“Hand-picked truths?” The givenness of doctrine

So who invented Christianity?  These days it’s become fashionable to assume that Christ came and delivered a message of love, but then the Church twisted his teachings to reinforce their own sense of dominance and power.

If it makes you feel any better, Christianity isn’t the only target in this regard.  Writing for the New York Times, George Johnson tells the story of the 2015 protests in Honolulu over the installation of a new telescope.  Despite the fact that the mountain of Mauna Kea already had 13 other telescopes as part of a science reserve, the protestors insisted that this further addition would “desecrate a mountaintop where the Sky Father and Earth Mother gave birth to humankind.”  Never mind the fact that the protestors believed none of this to be true.  According to Johnson, they were really just worried about things like “Western colonialism” that seeks to “marginalize” other cultures—as if science is really superior over these primitive beliefs.  Johnson saw this as illustrating the fact that in today’s world, everything—whether religion or science—is assumed to be a social construct, a human invention:

“Viewed from afar, the world seems almost on the brink of conceding that there are no truths, only competing ideologies — narratives fighting narratives….those with the most power are accused of imposing their version of reality…on the rest, leaving the weaker to fight back with formulations of their own. Everything becomes a version.”[1]

Johnson’s article was appropriately titled, “The Widening World of Hand-picked Truths.”  As Christians, we believe that truth isn’t something we “pick” or decide or build ourselves.  Christianity isn’t something that men cooked up in a lab or a classroom someplace.  There is a givenness to doctrine—a gift from God to man so that man might learn to love God.  We see this all over scripture.  Both Paul and Peter affirmed that the truths of Scripture came through man, yes, but with God as its ultimate source:

21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:21)

16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” (2 Timothy 3:16)

Both Paul and Peter share a belief that scripture comes from God as the ultimate source.  Paul especially connects the act of God breathing to the act of man writing (“scripture,” here, comes from the Greek graphe meaning something written down), so we can’t escape the fact that the Bible represents the written expression of God’s character and will. Even the rituals of God’s people in the days before Jesus were not human inventions.  Speaking of the system of sacrifices, God tells Israel that “the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls” (Leviticus 17:11).  So even the language of “atonement” (that is, dealing with sin—the very doctrine that would later be fulfilled in the cross) comes not from some ancient social custom, but from something given from God to his people.

Now, of course it’s true that Christians since the days of Peter and Paul have adapted a whole variety of varying doctrines.  And there’s always room for flexibility in Christian expressions, such as those who prefer traditional hymns over contemporary songs or vice-versa.  But this variation must be measured against the given Word of God, the concepts and ideas that compose his larger story of creation, fall, and restoration.

This, then, is why Christians entrust themselves to Christian doctrines, because it is through these doctrines that we understand the mind and purpose of our very Creator.  Still, we must admit that we live in an age of “hand-picked truths.”  How might the “givenness” of doctrine confront some of the objections of our present age?  We’ll look at two brief examples.

***A brief warning: one of the illustrations below relates to how different cultures handle their dead.  While it’s nothing inappropriate, I recognize that those who are grieving might be taken aback by the illustration.  I modified it on Sunday for the sake of sensitivity; I include it here for the sake of authenticity.  But if you are in a slightly more raw place, you have my permission to (1) stop here and close the window, (2) be thankful for God’s unchanging Word and (3) to re-join us tomorrow.***

OBJECTION ONE: ALL MORALITY IS CULTURALLY RELATIVE

First, some might object that moral absolutes are restrictive.  After all, if morals are human inventions, why are we not free to reinvent them?  Sure, we might have once seen marriage as existing between one man and one woman, but times have changed, right?  Who are you to impose your oppressive values on someone else?

This objection is really nothing new.  We can find traces of it as early as 2500 years ago.  Here, we have a writer (Herodotus) describing the encounters a Greek King (Darius) has with two different cultures:

“He summoned the Greeks who happened to be present at his court, and asked them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. They replied that they would not do it for any money in the world. Later, in the presence of the Greeks, and through an interpreter, so that they could understand what was said, he asked some Indians of the tribe called Calladae, who do in fact eat their parents’ dead bodies, what they would take to burn them. They uttered a cry of horror and forbade him to mention such a dreadful thing.  One can see by this what custom can do.”

Do you see what’s happening?  In one culture, cremation is wrong but cannibalism is right.  In another culture, cannibalism is wrong but cremation is right.  Ah, says the moral relativist, there is no absolute morality, only cultural assumptions.

But maybe it’s not as simple as it seems.  Paul Bloom—a psychologist from Yale University—points out that yes, these differing beliefs “illustrate diversity, [but] they also hint at universals….Herodotus doesn’t talk about people who don’t care what you do with dead bodies…Such people don’t exist.” [2]

In other words, while cultural differences exist, so do strong cultural similarities.  Why are cultures so similar if every culture invents their own morals?  Now, I don’t suggest that this by itself proves that Christianity is true—but these universal morals are certainly consistent with the idea of a universal God transcending the boundaries of all cultures and all peoples and all times and all places.

 

OBJECTION TWO: I EXPERIENCE GOD IN MY OWN WAY

Second, some might object that doctrine bleeds the life out of our relationship with God.  Instead, we should be looking within ourselves or looking toward our own experiences.  After all, doctrine seems the stuff of ivory-tower eggheads; why would that mean anything to someone like me?

Years ago a man named Ludwig Wittgenstein said something similar about coffee.  He argued that no human language is adequate for describing the robust flavor and aroma of a cup of coffee.  I’ve shared this illustration twice.  The first time, a college-age student raised his steaming cup in the air to voice a hearty “Amen!” The second time (last Sunday), several gentlemen pointed out that in some industries, they’ve invented a series of words to describe the specific taste of things like coffee or barbecue.  But in either event, we might admit that there is something fundamentally different about describing something and experiencing it for ourselves.

Applied to theology, we might see it this way: that no doctrine can possibly compare to knowing God personally.  To be honest, I think we need to admit that this is true.  Knowing God is, of course, a loftier goal than simply knowing things about him.  But men like Wittgenstein—and that college student—forget something: even if we buy that words can’t fully compare to the experience of sipping coffee, words are perfectly adequate for writing directions to the nearest Starbucks.  So, too, does doctrine direct us toward a real and living God.  When we embrace these doctrines, we, too might “taste and see” that he is good, and worthy of our devotion.

 

WHY DOCTRINE SHOULD FREAK US OUT

The Bible should freak us out.  I don’t mean that we should never find God’s Word comforting, I mean that there should be plenty of times when we open its covers to have our eyes widened and our hair blown back.  I think this is why the writer of the letter of Hebrews tells his readers that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). No other book does this quite as deeply and as consistently as the Bible itself.  No magazine.  No webpage.

I can therefore testify that this, indeed, is the given Word of God, because no other book makes these sorts of demands with such consistency and such fervor.  The Bible challenges our minds even as it softens our hearts; it presses our knees to the earth in repentance even as it lifts our hands in worship.  Doctrine is God’s gift to us—his gift for us.  Follow its truths, and it leads us safely home.

[1] George Johnson, “The Widening World of Hand-picked Truths,” in The New York Times, August 24, 2015.

[2] Paul Bloom, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil.

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