Can Authentic Christianity Exist without Cognitive Truth Claims (Doctrines)?
Like many of the older, more historic, so-called “mainline denominations” (which church historian Martin Marty has dubbed “old line denominations”) my own is struggling with this question: Can our Christian unity exist and thrive without unifying cognitive beliefs (doctrines)?
My denomination (which I choose not to name here because I don’t want to stir up controversy) emerged out of one of the many American “religious wars” over fundamentalism and liberalism in theology. These “wars” began in the late 19th century and increased in intensity throughout the 20th century leading to numerous splits—especially among Baptists and Presbyterians. (But virtually every Protestant denomination went through at least one.)
A new denomination (and I use that word loosely here for any group of churches with some connective tissue however gossamer) emerging out of liberalism or fundamentalism, which is mine’s history, faces two choices. Either it can discover or stay with a moderate confessionalism that has some kind of doctrinal center (if not boundaries) or it can follow the well-worn path of American liberal church life and attempt to have unity without such a doctrinal center. In that case, it embraces “theological and doctrinal pluralism” and attempts to have unity solely around an experiential and/or ethical center.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
I recently read an opinion essay/column by one of my denomination’s leaders in which he argued that unity around doctrines has failed within Protestantism and so the way forward (implicitly for our denomination) is unity without a doctrinal center and around a shared experience of being transformed by the presence of God. He also rejected ethics and church practices as unifying centers, holding forth a vision of a completely non-cognitive, experiential basis for unity.
Anyone who knows anything about modern Christianity (since the Enlightenment) knows this has been tried numerous times before. And anyone who knows anything about modern Christianity (since the Enlightenment) knows it has never really worked. Eventually one of two things happens. First, the denomination or movement eventually finds within itself utterly intolerable heresies and/or unethical behaviors and develops some cognitive standards (whether written or just expected and enforced by some means). Second, the denomination or movement eventually begins to become so pluralistic in terms of “religious experience” that it becomes vapid, moves toward complete dissolution and decline, and finds that it has no real reason for existing. All of this has been worked out by sociologists of religion who tell us that a religious organization needs more than a “shared inner experience of personal transformation” to remain vibrant.
The history of the so-called American “mainline Protestant” denominations is a sad and sorry one. (I know not only because I have made a life study of American denominations and am the editor of the forthcoming 14th edition of The Handbook of Denominations published every few years by Abingdon Press but also because I have been a congregational leader, ordained minister, interim pastor, youth pastor, and active lay participant in two so-called “mainline Protestant” denominations and have observed their decline close up.) Mainline Protestantism in America is in serious trouble. The denominations (of which there are usually counted eight) have hemorrhaged members for decades. The largest of the “Eight Sisters” (that at one time shared a building in New York City dubbed “the God Box”) has lost half its members in the last half century and continues to decline at a rapid pace. Many critics attribute that decline to the denomination’s embrace of “theological pluralism” (which means one can believe anything and be a fully functioning member if not minister within its churches).
(Someone will jump in here with a comment reminding me that even that denomination has within itself very vibrant, growing, churches including some mega-churches. True enough, but my response is that those tend to be ones led by ministers who are clear about their beliefs beyond “anything goes” cognitively. And I happen to know that from the top down there is a growing consensus that if it is to survive at all the denomination needs to return to its roots in a renewed, spiritually alive and vital, generous Christian orthodoxy.)
I think this is extremely naïve. Such people simply have not seen two things (or have chosen to ignore them). First, many of them have not seen, as I have, the inevitable infiltration of Christian churches by cultists, agnostics, rank heretics and political extremists. Second, many of them (and some of the same ones) have not seen, as I have, the inevitable decline and spiritual death of so-called Christian churches that avoid making any doctrinal claims. By “death” here I don’t necessarily means “extinction” but what the Bible calls “Ichabod” (“the glory of the Lord has departed”).
I also think this is philosophically absurd, what philosophers call “self-refuting.” That is because the claim itself is a cognitive one. If a person says “We can and ought to find our unity around spiritual experience alone without shared doctrines” he or she is contradicting himself or herself because that claim is a doctrinal and ethical one and it is cognitive—an appeal to the mind, to belief.
I want to ask people who promote this idea (viz., of Christian unity devoid entirely of shared doctrinal beliefs) about two hypothetical but very possible scenarios—about their own denomination and church. First, what if a church within the denomination is discovered to have called a pastor who is openly a white supremacist and who is forming within the church, with the church’s blessing, a chapter of a white supremacist organization whose name contains three letters all of which begin with “K?” (Don’t anyone dare tell me that’s beyond comprehension because I have known of such churches!) And what if that pastor and those members all claim to have been personally transformed by the presence of God in their lives?
Second, what if a minister of the denomination and her church (my denomination has women pastors—including mine) openly declares that they address God as “God/ess” and incorporate into their worship aspects of Mother Goddess worship borrowed from Wicca? (Don’t anyone tell me that’s beyond comprehension because I have known of such churches!) And what if that pastor and those members all claim to have been personally transformed by the presence of God in their lives?
It is simply impossible to refute or accept as true a person’s (or persons’) claim to have a genuine, life-transforming, spiritual experience of God without any cognitive claims at all.
This attempt to base Christian unity on experience alone is the mirror image of creedalism and shares with dead orthodoxy the rendering asunder of head and heart that is absolutely alien to the New Testament and historic Christianity.
Now, having said all of that, I want to testify that my pastor, pastor of a church embedded within my denomination, recently preached an excellent series of sermons on the Apostles Creed. She did not require anyone to affirm it on pain of excommunication (as if that were even possible within our polity), but she did print it in the worship folder and each Sunday during that season and series we repeated it together as a congregation. Our unity as a congregation is multi-faceted but includes a shared cognitive vision of God and Christ—without dogmatism or fundamentalism—and a shared emphasis on inner, spiritual transformation toward Christ-like character in the power of the Holy Spirit. This why I am a member. But if our denomination adopts “theological pluralism”—as some influential leaders have advocated—meaning unity without shared beliefs—I will have to stop considering myself part of that denomination even as they continue to count me one of them only because I am a member of a constituent congregation.
*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).