The questions before us in this e-bulletin are two: How important are beliefs in an evolving faith? and, Does community need to agree on belief? More generally, the issues pertain to the tie that binds community and the experience that underlies that tie.
Suppose we search for the answers by beginning with common human experience. All people seem to have the capacity for a certain type of experience that we shall call moments. Consider a list of events that illustrate this phenomenon.
You laugh uncontrollably
You become lost in the fury of a thunderstorm
You are shocked by a pitiful and pleading beggar on the street
You discover that a friend has just died and you cannot restrain the tears
A baby smiles at you and you reflexively smile back
You suddenly realize the solution to your problem
You are an athlete in the zone
The list is endless. Every event in our life has the potential to become a moment. These are times when we are not analyzing a situation or thinking about an experience, but rather simply living the experience. It is something that happens to us, rather than it being the result of our intention. We are basically passive and not active, whole and not divided, being at one with ourselves and what is happening to us. In the moment we overcome distinctions between ourselves and our experience, not by flying through space and occupying the same place, but by experiencing directly rather than thinking about experiencing. For example, you hear some good music and start tapping your feet. Subconsciously, your body begins to internalize the rhythm. The event was not deliberate; it just happened. In all such events, we are enveloped in a total experience that shatters our private little world. In them we overcome divisions and find a unity not only within ourselves, but also with our experience. There is no hidden agenda, be it conscious or subconscious. We are really all there. And it can happen any time, any place, in conjunction with anything. Angels and a heavenly chorus are not required.
The common element in all moments is that the world that we have created for ourself, the framework of interpretation by means of which we seek to understand reality, is suddenly cast aside and replaced by a oneness that grasps our total being. They don’t last, however, and are soon incorporated back into our world. We learn from and remember the unexpected moment, but we also tame it by fitting it into the framework of life-interpretation that we already have. That framework includes our personal history but also the story of our culture and community of which we are a part. Most of our life is between the moments, where we are daily carried along by the framework of interpretation that we have created.
You can’t make it happen. You cannot get out of bed in the morning and decide you will have a moment or two that day. It’s something that happens to us. On the other hand, you can be receptive. We can be open to moments, even though we can’t make them happen. The most self-centered person you can imagine can be invaded by a moment at any time, but it would seem that a person who is open and receptive will experience many more moments than a person who is not.
Not only are we incapable of making moments happen, we are also incapable of making them last. Moments come and moments go. Why? Why do we lose the moment? The answer to that, quite simply, is because our “world”, our framework of life-interpretation, re-establishes its hold over us. In its gentlest form, this means that we just start thinking about other things. The fury of the storm abates, and we go back to whatever we were doing prior to its arrival. The baby smiles, you smile back… and then she cries! But our world also regains its control by doing what it does so well: it fits the experience into categories it has already created. We don’t like intrusions, so we tuck them away on the “correct” mental shelf, maintaining our sense of order- even at the cost of accuracy.
Suppose now we consider the disciples of Jesus, men and women, certainly numbering more than the usual twelve. Individually and collectively, the disciples no doubt experienced many moments both with Jesus and with one another. As one who spoke with authority, who healed with power, who was outraged by injustice, and who was ever filled with compassion, Jesus was constantly encountering the disciples with a realty they had never before experienced to such an extent. In Jesus, they found what it meant to be a fully human being and they discovered God, the one in the other. Furthermore, after the crucifixion, as they gathered together, their mutual support enabled a new and shared moment, and that was that although Jesus had been crucified, he was yet alive in their midst, a presence that could not be understood, only accepted.
Both in and through Jesus and their continuing fellowship, the disciples experienced moments of new reality. The moments didn’t last, but the memory enhanced the creation of a new framework of life-interpretation, a new worldview. And then the trouble began. The immediacy of the family of friends that Jesus had gathered slowly transitioned into an organization. The experience of the first disciples slowly transitioned into the framework that described that experience, gradually but ultimately replacing that experience. The framework for interpretation of the moments became the substitute for the moments themselves, set in stone, hardened into dogma, cause of controversy.
The New Testament itself is replete with differences of opinion and controversy about what to believe and who to believe. Paul, James, John, Mark, Luke, Matthew, Thomas- these names all represent different theologies, varying frameworks of interpretation of the formative moments, and they all come across as possessing the singular presentation of truth.
Once the various frameworks are confused with the formative experience of those moments with Jesus, then some must be right and others must be wrong. In other words, we now have orthodoxy (the winner of the argument) and heresy (lost the argument and often their lives). The confusion of actual experience and framework of interpretation is epitomized by the two great councils of the church, Nicaea in 325 and Chalcedon in 451.
First, in Nicaea in 325, the church gathered in council to deal with this question: Is Jesus fully God, and if so, how? They concluded that, yes, Jesus was fully God, and that was because he was of the same “substance” as the Father. This is the language of the so-called Nicene Creed: “Jesus was true God of true God, begotten, not made, being of the same substance as the Father…” Note the difference from the thinking of the disciples: they described Jesus relationally, the council described him substantively. The disciples had an experience; the council offers a formula. The disciples confessed that something had happened to them; the council tried to explain how it could have happened.
The second council, in Chalcedon, 451, tried to answer this question: How can Jesus be both God and man in one person? Some parties had argued that he was really two separate entities, while others argued that the two natures were somehow mixed up in him. The church rejected both positions, holding that Jesus was one person in whom the two “natures” were neither separated nor mixed. This, supposedly, becomes the irrational paradox that forms the heart of the Christian faith.
But again, notice how different this is from what the disciples had to say. Once more, the later church is looking at Jesus statically, in terms of natures and substances, rather than dynamically and relationally. The disciples related to a person, not a nature or two. In our attempt to understand Jesus, we do well to drop the formulas handed down to us from church councils and focus instead on the Jesus-disciple encounter. The heart of the Christian faith is not believing that Jesus somehow is both God and man in one person, but rather experiencing a newness of life through encounter with Jesus. He is the one who incarnates our very humanity and is also the one who manifests the power of God so as to enable us to escape the confines of our “world”, overcome the void, and join with others in a vision of loving community.
Of course, church councils called and contrived by political operatives never settle the issue. Somebody else always has the “truth” that they cannot forgo. It’s the curse of confusing the experience of moments with the ensuing framework of interpretation. The Inquisition, witch burning, and fundamentalism are all results of such confusion.
The alternative seems so simple and so obvious. Everyone experiences moments, some of which are encounters with the divine, whether recognized as such or not. Those who find meaning in the Jesus story can share their own personal stories and can certainly have a framework of interpretation, but must never presume that their framework is the only one. Through dialog and life itself that framework will evolve, but the divine in the moment will always be the divine. The interpretation changes, but the source remains the same. Faith, with its attendant belief system will vary from person to person and will evolve, but the source of that faith, the moments of encounter, will remain the same. However you describe the person and work of Jesus (eternal word, suffering servant, Son of God, Jewish mystic, etc.) is fine as long as you don’t try to impose that theology on everyone.
The maintenance of community, be it in the local congregation or at the height of ecumenism, is not so much dependent on unanimity of belief (the framework) but on commonality of experience. And that commonality of experience is the tie that binds. Having the same theology does not.
Finally, we must recognize that ultimately when we speak of community, we speak of the whole planet. We all experience one God, recognized or not. We have that commonality of experience. The problem is that here again we allow our differing frameworks for interpretation to usurp the rightful role that commonality of experience must play. We will have differences, of course, simple because we are different. But we absolutely must never assume that “we” have the truth and you do not. This holds true between the various religions, but it also holds true with respect to secularism. Religion is not right and secularism is not wrong. The division between Christianity and secularism fades as we realize that each and every one of us experiences moments of encounter with the One. That focus, and that alone, offers the hope of peace and justice for all.