“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: 983

Comment by Forrest Curo on 11th mo. 4, 2015 at 7:06pm

Keith, you should certainly hold to whatever Message you feel the Spirit makes clear to you -- but I was simply saying what it's been showing me over this lifetime so far: that I don't need to Get It All Right (although I try) because God remains available to straighten me out by any of a variety of different means. Some means are no doubt better than others (Crashing my bike and needing crutches for a couple weeks was among my least favorite Learning Experiences) but I need to keep my trust in God, not in myself or in anybody's Party Line about what is or is not 'sufficient' for me. Is God internally present? Well, sure! But also present in people who seek and find the best nourishment for their current condition -- in a great many ways.

Comment by Howard Brod on 11th mo. 4, 2015 at 7:44pm

Bill, your reasoning about 'the fallacy of using Love of self and others as a guide over using biblical passages' is flawed, my Friend.  So many people have used biblical passages to justify all sorts of injustices and cruelties throughout Christian history.  Bombing abortion clinics, or justifying slavery, or engaging in prejudicial actions, or taking your daughter to her death with yourself - were all done in the name of biblical teaching.  In the case of Norman Morrison (which you bring up), he modeled his action of taking his daughter "to sacrifice" with himself after the biblical story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac.  His head was obviously full of the Bible.

Bottom line: Whether one is dedicated to living according to biblical teaching or the guidance of eternal Love and Light, likely cannot counter severe mental illness.  But the call of Love and Light can change a cruel heart that is looking for biblical justification for all sorts of heinous acts; justification that can easily be found and endorsed within the pages of the Bible.  Why can it be found there?  Simply because it was written by humans no better than you and I, many of whom had ego-oriented agendas.  And same ego-oriented agendas were afoot with the canonization of the Bible too.  That is so obvious upon reading those ancient Christian works that did not make the biblical cut.  Some of them are more inspiring and moving than the biblical books that made it - take the Gospel of Thomas for example.

Comment by William F Rushby on 11th mo. 4, 2015 at 7:52pm

Wow, Howard, you have it all wrapped up in two paragraphs!

I was a grad student and an active Friend back when Norman Morrison committed suicide.  I don't recall that he made any  written statements (except perhaps to his wife), and I certainly don't think that he, as a card-carrying liberal Friend, was into the Bible, either a little or a lot.  Can you provide documentation for your claims, or are they merely offered off the top of your head???

Comment by Keith Saylor on 11th mo. 4, 2015 at 7:55pm

"I need to keep my trust in God, not in myself or in anybody's Party Line about what is or is not 'sufficient' for me."

Forrest. Where is your trust in God? Where are you “keeping” your trust in God?  Where is God?


Comment by William F Rushby on 11th mo. 4, 2015 at 8:01pm

Furthermore, I don't regard "love" as a fallacy.  It is a Biblical teaching!  Eternal love and light are not values that just sprang up out of a vacuum.  They are grounded in the Biblical ethos which underlies western civilization!

The issue here is how one moves from love as an abstract value to the specifics of a loving course of action.  This is where the action is!

Comment by Howard Brod on 11th mo. 4, 2015 at 8:04pm

To his wife, Norman Morrison wrote on the day of his act:

Dearest Anne:

For weeks even months I have been praying only that I be shown what I must do. This morning with no warning I was Shown as clearly as I was shown that Friday night in August, 1955, that you would be my wife. ... And like Abraham, I dare not go without my child. Know that I love thee but must act. ...


This is well documented.  He was a Hicksite Quaker - but it was 1965 and biblical use was heavily used in Hicksite meetings at that time.  And I will verify to you that there are still plenty of liberal Quakers that read the Bible regularly.  Rarely, do I raise my head during worship that I don't see at least one or two Friends reading the Bible in silence. 

Comment by Howard Brod on 11th mo. 4, 2015 at 8:06pm

My point, though, is that mental illness was the source of his act - not the Bible and not 'Love and Light'.  But if you are going crazy, the Bible is the best place to find something to emulate that is horrible.

Comment by William F Rushby on 11th mo. 4, 2015 at 8:22pm

... And like Abraham, I dare not go without my child. Know that I love thee but must act. ...   

Howard, this is a rather brief snippet (to use a favorite word of Douglas Bennett's) to support your claim that Norman Morrison was immersed in Bible and used it as his guide.  If he had taken the Abraham/Isaac story as his model, he would have planned to sacrificed the child but not himself.  What exactly is well documented here?  A part of a sentence???

I attended liberal meetings back in the 60s.  The only people I recall referencing the Bible in those meetings were Christians, mostly conservative Friends and attenders, or Mennonites.  Where is your documentation that the Bible was "heavily used" among Hicksite Friends at that time?  I was on the scene,  and I didn't see it, either in New York State or Michigan!

Comment by William F Rushby on 11th mo. 4, 2015 at 8:36pm

This tete-a-tete would be fun, were it not for the tragic death of Norman Morrison and the near death of his little girl.

I remember that time well; a memorial service was held at the MSU campus chapel.  The image of that chapel is what comes to mind when I think about the Morrison tragedy.   I wished then and wish now that Norman Morrison had been able to find hope in the redemptive love of Christ, for himself, for his family and for those who were losing their lives in Viet Nam.  Remember, plenty of young Americans also lost their lives there.

Comment by Howard Brod on 11th mo. 4, 2015 at 8:39pm

Bill, We're getting sidetracked here.  I know what I know about meetings within BYM in the fifties and sixties - Norman's era.  But that's irrelevant to your claim that the Bible is a surer moral guide than just using "Love and Light".  You have NO quantitative evidence to make that claim. 

So, let's just call it a night, my friend.


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