17 December 2003

Christian Orthodoxy is not a Dental Procedure

A short guide for the perplexed
contributed by Peter Wright

A Christian Research report has revealed that a third of clergy doubt the resurrection and a half don't believe in the virgin birth. I'm guessing that we are meant to bury our faces in our hands with indignant horror at this information and shake our orthodox locks in despair. I don't want to give the impression that I think that orthodoxy [right belief - Scooper] is unimportant, (it yields 23 points in Scrabble, utilising those hard to lose "x" and "y's" and that's before you factor in any bonuses like triple word scores!). It's just that Christianity is so much more than a set of facts to which we are invited to give intellectual assent. The secular press loves to pick up on these chinks in the Church's armour, as if to say see even those nutty religious types don t believe in what they are supposed to be selling . Sadly we often play right into their hands. When was the last time you saw the papers pick up on an survey which revealed that 97% of clergy believed it was very important to love your neighbour as yourself, 89% believed that Christianity should champion the needs of the poor and dispossessed and a full 100% said they sometimes had doubts about their own faith but that it was central to their lives.

What is a Christian? I have been greatly helped in considering this question by reading Alan W. Jones's Soul Making:The Desert Way of Spirituality . He recounts a meeting with a desert monk who told him with a smile, "I am not yet a Christian but I have seen them." This speaks to us all about humility, awareness of our own weakness and a continued desire to seek God. As Jones also comments, seeing such Christians helps me to believe.

From time to time, the believer has to ask: "Am I who I say I am?" In my case, the question has a particular focus. Am I a Christian? I have my answer ready: "Yes, I am."

Even though I have already given my answer at one level, there are two reasons to pose the question here. One is that a pattern of questioning is part of the way I believe. Questioning of this sort deepens and strengthens me in my belief. Probing doubt is the handmaid of faith. It is my way of entering the Interior Castle. Two, the questioning process (by which I don t mean mere intellectual puzzle solving) itself is a revelation to me of God's gracious way of dealing with us. That is why believers, from time to time, need a break with their old ways of believing. Believers as well as unbelievers are in need of conversion. But it is easy to see why this approach doesn't go down too well in our culture. Few would want to be free of either their idolatrous imaginings or their fixed opinions.

Is a Christian someone who can place a confident tick against every one of the 39 articles of faith on every day of the year without thinking or someone who is prepared to wrestle with their doubts and insecurities and try daily to discover a love which is revealed in the pursuit of the reality of Jesus? Frederick Buechner (quoted in Philip Yancey's book Soul Survivor ) says that Christians should get up every morning and ask themselves, "Can I believe it all again today?" and that about half the time the answer should be," No," because the "No's" prove you are human and when the answer is "Yes," it really will be "Yes!" - choked with confession and tears.....and laughter.

What worries me most about a "tick the box" style of Christianity is that we are so quick to judge one another, to categorise each other as "in" or "out", "saved" or "unsaved." Am I so sure of my own rightness, my own complete understanding of the width and depth of God's love and grace? If so, I make a very lofty claim with a long way to fall.

I was inspired by the story (possibly apocryphal) recounted in Mike Yaconelli's book Messy Spirituality about the minister of a church who got up one Sunday and confessed he had lost his faith but to his surprise the church elders met and then reassured him that they still believed in God and in His love for their minister. They would like him to stay on and talk about his doubts in the Sundays to come. In time he came back to faith but it was the love of his congregation which saved him — not attempts to ram orthodoxy down his throat.

It will not be the quality of our argument but the depth of our love which brings someone to God. In the end God is not a concept to be understood but a person to be loved. Real relationships are always hard, sometimes painful, full of misunderstandings and disappointments as well as joy and love.
Going deeper into God is often more mysterious than we imagined, more exhilarating than we believed. God continues to surprise me with the depth of His love and being, putting into sharp contrast my own shallowness.

Is it unimportant what the church presents to the world as "The Christian Faith?" The church in all its forms has kept Christ in the minds of humans for two millennia and this witness has been unimaginably important but it has also been one of the primary causes of it's own downfall when it has put orthodoxy before love and conformity before charity. When considering orthodoxy I am always reassured by the fact that Jesus was not a legalist and was often criticised for his own lack of orthodoxy by the religious people of his day. Faith is a most thrilling journey — put on your seat belt and clench your buttocks! If we remember our own weaknesses then orthodoxy becomes a signpost for the path and less like pulling teeth!