Monday, May 20, 2019

Signposts to Truth

A personal faith in God is the heart of the Christian religion. But nearly as important for many Christians is a correct understanding of God, Christ and a host of other theological topics. For most Christians it is considered essential to believe in certain key doctrines. It is how believers distinguish themselves from nonbelievers, and differentiate orthodoxy from heresy.

The list of crucial doctrines is somewhat different for different churches, depending on what theological flavor they are. But nearly all Christian groups identify certain beliefs as indispensable for being a true Christian.

At the risk of being labeled a heretic, I am going to challenge that belief. I am suggesting that doctrines are by nature untrue. Furthermore they are incapable of communicating divine truth. Doctrinal statements, creeds and catechisms are unreliable descriptions of Reality. Stressing the importance of theological orthodoxy can actually lead people astray.

God is by definition beyond human understanding. Any deity that can be described in words or comprehended by our tiny simian brains cannot possibly be the eternal and infinite God. At best, theological formulations are crude approximations of Divine Reality. At worst they become substitutes for God, mental idols easily mistaken for divine truth. Mental images are just as idolatrous as graven images and just as much a violation of the second commandment.

I am tempted to soften my words to make them more palatable to my readers. I could say that theological statements are true, but not ultimately true. The reason being our limited ability to understand God and the limitations of human thoughts and words to communicate divine truth. But that statement would only be half true. And as the Yiddish proverb says, “a half-truth is a whole lie.”

Truth is untheological. Theology is untrue. Orthodoxy is heresy. Christian doctrines are not the Truth. They are sign posts that point in the direction of Truth. Like the signs at the corner of my road (see accompanying image) that point the way to a certain destination, doctrines point us toward our Eternal Destination. But they are not themselves the destination. Mistaking doctrine for truth is like mistaking a menu for food.

As the Zen saying puts it: “A finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the moon." As the Tao Te Ching says,

The God who can be described
is not the true God.
The Name that can be spoken
Is not the Name of God.
God is unnamable.
Naming God is the beginning of religion.
Let go, and you find God.
Hold on, and you get theology.”

Words cannot describe God. Ideas cannot communicate Reality. Theological statements can say nothing about God. They describe our human experience of God. For example, the doctrine of the omnipresence of God describes our experience of God in all times and places. The doctrine of the divinity of Christ describes the Christian experience of Jesus.

The concept of God as Father cannot be an actual description of God. God – being incorporeal - cannot be male or female. It is a description of people’s experience of God, as filtered through cultural gender roles.  Other cultures experience God differently – as feminine or as the spirit of trees or rocks.

Refining our theology and adding new metaphors to our theological repertoire does not bring us any closer to God. To experience God we must let go of our mental idols and go where the theological images are pointing.

How is that done? By the via negativa. Ultimate Reality is “not this” and “not that.” We let go of our theological, philosophical, and mental idols. We embrace the gracious spaciousness that remains when we have rid our hearts of false gods. There in the empty space between the cherubim in the Holy of Holies of our souls, we experience God.

God is the One who refused to give a divine name to Moses, saying only “I AM.” God is the One in the Whirlwind who refused to give Job the theological answers he was looking for. God is found in the emptiness of the Wilderness. God is in the Empty Cross and the Empty Tomb.

Give up the spiritual substitutes being hawked by today’s commercial religious franchises, and God will find you. Die to self and you will find yourself in God. When the God of Truth has you, then you know the Truth, and the Truth sets you free.


fpainestam said...

I think this posting could have been part of your book about what your pastor won't tell you. I like your thinking--basically, that doctrine isn't truth. The search for truth has been one of my strongest impulses for many decades, and what lies behind my interest in intellectual history. Question: Who's right? Answer: nobody [LOL].

Cheers! Frank Paine

Unknown said...

All I can say is: Amen!