Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Doctrinal Orthodoxy Doesn't Work

People I like and respect, and even people I usually agree with, sometimes repeat this idea that a certain theological doctrine is important or correct or true or good because it will protect us from... (insert atrocity here, bonus points if it involves Nazis). The version of this argument which pops up most frequently in the circles I navigate is the one about Barth, Barmen, and the Confessing Church in Germany.

The story goes like this: liberal protestantism, infected with natural theology, a loose-cannon Holy Spirit, romantic progressivism, the relics of christendom, (or your favorite theological punching bag), sold its soul to the national-socialists and contributed to the Holocaust. Barth in a stroke of unmitigated brilliance saw the doctrinal roots of this problem and courageously spoke against it, helping to write the Declaration of Barmen and thus nipping that problem forever in the bud.

The moral of this story is that if your theology is not Barthian you are a Nazi (or will soon become one).

This is not a new story. It is the same story that has always been used to command doctrinal orthodoxy. If you don't hold the right ideas, you will be responsible for disaster x. The church has spent the past two millenia, for the most part, doing exhaustive historiography to support this idea. Every bad thing that has happened, ever, has been explained somewhere by a champion of all that is pure and noble as stemming from heterodoxy. Orthodox doctrine could protect us from all of this, they allege. The question which never seems to get asked is, "does it work?"

I mean, according to the orthodox, the right doctrine has been available for a long time and it hasn't changed. It's been out there. People have believed it. Lots of people. Did it work? Did it protect them from... whatever it is this stuff is supposed to protect us from?

Orthodoxy certainly hasn't succeeded in eradicating heresy. Every heresy the church has ever named is alive and flourishing today. There are probably more Arians and Unitarians in the USA today than Chalcedonians. There are definitely more semi-pelagians around than "saved by grace through faith" reformed-types. Orthodoxy doesn't eliminate or diminish heresy - it's the opposite actually. Orthodoxy is the ground-of-being for heresy and vice-versa. They can't live without each other.

Even if orthodox doctrine could somehow "protect" us from bad ideas - and there are plenty of bad ideas out there - so what? Who made it a priority to be protected from the intellectually inane and the logically laughable? Besides that isn't what people claim. People claim orthodox ideas can actually save us from life-threatening catastrophes like the holocaust. So show me, in practical, non-ideological terms, how orthodoxy has accomplished this in the past. How many Jews did Barth save because he had the correct theological insights? Where are the concentration camps that would have existed if it hadn't been for his courageous opposition to the heresies of German liberal protestantism?

Honestly. I'd love to see the proof. Show me how orthodoxy protects us from something deeply and obviously harmful. You can't use Hell, either. Why? Here's why: if you don't finish reading this sentence a meteor will fall out of the sky and crush you where you sit. Aren't you glad you read that sentence now? I just saved you from a terrible fate you can't ever prove wasn't going to happen if you hadn't done as I commanded. Be grateful.

For the most part, ironically, I am a pretty orthodox guy (yes in my own estimation the same as it is with anyone else). But I'm really tired, in theological discussions, of everything being cast in apocalyptic terms as if the consequences of disagreement were really anything other than the usual social awkwardness of realizing that reasonable people frequently come to different conclusions, and yes sometimes those conclusions are downright wacky. Wackiness, however, is not a credible cause of genocide.


Doug Hagler said...

I've got one in the pipeline that I thought was a humorous and pointed follow-up to this post.

Here I run into the trouble of "what is orthodoxy"? Ask a Catholic, a Protestant of any of thousands of sects, or an Orthodox theologian, and you will get some different answers.

Orthopraxis - now that's something that I think can demonstrably stave off disaster. On a certain level, who cares what you intellectually assent to apart from how it impacts your choices and behavior? The orthopraxis of nonviolence, for example, or charity, or truthfulness, have demonstrably protected us from disaster, or helped mitigate the effects of natural evil.

And here we're talking about sanctification, a place where reformed theology, in my view, is deeply lacking.

Aric Clark said...

Yes "orthodoxy" can be hard to define, but even just taking whoever is touting it at face value, accepting their own definition and then going with it... when has someone having the "right ideas" ever demonstrably prevented evil?

We can point to lots of examples of people who supposedly had the "right ideas" and they still did horrific things (crusades, inquisition, witch trials, etc.. etc..). We can also point to many examples of people having supposedly "wrong" ideas and they did incredibly noble things (Ghandi, Dalai Lama, any good non-Christian). There just doesn't seem to be any causal link whatsoever between orthodoxy and goodness, or even orthodoxy and the prevention of evil.

Doug Hagler said...

Then, to follow your logic a step further, based on what I understand of orthodoxy, the face-value orthodoxy you are referring to cannot possibly be orthodoxy in any real sense.

For my part, I come back to my long-standing commitment - measure orthodoxy by behavior. Know the tree by its fruit and all that good stuff, rather than knowing the tree by hearing it say "I bear good fruit because I am the right kind of tree". Oh yeah? Show me the fruit then.

Paul Wise said...

At the risk of being wholly unhelpful, I once again provide one of my favorite quotes in defense of bad ideas:

"Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed upon Psyche as an incessant labour to cull out and sort asunder, were not more intermixed. It was from out the rind of one apple tasted that the knowledge of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into the world. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is to say of knowing good by evil."

Paul Wise said...

A more flippant answer to the question of "what is orthodoxy?" is this: "Orthodoxy is my own heroic ability to see the one true position on (insert issue) in the face of the utter depraved and wicked blindness of everyone who disagrees with me."

Jodie said...


You know, I've been puzzled by this tale:

"liberal protestantism, ... sold its soul to the national-socialists and contributed to the Holocaust. Barth in a stroke of unmitigated brilliance saw the doctrinal roots of this problem and courageously spoke against it, helping to write the Declaration of Barmen and thus nipping that problem forever in the bud.

The moral of this story is that if your theology is not Barthian you are a Nazi (or will soon become one)."

I've seen this revolting argument too. It may be that the leadership of the Protestant church in Germany was theologically liberal, but that is not why the rank and file sold its soul to Hitler.

The Nazi movement was a right wing movement. The fact that they used the term 'socialist' in their title is one of the inspirations for Orwell's 1984 double speak.

Hitler offered a return to patriotism, national pride, militarism, paternalism, and security through law and order autocratic authoritarianism. These are not progressive or liberal values by any definition of the word. If anything, these are conservative values. And they rose to power on the shoulders of thugs who claimed to be protecting their State from the threat posed by corrupt politicians, foreign economic powers, communists, gays, Jews, whatever.

The reason the rank and file of the church sold its soul to the Nazis is because they shared the same moral values.

Barth (and Bonhoeffer), who would probably have been viewed as Socialists in today's America, quite rightly focused on the orthopraxis of Christianity and of truly embracing Jesus as our living Lord. Not the State, nor the leader of the national state, nor some form of political or economic ideology or military might.

So what is going on here? Why are the conservatives trying to hijack the Barmen Confession?

Is it because it is a threat that needs to be tamed? Or is it to take it away from its rightful owners for fear that it might be used for what it was originally meant to be used?

Was it hatched in a conservative think tank as one more way to break up the Church, or is it just because the students of Jesus left it on the field, ignored and forgotten?

Either way, I hate to just let this blatantly Orwellian double speak take away one of the most powerful statements the Church has ever produced against the idolatry of patriotic militaristic nationalism and authoritarian autocracies.

The moral of the story is that when we let any other authority take the place of the authority of Christ, we have let the cat out of the bag. We then are left to follow our instincts to persecute other people for their color, their gender, their sexual practices, the ethnic origins, their religion, their politics, for the way they talk or the color of their eyes, for whatever makes them different than us. We can only not persecute when we cannot tell the differences that set us apart.

And only when we are truly under the authority of Christ do all of our differences disappear.

That is the fundamental paradigm shift that Jesus of Nazareth preached. That Holiness is no longer about being set apart. Its about going out, extending the fence, baptizing if you will, all those we thought were "others" and making them US, under the authority of Christ alone.

That's the new orthodoxy.

Conversely, only when all of our differences disappear can we dare to hope that we are under the true authority of Christ.