Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Doctrine Is Not Our Saving Grace

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30

William Willimon, the most widely published United Methodist Bishop, retired from his episcopal responsibilities and returned to teaching at Duke Divinity School in 2012. The Christian Century marked his retirement with a wide ranging interview covering a wide spectrum of topics relating to the work of a bishop and the ministry of the United Methodist Church.

He was asked whether in his role as Bishop he would have removed a pastor who had “recanted doctrinal vows he or she had solemnly pledged to honor.” “Absolutely,” said Willimon, “tell me you have misgivings about the Trinity or trouble believing in the bodily resurrection and I’ll help you find less intellectually challenging work—like being a Republican candidate for president.”

Throughout his career, Willimon has been known more for his wit than his wisdom, and if one assumes that he was trying to be funny about the Republican candidates, then maybe he was just kidding in his doctrinal illustration.

If he wasn’t kidding, then it’s troubling to think that having “misgivings about the Trinity or trouble believing in the bodily resurrection” would be grounds for dismissing a pastor. (Didn’t he read Paul Tillich’s “Dynamics of Faith,” or does he think the greatest theologian of the twentieth century was wrong about doubt being a necessary part of faith?)

But setting Tillich aside, Methodists have never been greatly concerned about doctrine. We are united in a general affirmation that Jesus is the Christ, but widely divided about precisely what that means.

And more seriously, if “misgivings” can be grounds for dismissal, then it will be difficult to have really honest conversation with one’s bishop, who is supposed to be a “pastor to the pastors.”

But there’s more.

This coming Sunday is Trinity Sunday. I’m guessing that the average United Methodist lay person doesn’t know that and doesn’t care. The Trinity has a strong tradition as church doctrine, but it is connected to the biblical witness of the early church by the thinnest threads of biblical evidence.

The Trinity does represent an important truth: we experience God in different ways. The traditional formulation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, reminds us that we experience God as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.

And if we don’t understand the Trinity, how will we ever make sense of Don McLean’s “American Pie” reference to “the three men I admire most”?

But to the average person, the doctrine of the Trinity often sounds like a belief in three gods, rather than three experiences of the One.

Willimon’s second example of denying a doctrine is described as “having trouble believing in the bodily resurrection.” Nothing is more central to Christian faith than the resurrection of Jesus. The Gospels are written by people who are convinced that they have met the risen Christ. That encounter vindicates everything that Jesus taught. They are clear that they are not just talking about a memory, and they have not encountered a ghost. His presence is real.

Expressing that reality in a way that it can be understood is not easy.

Clearly, we are not talking about a resuscitated corpse, but the Gospel descriptions never confront the issue head on. We see an empty tomb and we hear a voice. He approaches two of them on the road to Emmaus, and they talk for hours before they recognize him in the breaking of bread. When Paul describes his encounter on the road to Damascus, he claims that the appearance to him is just the same as previous appearances to other disciples. There are no words to describe the experience which has turned their world upside down.

More than half a century ago, Paul Tillich published a sermon called, “The Yoke of Religion,” using the text from Matthew cited above. He argued that Jesus had come to free us from that “yoke.” And he described the predicament of modern “man” this way:

“The religious law demands that he accept ideas and dogmas, that he believe in doctrines and traditions, the acceptance of which is the condition of his salvation from anxiety, despair and death. So he tries to accept them, although they may have become strange or doubtful to him. He labors and toils under the religious demand to believe things he cannot believe.”

In Tillich’s time, there were many church goers who labored and toiled under the religious demand to believe things they could not believe. In our time some of those people are searching desperately for a way to reconcile their faith with ancient doctrines, while many others simply leave the church. For such people, a pastor with “misgivings” about those doctrines may be exactly what they need.

When Jesus called his disciples, he did not demand that they believe something, only that they follow him. That is still our invitation.

*This is revised from a post first published on June 1, 2012.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

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