Monday, November 26, 2007

When Dogma conflicts with Modernity

For Sunday, November 18, I was asked to contribute to Adam Parker's column asking pastors, "How do you resolve conflict between religious doctrine and contemporary life." Below is the column, including my answer. The online link is this:

How to resolve conflict between doctrine and contemporary life
By Adam Parker
The Post and Courier
Sunday, November 18, 2007

Over the last several months, Faith & Values has explored how scriptural authority and religious practice can conflict with aspects of everyday life.

Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Methodists are struggling to reconcile homosexuality with what their faith traditions teach. Jews are confronting challenges posed by cultural assimilation, trying to reconcile Jewish and American identities.

Recent court cases and legal settlements have forced Catholics to question the ways in which church officials deal with priests who have sexually assaulted children.

And every day, someone somewhere must address the dilemmas that arise when the realities of the world — poverty, natural disaster, consumerism, unwanted pregnancies, racism, xenophobia — prompt reactions and feelings that clash with the way we believe we are to believe.

Some of the lessons of religious faith seem clear. We are supposed to share our wealth. We are supposed to eat a certain way, dress a certain way. We are meant to abide by what Scripture teaches.

Yet we consume, often buying products we don't need. The trends of fashion and public taste guide our decisions. Forgiveness and fraternity give way to condemnation, overconfidence and blindness. Scripture tells us of sin. But what are we to do? Stone the sinner? Forgive him? Take it upon ourselves to save him? Pretend not to notice? Adjust our definition of sin?

What is clear is that people hold a range of views on how to address these questions and conflicts. Some are sure of their faith and what it dictates; others are full of doubt. Some put their trust in a higher authority; others prefer to trust themselves.

The Post and Courier decided to seek input. We asked religious leaders in the community this question: How do you resolve conflict between religious doctrine and contemporary life?

Asking Around
Ultimately, it comes down to one's underlying premise and perspective. Judaism posits that God did not create the world and then seek to impose his system of values and ethics upon it, but in fact, began with the Torah as his "blueprint" for civilization, and fashioned the world accordingly.

When one perceives the Bible's principles and ideals as the natural order — indeed, the very foundation — of things, one tends to be far less daunted by the challenges of secular society. The question becomes not "How do I reconcile religious doctrine with contemporary life?" but the other way around: "Which aspects of contemporary society conform to my bedrock standards and thus have a place in my life, and which do not, and must remain alien to it?"

Even as our faith and values are constantly tested in myriad ways, a strong foundation enables us to weather the windstorms. Toward that end, education is paramount.

Finally, while from a distance, Torah doctrine may appear rigid, dogmatic or outdated, in its practical application it is none of those things. "Its ways are gentle and all its pathways are peace. It is a tree of life to those who grasp it" (Proverbs 3:17-18). Those who practice tradition not only appreciate its profound relevancy to contemporary times, but how it infuses their every day with a sense of joy, meaning and purpose; a quest for deeper knowledge and spirituality; and a desire to impact the world through acts of goodness, compassion and loving kindness. The Psalmist perhaps said it best: "Taste (i.e. experience for yourself) and see that the Lord is good."

Rabbi Yossi Refson
Chabad of Charleston & the Low Country


Christians from the beginning have understood that true life is life in Christ — a total metamorphosis of the human person from the inside out. So, when Christian doctrine seems to be in conflict with contemporary life, this is because "contemporary life" is not really life. If we wish to live truly, we will fight with every ounce of our being, as St. Paul taught, not to be "conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2).

"Contemporary life" is not our canon; rather Jesus Christ is the standard of what it means to be truly human: Jesus is "the way, and the truth and the life."

For example, the two popular phrases "just do it" and "you deserve it" sum up one mark of contemporary life: "indulge thyself." This is fundamentally at odds with Jesus' teaching and perfect example: "Deny thyself." Following Jesus Christ, perfect God and Man, we can bear witness to the truth of life which comes through him by self-denial and cross-bearing. It raises the dead.

On the other hand, the results of the reign of self-indulgence in "contemporary life" are memorialized in the headlines of People magazine, any weekly tabloid or the police blotter. It kills the living.

A first-century Christian text reads, "There are two ways to live." When there is a conflict between the two, knowing Life, we choose him!

The Rev. John Parker
Holy Ascension Orthodox Church, Mount Pleasant


I noticed that the question uses the words "religious doctrine," and I believe that the term is very revealing. The very nature of doctrine invites conflict. However, that kind of conflict is of no consequence to me. I don't mean to sound cavalier, but I don't believe that there is ever a conflict between faith and culture ... at least not for the individual who has genuine faith and real conviction.

In the course of human history, when men and women of faith have faced a society or culture that disregarded their values and convictions, the conflict was not within the individual, but between the trend of the culture and the standard of the faithful. Think about the following people: Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Richard Allen, Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. Need I say more? These people acted on conviction, regardless of the trend or expectation of their culture, and in spite of personal struggles.

That same spirit carries over to our more personal individual choices, as well. It seems that every day I encounter people in our society who use profanity casually and loosely. Or unmarried couples who live in the same house and share the same bed without shame or reluctance. And certainly the styles, practices and entertainment of our day that disregard a standard that affirms the notion that we will have to answer to God one day. However, I made a choice to live for Christ, without compromise. There are times when it is inconvenient, unpopular and even painful to be a faithful follower of Christ. However, the presence of those undesirable feelings does not constitute a legitimate reason to compromise or "give in." Actually, I have found that once we make up our minds to live for the Lord, many of our decisions are already made. We simply have to ask God to help us deal with the discomforts ... and I am a witness that He will help us do just that.

The Rev. Stephen Singleton
Emanuel AME Church


Such conflict is addressed by allowing the principles of the Scriptures to inform life in the culture of our day. Essentially, the specific commands (which sometimes seem not to relate to our culture) are based on principles that transcend culture. Let those principles speak in the context of our day to define our lives even if it means we are not in the mainstream of the culture. Our history has taught us that being in the mainstream of culture is often a recipe for disaster, while standing on principle is often costly but best in the long term.

The Rev. R. Marshall Blalock
First Baptist Church


Religious communities are caring communities, deeply concerned about the truths that help give our lives meaning and purpose. Having definite beliefs, we are able to live lives with integrity, and can find answers to life's enduring questions, such as: Is there a God? What happens after we die? Why do good people suffer? What actions are good and right?

For more than 2,000 years, it has been Jewish religious doctrine that God gave his revelation (Torah) to Moses at Mount Sinai. This long-standing belief provided a basis for our Jewish lives. In perplexity or doubt, we could reliably turn to our Jewish leader or rabbi who would find answers based on Torah.

But, contrary to what we might wish, over the past 200 years, the scientific study of the Bible (largely conducted by leading Protestant scholars) has made belief in this Jewish doctrine increasingly difficult. Objective studies of the text lead us to conclude that the Pentateuch (the "five books of Moses") was written and edited over many centuries by several diverse authors. As a result, most American Jews have come to accept our sacred texts as fallible.

Our Jewish communities remain caring communities that both link us to our religious past and help us find answers to enduring questions. But with Torah as a guide, rather than infallible dogma, we all become fellow seekers for truth, helping one another find beliefs and values that give our lives personal authenticity and direction in a Jewish context.

Rabbi Anthony D. Holz
Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim


At its root, the question about conflicts between religious doctrine and contemporary life is about the existence and nature of truth. Does truth exist? Can truth change? If true religious doctrines conflict with contemporary life, the resolution is simple: conversion. By the grace of God, we conform ourselves to God's plan for creation.

The Gospel is always countercultural in some form or another. Ironically, as G.K. Chesterton noted, "... each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most." Witness the late 20th century's esteem for Mother Teresa, as she lived and proclaimed poverty and chastity.

It is easy to get caught up in the marketing of religion. In a sincere desire to evangelize, some religious bodies survey people to determine what they need. As often happens, true needs get confused with mere wants. When religion becomes a commodity, people become consumers. Like customers, they shop around to pick and choose their beliefs. We call it "the commodification of religion." Unfortunately, when religion adapts to contemporary whims, people stay in their comfort zones and miss the challenge to growth, to conversion, to heroic love.

Instead of changing our behavior in accord with our beliefs, we are tempted to change our beliefs to suit our behavior. "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." (Romans 12:2). It's a constant and exciting challenge.

The Rev. Lawrence B. McInerny
Stella Maris Catholic Church, Sullivan's Island


I think it is important to understand that the Bible is first and foremost a book of Christian Faith and Practice. In other words, it tells us who we are, our sinful state and the need for God's grace and intervention to reinstall fellowship with our Creator. Scripture assures us that God is the Creator and that we humans were created with a purpose, but it does not explain how God created and it is not strictly speaking a book of science, math, history (even though we believe it has historical content) and, therefore, we are not called to try to explain God's way of doing things. Also, each biblical text or passage needs to be interpreted within its context and cannot be literally applied to every situation. There are certain issues that are essential to faith and practice, but others need to be seen within their historical context, and a principle is to be seen for application to modern-day life. Within the Scriptures themselves, there are shifts in application to certain circumstances according to the context (for example animal sacrifices and the ultimate sacrifice seen in Jesus Christ).

Certain hygiene rules are not mandatory today, yet moral principles such as adultery, murder, hate, etc., are consistently condemned throughout Scripture. As Christians, we believe in the leading of the Holy Spirit to help us understand God's written word for today for adequate application.

The Rev. Eriberto "Eddie" Soto
Latin American Ministries, Charleston-Atlantic Presbytery


Too often Christians fall into the fallacy that our doctrines were delivered First Class from heaven. The creeds we recite each Sunday, the stories that we hear from the pulpit, the beliefs handed down to us from our grandmother we often take as coming straight from the mouth of God.

That is where we begin to get into trouble. All theology is created. It is humans' attempt to make some sense of what is going on in life and how it relates to what God is seeking to do in and through creation. It is a continuing conversation with God, our world, ourselves.

The Nicene Creed was an attempt to find a consensus to the wide range of beliefs that were causing a rift in the church and the empire. It was a conversation that set forth what most people believed in the fourth century. Since then our knowledge of the world has expanded. We need to continually ask ourselves if our understanding of God has expanded as well.

William Countryman, in writing about Scripture, once said that "when Scripture breaks your world open and makes it bigger and more loving, it is achieving its true goal." The same thing could be said for doctrines. They are here to help us understand God and what God is seeking to do in our world. Doctrines that harden our hearts and close our minds to the wonder of God need to be discarded. Those which open us to greater wonder and greater understanding are to be reaffirmed and celebrated.

The Rev. Dr. Don Flowers Jr.
Providence Baptist Church, Daniel Island

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or
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