All this stuff about “doctrine…”
While we believe we should learn from other people’s religions, that isn’t an option for these people. Their politics are religious and their religion is political; there’s no separation of church and state in their world, and they aren’t imagining there ever should be.
Rome claims to rule the world by the power and favor of their gods; Israel insists that only Yahweh rules. If Jesus is Lord and Savior, then the Divine Caesar isn’t, and to burn a little incense on his altar is a lie, disloyalty to the true ruler.
When Jesus returns–“soon!”–The whole political structure of the world is to be overturned.
How can these people believe that? What are they–crazy? Are they merely responding to a sense that the world we live in is intolerably corrupt and oppressive–Or are they already experiencing a new, different order of the world, and living within that?
The appeal of this book is to people dissatisfied with “The World” as it is, those of us who “hunger and thirst to see right prevail,” and don’t often get to see it. This is our chance to imagine it happening at last, to point and say: “I told you so; I told you so!” But it is so very hard on the stunt folks (“Cast of billions! Incredible carnage! Godzilla visits Washington; film at 11:00!”)
A true church, like this book, calls for repentance and offers comfort, in the face of the history of human suffering. It claims that history to be meaningful and in accord with God’s intention. “What an appalling description of God!” we say. But as a portrayal of human experience, it fits, so far, the sort of history we’ve always made–as well as the news and other entertainments we in fact choose to watch.
A wide range of doctrines may elicit repentance, offer comfort and meaning. But they don’t necessarily convince. In the long run, only truth can do that.
The function of a church (like the function of a poet) is, therefore, to tell the truth. Our truth is necessarily incomplete and partial, like its human containers, but each day’s measure of truth serves to nourish us and renew our minds.
A wide range of doctrines may light up different facets of truth. So why does the Christian vision of truth so often favor tunnel vision?
Any religion implies a political stance–because it inevitably says something about our place in the world and the ethical implications of that. Christianity began as a messianic movement within Judaism–a movement to replace a cruel and exploitive pagan occupation with a true theocracy. Loyalty and commitment to the movement were the key issues; “belief” as we understand it was not the point until later, when the movement was hijacked by the death of its Messiah–but the church got the notion that “faith” meant “belief” and “belief” meant uncritical acceptance.
Now we’re left with this prestressed religion, under enormous tension.
There’s a core which is implacably subversive, wrapped in other doctrines and interpretations that make it a marvelous tool for oppression. (But this is how the coconut reaches land and roots itself, after miles and miles drifting through bottomless ocean.) There’s the tension between God’s benevolent rule and the inscrutable justice that subjects whole nations to the mercies of a George Bush–and I don’t understand it; but I can’t deny either reality. Jesus dies but he goes on to conquer the goyim–who keep him imprisoned, struggling futilely, in their hearts, while they go on killing him wherever he raises his head.
You can do things in the tension between opposites that you can’t possibly accomplish by clinging to one side or the other. In particular: Any description of reality that doesn’t stretch is doomed to break.
The author of Revelations is right in the middle of this tension. He works for the Ruler of Heaven and Earth, but the puny secular authorities have imprisoned him on an island. He considers all the rulers and peoples of the world to be in rebellion against God–even the churches that represent God to His people are confused and lax–but he sees all of this as bound within God’s ultimate intention.
I consider his peculiar obsession with orthodoxy (whatever that means to him) as functional for his time. I don’t have to share it, and it doesn’t have to stop me from considering his message.
Does the concern with doctrine still apply, in this time and place? That’s a subject for another post.