Human beings never behave so badly as when they believe they are protecting God. Barbara Brown Taylor
Every time someone claims that we live in a country founded on “Christian principles,” I think of Benjamin Franklin. His Autobiography is often a text at the appropriate time in the interdisciplinary program I teach in—it’s short, pithy, no nonsense and quintessentially American. Exactly what I would expect from Ben. He doesn’t say a lot about organized religion other than to express his distaste for and rejection of it, turning his back on the Presbyterianism of his youth because the ministers’ sermons were primarily “explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect,” clearly designed to create good Presbyterians rather than good citizens.
Franklin describes himself as a “thorough Deist” just as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were, believing in a creating God who has little to no direct engagement in the world, who is best worshipped by “doing good to man,” and who will in some manner “certainly reward virtue and punish vice, either here or hereafter.” No miracles, no incarnation, resurrection or revelation. And no organized worship.
Ben was surrounded by religion in eighteenth-century colonial America, but remained as secular as they come throughout his life. Of a saintly Catholic woman who had spent her life in service to others while living in a one-room garret with only a table, bed, crucifix and picture of Saint Veronica, he simply expressed his amazement “on how small an income life and health may be supported,” while being most impressed with the ability of George Whitfield—one of the primary preachers during “The Great Awakening,” a remarkable religious revival in 1700s New England—to project his voice across a large open field.
Franklin was particularly intrigued by the Dunkers, a small Baptist sect (who “dunked” the newly baptized) that would become the Church of the Brethren a couple of centuries later. With a name like that, they could have given New England’s favorite donut and coffee establishment a run for its money. One of the Dunker leaders complained to Benjamin that, as often happens when religion is concerned, there were frequently accused by other religious groups of “abominable practices and principles, to which they were utter strangers.” Ben sensibly suggested that the Dunkers should publish “the articles of their belief, and the rules of their discipline,” thus reducing the opportunity for misunderstanding and slander. To which suggestion the Dunker leader made a remarkable reply.
When we were first drawn together as a society, it had pleased God to enlighten our minds so far as to see that some doctrines, which we once esteemed truths, were errors; and that others, which we had esteemed errors, were real truths. From time to time He has been pleased to afford us farther light, and our principles have been improving, and our errors diminishing. Now we are not sure that we have arrived at the end of this progression . . . we fear that, if we should once print our confession of faith, we should feel ourselves as if bound and confin’d by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive farther improvement, and our successors still more so, as conceiving what we their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from.
I like the Dunkers’ attitude. Doctrine bothers me because it so easily turns into its evil and rigid twin, dogma. I recall a Sunday some years ago when I deliberately made more of an effort than usual to pay attention to what this close-to-two-thousand-years-old affirmation of faith is actually committing me to. There’s some pretty weird stuff in there. Not long ago I heard someone mention that she is comforted by the fact that the words she is saying when reciting the creed are the very same words Christian believers have recited for close to two millennia. I’m not sure why that’s something to be comforted by.
On the Sunday in question, I rather was wondering what makes any of us think that what fit the bill two millennia ago is still a perfect fit. I was reminded of something from Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss:
Only when doctrine itself is understood to be provisional does doctrine begin to take on a more than provisional significance.
I understand the immediate and obvious pushback from many circles, of course. I grew up in a religious world in which all of the images of belief involved stability, immutability, inflexibility and certainty. Truth does not change. If you are not stable and secure in what you believe, how are you going to be able to defend it against the inevitable onslaught of change, unbelief, secularism and relativism? We sang “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand” and that we were “standing on the promises of Christ my king.” We would not have recognized ourselves in Wiman’s unflinching description:
Dogma needs regular infusions of unknowingness to keep from calcifying into the predictable, pontificating, and anti-intellectual services so common in mainstream American churches.
But that was us. Wiman continues:
The minute any human or human institution arrogates to itself a singular knowledge of God, there comes into that knowledge a kind of strychnine pride, and it is as if the most animated and vital creature were instantaneously transformed into a corpse . . . The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone.
Those who follow the great Western monotheistic religions are often referred to as “People of the Book.” What the Dunkers realized is that writing something down, “setting it in stone,” so to speak, creates the very real possibility that worship will turn toward the book rather than focusing on what inspired it in the first place. Doctrine and dogma are just two of many ways in which human beings try to make encounters with the divine safe and predictable. And of course, the more I turn my attention toward expressions of what I believe rather than to the open spaces where the object of that belief resides, the more defensive I get. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes,
Human beings never behave so badly as when they believe they are protecting God. . . . If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape.
Be like the Dunkers. It’s no way to run a successful religion—but then, Jesus wasn’t interested in doing that.