It might be interesting someday to try to understand better why so many Christians came to understand "belief" so narrowly as intellectual assent to certain propositions, and why it was so important to them to draw such clean lines between what was heretical and what was orthodox. Insofar as it has done this, it has created obstacles for belief that need not be there. I know that a lot of it can be explained by power politics and the need for social control, and I accept those explanations as providing part or even most of the explanation. But a part of it comes from the responsibility incumbent upon the wise, those who have comprehended at the deepest levels what had been revealed in the Christ event, to say "Not that" to ideas that miss the point.
It would have been better if those who had this better understanding were able to say it gently, and calmly point those who have missed the point in a direction that would take them deeper. And it did often happen that way, but it also happened the other way--with anathemas and violence, and it's why the Church, rather than having the spiritual authority it should as the custodian of important disclosures, has delegitimated itself over and over again. It's attempt to control the uncontrollable has made it time and time again to appear foolish and grandiose. The legitimacy of the truth claims the Church makes would have much greater authority had it not resorted to the use of power, and instead trusted that the beauty and truth they sought to protect was capable of taking care of itself. For the power tactics too often used on behalf of protecting that truth did more than anything to raise the question whether the truth they sought to protect was there at all. So I understand why people feel skeptical about Christian truth claims, and are inclined to just stay away. What kind of thinking person would want to be associated with that lot, anyway?
Believe me, that's a question I've often asked myself. The Quakers have often looked like a very appealing alternative. If I had the power to do so, I would integrate Quaker ideas practices about power with Catholic liturgical practice and its sacramental sensibility. Instead of fixating over developing propositionally clear ideas about what the Christian truths mean, I would have taken a more Jewish approach. Let there be different midrashic schools or traditions of interpretation, and let people judge which schools have the greater authority by the quality of their thinking, and by the quality of the human being who is produced within those schools. By their fruits you would know them.
That being said, I wanted to address some of the concerns that were brought up in the comments to my "Cosmic Dancing" post earlier this week. The bottom line ideas were that philosophy can take you so far; in fact it can establish nothing certain about why humans are on the earth and what their purpose is. It can develop alternative belief systems, but their grounding is no more stable or secure than the grounding of traditional religious belief systems. So ultimately the question comes down to which belief system provides the most plausible and compelling narrative. In other words, which narratives have the most legitimacy and the most authority? By what criteria does anyone make a judgment about which narrative is worthy of his commitments?
And so as a Christian in a world where where it is no longer possible to simply accept what was given to us a children from the tradition, I have to choose, and if my choice is to have integrity, it has to be able to explain itself in terms that go beyond aesthetic preference. And it has to seriously take into consideration the critiques of that choice by others who have made different choices. And it has the responsibility, as best it can, to explain the choice in terms that can be understood to others who have made different choices. And for me the explanation hinges on the understanding the authority and legitimacy of revelation.
So perhaps because I've been reading up on Heidegger (see Rudiger Safranski's bio --very interesting), what follows is in a Heidegerrian key, but it's only one angle that possible for getting at this subject. For Heidegger the most important human problem is the forgetfulness of being. The problem is not to determine what is propositionally true, but rather to awaken from our forgetfulness and to find ways to allow Being to reveal or disclose itself. He tried to redefine philosophy as the task of recovering Being from our forgetfulness of it; as such philosophy becomes not so much a quest for propositional truth but rather for ways to use language to disclose Being's mystery and depth.
The poets Holderin and Rilke were closer to what Heideggerian idea of philosophy's task than were the methodical Kant and the system-building Hegel or any philosopher seeks one way or the other to explain everything. These poets were not interested in propositional truth but in articulating what Being in its depths revealed to them. It's this kind of truth that Heidegger uses the Greek word "aletheia" to describe. Philosophy is about the pursuit of aletheia who discloses herself to those who love her.
Using this Heideggerian frame, could we agree then, that great poetry is measured by its power to reveal or disclose aletheia? And if so, could we agree that that those who seek truth read great poetry in the hope that their reading will be the occasion for a disclosure similar to the one experienced by the poet? And can we suggest, then, that the scriptures of the great religious traditions are texts that disclose aletheia in a way that great poetry does? And so should not all people who seek truth approach the scriptures of the great religious traditions with the same loving attitude in the hopes that aletheia will disclose her secrets there? They were never intended to be collections of propositional truth statements, and when they are treated that way we forget, we fall asleep to their original purposes and create obstacles for their disclosing their deeper levels of meaning.
And while it is most important to experience or awaken to these disclosures for oneself, it is also important to learn about the disclosures made to others who have lived before us and who are our contemporaries. Theology is therefore nothing more than midrash, the attempt to interpret and articulate what has been disclosed without any pretensions that one's interpretation is exhaustive or commensurate with the source of the disclosure. Philosophy or Theology fail if they are simply head trips or power trips. They begin with an encounter with the mystery of Being or Spirit, and their legitimacy and authority are measure by the depth and authenticity of the experience they attempt to describe.
The idea that all interpretations are equally valid is just silly. Some interpretations have greater authority than others, but in the way that you might say that Yehudi Menuhin's interpretation of Bach is more authoritative than the average violinist's. But Menuhin does not exhaust Bach. Others may have equally authoritative or better interpretations. Quality speaks for itself; we don't need anyone telling us which is best, although it's a subject worth discussing and trying to understand why people have the opinions they do. In the same way, you can say that certain versions of Christianity have little or no authority, and people like Dorothy Day or MLK can be compared to Jerry Falwell and James Dobson in the same way that you can compare Dostoyevski to Dan Brown.
So the Christian midrashic tradition begins with the encounter of a relatively small group of people with the risen Christ. Something happened; they were profoundly affected by it; the encounter became a lens that affected their understanding of what had happened before it; they wrote parts of it down, and people since then either believe the testimony shaped by these encounters or they don't. But in order to believe the testimony, I think one must have an analogous encounter with the Risen Christ in which he discloses himself. I think for different people this happens in different ways. For some it is an encounter disclosed through sacred texts, for others an experience of the him similar to the one experienced by the disciples. There are several other ways, but for most it begins with an encounter with another human being who has been himself or herself transformed by the encounter who lives in a way that is a living testimony of this ur-Christian encounter. That's what we mean by a living tradition. The encounter can be spontaneous, but it can also be passed along as one generation with kindled hearts kindles the hearts of the generations that follow.
The legitimacy of Christianity sustains itself not on some mechanical cultural programming or attempts at ecclesial social control, but on the living flame kindled from generation to generation. And the discussion about the truth claims of Christianity can only be made legitimately by those who in some measure have had that encounter and the flame kindled--and among those there's lots of room for discussion and different interpretations. It's otherwise like the tone deaf trying to discuss whose interpretation of Bach is better. Quality speaks for itself, but you have to have the capability and openness to recognize it.