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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

When Christian Doctrine Fails Us

The Buddha, the Enlightened One, was once teaching his disciples about his own doctrine. To explain, he gave them a parable of a man with a raft. He said to imagine a man who came to a river too deep to wade and too wide to swim. The man wished to cross the river but, there being no bridge, decided to build a raft in order to cross. He built the raft and exerting himself using his hands and feet crossed to the other side. The Buddha then asked his disciples if the man would be wise to say, "This raft was a good thing. I shall strap it to my back and carry it on my journey so that it may continue to be valuable for me." The disciples heard this and answered, "No, that would be quite foolish."

Then the Buddha asked his disciples to imagine the same man and the same river and the same raft and the same exertion and the same crossing. And upon reaching the opposite shore, this time the man says, "This raft was a good thing. I shall tie it up here and leave it by the shore and continue on my journey." The Buddha asked his disciples if this would be wise, and they answered, "Yes."

The Buddha then gets to the heart of the matter and says, "Like this raft, my doctrine is for crossing over and not for carrying."

Will Assent Save You?

As Christians, what does this mean for us? Can we simply ignore this strange "eastern" teaching as pagan or perhaps even anti-Christian? If it wasn't said by someone from our community, can it still be true?

I worry that Christian doctrine, though by no means untrue, is nevertheless failing our communities when it promises salvation.

The problem isn't that our doctrines are unsound, too few, or too undeveloped. The problem is that we think by assenting to a belief or fact, we will gain salvation. The problem is that we think merely acknowledging doctrine will transform us.

We have entire religious communities - including Evangelical, mainline Protestant, and Catholic - who think that they're going to get to heaven because they have all the correct beliefs and moral purity codes. Belief is not transformation and it's not Christ-likeness. If we're honest, we can admit that most doctrine requires very little of us; someone who goes from disbelieving the Virgin Birth to believing it really doesn't need to undergo any real transformation of the heart and very little of the head.

When we finally die and encounter perfect union with God, S/He isn't going to pull out her/his book and say, "Congratulations! You assented to all 21 of our essential doctrines so come on in!" 

Doctrines are not important for their own sake. We forget that the entire purpose of doctrine is to illuminate, to draw us into deeper layers of the Divine Mystery, which means deeper layers of knowing (and of unknowing). Doctrine is only valuable insofar as it points us toward Truth. It is for crossing over and not for carrying.

That's not to say we can discard doctrine at will. That would be too simplistic. But at some point we should be reminded that though Paul often uses "faith in Christ" as a requisite for salvation, does that merely mean believing in an historical event - that Christ died for the sins of the world, including your own?

Because it is a doctrine. A powerful one that can point you toward a place you should be but not one that will satisfy you if you simply strap it to your back. This is why we have so many Christians who seem eerily reflective of their non-Christian neighbors as if the division were a only a mirror instead of the Divine Love living through them.

Information Instead of Transformation

I worry that the crisis of Christianity isn't a shortage of priests or secularism or issues of sexuality but rather that few of us experience actual transformation. The Church too often informs us (of doctrines) rather than transforms us. And I now believe that the transformation is the much more essential step. The information and the label of "Christian" is still important but secondary in the Kingdom of God.

C. S. Lewis believed this too. How else could he advocate as he did in The Last Battle that those who imitated God's Love but were adherents to the wrong religion were still saved? It seems Lewis took to heart Christ's teaching on the sheep and the goats.

And this emphasis on doctrine leading you to an experience of Truth is all that seems to matter. Perhaps this is why Christ never says, "You must have a personal relationship with me" or "Say the sinner's prayer" but simply, "Follow me." While all of these can belong, a journey with God is much more demanding than signing our names to a statement of belief.

The Buddha knew this too and illustrated it beautifully with the raft. But it's because crossing over is the only way to experience God. Carrying God as a possession isn't enough. 

I wonder if Christ would say to us as the Buddha said to his disciple, 
If you were to follow the Dharma (The Way) purely out of love for me or because you respect me, I would not accept you as disciple. But if you follow the Dharma because you have yourself experienced its truth, because you understand and act accordingly - only under these conditions have you the right to call yourself a disciple of the Exalted One.
If we started emphasizing total transformation as higher than total assent to doctrine, wouldn't we find that we were a people for journeying well instead of a people self-assured with the right answers? Journeying together asks more from us. We should trust that.

Related Posts:
The Spirit of the Law

God in Evolution
When the Church Fails Homosexuals

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