“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: 984

Comment by Doug Bennett on 11th mo. 3, 2015 at 9:22am

I don't think Ehrman's views on the formation of the canon have much to do with what I've written. Even if the Bible emerged from a largely steady process of acclamation, it's a work of human hands. Its sanctification is a further work of human hands. And its enthronement as the sole source of authority (by some) yet a further work of human hands.  I revere it but I don't take it to be infallible nor do I take it to be easy to understand.  I'm regularly struck at how often the disciples are confused by Jesus's teachings. And I don't recall any passage where Jesus asks a disciple to take notes so the day's teaching would be recorded faithfully.  God speaks to us today and we should listen. The Bible is a substantial help in that, but it isn't the Last Word.  That's all I'm saying. 

Comment by Forrest Curo on 11th mo. 3, 2015 at 10:08am

How to say exactly when, or how much, an idea or image of someone displaces our relationship with even another human being, whom we can literally see and hear...? If you've ever returned home to a doting mother and ended up feeling like you'd been shrunk, you know how innocently something like this can happen.

Something John D. Crossan said recently about the Bible and how it was written in the first place rings very true to my reading of it:  "As in the Old Testament so in the New, as with Torah so with Paul, a rhythm of assertion -and-subversion is emphatically present. A vision of the radicality of God is put forth, and then later, we see that vision domesticated and integrated into the normalcy of civilization so that the established order of life is maintained. Furthermore, both elements are sited from, in one [of his examples] the mouth of God and, in the other, the pen of Paul."

That is, people or institutions are first inspired by a direct, and extremely clear, Message -- in Crossan's Torah example, that land has to be periodically restored to the family working it, because it belongs to God and never could have been validly sold in the first place, and in C's Pauline example, that no Christian can own a Christian slave -- and then somebody in the same religious institution says to himself something like, 'Oh no, we can't have this!' and then corrects the error to allow the established customs.  So we get multitudes of malnourished day-laborers and beggars together with very rich Israelite landowners in Jesus' day; and we have 'Paul' issuing later instructions about how Christian slaves and slaveowners should just get along because God has put them in their current roles.

More to the point: We get Jesus telling us to love our enemies so as to be like God; and then later in the development of Christianity (in Revelation and even in some apocalyptic quotes within the Gospels) )we have visions of "Jesus" coming back to Earth to perpetrate divine violence against sinful humanity; as though God could suddenly say, "All right, that makes 70 X 7 plus one times; and now you're toast!"

Comment by Keith Saylor on 11th mo. 3, 2015 at 10:16am

James. An outward thing or idea that re-presents or that is authorized to stand in place of the immediate and direct experience of the Presence of God in our conscious and conscience is iconographic. The outward icon is out in front of direct inward experience by its very existence. A conscious and conscience that is illuminated by and formed by re-presentations, similitudes, icons, idols is a conscious and conscience the re-places the direct and immediate experience of Presence itself in a form other than direct inward experience itself. That the icon, in some cases, may serve as a conduit to immediacy itself does not excuse the use of it. The use of re-presentations, icons, or idols to run out in front of the immediate presence of God to excuse or mediate Presence itself is by its very nature iconography or idolatry. I am not being judgmental in the sense of condemnation. I am describing the nature of a conscious anchored in and c conscience form by outward forms whether those forms are material or ideological. A conscious anchored in and a conscience informed by direct and un-re-presented Presence itself is no longer needful of re-presentations, or icons, or idols, to know and life in the Presence of God. In the same way that the people of Israel attempted to excuse their needfulness  of "images of God" that is, re-presentations, icons, idols, images,similitudes to "lead" or go out in front of them by implying they needed them to worship God, so today, a conscious anchored in and a conscience informed by outward forms excuses more subtle and different outward forms to mediate the presence of God by admitting to their needfulness for worship. This use of icons is re-presenting outward forms, images, icons, idols, out in front of Presence itself. Because un-re-presented Presence itself is available to us all, through patient waiting is our measure of inward Light, there is no excuse for re-presentations. 

Comment by Keith Saylor on 11th mo. 3, 2015 at 10:16am

James. An outward thing or idea that re-presents or that is authorized to stand in place of the immediate and direct experience of the Presence of God in our conscious and conscience is iconographic. The outward icon is out in front of direct inward experience by its very existence. A conscious and conscience that is illuminated by and formed by re-presentations, similitudes, icons, idols is a conscious and conscience the re-places the direct and immediate experience of Presence itself in a form other than direct inward experience itself. That the icon, in some cases, may serve as a conduit to immediacy itself does not excuse the use of it. The use of re-presentations, icons, or idols to run out in front of the immediate presence of God to excuse or mediate Presence itself is by its very nature iconography or idolatry. I am not being judgmental in the sense of condemnation. I am describing the nature of a conscious anchored in and c conscience form by outward forms whether those forms are material or ideological. A conscious anchored in and a conscience informed by direct and un-re-presented Presence itself is no longer needful of re-presentations, or icons, or idols, to know and life in the Presence of God. In the same way that the people of Israel attempted to excuse their needfulness  of "images of God" that is, re-presentations, icons, idols, images,similitudes to "lead" or go out in front of them by implying they needed them to worship God, so today, a conscious anchored in and a conscience informed by outward forms excuses more subtle and different outward forms to mediate the presence of God by admitting to their needfulness for worship. This use of icons is re-presenting outward forms, images, icons, idols, out in front of Presence itself. Because un-re-presented Presence itself is available to us all, through patient waiting is our measure of inward Light, there is no excuse for re-presentations. 

Comment by William F Rushby on 11th mo. 3, 2015 at 10:52am

Douglas Bennett wrote: "I believe God is speaking to each and to all of us, today, and that this is the best source of authority."

The key phrase here is "I believe God is speaking to each and to all of us, today..."  This immediately raises the question of how we can know when it is God speaking to us, and not the madding crowd, ...or the Evil One.  And this is where the authority of the Bible becomes a critical issue!  How do we discern the spirits,  to know when the voice speaking to us is God's, or the latest fad, or the cunning Deceiver???

We are called to be the Society of Friends, and not the Society of Trends (Geoffrey Kaiser's turn of phrase)!

Comment by Doug Bennett on 11th mo. 3, 2015 at 11:15am

Yes. "How can we know when it is God speaking to us, and not the madding crowd?"  Absolutely.  That's a big toughy for me.  And there's no avoiding it, I find.  Any lunge towards a source of certainty (creed, Bible, expert) worries me. Worship and worship again; still myself; listen to others and read spiritual seekers from a range of circumstances and moods across the years (including of course the Bible); be cautious in reaching conclusions; and know that compass north is love: these are what I rely upon. 

Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 11th mo. 3, 2015 at 11:38am

Hello Doug: Where to place authority has bedeviled mankind since the Fall in the Garden. The Quakers (unlike the Catholics and the Protestants) having placed primary authority in the Spirit is not without problem, since unredeemed humanity does not know the Spirit, and does not know that it does not know. Like the pre-Pentecost disciples, we can't understand the inspired words leading us to salvation. In come the Scriptures to help us see that we don't see.

To rightly understand the Scriptures, we must first come "through by the Spirit and power of God to Christ...and [be] led by the Holy Ghost into the truth and substance of the Scriptures, sitting down in him who is the author and end of them, then are they read and understood with profit and great delight" (Nickalls, 32). 

Until that great Day, the Scriptures can, nevertheless, keep us or move us into the ready position to receive salvation. The inspired passages, as Paul says in 2 Tim. 3:16-17 "have [their] use for teaching the truth and refuting error, or for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind."

Comment by Keith Saylor on 11th mo. 3, 2015 at 12:18pm
There are those who would excuse advocacy for and adherence to outward forms by pointing to those people who they perceive do not know the Spirit. As if it is their prerogative to establish and promote icons to help those who are judged not of the Spirit. They preach-up representative images and thoughts and, in doing so re-place the prerogative of Christ through the establishment of outward forms. It is not the prerogative of men and women to judge the Spirit in others and to lead them to the Spirit. It is the prerogative of the inward Spirit of Christ working within the conscious and conscience of people. They say you can only understand Scripture by the working of the Spirit but then go about telling those who they judge not of the Spirit to follow the outward letter of scripture. In their want to excuse the establishment of outward forms for the sake of those who they judge not of the Spirit, the trample all over the prerogative of Christ and risk the enchantment of the Children of God in submission to outward forms which is idolatry.
Comment by Diane Benton on 11th mo. 3, 2015 at 1:31pm

My trust is in one thing and one thing only, Spirit's ability to make God known.  As to how I know if I'm hearing God, in addition to using all of the things on Doug's list, the most immediate one is being made aware that the inward light is dimming and being granted repentance.

Comment by Howard Brod on 11th mo. 3, 2015 at 1:36pm

Doug Bennett wrote above:

"Yes. "How can we know when it is God speaking to us, and not the madding crowd?"  Absolutely.  That's a big toughy for me.  And there's no avoiding it, I find.  Any lunge towards a source of certainty (creed, Bible, expert) worries me. Worship and worship again; still myself; listen to others and read spiritual seekers from a range of circumstances and moods across the years (including of course the Bible); be cautious in reaching conclusions; and know that compass north is love: these are what I rely upon."

Doug speaks my mind and he reminds me that human experience throughout the ages confirms that "God is Love".  And that deep Love which is the essence of God is enough for me. As I enter silence in expectant waiting, the Spirit has never failed to enlighten me with the power of Godly love, which is capable of uniting every human being if we would only turn to it.  The words of others (in the Bible, in my Quaker meeting, in any book, in any blog) pale in comparison.  The reality is that the books in the Bible are the words of humans who have had spiritual experiences.  Don't we have the ability to have our own, or do we prefer to be mediated by these human Bible writers? 

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