“Welcome to the battlefield,” writes Ross Douthat in the New York Times yesterday. That sentence concludes a piece in which he responds to a letter sent to the Times by a sizable group of Catholic scholars, and that letter, in turn, was written in response to a series of columns by Douthat, particularly one two weeks ago.

I find the “battlefield” image inappropriate for a dispute over what God asks of us. Have we not had enough of killing as a response to religious difference? Nevertheless I am finding myself fascinated by the disagreement Douthat has waded into.

Christ_Pantocrator_mosaic_from_Hagia_SophiaThe substantive question at issue is whether divorced Catholics can be allowed to take Communion, or whether, as is the current posture of the church, those once ostensibly married have to have their marriages annulled before Communion is again available to them. Pope Francis recently convened a synod of bishops on the family. Douthat has written that Pope Francis wants to move the Church in a more liberal direction on the question of divorce. “[He] deliberately started this civil war,” Douthat wrote in September. (Again with the inappropriate military metaphors.)

That question of divorce has some interest for me but only a little. The annulment process in Roman Catholicism has long seemed to this outsider a convenient workaround for the New Testament’s bracing clarity that divorce is wrong (Matthew 19, 1 Corinthians 7, etc.). I have focused more on those evangelicals who decry homosexuality as a sin (a topic on which Jesus is silent and Paul unclear) but who pass over divorce in silence (where clarity abounds in the New Testament).

Much more interesting to me is where we look for authority about what God asks of us. I know this question makes some people uncomfortable. But if you believe that there is right and wrong in the world (you do, don’t you?) and that you should try to do right things, you have to ask (don’t you?) who or what has the authority to say what is right and what is wrong.

For many Evangelicals, the answer is the Bible: that’s the sole source of authority. For me, that answer has two huge problems. One is that even a cursory look at how the Bible was assembled in the centuries after Jesus shows a deeply political process among human beings. I love politics as a way to work through disputes but I don’t look to it for Final Answers to Life’s Big Questions. The other problem is that as soon as Protestant reformers begin insisting on the Bible as the sole source of authority we have an explosion of schisms.

The Protestant Reformation’s insistence on the Bible alone as a source of authority was a challenge to the Roman Catholic view that authority is a three-legged stool resting on scripture, tradition, and the church. Ross Douthat is writing about how the Roman Catholic Church draws on these three sources in developing doctrine and teaching its members.  (I think he undervalues the Pope’s interest in keeping the church’s teachings vital and fresh.) The Catholic scholars are saying in their letter that he doesn’t really know understand enough to plunge into this matter. Generally I dismiss out of hand public arguments that someone shouldn’t offer an opinion because s/he doesn’t have the right credentials. In this case I think the Catholic scholars wrote their letter because they took Douthat to be hurling around charges of “heresy,” which considerably ups the stakes and can put people at risk.

On the question of sources of authority, I’ve come to prefer the Roman Catholic view to the Reformation view. Insistence on the Bible alone is a dangerous turn, I believe. (I do nevertheless understand how early Protestant reformers believed the Church had drifted a long way from Bible teachings.) Both the Catholic and the Evangelical answers put the sources of authority somewhere in the past and come dangerously close to saying that we in the present can only mess things up.

For this Quaker (and for many Quakers) there is a sturdier source of authority in the present: in waiting worship to listen for God speaking to us now. The Bible, tradition, and religious figures from the past and present can all prepare us to hear God. These are not to be cast aside. But they are not final sources of authority. Putting weight on waiting worship leads us be reluctant to crystallizing doctrine in creeds, and it leads us to teach through advices and queries rather than long declarative affirmations that some write for others.

The past may have gotten it right about many, many questions, and we’d do well to embrace those answers. Just maybe the past has got it wrong on some questions, however, and we need to find ways to go forward to a better place. I believe God is speaking to each and to all of us, today, and that this is the best source of authority.

[also posted on River View Friend.]

Views: 957

Comment by Howard Brod on 11th mo. 2, 2015 at 1:02pm

Thanks Doug.  I so appreciate the content of this post!

Comment by James C Schultz on 11th mo. 2, 2015 at 4:18pm

The problem is that not all "waiting worship" is equal.  I meet Quakers who don't sense anything during "waiting worship".  If we are talking about worship waiting on the Holy Spirit to light the way I would be in full agreement.  If we are talking about a gathering concerned about solving an issue using the latest poll or idea popular in a given culture I would have to disagree.  I believe the people who decided on what writings should be in the Bible did so as a gathered body.  Whether it was what you or I would consider waiting worship heaven only knows.  If it was it certainly would lend a lot of authority to it.  Certainly a "gathered" meeting in waiting worship is the ideal way to translate scripture into a particular issue a meeting has decided needs to be faced.  I believe the appropriate scripture is

2Co_3:6 Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

Comment by Doug Bennett on 11th mo. 2, 2015 at 5:27pm

I entirely agree that waiting worship varies considerably in depth and power. On some occasions it seems very shallow, and on others I am carried to new places. We may be children of God but we are all too human. Waiting worship has a riskiness to it that I appreciate. The more programmed a form of worship, the more I know what to expect -- but also I feel a lower ceiling of possibility. Even ion the best of occasions for worship, I never feel we leave human weakness entirely behind. That's too much to expect. So whatever quality I hope was in the worship that gathered writings into our Bible, I'm reluctant to expect that the resulting text is innocent of traces of the customs or even  prejudices of the time of their composition. For me, declarations of certainty on anyone's part are suspect. 

Comment by William F Rushby on 11th mo. 2, 2015 at 7:20pm

Douglas Bennett raises the question of how the church arrived at the canon of the Bible.  Wikipedia has two excellent essays on this subject.  One is entitled “Biblical canon”.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_canon  The other is entitled “Development of the Christian biblical canon.”   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Development_of_the_Christian_biblical_canon

The Biblical canon essay asserts that “A biblical canon, or canon of scripture,[ is a list of books considered to be authoritative scripture by a particular religious community.”  There are two general models of the development of the canon.  The first sees the canon developing gradually, based on which books were accepted by the early churches as useful and authoritative.  The “Development” essay in Wikipedia notes that “Thus, while there was plenty of discussion in the Early Church over the New Testament canon, the ‘major’ writings were accepted by almost all Christian authorities by the middle of the second century.”  This model sees the canon as the outcome of a gradually emerging consensus within the church.

Another model has become popular recently.  It attempts to deconstruct the “emerging consensus” notion, and sees the canon as a norm imposed on the church by the “powers that be” of the 5th Century or so.  The key concepts here are political manipulation and censorship.   This model claims that many spiritual and useful scriptural materials were omitted from the canon because they violated the politically-sanctioned orthodoxy of the time.  It also highlights discrepancies in biblical texts, suggesting that there is no reliable text available.  I associate this model with the work of Bart D. Ehrman.  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bart_D._Ehrman  If you look at the evaluation of Ehrman’s work, you will note that there is no widespread scholarly consensus supporting his model.  One scholar summarizes the cricticisms of Ehrman’s model, as follows; “Ehrman overstates the extent and importance of textual variants in the New Testament manuscripts, and that Ehrman's ‘claim that the biblical canon was assembled for political reasons is equally unfounded.’”

Douglas Bennett appears to swallow “Ehrman” whole, thereby dismissing in one easy stroke the traditional consensus on how the canon developed.  Obviously, I lean toward the “emerging consensus” model!

I have more to say about Douglas Bennett's essay but, right now, I need to go out and get the sheep in.  A few nights ago, I heard a chorus of coyotes singing, I think down near the river.  I surmised that they were hungry!  This is not a food pantry for wild canines!

Comment by Howard Brod on 11th mo. 2, 2015 at 8:28pm

Whether an "idol" is made by consensus or politics matters little to this Quaker. It's still been made into an idol.

Comment by William F Rushby on 11th mo. 2, 2015 at 8:46pm

Howard is busy attaching the label "idol" to, it seems, anything he doesn't approve of.  I submit that he is using the term much too loosely, and attempting to shut down reasoned discussion with a slogan.

Comment by Howard Brod on 11th mo. 2, 2015 at 9:13pm

Thank you Bill for the personal slam.  It is beneath you. I am sorry that my view is so threatening to you.

I sincerely invite discussion on my view.  That is why I offer my view here and elsewhere.

Comment by William F Rushby on 11th mo. 2, 2015 at 9:36pm

Howard: I like you, and censored what I wrote initially, trying (apparently unsuccessfully) to make my point without offending you.  I hope you get a good night's rest, and remember all of the nice comments I have sent in your direction!!  Still your friend, Bill

Comment by Howard Brod on 11th mo. 2, 2015 at 9:56pm

No hard feelings Bill. 

I just keep thinking about the Golden Calf that the Israelites made to help them visualize God, who had just told Moses simply "I am" to explain his nature and essence.  Moses was so upset upon seeing the Israelites using something material to represent God on Earth so they could understand the Spirit that is God, that he threw the 10 commandments down the mountain.  And I see no difference when modern Christians insist that a book (the Bible) is necessary to understand the nature of God.  The term idolatry is used in Christianity and Judaism to indicate anything we place between us and God.  We all utilize all sorts of "idols" often in place of the relationship we should be having directly with the eternal Spirit.  When we must consult a collection of books before we can answer the call of Light and Love that is our home, something is amiss.  That book has become more important than the 'I Am' that is already there within us and for us. 

There!  I've done it again. 

Comment by James C Schultz on 11th mo. 3, 2015 at 12:16am

It's not necessarily an idol when it represents God.  It's an idol when it replaces God.

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