This past weekend I had the opportunity to be a participant observer at a Faith & Order work session of the National Council of Churches. Theologians from many Christian traditions were there, divided up into groups to hash out ecumenical problems. I joined the "Justification and Justice" and learned a great deal about the dialogical process.
The most interesting thing to me from the weekend was not so much what agreements were made, but how they were made. Why? Because how people argue about doctrine reveals what they think about the nature of doctrine itself. The process of engaging people with different doctrinal commitments is a fascinating case study in different doctrinal theories. Beneath the surface of doctrinal division is the greater division over what we think we are doing when we profess a particular doctrine.
Let me briefly outline three different approaches to doctrinal agreement that I witnessed this weekend:
(1) The "Can't We All Just Get Along?" method proposes that the road to unity is to set aside doctrines-that-divide. Some folks desire to get past our disagreements by avoiding doctrine altogether. Usually some common political commitment is offered in its place. This seems to be the shallowest option, as our real differences are never really addressed, and persist under the surface.
(2) The "Aren't We All Just Saying the Same Thing?" method proposes that the road to unity is to find some common experience that lies behind the different doctrines. Some folks try to get to the bottom of doctrinal differences by claiming that doctrines merely represent different ways of expressing our diverse religious experiences. So the solution to doctrinal differences is to unearth the religious feelings that we do share, and just agree-to-disagree on what to call it. You call it justification by faith, I call it deification, but we both know we are talking about our loving encounter with God. This seems like a promising approach. But the problem comes with the simple fact that most people are not merely expressing their religious experience when they make doctrinal statements. From time to time, people make actual claims about who God is and how God works. And to force them to reduce those claims to expressions of feeling does violence to the actual intent of the believer. So this road is ultimately a dead-end, despite its initial promise.
(3) The "Let's Be Honest With One Another" method proposes that the road to unity is to engage doctrines at face value precisely at our point of disagreement. Some folks realize that the conversation only gets good when we lay our cards on the table and acknowledge our disagreement. The point of dialogue is to really listen to the other person. To really encounter a different person, I have to listen carefully to exactly the things which make them different. In the process of this exchange, we might discover what we do have in common. We might also discover new things that we can assimilate into our thinking. We might also find places of utter disagreement. But in a spirit of persevering love, we can continue to discuss our differences even when we can't seem to overcome them by sheer will or ingenuity. This method may take long, but in the end it seems to be the most interesting and have the most integrity. Plus, agreement that comes through such a method will be genuine and lasting agreement, and therefore will be worth the wait.
Can you think of some other approaches to discussing doctrinal differences?
What do you think of these three options?
What is the nature of doctrine in your mind?