Monday, September 24, 2007

"He's the truth..." Why Evangelical Theology Fails

The other night MSNBC ran a story about Pentecostal bishop Carlton Pearson, whose "gospel of inclusion" got him in hot water with the Evangelical community of Tulsa, OK -- and barred from his alma mater, Oral Roberts University (where he attended, but did not graduate).

According to Pearson, the gates of heaven are open to everyone, including Satan himself. Hell is not a destination in the afterlife but a metaphor for the painful situations of our own making in this life. According to Pearson, Satan himself could be reconciled with God if he simply said he was sorry for having "competed" with God.

On the program, the response to Pearson's "revelation" was sobering: Shortly after his "revelation" was made public, he lost his church, his congregation, and his status in the Christian community. “People don’t follow preachers as much as they follow popularity," the downfallen preacher observed. "I always knew that. And as soon as I quit preaching what was popular, the people were gone. But I didn’t expect them to leave so fast.”

Ironically, it was the Episcopaleans -- a group that is about as far removed as possible from the Pentecostals in Christian ideology and culture -- who gave him a second chance. Tulsa's most prominent Episcopal church, Trinity, gave Pearson and what is left of his congregation the use of their facilities. (I guess with all the other doctrinal and disciplinary shenanigans that have been going on of late, the idea of hell being a metaphor is irresistable.)

Now, the good "bishop" did have a few faithful follow him to his new digs. One quote in particular -- by Julia Nowlin, a member of his congregation since 1991 -- gave me pause:

"He's [Pearson's] the truth and I'm sticking to the truth because the truth will set you free."

"Protestant Theology": A Study in Self-Promotion

This story is a sad one ... it's never a happy day when thousands of people are spiritually disillusioned, or faith communities demolished. Some souls never recover from such a shock, and become hardened to all truth.

Fortunately, this kind of thing has the opposite effect on some people. Kristine Franklin and her family had one such "happy ending" ... It led them into the arms of Mother Church -- after being Protestant (anti-Catholic) missionaries to Guatemala for many years. You can read the story here.

The point that both these stories illustrate (one negatively, the other positively) is that it is impossible to remain theologically on track without being willing to subject yourself to a higher disinterested, historic, and objective authority.

Appealing to the Bible alone -- or any other document that requires interpretation, for that matter -- is insufficient simply because interpretation is inherently subjective.

Appealing to the spiritual authority of a single person (either oneself or one's pastor) is insufficient; the perspective of any single individual lacks historicity -- that is, rooted in a particular time and situation -- and colored by that individual's subjective experiences and motives (hence, not disinterested).

Because the Catholic faith is founded on the original revelation of Christ to His apostles, which He instructed them to pass on to others, it has historic presidence with objective origins.

Because the teaching and interpreting authority of Christian doctrine has been entrusted to those with a familiarity and respect for the theological "stream" that runs from that original source to the present time (an objective source of knowledge), and who have responsibility both to lead (a diocese in the case of a bishop, a parish in the case of a pastor) and follow (the continuous teaching of those in union with the pope in the first case, and the authority of the Magisterium in the second), those teachings are safeguarded from inappropriate personal agendas or "slants" that make these teachings truly disinterested. (The truth is transforming, rather than transformed; it changes the person who hears it, rather than being stretched and pulled to suit individual desires and preconceptions.)

What Is Truth?

When truth is interpreted by contemporary, subjective, and "interested" individuals, heresy results. We see this happen over and over in Church history. The first seven centuries of Church history is replete examples of men (usually) who went off on some theological tangent ... and councils that met to respond to those missteps, to set the course of the Church aright.

For example, in response to the erroneous ideas of men such as Arius to Nestorius to Marcion, the Church Fathers developed the great Christological and Trinitarian dogmas -- including, in 432, the Council of Ephesus that declared Mary the Theotokos, the "Mother of God."

As a Protestant, I often fell into the temptation of expecting that all truth would automatically line up with what I already believed to be true, based on my own subjective interpretation of Scripture. What I failed to consider was that my own interpretation might not be the right one. That is, just because an idea doesn't "fit" within my own parameters of truth doesn't necessarily mean that it isn't true ... It could mean that I need to adjust my own understanding.

This revelation was difficult to swallow at first. It required that I make a "paradigm shift" of the will -- choosing to suspend judgment, and consider that it could be my own course that might be in need of redirection. It is this paradigm shift of the will -- a laying down of my own authority, and a submission to a higher one -- that is at the heart of most true conversion. It is painful. It is difficult.

It is also necessary. Knowledge alone cannot touch the heart and transform it unless the will is also moved. We cannot afford to suspend all judgment -- after all, many of the heretics of the early Church truly believed that they had received a special insight from God, and chose to die rather than renounce that message. However, we cannot make ourselves the final authority. To the extent that we are willing to humble ourselves and submit to the higher authority of the Church -- a disinterested authority that is objectively and historically based -- we can trust that the Holy Spirit will lead us on the path of truth.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Check out this post on Catholic Carnival #136 ...

On this week's Carnival (#136) I came across this entry by RNW (Red-Necked Woman) that warmed my heart ... Here's the link!

Next week I will be hosting the Carnival at Mommy Monsters.; the theme is "Parenting 101: Things I've Learned from My Kids." Please send me your posts: hsaxton(at)ChristianWord(dot)com. For information about the Carnival, click here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

If God Loves Me, Why Do I Hurt So Much?

Catholic Carnival is now up! As usual, Sarah at "Just Another Day of Catholic Pondering" was a real sport as she captured the ups and "downs" of Catholic thought in the (virtual) universe this week. To read Carnival #136, click here.

Here was my contribution:

The snow fell – first gently, then with greater urgency – as I turned my car towards home. Having all but flunked out of my first semester of college (my newfound social life had taken its inevitable toll), I took my parents advice and got a job until I figured out what I was going to do with my life. Clearly, engineering school was not “it.”

The gently rolling hills of northern New Jersey have a few steep stretches, including one mile-long incline I had to navigate downhill on the last leg of my journey. As I neared that section of road, I almost stopped at my boyfriend’s house. But we’d recently had a falling out, so I took a deep breath and kept driving.

The last thing I remember was the flash of a yellow light, warning of the blind signal ahead. It said nothing about the solid sheet of black ice – or the poorly banked road that would send my skidding vehicle into oncoming traffic.

Choices of a Lifetime

It’s one of the great ironies of the human condition, that the amount of time spent pondering a decision is seldom proportionate to its long-term significance. The special dress you spent weeks finding, altering, and accessorizing is but a page in some dusty scrapbook. One impulsive passionate interlude, on the other hand, can have life-long repercussions.

My car accident might have been prevented had I made any number of small decisions a bit differently: not going in to work that day, or deciding to stop at my friend’s house. I would have been spared a great deal of suffering (at least the physical variety). But I didn’t – and to this day I carry the scars of those choices on my body: tracks along my legs and abdomen, spinal arthritis, disk rupture, and pinched sciatica. And yet, God sometimes allows His children to suffer terribly … in order to draw them as close as possible to Himself.

I was hospitalized for more than a month. During that time, my romantic entanglement was abruptly severed (he found out my injuries were serious enough that I might not be able to have children). Fortunately, I had the steady support of another friend, who assured me that any man who deserved me would find the scars beautiful, “Because those scars are a part of your story, part of what makes you … you.”

I took great comfort in those words, and in the realization that – for all that I had suffered – it had been a small price to pay. God had my undivided attention for the first time in my life. Clearly, He had spared my life for a reason, and I wanted to know what that reason was. I didn’t know what His plan for my life would be, but it had to be an improvement on what I had done with it so far.

Wounded … or Scarred?

A year after the accident, the pin that had been set in my left femur worked its way loose, and began to dig into my hip joint. Since the pin no longer served a useful purpose, I was scheduled for surgery to have it removed. Unfortunately, I had to wait a week for an opening. A week of lying in bed and trying not to move.

Two days before the surgery, I was visited by one of the church elders and his wife, who came to pray for me. They believed that God wanted to heal me not through the hands of a surgeon, but through prayer. Not seeing a graceful way out of it, I grudgingly let them put their hands on my leg and pray – and was amazed when, a few seconds later, I was able to get up and jump around the room. (The pin was removed anyway.)

I should have been thrilled, but I wasn’t. That night I gave God a good talking to. Why had He seen fit to heal my leg in this unconventional fashion, when I was going to have the problem fixed in a few days anyway? Why would He bother with such a trifle when He had not healed my sister’s cancer or my Aunt Rosemary’s ALS? Why would He use “faith healing” to fix my leg, when all over the world people were dying from injury and disease far worse than mine, without any medical assistance?

There was no immediate celestial response, no zap of lightning for my ingratitude. Through the years, I’ve come to recognize that this is the way God often operates. The mystery is part of His charm. He can handle our questions, though the answers are sometimes years in the telling. He has the answers, of course – and He knows when we will best be able to receive them.

It wasn’t until years later, when I first heard of the Incarnation Principle (that God initiates contact with the human race through the sensible world) that I began to understand what had happened to me. God had not shifted that pin merely to spare me a few more days of physical pain. Rather, He wanted to remind me that I could trust Him to tend to me – on His terms, and not on mine – as a loving father cares for his children.

Have You No Scars?

Whether our wounds are physical, emotional, or spiritual, the principle remains the same: God uses the painful consequences of our actions to draw us into deeper relationship with Himself. As we endure the pain and the scars begin to form, those marks can become a source of bitterness … or thankfulness.

If in our pain we choose to pull away from God (either because we think He’s abandoned us, or because we are trying to punish ourselves), our scars become a constant reminder of our own failings and weaknesses. However, if we let ourselves draw close to God – in prayer and through the sacraments – He tends to our wounds and teaches us important lessons that we could not learn any other way.

When this happens, He does not remove the scars entirely; the pain may stay with us for a lifetime. However, these marks no longer accuse us, no longer have any power to determine our future course. They have been transformed into reminders of God’s providence and mercy. And with these scars, we are turned a little more perfectly into the image of the One who was wounded for our sins, and the sins of the whole world.