On Doctrine: A Re-Traction

Lennie and George speak in broken conversation.  George telling, and retelling Lennie about the farm that they’ll have one day.  Lennie basking in the glow of this beautiful thought: rabbits of his very own.

But George cautions Lennie when it comes to cats.  Afterall, every farm has to have cats to keep rodents away…and to generally complete the requisite animal quotiant  to relegate a dwelling a “farm.”

“We’d have a setter dog and a couple  stripe cats, but you gotta watch out them cats don’t get the rabbits.”

And Lennie really only desires the rabbits.

“Lennie breathed hard. ‘You jus’ let ’em try to get the rabbits.  I’ll break their God damn necks.  I’ll….I’ll smash ’em with a stick.’ He subsided, grumbling to himself, threatening the future cats which might dare disturb the future rabbits.”

Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is a great study in literature…and a great study in people.  Lennie’s defense of that which he desires most, rabbits (or the feel of rabbit fur, or the idea of keeping fur around without breaking the necks of the furry, or whatever you deem his deepest desire is), is typical of people, I think.  In fact, I would say that this reactionary defense is probably the one lone characteristic in Lennie that is not affected by his cognitive struggles.

We defend most heartily that which we desire most.

I received a communication recently from a good friend and fellow pastor asking about the apparent dichotomy created in my first post between doctrine and dogma on the one hand and the Jesus movement on the other.  This friend was quick to point out that he wasn’t disagreeing, but simply wanted some clarification:

Didn’t the Jesus movement necessarily need doctrine (and the creation thereof) in the face of Donatism, Docetism, Arianism, and other such challenges?

The short answer: yes.  Of course.  In any sort of conception of a theological position there is never an “a-position.”  That is, even if you claim to stand nowhere…that is a stance, a place, a position.  The Jesus movement surely needed to refine, re-think, re-discover it’s position on the role of pastors, on the person of Christ, on the oneness and threeness of God…

Yes, of course.

But they are rabbits, are they not?  Dreams of a possibility that can’t yet be touched.

They’re not imaginary; they’re very real.  But they’re only real in so far as they point to the Real.  If they go further, they become no longer the symbols, the subject, of the desired, but the object of desire.

“I desire Trinity.”  “I desire Orthodoxy.”

Instead of, “I desire the God that the doctrine of the trinity helps me to wrap my mind around, if incompletely.”

Instead of, “I desire the God that orthodoxy (however defined) wants to show.”

We need a re-traction of doctrine.  Doctrine should not give something, but should point to something…point outward, further than itself.

Back to Rollins:

“The job of the church is not to provide an answer-for the answer is not a phrase or doctrine-but rather to help encourage the religious question to arise…the silence that is part of all God-talk is not the silence of banality, indifference or ignorance but one that stands in awe of God.  This does not necessitate an absolute ‘silencing,’ whereby we give up speaking of God, but rather involves a recognition that our language concerning the divine remains silent in its speech.”

We say too much in saying anything, and say too little in saying nothing.

But doctrine, for all its benefit, has become a rabbit.

“Believe this and be saved.  Attack this and I’ll smash you with a stick.”

This past weekend I watched religious TV on Sunday morning…the bed and breakfast had cable.  I flipped through four different religious programs.  Some were complete services, some were snippets of “teachings,” some were call-in shows.  Very different.

Yet very similar.

They each promised to give the viewer something.  One was “The Four Essentials of Faith.”  Another was, “How God can Help your Wealth.”  Fill in the blank here with some other infraction on the Second Commandment, as I am most certain that God does not want to help you, or me, get wealthy in any sort of way that we would identify as wealth…

And they each reminded me of why I’m a reluctant Christian.

These programs are so popular with their lovely memes impregnating the minds of views, both live audience and electronic audience.  And this is the mistaken, idolatrous promise (illusory as it is) of doctrine: it gives you something.

Instead, the real promise of doctrine is that it points to something…points past itself.

Please, Lord, save me from being saved and all the wonky ways we’ve devised to save ourselves from each other, from other doctrines, from, whatever it is we run from.

“The religious individual tears out all the idolatrous ideas that have impregnated the womb of his or her being, becoming like Mary, so that the Christ-event can be conceived within him or her-an event whose transformative power is matched only by its impenetrable mystery.”

Do we need doctrine?  In so far as it points us toward that which is beyond our knowing, yes.

Do we need to be saved from doctrine?  In so far as it has become our rabbits, mice, soft toys to pen, and hold, and pet, and defend with sticks, yes.

2 thoughts on “On Doctrine: A Re-Traction

  1. There’s a ladder and it leads to the top of the cistern. Will we revere the rungs, counting them and polishing them and debating their essential nature… or will we scamper up the ladder, using but then moving beyond the rungs, and leap into the sunshine?

    There’s a whole box of gear – flashlights with infrared bulbs, UV, x-ray, high-beam, low-beam, polarized too. There are goggles in here as well… to see what there is to be seen. The best doctrines help us see better and more than before… proving more than ever before how restricted our perspective really is. Other ideas confound us. The worst ones tempt us to revel in our pride, pretension and sneering cowardice.

    Someone once pointed out: “By their fruits you will know them.”

    Be it rabbits who stand in for our Deepest Need or determining which televised Guru has the key
    to your future prosperity, be it flashlights and night-vision goggles or ladders, wells and sunshine, this posting is on target.

    Who among us has not quailed under the intellectual holy wind … “What if I lose track of what’s true and right and end up believing the wrong thing? What then? Will I still be ok?”

    Some say yes. Some say maybe. Some are ready to damn you to hell for your mistaken opinions/doctrines.

    Once I begin to notice this pervasive Cult of Doctrine, does it follow that I become reluctant to take my place under the ancient banner of “Christian”? It might. Might we not distinguish between “violent adherent of unquestioned Christian religion” and “wide-eyed seeker of God in Christ in all the world?”

    Are you really a reluctant Christian, Pastor Tim? You sound like an eloquent Reformer strapping on his sandals for a long journey. May it bring peace to those who journey at your side.


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