Jesus The Misunderstood Jew: Part 4

This is the fourth in a series of posts on differences between Jewish and Christian traditions focusing on attitudes toward the Bible, learning and dialogue.

It would be irresponsible and inaccurate to claim fascism is taking root in mainline denominations today. It isn’t.

But an insidious, destructive strain of anti-institutionalism coupled with an individualized theology that insists on its own rightness is present, and it’s doing harm. Division has torn at the Episcopal Church. Southern Baptists are another conflicted communion.What is present in mainline denominations is disdain for institutions coupled with an ideology of individualism that finds expression in divisive issues the most notable being human sexuality. Pressing claims of doctrinal correctness, critics have undermined or sought to take control of the institutions that help carry out some forms of ministry as in the Episcopal Church and Southern Baptist Convention.

While some regard it as faithfulness, Hedges points out that the insistence on rightness of belief makes it easier to exclude those who don’t believe “correctly” and it leads to an insularity that opens the way for manipulation by leaders bent on advancing particular agendas.

I believe it also reduces vision because it focuses attention inward rather than outward. Survey after survey of attitudes toward churches reveals those who have negative views speak of churches run by cliques, as unhospitable to new persons and more concerned with institutional preservation than with problems people face in daily life. Whether these criticisms are accurate matters less than the perception these seekers have of religious communities. They paint a picture of self-absorbed, inhospitable, insular groups unconcerned with the everyday matters that affect faith and offer assistance toward a spiritually fulfilling life.

And so I end where this series began, but with questions. If I were seeking to understand faith more fully would I go to a community that openly accepted my questions, doubts and all, and engaged in a dialogue with me about them and affirmed that my quest is acceptable faithfulness? Or would I go to a community riven with division, one that excludes some people and holds absolute positions on key issues of faith that I am required to accept or be condemned as unfaithful?

Those who claim the decline of mainline denominations results from disaffection with liberal leaders, ineffective clergy or lack of doctrinal faithfulness find easy answers for complex problems that are far from the simple clarity they claim. Membership statistics are, at best, inexact and at worst incomplete and inconsistent. They don’t prove or disprove much beyond the haphazard way most denominations keep such records.

But the claim that lack of orthodox belief is a cause for decline presents an interesting question. Why is the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination that has been most aggressive replacing moderates with hardline conservative leaders, in decline at a pace even greater than some mainline communions? According to research by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Roman Catholicism, which has seen a clear return to traditional dogma under Pope Benedict, is in greater decline in the United States than any mainline communion. And, more troubling, the Pew survey finds the number of unaffiliated persons has doubled.

Rabbi Funnye says he was drawn to a community that willingly asked the questions more than it proferred the answers. Dana Jennings writes he was attracted to the diaogue, a dialogue that spans centuries, yet remains current.

The conclusion I take from this review is that there are those in the Western world beleagured by materialistic individualism for whom the search for meaning is more attractive when conducted in an accepting, inquiring community open to questioning, even doubt. The search is seen as a natural outgrowth of faith and it is conducted with integrity by honoring both tradition and on-going dialogue that allows for new interpretations.

They are not seeking fixed answers so much as they seek guides along the way as they explore. Interestingly, when it was experiencing its greatest growth, the Methodist movement created “learning societies” in which inquirers sought greater understanding and came to a deeper appreciation of scripture. Perhaps the journey of faith is not about finding the right answers but probing ever more deeply to ask the right questions.

Perhaps faith is a journey not a destination, and there is richness in discovery. I wonder if that’s how we could understand Jesus’ statement, “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly?” (John 10:10)

One Response to “Jesus The Misunderstood Jew: Part 4”

  1. live_life May 5, 2008 at 11:10 am #

    Jesus the greatest person, the hero forever….

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