, Foundation and Earth, was my personal catalyst for exploring why we believe that our viewpoints will last forever. His characters debated in such a modern way, even though they populated a distant future. Asimov, Isaac. Foundation and Earth. New York: Ballantine, 1986.
Brian McLaren’s book, A Generous Orthodoxy, was pivotal in sparking “a consistent practice of humility, charity, courage, and diligence” toward other thinkers and religious beliefs. This paper is in some ways an expansion of the ideas he began in extending generosity toward other traditions. McLaren, Brian. A Generous Orthodoxy.Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003.
John Piper has written a number of marvelous works on the glory of God that have allowed me to stop making a god of the Church. Piper, John. Desiring God. Sisters: Multnomah, 1986, 1996, 2003.
Rob Bell’s ideas in Velvet Elvis and his countless lectures on faith have given me a passion for seeking the cultural perspectives of history, rather than assuming that everyone through history thought as I do. Bell, Rob. Velvet Elvis. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.
Anne Lamott (Lamott, Anne. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. New York: Pantheon, 1999.) and Donald Miller (Miller, Donald. Searching for God Knows What. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004.) have raised some wonderful questions about the personal struggle to believe in anything. They ask questions aloud that few are able or courageous enough to voice.
John Caputo‘s book, On Religion, has given me an academic (rather than purely spiritual) viewpoint on faith, belief, and religion. Caputo, John. On Religion. London:Routledge, 2001.
Charles Kimball wrote a book called When Religion Becomes Evil in which he cites the claim of absolute truth as a prime downfall for any belief system. This material has caused me to realize that we have access to truth, but may never be able to claim a perfectly clear picture. Kimball, Charles. When Religion Becomes Evil. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
In Jim Walker’s essay, The Problems With Beliefs, a statement he made left me with some ideas about the current stasis we are experiencing:
“Even the most productive scientists and philosophers through the ages have held beliefs which prevented them from seeing beyond their discoveries and inventions.” Walker, Jim. “The Problems With Beliefs” NoBeliefs.com. 1997, <http://www.nobeliefs.com/beliefs.htm>
Graphic novels such as Batman (created by artist Bob Kane, then reinvented in the work of Frank Miller) and Spiderman (created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko) are interesting bits of pop culture which have forced me to see some deeper meaning in all things. Nothing, I feel, is to be disregarded simply because it does not fall within the normally accepted realm of scholarly ideas.
Bad Religion’s album The Empire Strikes First (Epitaph, 2004) gives a satirical anthem that could be the background music to be played as this paper is read.
I have taken the narrative/conversational format found in my writing from Eugene Peterson’s book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology. He uses many word pictures and parables in that book, and I am very fond of his narrative style rather than academic prose. Peterson, Eugene. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005.
“Even the most productive scientists and philosophers through the ages have held beliefs which prevented them from seeing beyond their discoveries and inventions.” Jim Walker
Everyone thinks that what he believes is right and true. Over time my own beliefs have changed quite a bit on a number of subjects, but at any given moment in time, I usually believe my perspective is right (even though I may clearly be wrong in someone else’s view). For example, I grew up believing a number of things that may not have been correct.I believed in Santa Claus for a little while, although my parents refute ever introducing the idea to me. I believed that girls were created for me to chase with sticks. I believed that I could become Batman if I sang his theme music and jumped off the bent tree in my backyard. I believed in God and even had the impression that Jesus was a white man with a handsome beard.
As I grew older, my perspectives changed a bit. I decided that Santa Claus was little more than an embellished legend and became a missionary of his non-existence. I came to believe that girls were worth chasing without sticks in hand. I beheld Batman as an icon of vigilante justice. I still believed in God and recognized that Jesus was probably not white- but that he must have had a beard.
I cannot possibly say meaningful things about every matter on the subject of belief, but I do posit that there are some areas that must be dealt with lest we overlook what could be errors in the way we believe. I do not endeavor to determine why we believe or even if our beliefs are founded on correct assumptions. My thesis will merely presume that we all believe something. Most of us hold that our beliefs are right and that everyone agrees with us (or will concede eventually). That said, this paper will center on some of the stagnation that has slipped into faith and voice a cry for generosity in the way we survey our own understanding of belief and the convictions of those who have come before or will come after us.
Before jumping too deeply into the topic, I would like to pose a few questions which are significant to the discussion.
Questions up for grabs…
With such a mountain of refuted and disproved beliefs in our historical perspective why do we feel the need to cling so tightly to the idea that we are “right?”
What is the difference between truth and a perception of truth?
Is there forgiveness for an error I have in my assumptions about God and Truth?
I would like to navigate through these questions and the terrain of stagnant belief by exploring the content of a modern novel and three words that have become a banner as particular points of stasis. Then, with the playing field clear, I would like to suggest an alternate way to view our own beliefs, and apply this method to view a past practice held in high contempt by some of my contemporaries- to introduce a different view of history through the lens of generosity. This will be the course of our journey.
1.0 A Modern Novel
The other day I finished reading the classic science fiction story Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov. The story is a fitting playground for a debate between the rationality of communism over the individualistic views of Western democracy. Asimov takes his characters on an epic voyage between extremely polar planetary societies ranging from one world where inhabitants are completely isolated from human contact, to another where every single living organism on the planet yields its conscience to a universal mind. He uses the logical and rational dialogue between his characters to prove that a communal society looking out for the interests of each other is the apex of humanity and represents the best way to achieve our human potential. I read the book for entertainment value, but found myself pondering his ideas and thinking that each argument was sound, reasonable discourse. But only for a moment…
I was only drawn into the drama of interplanetary adventure to a certain point. Somewhere between the lines there were underlying messages I could not accept. The book had a trace of farce that exceeded beyond the detail that the narrative was an obvious fabrication of a galaxy 50,000 years in the future.
My main frustration was finally given voice when I realized that the characters in Asimov’s novel were speaking with the reason of today. The logic and cogent nature of each conversation were stunning examples of the current emphasis Western societies give to scientific knowledge and reason. Something in the tone, belief, and philosophy with which the characters were discussing their situation could not get a foothold in me as I read through the book. It seemed out of place that humans so far in the future thought so much like me. Suddenly, I was angry with Asimov for writing with such little foresight to the human condition. How could he articulate all sorts of other futuristic ideas without giving a bit of flexibility to a basic principal that philosophy, logic, and reason change almost as fast as (and in some cases faster than) technology?
But perhaps it is not completely Mr. Asimov’s fault. For one thing, I doubt he would have been able to predict the thoughts of tomorrow without being from tomorrow. Since he was not a man from the future, how would he have known which ideologies were going to be rejected or reformed into something new? And even if he had known, what point would there have been in creating a parable about the cold war in such a way that his readers would never give credence to the viewpoint because they did not follow the logic of his argument?
Again in his defense, no one writes or expounds on an idea expecting it to be outdated or rejected in the future. It would be absurd to read the effort of an author who summed up his points by saying, “this whole work will probably be disproved or ignored in the future, but thanks for reading!” No, we must allow for the fact that Asimov (or anyone else) would not bother expressing an opinion he expected to be proven wrong in the future. We most often speak and write of that which we most strongly believe is right, good, and true.
But if we might lay these few arguments aside, perhaps my own reaction to Asimov’s book does illuminate a critical problem surrounding belief. My fear is that our attachment to facts, logic, religion, and other types of belief could slide a bit too far in the direction of absolutes. The modern age has provided convenient definitions for our immediate environment and so we have a fairly sound understanding of the “way things are” and a very strong outlook that 1+1=2 no matter what happens in the future. The anthropomorphic mechanization brought on by the industrial revolution has caused us even greater assurance that we have all the answers (or that we have come close to asking the final questions). With science backing up our convictions, we believe our version of the truth categorically, emphatically, and absolutely. We assume that all future humanity will also believe according to the way we see the world. After all, how different could things really be in the future?
2.0 Four Words/Phrases
In my recent conversations, there are four words and phrases that keep emerging, almost like entry points into understanding how rigid our convictions really are in three areas holding sway over much of Western thought: God/Church, Economy, and Politics. In the same way I have cited Asimov’s novel Foundation and Earth as a metaphor for the problem with obdurate thought, God/Church will be represented by the word Prooftexting, the economy will be identified by the word Franchise, and the current political situation will be referred to as Vigilantes. The ideas in each of these words have become critical friends in identifying areas of static conviction. These areas may even become enemies of progress left unattended. Each of the three words will propel the conversation toward the phrase Generous Orthodoxy. In this final area I believe we will find some answers to this dilemma.
Prooftexting Every week, I get e-mails from a prolific pastor named John Piper. His message is conservative and well researched. His ideas are formulated with the utmost care and reasonably presented as correct. His logic is extraordinary; his content stunning; his theology, crisp and clean. There is even a passion set behind his words, as if he is wholeheartedly throwing himself into the work of influence and shepherding. But at the same time, there is a very close match to the assumptions in Asimov’s novel (who asserts that everyone in history-future will think the same) and the assumptions of Piper (who asserts that everyone in history-past has thought as he does).
I read some biographies by Piper a few years ago. In each, the great theologians and hymn-writers Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Bunyan, Cowper, Newton, and Wilberforce all seemed to be pointing toward Piper’s own message of God’s glory. Piper portrays each one as believing the precise principles of faith that Piper has written about for the past twenty years. Again, something did not sit right with me. It was unsettling to think that with all the shifts in ideology over the years that all these men had heralded the same exact message.
The other day, one of my friends was telling me about a popular documentary film he watched. It was an obvious manipulation of reality. Everything was “true” and yet certain parts of conversations had been cut out and there was voice-over during other segments that gave a false impression that more was going on than was actually there. Listening to my friends comment on this blatant charade of movie-making made me wonder if we do not do likewise when we cut and paste the words of history, piecing together religious texts in certain places to emphasize that history agrees with us. I do not know if Piper is guilty of this cut and paste mentality, but it certainly appears that way in some of his work.
This cut and paste process has become known as prooftexting. It is a grave problem for the modern church. Attend almost any Christian service in the United States this Sunday and you will probably hear a hodgepodge of Scripture proving to the congregation why they need to stop sinning or eat less or give more or love other people or vote for a certain party affiliation. In fact, it was not until rather recently that I heard someone read an entire letter of Paul out loud (astonishing the difference it makes in understanding the content). And it is not only a matter of reading words in the context of their paragraph placement. How often, in reading any writing, do we fail to see the social, philosophical, and historical context of the writer and the audience for whom the piece was written?
A conversation in Brain McLaren’s book A New Kind of Christian, provides this example: suppose you tell someone today that ‘God is in Control.’
I am almost certain that we cannot consider the word control without thinking of it mechanistically… But consider this: before the modern world, there were no complex machines… whatever a person in ancient biblical times would have meant by saying ‘God is in Control’ (if he would have said it at all)… is almost certainly very different from what we mean today. For him, [God’s] control was associated with farmers controlling animals or parents controlling children or perhaps a king controlling his subjects- all very different from an operator controlling a machine “like clockwork.” So if we say the Bible speaks of [God] being in control… we run the risk of imposing all our modern conceptions of clockwork, operation, mechanism onto [God] (McLaren, Brian. New Kind of Christian. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001).
We must read history and historical accounts with a perspective allowing for these changes in technology, philosophy, and imagination. When we overlook the sureness of change, we become arrogant and mistaken in our perception of truth. And when we believe too long that our ideals are the only ones the world will ever know, we begin to lose creativity.
And this is when Franchises begin to appear.
Franchise A few days ago I drove past the Orlando Ale House. I have not been there in ages, but I can recall the basics of the menu, the friends who went with me, and even some of the different locations around Orlando. A few years ago, spending hours hanging out and digging into the lives of my peers while eating at one of these restaurants was a common pastime. It was an easy place to spend time because I knew what I wanted to order without even looking at a menu.
Franchises are popping up all over the place. In fact, it is quite difficult to find a privately owned, independent restaurant or coffee bar or movie theater anywhere in Orlando. We have a Starbucks, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Cheesecake Factory, TGI Fridays, or Ale House on nearly every corner. We know the bill of fare by heart. We can quote the dollar menu in a heartbeat. I can even remember most of the McDonald’s Menu song from the early 1990’s.
The beauty of a franchise is that the consumer never has to take a risk. You know what is going to be on the menu and you know exactly what you are going to get. There is a carbon copy of your favorite coffee, cell phone, or donut just around the bend. Get what you want without a hassle. Get it “your way” as the Burger King Advertisements tell us.
Very few businesses want to take chances either. They play it safe by cashing in on an idea that has been proven successful. Take a look at the current line-up in “Reality Television” and you will see basically the same show rehashed over and over with some small twists throw in. Mac and PC computers are beginning to copy each other. Walmart, Target, and Kmart have their products conveniently arranged in a similar fashion and offer basically the same merchandise at only slightly disparate prices. Music channels are filled with the same rock song, hip hop song, country song, jazz song, pop song, or Christian song on the airwaves. Restaurants have predictable options for food. Movies are continually remade based on whichever film happened to be a cash cow in years past. Video games feature the same puzzles, violence, or fantasy and all too familiar story lines. The fashion world borrows from previous generations instead of giving thought to ingenuity.
What we see in the idea of Franchise is the economic response to our rigid beliefs. We know we are right and have proven business strategies to solve the problems of mass appeal. This circle of conformity to the consumer and consumer to the product is the pinnacle of stasis. The tragic lack of creativity is beginning to sap the life from our culture and has continued to become a display of rigid belief. And sadly, when this antithesis of creativity is walked for too long, it only follows that we would begin to force conformity on those around us.
Vigilantes If you have only read the comics of the 1950’s, you are really missing out on the whole story of gruff vigilantes. In the early 1980’s, comics took a turn away from the classic, lighthearted action and onomatopoeia to dark, brooding vendettas of violence we call graphic novels today. Batman was one of the first to lead the way into this new arena. The “Bam-Pow-Whiz-Kapooe” nonsense is gone. A graphic novel vigilante now fights violence with dark, gruesome torture and affliction. He stops at nothing to make criminals pay for the terrorism he views as threatening to society. The vigilante has his own ideal of what the world should look like and is even willing to break the law to make things “right.” What makes us cheer for these villainous good guys is that they are often fighting for things that we agree with. Violence seems to be condoned by our society if it is for our perception of the right reason.
The earth has a pretty bitter history of violence. Outside the social aspects of philosophy and invention, the main players in our textbooks are conquering tribes who slaughter each other with magnificent armies. Empires are fought for and lost. Land is acquired only to be repossessed. Genocide, holocaust, torture, violence, terrorism, and bloodshed are the stories that line the pages of our history. It seems that there is always someone wanting to take by force the things that someone else already has.
“But not,” cries the United States and United Nations in true vigilante fashion, “if we can help it!”
This trait has been emphasized in part by the current American administration’s engagement in trivialities across the globe; but it certainly seems that we cannot let any controversy on the planet go on without putting our two cents in like a comic hero righting wrongs at any cost, hurting anyone along the path to justice who does not agree with us. We maintain that the status quo must be preserved, and no one will be allowed think or act out of line with our ideal of democracy and peace.
But why would we have the impression that minimal political change will happen worldwide from now on? Why do we think that today is different than the ages of violence seen in the lens of history? Within these rhetorical questions we find the same rigid, inflexible tradition that shows up in Asimov’s novel, the Prooftexting Church, and the idea of a Franchise. At a basic level we have become selfish and arrogant in our view of history. We have drawn lines on the map and refuse to let history take its course. We have chosen to blindly ignore history altogether.
History illustrates that society will not tolerate stasis. We must move and change, even if the change is decline. Political, social, and philosophical lines will be redrawn. The most villainous tragedy of our current mindset is that we expect the status quo. Our policing of the natural tendency toward collapse or reform will eventually backfire and cause us more pain and misery than the comfort of sameness is worth.
Of course our actions are not surprising. With a postmodern world on the horizon it only follows that the last kicking and screaming retainers of modernity will not only be the strongest, but also loudest voices for quite a while. The real shame is that so many modern thinkers, church leaders, and UN troops are not fighting wars against countries and ideologies, but against the very force of history. Some of the conflicts seen in our schools, our churches, and even in the Middle East are not merely local skirmishes but manifestations of progress pushing against our stasis.
Generous Orthodoxy So far, we have seen static beliefs in the arenas of God/Church, the Economy, and Politics. Each has a sense of permeating stasis displayed in a subtle but very present manner. Each has an impact on the formation of our own beliefs. In order to break through some of these stagnant traditions, it will be important to look at the world through a new lens. The lens I propose using is an innovative, resilient orthodoxy.
When we consider the word orthodox, we rarely come up with the adjective phrase “open-minded” as a plausible description. My first experience with the word orthodox was attending middle school with Jewish Orthodox friends. Since I grew up in the American Protestant version of Christianity, my young uneducated assumption was that orthodox meant holding onto tradition so tightly that one misses out on Jesus. Other religious connections I made to the word orthodox seemed to point toward similar conditions (like Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and even the Episcopal Church my grandparents attended): religion so saturated in ritual that no one really understands the meaning or spirit of what they are practicing.
For many, the word orthodox has become synonymous with conservative, legalistic, prehistoric, and archaic. This is partially due to the role “conservatives” have had in asserting themselves as absolute authorities on truth and correct thought. In fact, we might throw this conservative interpretation of orthodox against the moribund belief systems of church, state, and market, and find that they stick to one another like glue. Most belief systems seem to be fixed in ritual and formulaic practice. Whether religious, economic or political, they are spinning their wheels while the world marches on. They hold onto ideas that are past their prime and refuse to reform. They seem “orthodox” in all the wrong ways. And in order to move anywhere beyond this present state, orthodoxy must become something more.
One of my heroes, Brian McLaren, has been trying to redefine the term orthodoxy to mean something less stringent. He describes orthodoxy as “right thinking” but adds the adjective generous in front to show how he feels right thinking should be obtained. Generous Orthodoxy is right and correct in that it always seeks truth and understanding, but it is also generous by allowing other ideas and suppositions to influence its purity (McLaren, Brian. A Generous Orthodoxy.Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003.). McLaren posits this idea particularly in the context of religious belief, hoping to learn portions of truth from other cultures and religions, instead of siphoning only Christianity for credence. He makes a fine start in extending generosity to other traditions, but there may be room for expanding this idea. The lens of Generous Orthodoxy must celebrate the ideas of the past, present, and future. It must remember that those who came before us did not have our hindsight and those who come after us will have the benefit of the history that is currently being created around us.
It is certainly important to define some of the ways this orthodoxy must function in order to garner success for its advocates:
Generous Orthodoxy seeks truth at all cost but it is open to the fact that truth may come from places previously “off-limits” to our narrow perspective.
Generous Orthodoxy gives room for error and even expects to be corrected by thinkers of the future and also current belief structures that may have a new or different perspective to offer.
Generous Orthodoxy firmly believes in what has been proven while understanding that what is proved may be disproved eventually. It does not disregard belief altogether because it knows that even its erroneous beliefs may inspire reform and correction by those who refuse to believe likewise.
Since Generous Orthodoxy seeks to view history and thought with open-mindedness, context and creativity, it is fitting that we take a look at an idea that has been a cause for criticism and complaint in the Christian community quite some time. In the next section, the sale of indulgences by the Medieval Church will be explored in light of this alternate perspective in orthodoxy.
3.0 A Catholic Tradition (held in contempt)
One of our society’s favorite activities is the demonization of previous notions and ideas. We see this played out over and over again as a new thought debunks the ones before it. All major religions and philosophies have come across critics. No systemized belief has been without scrutiny.
There are many historical practices the modern Church debases, but two come to mind as especially abominable: the medieval theology of indulgence and the extensively criticized holy wars known today as The Crusades. Both are skeletons that the Church would gladly be without, and for good reason. Indulgence is looked upon as an infestation of greed and The Crusades are perceived as a horrific genocide. Hindsight is a powerful tool.
Of the two, the controversial concept of indulgences by the Church (which was theoretically practiced until Vatican II, 1962-1965, but had much less influence after the Reformation) will be the topic for Generous Orthodoxy in this paper. With the perspective of a few hundred years and enlightenment to aid us we can easily see how this observance was little more than a fundraising activity of the church— an activity that appears centered on greed and profit instead of true spiritual piety. I grew up Protestant, and therefore, this particular “sin” was cited over and over as proof of the evil that goes unchecked in the Catholic Church and proof also that our Protestant beliefs were far superior. Even my high school history classes in a secular public school regarded the tradition as a deceitful practice used by evil men misleading countless generations through greed and fraud in order to erect the great cathedrals and engage in holy wars.
With hindsight guiding us, it is easy to characterize these medieval worshippers as wicked. In fact, my young mind had the impression that every single person in the mid-evil world was debased and corrupt. The term Dark Ages did not help. I cannot tell you how many times I heard that the medieval age was considered dark because the people were lost in a sea of depravity, without knowledge and discourse. But recently, I have wondered if there is a more accurate perspective than what we have come to believe about this part of history. Therefore, let us begin extending Generous Orthodoxy to this age, allowing for an open-minded look at what may have been happening.
Just as in contemporary times we have a very narrow and apparently stagnant belief, every generation before us has also believed they were the smartest, truest, and most accurate in regard to conviction and philosophy. In the same vein as our own confined view of right and wrong, everyone thinks themselves more enlightened than those before them. We believe that indulgence is horrible because we see with the insight of history to aid us. But we must allow ourselves to see practices in the context of when they were introduced, not through the lens of modernity. At the time, Indulgence was believed to be true and good. No one would have thought they were behaving incorrectly. The practice was even backed by Scriptures and used for hundreds of years as worship. While we may concede that some clergy may have had the influence of greed pulling them along, it seems rather unlikely that ten or twenty generations of indulgences were practiced by wicked men.
For the most part the practice of indulgence was accepted and postulated not only by clergy, but by the common man as well. In pure, innocent faith these worshippers offered up their alms to ease the suffering of family members and cut short their time in purgatory. They believed themselves right. They believed themselves pure. They did what they did out of love and worship of God in the best way they knew how. It was worship. It may have even been an act of holy love— beneficial, wholesome, and lovely in the context of when it was practiced.
We only assume the evils of Indulgence because men like John Hus, Martin Luther, and John Calvin exposed ignorance, making it seem like wickedness. When faced with a challenging perspective, all of us raise our defenses and initially reject the new ideas threatening our values. After an idea is refuted and reformed on a societal scale there are individuals who may still hold on to their beliefs on the mere fact that they do not want to be proved wrong. In the face of the truth, denial and injustice begins tainting the purity and innocence of their previous ignorance. Hus was burned, Luther excommunicated, and Calvin scorned. The death-throws of a belief like Indulgence became the poison which marred its future perception. The belief which was once good, honest, and well-meaning became evil in the eyes of history.
But Generous Orthodoxy sees the original purity and finds beauty in offering. It realizes that what the Medieval Church believed is not correct for our own practices, it may have been right and appropriate for the time in which it was commonly observed. Generous Orthodoxy allows for inaccuracy in a previous generation, acknowledging that their beliefs were the foundation for our own. And thus, they become right and good again.
For if Indulgence cannot become good, how can we hope in our own perception of truth? If we cannot extend forgiveness and even acceptance of what we see as errors in the past, we may as well give up belief altogether. One day we will be under the lens of scrutiny as well. Our ideas will be up for debate, and it is likely that much of what we believe will be scorned and mocked for its ignorance and denial of “obvious truth.” Only by extending Generous Orthodoxy to the past will we be resilient enough to accept the future without resorting to the wickedness and violence seen in the transition between Medieval and Modern times.
4.0 Final Thoughts on Belief (and Physics)
In spite of our Western “faith” in science, with its emphasis on knowledge gleaned from evidence, the foundational knowledge or “beliefs” about the world found through experimentation also are not infallible. We may think we know how the world works, but new scientific discoveries shake up our perceptions. For example, right at the point when we were sure of the foundations of science and mathematics and assumed we had a clear view of the parameters of physics, new information was ready to skew our understanding of these principles. In recent years physicists have found that matter does not always respond the way we think it should. Einstein’s theories of relativity have warped our perception of time, and the discovery of the quark particle has changed our consideration of molecular structure. Now we concede that the “rules” of physics work differently at the speed of light or on a subatomic level than what we observe with the human eye. Our preconceived notions of how things really are do not always work out as planned. Everything, it seems, may be up for grabs. Nothing is sound. Nothing is completely sure.
Now, imagine if someone became angry at Physics because matter and structure do not always comply with his strict regimen of belief. Imagine if he denied the existence of science, simply because he had a limited view of the way things worked and his preconceived notions did not congeal. He would be a fool to reject belief in gravity or time or space simply because they do not remain constant in every condition. Now, if he were angry at his own blindness or at the scientists who taught him this narrow view of physics, he might be justified. He would even be right to express concern that his mentors failed to express resilient belief themselves if they were unable to adapt and change when new conditions reformed their ideas of science. But to deny physics completely would be nonsensical. Physics still works. Gravity is still going strong. Math is still foundational. Only not entirely how we would expect in some cases.
In the same way, I will never lose faith in certain elements of my belief. Elements like God, beauty, hope, and love. Some things are simply not up for debate. Take God for example. Whenever someone tells me that they have “lost their faith in God,” I always wonder if it may be more accurate to say that they have “lost their faith in tradition.” They probably feel they have been lied to by man, not God. Perhaps they never even believed in God to begin with, and are disappointed because the life they were promised by their religion does not match the reality they are experiencing. They feel cheated, and they take it out on God because He tends to blend in with the background, much like physics would for a man of science.
I personally have lost faith in religious traditions more times than I can recall. There are moments when I even hesitate to admit that I am an American Protestant Christian because the world cringes when they find this out about me. One moment, I may be a great guy who is fun to be around, and the next moment I am one of “those people.” The general consensus is that the whole lot of us are narrow-minded, arrogant, elitists. And all too often they are ?absolutely? right.
Religious traditions often try to take the place of God. They claim Him as absolute (which I believe to be true) and then get it wrong by claiming their perception of Him as absolute. Religions across the span of time have been dealing with this shortsighted view of themselves. We rationalize holy war, slavery, and oppression because of manifest destiny and divine rule.
It is complete vanity to believe that we have reached the pinnacle of all knowledge about God, government, economics, or science, and yet generation after generation goes by, despising the teaching of history and holding on to the oppressive burden of their own views. Today, I believe the mechanical view of the industrial revolution has ingrained this mindset to an even greater degree than we have seen in previous history. Mystery has been completely replaced by science. We are eager to prove, extrapolate, and apply. We have no room for anomalies or grey areas.
How quickly we postulate the errors of the past while maintaining an aura of perfection around our own beliefs. We are so sure of our own version of truth. We disregard the fact that another few centuries may reveal that we are guilty of treachery beyond the scope of that which was accomplished by those we deem the enemy of orthodoxy.
Many of us wrongly imagine, as every society surely does, that everything we know today that has been proved and tested and therefore deemed completely accurate in its detail and description will always be perceived as such. This shallow perspective of the world is changing. We are beginning to understand the judgment of Niels Bohr when he said “It used to be thought that physics describes the universe. Now we know that physics only describes what we can say about the universe. (quoted in Walker, Jim. “The Problems With Beliefs” NoBeliefs.com. 1997, <http://www.nobeliefs.com/beliefs.htm> To adapt this phrase, we might say that our current orthodoxy only describes what we can say about life, purpose, and history.
We need to begin thinking of ourselves as active participants in an ever-changing flood of ideas. We need not ignore the truth we stumble upon, but we also must allow some room for change, even to the point of anticipating and inviting transformation into our belief in order to better understand the truth we have a handle on.
Therefore, we have this Generous Orthodoxy: a belief system that grants the correction and advice of history into it, shaping and molding it to fit the next generation. One that firmly believes in truth and also holds that no matter how absolute truth may be, the window of perception from one degree of history is always skewed to such a manner that no one person, generation, philosophy, religion, or culture can claim to have truth absolutely.
5.0 Endnotes and Quotations Which Directly Inspired This Essay
Earlier, I made reference to some writers of influence who help form the ideas of this paper. Here are some direct quotations that put me on this path of Generous Orthodoxy.
"It used to be thought that physics describes the universe. Now we know that physics only describes what we can say about the universe." Bohr, Niels quoted in Walker, Jim. “The Problems With Beliefs” NoBeliefs.com. 1997, <http://www.nobeliefs.com/beliefs.htm>
“Everything depends on… facing up to this beautiful and provocative Augustinian question ‘what do I do when I love my God?’” Caputo, John. On Religion. London:Routledge, 2001.
“[The Bullshitter] does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays not attention to it at all. By virtue of this, the bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” Frankfurt, Harry. On Bullshit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005
“Adhering strictly to particular interpretations of truth claims allows people to feel justified in holding all kinds of attitudes and behaviors, including beliefs and actions that contradict well-known teachings of their religion.” Kimball, Charles. When Religion Becomes Evil. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
It is important to “[identify] orthodoxy with a consistent practice of humility, charity, courage, and diligence.” McLaren, Brian. A Generous Orthodoxy.Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003.
“If we say the Bible speaks of you being in control, we run the risk of importing and imposing all our modern conceptions of clockwork, operation, mechanism onto you.” McLaren, Brian. A New Kind of Christian. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.
“Even the most productive scientists and philosophers through the ages have held beliefs which prevented them from seeing beyond their discoveries and inventions.” Walker, Jim. “The Problems With Beliefs” NoBeliefs.com. 1997, <http://www.nobeliefs.com/beliefs.htm>
"Don't believe anything. Regard things on a scale of probabilities. The things that seem most absurd, put under 'Low Probability', and the things that seem most plausible, you put under 'High Probability'. Never believe anything. Once you believe anything, you stop thinking about it." Wilson, Robert A. quoted in Walker, Jim. “The Problems With Beliefs” NoBeliefs.com. 1997, <http://www.nobeliefs.com/beliefs.htm>