Somewhere between turning twenty and thirty, I lost the belief that Christianity could be broken down to essential truths. Things I was once convinced you “needed to believe in order to be a Christian” have unravelled in my hands. Rather than describing Christianity as a set of doctrines to be believed, it might be more accurate to talk about Christianity as a way of orienting yourself.
A common teaching I was taught growing up was that you need to believe the “fundamentals” if you are to be a true Christian. But the history of Christianity is not one of a static church that from time to time deviates from its original truth and then reverts back to its original purity. Instead, the history of belief is more like the story of an individual human: one grows, one changes, one makes mistakes, one learns, one evolves. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Like an adult returning to his home town after years away finds that he cannot really go home, the church finds it impossible to truly return to the place it was born.
Much of what we might consider fundamental to the essence of Christianity was in fact not viewed as fundamental by the early church. Early Christians believed many things we do not believe today. The doctrines of Christianity took centuries of contentious debate to shape.
For example, it might be surprising for some to learn that in the first few centuries after Christ, Christians marked their graves, tombs and places of worship, not with symbols of the cross and the resurrection, but with symbols of abundance and blessing – water, fruit, doves. The doctrine of the Trinity, as we understand it today, was only formalised in the fourth century.
We need not be afraid that there is no permanent unchanging truth. A changing, evolving truth keeps us honest and keeps us growing. No individual or group has the monopoly on truth. Unfortunately, it is human nature that from time to time many will claim to have exclusively possess the truth.
But no-one gets to speak for God.
After all, who decides which doctrinal differences truly separate us? We have far too many examples of churches and groups who repeat the Pharisees’ mistake of subdividing believers, separating the clean from the unclean, the pure from impure. Can we rely instead then on the scriptures?
But the scriptures themselves were subject to a process whereby humans using reason and judgment made conclusions about which scriptures were canonical and which were not. Did they have their own motives? Even if we accept that the canon came through to us unaffected by human ambitions, the scriptures themselves require judgement and discretion when applied to one’s life.
If you think the scriptures can be applied literally without discernment, try “living biblically” with Mark 9:43 -
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.
There are no easy answers in Christianity. We are forced to figure this out for ourselves. It is hard to be honest with our intellect; many of us prefer appealing to authority to make choices on our behalf.
Christianity is not a set of beliefs. It is an orientation – a goal one walks towards.