But Who Is Right?
It’s the question that we can’t help but ask. It isn’t our fault, after all. An Aristotelian understanding of “knowledge” has left an indelible mark on the modern western world. We can’t help but favor empiricism and believe that it is the only route to truth. Underscoring our empirical quests is the belief that there is Truth to be found. That is, there is such a thing as Absolute Truth; there is one right way.
This view of knowledge was foreign to the ancient world yet with the help of Aristotle and the up-and-coming Catholic Church, the world’s understanding of knowledge would never be the same. You see Christianity was unique in that once it really began gaining power it decided to favor orthodoxy over orthopraxy (“right actions”). Judaism was, and largely still is, a religion concerned with orthopraxy (one must be hospitable, one must not murder, physical actions must accompany and show repentance, etc.). In the same way, many of the Greco-Roman religions were orthopraxy-focused, caring that one did his civic duty insofar as it related to religion. It was a rather new thing for a religion to focus solely on believing the right thing as opposed to living the right life. The Christian writings are not without focuses on orthopraxy, but they don’t get the press that the ones focused on right belief do. James, for instance, preaches orthopraxy at 1:22
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
And of course the classic “doing” passage is James 2:14-17:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or a sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not meet their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
It is James’ insistence on doing (i.e. works) that caused Martin Luther to lobby for its removal from the canon.
I was taught a long time ago to always ask this question of my writing. If I can’t find purpose in the writing myself, then how is someone else to find purpose in it?
My understanding of the history of the orthodoxy/heresy debate largely influences how I look at beliefs today that are outside of the mainstream (universalism, the humanity of Jesus, the non-existence of miracles, etc.). I no longer ask the question of who is right. I am no longer concerned with whether or not I believe exactly the right things to a T. For I know just how inconsistent “orthodoxy” has been over the years and it’s frankly difficult for me to put much stock in it for that reason alone. Further, I see a power struggle behind almost all fights over “right belief.” I can understand this, for if I believed, as I used to rather ardently, that I had to have every dot and tittle of my belief right or else I would not go to heaven, then I would still be obsessed over determining who believes rightly and who doesn’t. As it stands now, though, my view of God is such that while I still think belief matters, I think it is but one part in a complicated and dynamic relationship.
So, no I do not think any group or person has a monopoly on “right belief.” When contemporary Christians choose to label someone as a heretic it doesn’t get me too riled (I often take it as a compliment when I am labeled as one, which happens more often than you might think). I hold the beliefs that I hold for what I consider to be good reasons, but I am open to them constantly changing, as they are wont to do. Furthermore, I believe God is much larger than any one denomination, creed, or book (yes, even the Bible), so I am open to finding God wherever and however I can. In many instances that takes the form of looking at the best historical reconstructions of the Jesus movement, before many of the letters and gospels were written. It also means that in some cases I make clear and distinct breaks with the text of the Bible (for instance, with its condoning of genocide and slavery as well as its predominant view and treatment of women). Further, I allow my experiences to influence me, my understanding of the world, and my understanding of God. I believe that our experiences will influence us whether we choose to acknowledge them or not; I simply try to be honest about their affect. I do not do any of this lightly, but with fear and trembling, as Søren Kierkegaard put it and Philippians 2:12 before him.
Finally, I believe that the orthodoxy/heresy dichotomy is a man-made dichotomy that allows us to feel good about being able to say with certainty “who’s in and who’s out.” As for me, I’m okay living in the tension and living with uncertainty. I think it simply means that my life focuses more on love than on debating whether the person I’m loving is going to hell or not.
Call me naive, but I believe that God is big enough for our questions and that God’s proverbial tent is large enough for us all.