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Why Dialogue and Not Doctrine?
Why don’t we say “what we believe” on our website?
One of the unique things about our community is that we don’t emphasize Christian doctrine like some do. If you visit our website you won’t find a tab for “what we believe.” We place a value more on dialogue, safety, and community than getting everything right about God. We want people to explore their faith with us and feel free to ask questions. If Christians are looking for a church that has all the right doctrine sorted, there are plenty of options for them. We aren’t necessarily looking for people who think they have it all together either, because our faith is much more than having the right thoughts and the right beliefs.
It struck me a week ago when we were talking with an exciting group of young and exciting prospective covenant makers. As we went through our covenant, which has language about Jesus and our relationship to him, one person wondered if she could make it because she wasn’t sure she had all the right answers or responses to some of the content. It’s hard to feel like you can only be a true Christian if you believe all the right things, especially when some of those right things seem distant, or unusual to you.
The issue with focusing on doctrine is that it locates faithfulness onto the individual, and it reduces it to the mere assent to ideas and beliefs. And so if you don’t believe the right thing, you’ve failed to be faithful. It makes faith into a brittle, frail thing that can’t endure stress. If you need to believe the right things to be faithful, when you change your mind, alone, you are either condemned or unfaithful. However, the community and the dialogue that holds us together allows our different gifts to flow into one another, making us both more complete and less individually responsible for all the things of our faith.
The Bible’s model for dialogue
The Bible shows us that dialogue counts more than having the right ideas. In fact, some of the ways people have criticized the Bible is because they are reading it from a doctrinal perspective, or at least one that says that the text should uniformly tell us what to believe and how to live. But people, and how they relate to God, are more complicated than that, and the Bible writers (and the Bible’s redactors) didn’t feel the need to hide the dialogical aspects of the text, as if they were bad. I think that we concluded that such dialogue was problematic later on in our philosophical tradition when we, Christians, wanted to compete directly with the certainty of science during the Enlightenment.
As it turns out, Science wasn’t certain about truth in the way that its new “adherents” thought. Science is an effective method for measuring observable results, but it isn’t “true” or “doctrinal,” either. So this mentality, even when measured against scientific epistemology is fraught. That being said, I want to share a few biblical examples of how this dialogue is evident.
First, we can start with the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. These books tell the early story of Israel. And scholars have generally concluded that there were four different “voices,” or communities, or authors of these books. This theory comes to us from a man named Julius Wellhausen, from his work Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel. Prolegomena means an introduction to a book, or here, the history of Israel. Wellhausen hypothesizes in the documentary hypothesis that the four voices known as the Jahwist (J), Elohist (E), the Deuteronomist (D), and the Priestly (P) wrote the Pentateuch. Scholars have largely agreed with Wellhausen’s premise, even if not every detail. But what Wellhausen and others point out is that there are clear “seams” where the voices seem to be talking to each other. Genesis 1 and 2 is an example of such a distinction. The first two accounts of the creative narrative vary greatly because they are written by the Elohist and the Jahwist, respectively. These two accounts are not supposed to “line up,” but rather tell two different accounts of the myth.
A similar thing occurs in the flood narrative, specifically in Genesis 7:2-3, where God commands Noah to save seven of every clean animal into the ark. However, in Genesis 6:18-19, God asks Noah to bring just two of each animal onto the ark. Why the difference? See for yourself:
You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive.—Genesis 6:18-19
Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven pairs of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth.—Genesis 7:2-3
Here’s what’s happening. The first part was written before the time the Priestly Code was codified and so Noah didn’t need to have the clean animals with him to sacrifice. In Genesis 7, the Priestly writer added that part to match the law. The key here isn’t the change, but that the apparent contradiction is right there for all of us to see. They didn’t want to cover it up, because the sort of thing the Bible is doing is showing a dialogical community, not one that is certain of all of its beliefs.
There are more examples of this in the Bible too. The Deuteronomistic History (Deuteronomy through Kings) tells a story of history from the vantage point of Babylonian Captivity, whereas the Chronicler’s version of the history (which is at the end of the Hebrew Bible), tells the narrative from a postexilic vantage point, when things were less dire for Israel. What you’ll notice is a major tone shift in how the story is being told.
The same thing, similar to what Wellhausen theorized, happens in what we call the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), where they draw from the same sources, stories, and traditions, but craft a narrative that speaks to their audience. The key here is that the compilers of the New Testament decided to showcase the different biographies of Jesus’ life, while also including a whole other one, in John. It shows us that there are different ways to talk about and relate to God, and dialogue is a part of that.
The Bible is also filled with seemingly competing ideas that remain in the text to show that we don’t need to be entirely settled on doctrine to be in community. I noticed this the other night contrasting Paul’s theology in Ephesians about our salvation: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Contrast that to another part of the New Testament that says the very opposite thing, from James: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” These passages are in dialogue with one another (arguably, James wrote his in response to Paul’s theology).
Bringing people together is the point
Even when we extracted principles from the text, the process was a communitarian interpretative process rooted in consensus and dialogue. Look at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. The council ruled in part on the old law they would keep and which ones they wouldn’t, for the sake of inclusion in the church. Eliminating circumcision, a mark of God’s covenant with Abraham, was a huge deal and an expression that doing all the right things didn’t matter, so to speak.
In the early church ecumenical councils, doctrine was formed not as a way to divide people, but rather to unite them. Certainly sometimes doctrine was created in order to distinguish and specify Christianity, but it was done as much to keep different bodies of people together. A clear example of this is the Fourth Ecumenical Council which took place in Chalcedon. This Council was purposed to offer a theology of Christ, or a Christology, that united both the Antiochene and Alexandrine Churches, who differed on the nature of Jesus and his natures. The Antiochene school thought he had both a divine and a human nature (Nestorianism), whereas the Alexandrine school thought he only had one true nature (Monophysitism). Jesus had to be both divine and human, but also a singular person. So Chalcedon concluded that Jesus was consubstantial with both God and also consubstantial with humans, but together as one person in hypostatic union.
I actually elongated the explanation above with details that express the importance of the doctrine in the moment to showcase that doctrine is not endlessly important, but rather, the process through which we discern, dialogue, is more important. That isn’t to discount the Chalcedonian conclusion, which I find both inspired and brilliant, but I want to acknowledge, that hypostatic union isn’t in a language that is very relative for us, and certainly for the people we want to bring together. It may become important to them, but it is very unlikely they’ll start there.
In fact, dialogue can bring importance to doctrine, but we’ve favored power and authority to bring importance to it, which is both condemning and hardly inclusion. One of the reasons we don’t have statement papers and beliefs on our website is because they are largely obscure to the next person, and they mistakenly conflate “beliefs” with “faithfulness” or “faithful discipleship.”
Jesus brought the presence of God through his person, and we do the same thing. And our dialogue helps us exhibit that. For us then, we use dialogue to help us discern the Spirit in the moment, but also to bring the gospel to the present with great flexibility.
We demonstrated that very dialogue at a meeting we had last week
I brought this discussion to a group of interested people at a meeting last Monday, and they shared both strengths and weaknesses.
What disadvantages do you see?
Someone said that, “It’s quite difficult to explain Circle of Hope in a ‘short tweet’ for people who are trying to understand what the church is about.”
It takes serious people who have to relate to God instead of relying on the crutch of doctrine.
On the other hand, “It might make us wishy-washy.” It can be confusing, “Sometimes I can walk away more confused, than clarifying.” Furthermore, I have noticed and seen that that “wishy-washiness” that purports to hold us together can mean obfuscating the truth, or unable to make commitments.
The cost of being so dialogue-focused means that it requires trust, which is radical.
What is good about it?
One person asked, if not doctrine, what makes us distinctly Christian? Someone responded with, “Doctrine belongs to the church, not the other way around." I said, that dialogue keeps us together, but Jesus is Lord might be our central tenet. SO we aren’t eschewing theological truth, we are embodying it and expressing it in dialogue.
People liked that they could belong without pretense about the right beliefs, even if they were an exploring atheist. It allows us to name the doubt we have, and offers us a character without a bunch of answers. It allows us to have relationships with people and introducing Jesus to them without starting off by trying to “covert them.”
“There’s space for the journey and not the destination.” We are prioritizing our whole selves, and not just our hearts. It forces us to do the work, instead of writing people off that we disagree with, or simply leading with the right theology. Another said, “Each week I go to cell, we hear a completely different perspective."
My favorite was one person that said, “The center of Jesus draws us, not our boundaries.”
Ultimately, our group was expressing that dialogue was at the heart of us in the very activity we were engaged in. They valued truth, but decided that truth was better concluded via dialogue, and not decree. They didn’t shy away from commitments, and they named Circle of Hope has distinctives and convictions that it displays. But those convictions and disciplines shape who we are for our present time for the next person, in the name of discernment and dialogue, not decrees from on high. We want our distinctives to invite you into our community as a co-collaborator and explorer, not as someone who feels like they have to think all of the right things.
We are trying to create a community where you don’t have to have all of your theological stuff worked out to enter in, and we hope that our mutuality, our dialogue, and our community can help shape you and that you might able to help shape us.