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Two Works of Doctrine
"Unity in essentials, liberty in things indifferent, and charity in all things."
Christian histories tend to be largely preoccupied with tracking the developments of the most arcane points of theological disputation—arguments that had little to do with what made Christianity a distinctive vibrant faith, or were germane to the experience of a lived, transformative spiritual life. Councils disputed the nature of trinitarian unity (were God and Christ of similar or same substance?), the question of what was taking place with the wine and wafer in the Eucharist (did they become Christ’s body? Co-exist with his flesh and blood? Symbolize his sacrifice?), the proper dating of Easter (On Sunday or the actual day of the Jewish month?). Most Christians then, as now, probably had no inkling of—and no personal investment in—the question of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father or from the Father and the Son, yet the early Christian church split in half largely over that question. Doctrine, in these cases, has been a marker of orthodoxy, an occasion for unity and division, and a test of faithfulness.
Doctrines matter—but clearly some more than others. Any why they matter can vary at different stages of faith. In my spiritual journey, I have encountered many truths that have created a fertile ground for me “to experiment upon the word.” Some Restoration propositions I find logically compelling. For example, I personally hold the teaching on creation from preexisting materials (ex materia rather than ex nihilo) and the conception of deity that Joseph taught in the King Follett sermon to be far more appealing to the rational mind than ex nihilo creation by a transcendent Power. I love the moral beauty of a God who wills the salvation of all his children, and makes provisions that defy boundaries of place and time. There is to me a startlingly self-evident truth in that participatory, communal model of salvation embodied in our temple theology. Construing life as a deliberate stage in an eternal project of refining education—rather than the catastrophic detritus of an Edenic episode—seems a powerful framework for engaging the traumas and challenges of mortal life. And a dozen others. But ultimately, I recognize that doctrines are not themselves salvific, and faith is not born of rational deduction. The teachings I love most in my faith tradition are those that made it possible for me to posit as plausible, as appealing, and as worship-worthy, the God who John said was fully revealed in Jesus Christ, and whom we find again in Enoch’s vision. Because once we are willing to hold in our imagination the potential reality of actual Heavenly parents, and a historically incarnate Healing Christ, the work of faith can begin.
In my life, that meant opening myself to the risk of faith. Listening more attentively. Seeking out the good and beautiful. Allowing myself to be more amazed at the divine in other people. Last week we were seated next to a woman who thanked us for our work, mentioning only incidentally in the course of conversation that she had given her resources and her whole self to the funding of two orphanages in another country. I felt—and told her afterwards—that I was honored to be in the company of holiness. Truly, as Paul said “we have treasure,” and find God’s reflection, “in earthen vessels.”
Once pure doctrine has made us receptive to living truth toward which it points, then can begin what I call the second work of doctrine. The first work of doctrine persuades us to accept the banquet invitation, though we sit with hesitancy. We are suspicious but willing to taste the food and watch for the host’s appearance.
The second work is the relishing of the food. It is to accept the gift of the feast and joy in the community. To be in love with God is to want to know and celebrate his nature, his operations among the children of men, and the unflagging commitment with which he works to heal and redeem.
Brigham Young once called John Wesley, “as good a man as ever walked the earth.” He became a pivotal figure in religious innovations and theological divisions of the eighteenth century, but he decried the divisive effects of weaponizing the doctrine of Christ. He pled, “I wish the Christian world unity in essentials, liberty in things indifferent, and charity in all things.” Weaponizing doctrine is not the only way in which we desecrate our Christian heritage. Ezekiel deplored the ways in which as individuals we can make our doctrine a blight on the souls of others, by the ways in which, while conveying it, we contaminate it with our own claims and misrepresentations. It is a stark warning: “as for my flock, they eat that which ye have trodden with your feet; and they drink that which ye have fouled with your feet (34:19).
As followers of Christ in a fallen world, we always live downstream. But if we remember the proper work of doctrine, to prepare the ground for faith and to sustain trust in the God of love, we may do a better job of keeping the water pure.