Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Fundamentalism, Unbelief, and the Nazarenes

I posted the observations below on Naznet last week. They got a lot more praise than I expected. I figured it would be interesting to share them more widely as see how others feel.

As regular readers of the blog (and my Facebook friends) will know, I've been reading a lot of Peter Rollins lately (I've been taking an online course he offers to work through his latest book, The Divine Magician). One of the more interesting things to me has been the way he talks about the importance of unbelief, specifically in communities with a fundamental belief.

He calls these communities Fundamentalist, but not really in the same sense we might - he simply means there's a core belief held to be fundamental to faith. His examples are: if we have enough faith, God will heal us and we don't need doctors; we are better off in the next life than this one; and any of our loved ones who don't clearly express a belief in Jesus are destined for a fiery burning hell.

His point is simply that these communities rely on unbelief to survive. Most people in them, you'll find, do consult doctors if someone breaks a leg, aren;t shooting their children to spare them the horrors of this world, and don't constantly hound their un-professed loved ones into Christian faith.

Now, this is overgeneralization, for sure, and I'd like to avoid debating the specifics on these points. It's overall idea that rings true to me - without some measure of lived doubt, these beliefs become absurd. In fact, Rollins argues the most dangerous members of these groups are the people who really do believe - their sort of irrational behavior in living out these beliefs completely show the underlying fundamental to be hollow if not horrific.

The interesting part for me, in thinking about the Church of the Nazarene, is how this doubt manifests itself in community. He talks about people on the margins feeling the doubt and trusting people closer to the center of the organization - meaning, they assume, people closer to the center of the group don't have the doubt or have less, so they're more comfortable with their own.

The problem arises as people move closer to the center - think a parishioner enters the course of study and becomes a minister, or a minister is elected DS or to some other leadership position, and so on. What they then realize is that no level of commitment to the idea can remove the doubts they have about the idea itself, and it creates a crisis.

I'll quote him here:

Unfortunately, its often the case that by the time someone takes his beliefs absolutely seriously and discovers their impotence, it's too difficult for him to leave. This is most obvious among religious leaders who have jobs within their institutions. For often they find the limits of their beliefs only when they are wholly dependent on their church for material support. Hence it becomes harder to leave at the very point they are most disillusioned.

This is why we often find it true that the closer we get to the inner circle of the church the more we find cynicism, hypocrisy, and repression. A layperson can avoid a confrontation with the impotence of her beliefs by imagining that if only she were more involved, things would be better. But those who are most involved often have no fantasy left to sustain them. They've been to the center and discovered the center is no better than the edges. But now they rely on the center for support, so they give themselves to support it.
Now, it should be noted that Rollins large project is to posit that religious conviction cannot fill the void in our hearts, in fact nothing can fill the void in our hearts and that it's the very attempt to fill such a void that Jesus can to free us from, so this should be read in that light - it's not that a particular belief or way of life is impotent, simply that these are impotent to make us feel completely satisfied.

Just in light of all the mess that's been (and continues) going on at the center of our denomination, this really struck home. While we might not be fundamentalists, our conception of sanctification certainly holds that place pragmatically in our structure and belief. We theologically nuance things, but at the core is this notion that once we're sanctified we shouldn't be going back to old ways of doing things - sanctified people can be trusted implicitly, our leaders are people of integrity at all times, etc.

I won't argue against holiness; I believe it strongly, but there is a sense of unbelief buried deep that allows us to live with it in our everyday lives. We're learning to express it more and more, but it's going to be tough to do so honestly at the very core of our structure.

I think it's certainly healthy for us to be able to say "yes, we believe in sanctification, but the way it ends up being worked out in real life is more than a little messy." Lots of us are more comfortable doing so these days, but we don't have a structure that can support such statements and perhaps it's taking a real toll on the people we put in the middle of that structure.

I won't say any of our leaders are going through this kind of existential crisis, but in reading the Rollins quote above, it sure brought to mind the events of the last couple years (and maybe longer).

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