DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Head to Head
Schism
Throughout the history of the Church there have been splits between different parties, each claiming to have access to right teaching. At times these schisms have been pursued with relentless cruelty and great bloodshed. But how important is it for the Church to be unified? Here Rick and Mick try to reach common ground.
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Rick: Disagreement occurs in every sphere of human life. Disagreement may cause discord that in turn may lead to dissolution of relationships. As an American the first example that comes to my mind is our Revolution that separated us politically from Great Britain.

Loyalists argued that our differences could be overcome by rational discourse. Others felt the only solution was complete and final separation. The fundamental disagreements between the Colonies and the Crown were so serious and profound that no modus vivendi was possible.

It was the extreme of sword and gun that would be the final arbiter. Today I think that few would argue the separation was not ultimately favorable for both parties.

The Church has not been immune from doctrinal disputes that have occasionally resulted in schism. Witness the break between the Greek and Latin Churches in the eleventh century and the Protestant Reformation. Currently, large church bodies are in turmoil over social and doctrinal issues that create potential schisms. Church officials struggle to maintain comity between factions when the disagreements are so deep and fundamental that this observer considers them unbridgeable.

Mick, my question is, why don�t these factions simply divorce and establish new churches? It seems to me both sides would be happier and more effective in their respective missions.

Mick: I think one answer to your question concerns the concept of orthodoxy. My point is that perhaps schism arises out of a false concept of the teaching and life of Jesus. God belongs to all. Christians are those for whom Jesus is a prime inspiration.

If a Christian group asserts that affirmation of certain doctrines is a condition of membership then it is duty bound to insist that all its members publicly affirm those teachings. And if anyone strays from the party line, that person must either conform or be cast out. This is the position of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Some admit the possibility that group teachings are not absolutely definitive. In that case, orthodoxy is more difficult to enforce. This is pretty much the stand of so-called "Protestant" or "Reformed" churches.

But both insist that their members affirm certain teachings as a condition of continued membership. They also insist that members conform to certain behavioural norms. Expulsion may result from disobedience in either sense. And any group which will do neither is expected to leave.

A dissident group may decide to leave its parent body because it is coming under intolerable pressure from authority or fellow Christians . More often, I suppose, such groups go into schism because they have accepted and internalised the proposition that Christians who perceive the world differently can't remain in fellowship.

Was not a pivotal point of Jesus' life and teaching precisely that we are all acceptable to God? If he's correct, then one can't properly cast out of a fellowship those whom God accepts. Nor is there any point in choosing schism if all are accepted by God.

I don't feel entirely certain about my argument up to this point. I wonder if you can bring more clarity.

Rick: It is common for social organizations to generate what might be broadly called, mission statements. Among other things, these statements include reasons for their existence, an enumeration of principles and goals, rules for the conduct of its members and qualifications for membership.

These mission statements give public form and character to the respective organization. In addition, the statements give forewarning to prospective members about what they are signing on to.

All who finally join a specific organization do not necessarily ascribe to every point of the mission statement but join because they believe, on balance, the overall mission corresponds with their aspirations.

In the case of churches, mission statements are usually referred to as doctrine that prescribes orthodoxy that is often the cause of schism. Dissidents bridle at what they perceive as coercion and loss of free agency imposed by orthodoxy. In response they develop their own orthodoxies.

Dissident orthodoxy is usually more simple than traditional church orthodoxy. Perhaps they have only a few conditions for joining their fellowship, one being acceptance of Jesus as the prime inspiration for life. I doubt anyone who does not subscribe to this idea would be admitted.

Mick, you said, .."that perhaps schism arises out of a false concept of the teaching and life of Jesus." This would imply a claim for truth on your part and error or corruption on the other side. This stance is as doctrinaire as that of the traditional church. Although your doctrine is less complex it is not isolated from the possibility of personal bias and interpretation. By what standard can you claim to have truth and the traditional church is in error?

Mick: I take your point - though perhaps you should give me credit for the word "perhaps". I hope that my personal position in relation to Jesus is supported by reasoned evidence. The difference between what I try to espouse and the orthodoxy of the Church at large is twofold:

  1. Even though I may state my position as clearly and as assertively as I can, I do not maintain that I have final answers. And even though I try to live my life on the basis of what I arrive at as "the truth", I recognise that this truth is always provisional. Nothing I adopt is immune to change.
  2. Because I think truth is never absolute, I must allow others to differ from me - even though they are part of a fellowship to which I belong. Unity is not achieved through uniformity. I have concluded (though I may be wrong in this) that Jesus lived and taught acceptance of human difference.

In short, I can at this point see no reason why anyone should be excluded from the fellowship of the Church. It is not a club. Though it may adopt an institutional form, no particular form is of its essence. If I'm on the right track, then both the schismatic and the Church fail to recognise the generous inclusiveness of Jesus' outlook.

Rick: One of the sources of schismatic force is the very issue of provisional truth you raise. I must press you a bit on this. If the universe is a unity and all principles of it are constant how then can truth be provisional? It is either truth or it is not.

Let me cite a brief analogy involving clothing. The animal skins primitive man used to warm and protect themselves from the environment look radically different from our modern apparel but the function is exactly the same. There are general principles involved that are universal and immutable namely the function of protecting the person in the case cited. Clothing looks different from age to age but the truth of its function is constant.

I have asserted in our previous debates there are bed rock moral principles. They are often difficult to apply with clarity to all current moral dilemmas. Nonetheless we should look critically for the enduring universal and often subtle principles involved.

There are large constituencies on either side of this question. I consider it unlikely that rapprochement will ever be reached. As much as I value the idea of unity and comity within the Church, I think schism can be a healing process as I suggested in the introduction to this debate. I see no good reason not to establish a church that prescribes no creed, that espouses no doctrine and demands no orthodoxy. Wouldn�t that be a good solution?

Mick: The Church you suggest tongue-in-cheek would have one merit - it would include everyone in whose lives Jesus of Nazareth is central. This is the most fundamental allegiance any Christian can ask or give.

The point I make is this: Even if a group sets up certain norms of conviction and conduct, all it can ever have is verbal assent to propositions. A person can say something a thousand times without that making a whit of difference to his or her behaviour. So why have a creed? Why set up doctrines to which people must assent? Why insist on statements of orthodoxy? It doesn't make sense to me.

Or rather, it makes sense only if those who set themselves up (or are set up) as judges of who has stepped outside theological or behavioural boundaries are, wittingly or not, engaged in controlling others.

This is fine if one belongs to the club of those who go to church, recite creeds, believe certain teachings, and follow certain absolute moral principles. But think of the implications even of that. For if it is wrong to say something, then it must be wrong to think it. Thought-police are just around the corner. Witness the recent attempts in the Church of England to muzzle theological dissent. Witness also the centuries-old counsel of the Roman Catholic Church concerning unholy thoughts.

Who is to say that any decision to behave in a certain way is wrong according to "bedrock moral principles"? For what reason? If a moral choice is made for a reason, doesn�t it follow that there might be other reasons which lead to entirely another moral choice? If that is possible, then there can be no absolute. Absolutes exclude alternatives.

Doesn�t this absolute approach confine moral choice to a straightjacket? Indeed, doesn't it jettison moral choice altogether? For if I know without doubt that something is wrong, I must not choose it. I may choose it. But I do so knowing that I do "wrong". I suggest that truly mature choice happens only when I don't know what is right, when there is no moral absolute. I may have well-tested guidelines. And I may be foolish to ignore them. But only when I work it out for myself can I be said to be truly human.

This of course requires that what I live my life by must always be provisional. It doesn't mean that I have no principles or fundamental assumptions guiding my life. Nor does it mean that I may not sometimes have to operate according to those principles without thinking things through - just as when I jump without thinking from the 'bus that's about to run me over. Nor does it mean that I may not have to defend my principles with my life or - more challenging still - with the lives of others.

I hold (provisionally) that principles, even when espoused by people with great authority and rhetorical powers, remain assumptions, to be changed or even discarded when the facts or the situation demonstrate that they no longer apply. And if our principles are provisional then chasing away those whose principles differ will not do. There is no point in schism.

Let me propose a test: Arrange for all your elders, or ministers, or bishops to assemble in one room together. Then ask each in turn, out of the hearing the others, to give a five-minute talk on "The Essence of the Holy Trinity". 

My hypothesis is that the resulting monologues will bear little resemblance to each other - so little that it would be impossible to put together from them a coherent "doctrine" upon which to base the action of ejecting a heretic or moral renegade from the fellowship of the friends of Jesus.

The Church's greatest sin today is the willful exclusion from its hallowed halls of God's children, and the brothers and sisters of Jesus. Schism exists only because we've invented it. It is neither necessary nor loving.

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