This post is part of the June 2018 Synchroblog which asks the question “Where does ultimate authority and meaning rest for Christians today?” You will find the links to the other June Synchroblog contributions at the end of this post.
Many people are asking the same question:
Where does ultimate authority and meaning rest for Christians today?
Christianity is rapidly changing and those changes may be connected to a cyclical pattern that history has revealed to us.
Bishop Mark Dyer claimed: “to understand what is currently happening to us as twenty-first century Christians in North America is first to understand that about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.”
Bishop Dyer went on to say that historically three things happen when the rummage sale takes place:
A new and more vital form of Christianity emerges.
The organized expression of Christianity becomes less ossified.
Christianity breaks free from that which has encrusted it and the faith spreads.
For some context, we can consider that about 500 years ago Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg Castle and the Great Reformation took place. about 500 years before that the Great Schism occurred. And again, about 500 years before the Great Schism a council called in Calcedon determined what was and was not correct doctrine and then, of course, 500 years before that was when the main event took place and Jesus challenged the existing religious institutions to hold their own rummage sale.
At each of these intersections we see the question about authority being asked.
When Jesus comes to Jerusalem and walked into the temple the chief priests and elders came to him and asked him, “By what authority are you doing these things?” The council of Calcedon met to determine “correct doctrine” to serve as religious authority, one of the main causes of the Great Schism were disputes over papal authority, and the Reformation was a widespread theological revolt against the abuses and totalitarian control of the Roman Catholic Church that was seen as the ultimate religious authority at that time.
If Christianity is in the midst of another rummage sale that would explain some of the changes that we are witnessing and why so many followers of Jesus are asking ” where does ultimate authority and meaning rest for Christians today?”
As a Christian I have been trying to answer that question over the last few years and have come to the conclusion that the answer includes elements of scripture, science and community under the guidance of and imbued with the wisdom of the holy spirit.
I spent much of my life in a faith community that embraced scripture as the sole authority but I no longer believe in the idea that the Christian scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith and practice.
I value scripture and believe it contains much truth and wisdom. I believe it is an important element in the life of a Christian but I think there is a danger in perceiving scripture as the sole source of truth rather than an instrument that guides us to live in a way that allows us to discover truth.
Barbara Brown Taylor shares some wonderful wisdom and insight regarding the Bible:
“I know that the Bible is a special kind of book, but I find it as seductive as any other. If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape. Neither I nor anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink. The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake. For me, this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith.
This brings me to the best thing about the Bible, which is the way that it will not let you settle down between its pages. Pay attention to what is written there and it will keep pushing you out into the world—to look for the rainbow, scoop up the manna, wrestle the angel, seek the lost sheep, give your shirt to the stranger. Open your imagination to the divine stories it tells and the world stands a better chance of becoming a sacred place, if only because you are out there acting like it is.
Mary and Joseph lead me to pay more attention to my dreams, John the Baptist reminds me that the savior you hope for is almost never the savior you get, Mary Magdalene shows me how many kinds of love there are—and Jesus? There’s not enough time even to begin. Give to everyone who begs of you, pray for those who persecute you, watch out for the log in your own eye, love your neighbor as yourself. Thanks to him, I cannot even pass someone in the frozen food grocery aisle at the grocery store without seeing a divine messenger.
This is not something you learn in New Testament class—or Bible study either—at least not if you are there to discover the right answers to all your questions. But if you want to know more about the God-haunted seekers who came before you and are willing to take your place among them, then by and by you will decide for yourself what kind of authority the Bible has.”
It seems to me that human beings have a natural desire for a cognitive narrative to make sense of the world around them. Two of the major premises used by humans to account for our observations and experiences are faith and science. They are often viewed as separate entities but I believe they complement each other. I believe that the integration of science and faith can lead to a more holistic understanding of both. If our goal is to discover truth about ourselves, others and the world we live in, then I believe the unification of faith and science will present new and better questions that lead us to answers that will enhance our knowledge, intensify our beliefs and cause us to live and love better.
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”
I have come to believe that the best way to learn is in community with others where it is safe to ask questions, share doubts, challenge traditions and disagree. Those who are wholeheartedly seeking truth in a community where they can do those things will be able to accept a new idea, admit they changed their mind, adopt what they once opposed while at the same time living out their present beliefs with conviction. They will be able to be confident without feeling the necessity to be certain. They will accept the tension of knowing something while holding on to the idea that they may be wrong. I believe that community plays a big role when it comes to authority in the life of a Christian. Without community to challenge us, inspire us, motivate us we can easily become stagnant and set in our own ways hanging on to narrow views and missing revelations. Community gives us the opportunity to be refined when it rubs up against us and a place to gain humility when we recognize we are only a small part of something much bigger. In community we learn to forgive, we discover our own worth and the worth of others, we learn to love, we learn to handle conflict, we learn to accept help and to be helpful. I believe that community is both the catalyst for spiritual growth and the key to restoring faith.
As Proverbs 27:17 states: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another”
Jesus said, “the helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything. He will remind you of everything that I have ever told you.”
I believe when elements such as scripture, science and community are imbued with and guided by the Holy Spirit we can trust the spirit to give us the ability to know how to live into the way of Jesus and love in the way of Jesus.
This “spiritual authority” is very different than the kind of certainty that many Christians have embraced in recent years because the Holy Spirit is full of mystery and unpredictability.
The concept of spirit is derived from the Hebrew word ruach. It is something that can be felt and not seen and is often translated as breath or wind. We don’t know which way the wind will blow. Ruach is unpredictable and mysterious.
I believe we are in “The Age of the Spirit” however, I think it is important that we not mistake this time as an excuse for mindless thought and action but instead recognize this is a time for deep introspection. This is not a time to carelessly say “God told me” or “the spirit led me” in order to try and give our own ideas more credibility. Instead, we should remain sensitive to the promptings and guidance of the spirit and as a result be a witness to God’s ways by letting our lives and actions reflect what a spirit filled life looks like.
“The Spirit-filled life is not a special, deluxe edition of Christianity. It is part and parcel of the total plan of God for His people.” A. W. Tozer
However, many are resistant to the idea of the Holy Spirit being the ultimate authority in in the life of Christians. Many believe we need an institution, an educated leader, a book or a creed. I think what scares people the most about the idea of the Holy Spirit being the ultimate authority in the life of Christians is allowing people to depend on themselves.
People might misunderstand what the Holy Spirit is saying to them.
Some may purposely misrepresent the Holy Spirit.
Many are self serving so they may ignore some things the Holy Spirit is revealing to them.
YES! YES! YES!
All of those things will happen … but none the less, I believe that the Holy Spirit is the correct source of authority for Christians today.
Brian McLaren points out:
“Jesus was short on sermons, long on conversations; short on answers, long on questions; short on abstraction and propositions, long on stories and parables; short on telling you what to think, long on challenging you to think for yourself.”
In the end, depending on the Holy Spirit means thinking for ourselves – discerning for ourselves. It’s risky but so are things like unconditional love and grace.
I believe the age of the Spirit has come, will you welcome it?
Phyllis Tickle would be a good source if you want to dive deeper. Here are two of her books I recommend:
CHECK OUT THESE POSTS FOR THE JUNE SYNCHROBLOG ON AUTHORITY:
Authority for Believers – Soulcare Ministries
Christian Authority – Done With Religion
Who Gets To Say What Is Right Or Wrong? – What God May Really Be Like
A Surprising Source of Spiritual Authority – Glenn Hager
Surrendering Our Authority To Jesus – K. W. Lesley
Under Who’s Authority – Layman Seeker
authority? – Metler
The Age of the Spirit – Liz Dyer