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Friday, 15 November 2013

To Hell with the Doctrine of Hell?


Recently I read Alister McGrath’s book The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundation of Doctrinal Criticism, not because I was thrilled by the topic per se, but because I wanted to know what to do with doctrines that I cannot accept.  I am primarily thinking of the doctrine of hell, what I have long considered labeling "the useless mutant 3rd-limb of the Christian tradition." In the following you will find a summary of McGrath’s book and, in light of McGrath’s conclusions, an attempt to come to grips with WHAT THEN MUST BE DONE.

I know people who have rejected hell. “I don’t believe in hell,” is the phrase – and simple that as – poof! – it is gone. With this they discover a magical power latent in them to make doctrine disappear, and suddenly – poof! poof! poof! – original sin, the communion the saints, and the virgin birth are gone too! What used to be so hard for medieval Christians, the rejection of traditional dogma, has become the easiest thing in the world for us moderns.

I recognize much thought goes into this rejection of problematic doctrine, for which Hell will serve as a Hellpful synecdoche (that one is for Caleb if he is reading this). However, the thought that leads to this rejection seems to fall short of a crucial second stage: while it passes through critical analysis of the doctrine itself (“God is Love… hmm, that seems incompatible with eternal conscious torment...”) it does not pass through critical thought on the viability of simply rejecting doctrine (“well, I guess the natural conclusion is: ‘I don’t believe in hell!’”). My only qualm with this approach is that it is not all that it could be. For while doctrine can and should be criticised, to reject it often amounts to ignoring its real presence in history.

The fact is, Jesus talked a lot about hell, and one has to arbitrarily ignore those words while accepting the rest if one’s rejection is to be consistent. This is why a Christian, if they want to continue thinking Christianly, cannot say things like “I don’t believe in hell.” Hell is in Scripture, the historical document Christians make definitive for the terms of their discourse, and so one must have something to say about it. A person cannot say, “hell isn’t there in the Bible,” but she can say something like, “when Jesus spoke of hell he was referring metaphorically to a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem, which is what the Greek word Gehenna originally designated.” This is a valid position to take, one that continues to engage Scriptures, albeit on different terms, instead of ignoring them.

McGrath, glancing up at the above, would discern the heart of the problem to be not doctrines themselves but the lack of critical appropriation of doctrine. Simply put, the doctrine of hell is less problematic than what the Evangelical church in America has done with that doctrine (see Hellbound? if you aren’t convinced). The attitude which perverts doctrine is more terrible than a terrible doctrine in the hands of a thoughtful, justice-oriented community. Thus McGrath writes his book under the conviction that our attitude toward the concept of doctrine must be dealt with before any specific doctrines.

McGrath calls his book a “history of history – in other words, with the uses which past generations of theologians of the modern period have found for the doctrinal heritage of the past in their own theological deliberations” (ix). Concerning himself with the history of attitudes towards doctrine, McGrath develops the readers historical sense of what (some readers) might have gone in thinking were ahistorical truth-propositions. When we have come to grips with the socially-contingent nature of doctrines, we can no longer treat them as absolute formulations of the absolute. What truth there is in certain doctrines is a more complex phenomenon. Here is a summary of McGrath’s most important points.


What Doctrine is Not

1)      A self-enclosed “language game”: “Doctrine, like the kerygma, is not something that is just there, demaning that we take it or leave it: it is something which purports to represent adequately and accurately the significance of an historical event, and is open to challenge concerning its adequacy as an interpretation of that event” (31). To dismiss doctrines only an internally-meaningful language with no bearing outside itself (whether for the sake of defeating a specific doctrine [i.e. hell] or as a way of leaving the game altogether) ignores the obvious question of how the community has learned that language in the first place. It came from somewhere; it has a historical genesis.
Besides, to make this move ignores the self-expression of the communities themselves. It was not Athanasius’ understanding that homoousion referred only to other signifiers in the language game of the early church – rather, it had a real, ontological referent. “Doctrines express an experience which has been constituted by the language of the Christian community” (26)

2)      A collection of facts or free-floating propositions: just as doctrines cannot be reduced to the purely social epiphenomena of a language game, doctrines cannot be regarded as the absolute signifiers of Absolute truth. Doctrines are true insofar as they are integrated into communities of worship and service by giving direction and contributing to the self-understanding of the group as it relates itself to its founding narrative. Part of the modern failure of doctrine is the inability to correlate worship, service and doctrine.


What Doctrine is:

1)      Doctrine is progressive: “The need for a ‘rebirth of images’ underlies the genesis of doctrine… The mere repetition of NT formulae had to give way to something more difficult, something more threatening and challenging – the formulation of doctrine, as a synthesis through which the formative and ineliminable conflicts of the Christian tradition could be resolved, or held in creative tension” (3). Thus it is not a conservative but a progressive impulse that moves communities to formulate doctrine in the first place, though, eventually, it is a conservative impulse that moves communities to preserve and teach their doctrine. 

2)      Doctrine is a historical necessity: “The inevitability of doctrine arises… partly on account of the need to interact with a language and a conceptual framework not designed with the specific needs of Christian theology in mind” (4). In a Hellenized environment, the very way of engaging with the Event of Jesus Christ involved doctrinal formulations. There are other contexts where, at least intellectually, this is how the Gospel may be processed.

3)      Doctrines well up from a community and bind it together: “Doctrine is an activity, a process of transmission of the collective wisdom of a community, rather than a passive set of deliverances” (11). Thus doctrines mostly come from outside scholastic thought. To name two examples: “it was the sacramental life of the Christian community which evoked the doctrine of original sin; … [and it was] popular piety which gave rise (1950) to the dogma of the assumption of Mary” (11).

4)      Doctrines have life only insofar as they are meaningful to the community: Pivotal to sustaining doctrine is “the concept of ‘reception’” (11). It is the community that supports doctrine, not the other way around (though there is some mutuality). “Doctrine presupposes the existence of the church” (12). This is perhaps the most counter-intuitive point to some, whose logic seems to run, “because Christ forgave our sins (doctrine of atonement), we gather as a community of redeemed sinners to perpetuate and announce this doctrine.” Rather, doctrine is “an insider phenomenon” (12), and without the context of a community of worship and mission they are, quite rightly, dry and barren, without any function whatsoever and therefore in need of a trash can.

5)      Doctrines help carry the Event that formed the community in the first place: “the impulse which animates the genesis of doctrine is thus prior to any specific doctrinal formulations as such – yet, paradoxically, requires precisely some such doctrinal formulation if it is to be transmitted from one generation to another” (12). The proper context of doctrine is in its role as mediator of the tradition, which is the interpreted experience of the Gospel event. Because it is only through these traditions that the Event can be continually engaged, doctrines are directly concerned with encountering the truth guarded and sustained by the tradition. “Doctrines define the object of faith – God – not in order that God may be comprehended but in order that the believer may relate to God in faith” (78).

6)      Doctrines function as a social demarcators: doctrine is “linked with the affirmation fo the need for certain identity-giving parameters for the community, providing ideological justification for its continued existence” (38). This is not necessarily a positive facet of doctrine, but nonetheless a historically significant one.
Importantly, doctrine was in the early church only one such social demarcator. Christian communities were organized around a core which was not doctrinal but doxological, “a cluster of attitudes, practices, beliefs and expectations, shaped by patterns of worship adoration and prayer” (40-41). As the church itself became culturally normative under Constantine, the imperative of doctrinal uniformity intensified with increased social status and responsibility. All the same, the medieval heresies were “social and political movements, posing a challenge to medieval society which far transcended the sphere of ideas” (42). Heresy did not just have intellectual implications but social ones. Over time the tendency has been for church communities to invest more of their identity in doctrinal formulations. 


The Dangers of Doctrine:

1)      Loyalty to out-of date, misunderstood doctrines: Though “the genesis of doctrine lies in the exodus from uncritical repetition of the narrative heritage of the past” (7), there is always a danger of sinking into an uncritical repetition of the forms of that very exodus. The possibility of taking for granted the adaptations of scripture into the cultural framework undergone by our ancestors of the faith forever haunts us. The only true way out of this danger is through doctrine. “The Nicene crisis over the non-biblical term homoousios highlighted the inadequacies of a theology of repetition, of the strict adherence to archaic verbal formulae. The meaning of the past was threatened with obliteration through  the passage of time, as the church lost sight of the original meanings of past forms and, by failing to restate and interpret them, became prone to the temptation to invest them unconsciously with new and unintended meanings” (6).

2)      Self-entrapment in a fixed doctrinal identity: Though doctrines serve and have served as important social demarcators, there is a possibility that communities dispense of all other social demarcators but doctrinal boundaries. Unfortunately, this has more of an entrapping effect than anything else on the community, who find themselves in a straightjacket and punished for any attempts to escape. Because doctrine is linked with specific historical circumstances, it is important for churches to be as flexible as those circumstances are fickle. For example, it is only at present that “agreement [may] be reached between Lutheran and Roman Catholics on justification… [since] the doctrine of justification by faith alone was of essential importance as a criterion of social cohesiveness to sixteenth-century Lutheranism in its formative phase: it has that function no longer” (46). McGrath notes, importantly, that “this is not to deny that the doctrine is true, even if its central insights may be accommodated within a different framework acceptable both to Roman Catholics and Lutherans” (47).

3)      The doctrinal eclipse of the Gospel event: “Doctrine provides the conceptual framework by which the scriptural narrative is interpreted. It is not an arbitrary framework, however, but one which is suggested by that narrative, and intimated (however provisionally) by scripture itself.” The danger is therefore located in the possibility that doctrine strays too far from its biblical roots, grows strong enough to compete with those biblical roots, and, when it comes down to it, wins the cage-match. For some Evangelicals, the necessity of having “a personal relationship with their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” has, for all intents and purposes, achieved doctrinal status. This “doctrine” forms the basis of their spirituality, so much so that not even the Bible can undermine it!
Luther saw the same phenomenon among “Platonic” Christians, who, he thought, were more loyal to the categories of a platonic metaphysics which formed their doctrinal language than they were to scripture itself. Thus his concern became “to allow the scriptural narrative of Jesus as Nazareth, as it is focused upon the crucified Christ, to generate its own framework of conceptualities. Luther’s autonomy of the scriptural narrative does not involve the rejection of metaphysics; it merely denies to any preconceived metaphysics the right to impose its interpretive framework” (65). Let that last point be noted among those who repeat Sola Scriptura uncritically.


What about Hell then?

Clearly, given all that McGrath has explicated, to treat the doctrine of hell as a proposition about the nature of reality is to take so much for granted that it nearly makes its rejection meaningless. As we can see from McGrath’s history, when doctrines have become so abstracted from community life, liturgy, social demarcations, etc., that their essence is that of a metaphysical truth claim within a self-consistent philosophical system, they are no longer what they used to be; they have become lifeless and questionable not on the level of their ontological viability (for all we could ever know, there is a hell, and we must remain in this epistemological humility) but on the level of their spiritual, sociological and ecclesiastical significance.

Based on McGrath’s analysis of the history of doctrine, I want to propose that to reject hell as a doctrine is not nearly so radical, nor so psychologically efficacious (in terms of finding peace and purpose), as rejecting the attitude towards doctrines that makes the doctrine of hell so oppressive in the first place. Fundamentalist who react against their roots by rejecting the most utilized doctrine, hell, have not entirely liberated themselves, for some in fact still fear its possibility (“what if there is a hell, and I’m going there because I don’t believe in it…!” – it hits them in the quiet of the night) and most feel that their liberation can only be meaningful if they are under the aegis of yet another doctrine, this time the doctrine of “the nonexistence of hell.” They are fundamentalists either way, because their attitude to truth and doctrine stays the same. Neither are they totally psychologically liberated, even if they cease to fear damnation every second of the day.

What is this revised attitude towards doctrine which promises this liberation and meaning? There are two major adjustments. It is important to keep in mind, though, that what allows these two adjustments of disposition is the impossibility of a rigid fundamentalist attitude to doctrine itself – rather than just to certain important doctrines, those deemed the “fundamentals” – due to the historic instability of the concept, as demonstrated in McGrath’s study.

1)      First, doctrine must be existentially significant to be significant at all. As an intellectual set of presuppositions, doctrines are meaningful only within a philosophical system – in other words not personally meaningful. Therefore doctrine ought not to be approached as a naked belief (on the level of opinion, reasonable or not), but “as a means of generating an atmosphere of expectation, of removing obstacles, of orienting oneself in an appropriate manner, in order that the risen Christ may be encountered and known, and his benefits appropriated” (127). When doctrines become abstract enough to be debated without more than loyalties to an intellectual system being at stake, they have became not means but obstacles to the appropriation of the Christian faith. I do not think that the current justification/sanctification debate between Piper and Wright is the best example, since it is so important, but it may became dangerously centered around ecclesiological loyalty to those who follow it. When it is used appropriately, “doctrine is belief oriented towards action, in order that Christ may be ‘grapsed’” (127).

2)      The second adjustment in attitude includes a humility that is read to hold doctrine accountable to Scripture. However, this is a nuanced point which can mean many things to many groups. It does not simply mean we must chuck anything that is not directly found in Scripture (the Trinity would have to go if this were the case), but that which does not follow from the best interpretation we have of Scripture at the moment. Because our scriptural hermeneutic is historically contingent and ever-growing/changing, consequently so are our doctrines. There is a hierarchy here which goes: Jesus > the NT account of Jesus > interpretation of the NT > the doctrines that follow from this interpretation. When this hierarchy is reversed, doctrines grow cold and stagnant. I’ve heard it said by someone that they would rather lose their Christology than their doctrine of scripture. This is an example of a reversed hierarchy, because the person of Jesus provided the force for the formation early church communities, their collected stories (which became the gospels), the resultant doctrines, etc., in the first place. As McGrath is careful to remind us, the authority of scripture rests on what is before Scripture: both “the authority of scripture and the manner in which scripture is to be interpreted, rest on its perceived ability to mediate the experience of the risen Christ to posterity” (129).
Basically, what this amounts to is a “non-dogmatic attitude to dogma,” or doctrine, sustained by a historical sense of the variety and transiency latent in the concept. This attitude also implies a pre-engagement and pre-commitment to the truth of Jesus Christ, who revealed a radically new way of living and loving which is passed on through the diverse rivulets and rivers of the Christian tradition and who cannot be known outside of these mediums (scripture, traditional spiritual practices, doctrine, etc.). In this sense, it is the Event of Jesus Christ that Christians owe ultimate allegiance to first, while doctrine comes second – even though it is doctrine which, in part, gives Jesus Christ to us.


Why is this attitude important?

When you have your differences, what is the best way to create a constructive dialogue? Oddly enough, it may be to find differences on a new level. For example: being a liberal disagreeing with a conservative on a doctrinal point is one thing; disagreeing with a conservative about the difference between liberals and conservatives is a whole other can of worms. This tack prevents you from simply “agreeing to disagree” – the most unproductive or results, albeit the most mutually mollifying option available. “Disagreeing about the disagreement” is where it’s at. It may take you both into a realm beyond your conservative or liberal loyalties, and will at least prevent the dialogue from ending prematurely.


In summary, then, this is what I would suggest to those critical of certain doctrine: instead of rejecting the doctrine, which is the reactionary thing to do (one is still playing the other’s game), it is better to reject their ideas of what doctrines are, which ground all their particular doctrine. By pulling this rug out from under them, you have done the military equivalent of taking out the enemy’s mastermind rather than taking out their infantry, one by one. This, I argue, is the radical and productive response. It circumvents all the bull-manure and gets right down to the disagreement that really matters. 


Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Does God Know What It Is Like To Be Me?

I am curious whether or not it makes philosophical sense to say that "God knows what it is like to be me," i.e. God knows what it is like to not be God, but a specific individual person – and not in the abstract or in Jesus Christ, but in this or that individual person: Fred Unger here, or Patricia Spacey there; and I am curious how significant the answer is theologically.

I can already say how significant the answer is to me personally: it is of cosmic import. For it has direct bearing on whether or not I can call my experience “secret” and, I suppose, either take pride or despair at the unchangeable and helpless exclusivity of experienced person-hood. The question determines whether I am the unique and sole participant in something in the universe that not even God can share in, or whether God shares in that too.

Here is my attempt at an answer. I submit, however, that at any point in time God could explode the categories I use below.

If God knows me better than I know myself, does it not then follow that he does not know me as I know me? God may know me inside and out, but does this not mean he cannot know what it is like to be me who does not know myself inside out? So then – because there is, after all, no one other than God who might possibly come close to partaking in the “me-ness” of me – is not my experience of myself truly an absolutely and irrevocably unique “thing” in all of creation and what transcends creation? How mind-blowing if that is true...

And it does seem to be true, for we end up making God’s omnipotence and omniscience strangely meaningless if he can make circles squares, create a boulder too big for him to lift, and experience my experience, that is, what it is like to be me, this particular finite, mortal human being. Even if he does have a kind of internal access to my consciousness and even if he is (in a sense hopelessly beyond my understanding) more intimate to myself than I am to myself, God is still God in doing all this and knowing all this... isn’t he? It would, if this were true, be to encroach upon nonsense if we extended God’s power and empathetic genius to the ability to experience my experience.

This is more than the question of qualia in general – Does God know what it is like to be a bat? Of course! – but a question of a deeper, more specific qualia, namely, my qualia, my own personal qualia which (and this is precisely part of its nature, precisely the part that I am questioning whether God can share) I could never know as such because I can compare it to no other qualia. Given this, we might say: God can compare qualias, and therefore he cannot experience what it is like not to be able to compare qualias. He cannot make a circle a square. These are not weakness but only nonsense.

Ok, so here is where God explodes the categories...

In fact, God is capable of knowing not-God; God the Almighty, in Jesus Christ, knows weakness. This event disturbs our categories, for within the categories it is impossible – “nonsense” as I have said. There seems to be a problem, therefore, an unforeseen shortcoming, in this analytic language which says to God something like, “you cannot make a being greater than yourself!” And here is the problem: we can never get to the point where we may even say this to God, for we never get to God! God is always already greater than the god we think we are addressing. And this is the reason: (God ) > (God + The World) - according to Pannenberg's formula. The language we use to say to God, “you cannot make a being greater than yourself” objectifies God; however, this formula, which is the formula of the via ementia, preserves the idea of the True Infinite, for God in being infinite must necessarily be always greater than anything we could call him, even the infinite! This is the definition that protects God from being an object.

Therefore, in answer to the question, we must bow before the inexpressible.