“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: 990

Comment by William F Rushby on 11th mo. 4, 2015 at 8:49pm

Howard, how do you know what you know; that is the question!  You weren't there; where is your evidence?

I do believe that the Bible is our guide, read and interpreted under the influence of the Holy Spirit.  The Bible is not, on the whole, a set of specific rules.  It is a divinely inspired sourcebook, to be used in seeking God's will.  It establishes values and principles, delineates parameters and deepens our search for spiritual/ethical insight.  Ultimately, Christ shows the way!

Comment by Forrest Curo on 11th mo. 4, 2015 at 8:57pm

Keith, God is within you and without you and all around you and in your heart and your mind and your body... is not "merely you" and can't entirely be "other", in that everything that be -- intrinsically -- must "be" via its connection to that "Being".

So the question should not be "Where is God?" but "Where isn't God?" Granted, some of this myriad forms of stuff is more directly connected to God's purposes of perfecting us and this world that's been our nest, so far... and some of it is obstructive, challenging, serving as exercise equipment for the soul more than as direct nourishment. But 'no God' ==> 'no this and no that. Nor anything whatsoever.' 

Comment by Howard Brod on 11th mo. 4, 2015 at 10:02pm

I always enjoy dialoguing with you Bill.  And I wish you well in your walk with God.  Till the next hot topic . . .


Comment by William F Rushby on 11th mo. 4, 2015 at 10:20pm

Howard says: "Bill, you always have to have the last word."

Bill says: "I don't always have to have the last word."  :-)

Comment by Keith Saylor on 11th mo. 4, 2015 at 11:54pm

Yes Forrest. I too know this experience of Presence itself within me and illuminating Presence in the representations manifested through my participation with them. Being unmediated in the inward Light itself within my conscious and informing my conscience is saving grace. In this saving grace I am in all things and all things are in me.  I speak the Name itself, I AM, and here it spoken there is no distinction between the person speaking and the person hearing. Speaking the Name is creation. I am in the Name itself and where I AM is Presence itself in all things and in all circumstances. When I talk with people in the grocery store ... I AM Presence and Prescence is in those who I speak with. When I observe a Northern Saw-whet Owl I AM Presence and Presence is in the Saw-whet Owl.

I love appreciate both questions. Where is God? and Where isn't God? To be this way ... through the power of direct experience of Presence itself seated right in my conscious and informing my conscious throughout my daily activities is the eternal Kingdom come and it is the saving of the representations of the natural world with which I am participating. This redirection of consciousness itself  is our eternal heritage by our participation in the grace of incarnation. We no longer have to look out for the way. The represented world now receives the shining of the inward Light through participation in Presence itself in the conscious and conscience. 

Participating Presence is the direct experience of identity and guidance in living through the activity of the increase and decrease of the Light in our conscious and conscience. When the Light dims, there is corrective, when it increases, there also is corrective. This is the practical nature of participating Presence. In all things  during daily life there is the power of participating Presence radiating forth from the conscious and conscience. 

Comment by Adria Gulizia on 11th mo. 6, 2015 at 8:00pm
I know that I'm late to the party, but I do agree with Patricia and Bill regarding the value of the Bible in providing texture and clarity to our understanding of God's will. I read Bill to be saying that what"love" means is difficult to sort out in a given situation. For example, we know we should love and have compassion for the sick. Does that mean prayer, presence and medical attention, including palliative care for the dying? Or does that mean euthanasia? The Bible generally leads to a different answer from that increasingly put forward by secular societies (see exhibit A, Belgium).

Or what if a mother-to-be finds she is carrying a disabled child? The conviction that that could is a bearer of God's precious image and was made to claim full citizenship in his Kingdom may lead to a different choice than a purely secular view, which may militate against inflicting a life of disability on a child. The Bible warns that "the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel." To paraphrase: our "natural" view of what love looks like is unreliable. This is, fundamentally, why love, though essential, is not a sufficient foundation for action - when positive values conflict (liberty versus autonomy, individual affirmation versus protective community norms, the rights of parents versus the rights of their children, etc.), "love" doesn't get us out of the jam, unless we know what love looks like. The Bible, most particularly the Gospels, are "love stories" that paint pictures of what godly love is and isn't. Samson loved Delilah - nothing wrong with that. But he loved her more than he loved God, and that was a very big problem. Abram loved Sarai, but not as much as he loved his own safety, which is why he basically prostituted his own wife. Martha and Mary loved their brother Lazarus, which is only a good thing. But their love for him temporarily undermined their faith in and love for Jesus. All of these stories and the dozens of others in the Bible have something to teach us about how love is supposed to look and about how love is supposed to work. Love, by itself, is not enough, because it doesn't tell us how to love and how to balance our love of various things. The Bible helps to shape our sensibilities so that we can tell whether the impulses we feel are from God, the flesh our the Adversary.
Comment by William F Rushby on 11th mo. 6, 2015 at 10:04pm

Adria: Thanks for "fleshing out" what I was trying to say!!

Comment by William F Rushby on 11th mo. 6, 2015 at 10:13pm

James Schultz wrote: "It's not necessarily an idol when it represents God.  It's an idol when it replaces God."

Thank you for this clarification, James!

Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 11th mo. 7, 2015 at 10:33am

Thanks for this, Adria. Your many good examples argue convincingly for the value of the Bible to deepen our sensibility through its specific lessons.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 11th mo. 7, 2015 at 11:44am

Adria, thanks for your post.  Very helpful.


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