Things I Have Learned This Year

This post is effectively the beginning of a process of documenting my careful examination of what I believe. In particular, this post limits itself to explore what things I have found that I do NOT believe to be factual, or I have found to be significantly different than I had thought. It’s not so much an examination of doctrine, as much as exploring things I was taught that upon closer examination don’t seem to be true or so singularly simple.

You probably already know some or many of the facts and assertions below. However, they’re generally new to me. I never before spent any time questioning the doctrinal and historical understandings under which I grew up. But this year, I’ve learned a lot of new information from multiple trustworthy sources that affects my doctrinal foundations in various ways, some significantly, some with only minor effect.

The net result of learning so many new things is that I no longer take for granted that something I was taught is automatically true. As a result, I also cannot take for granted that my previous conclusions about doctrine and sociology are automatically correct.

In fact, in many ways I find that things I was taught were dangerously one-sided and served to uncritically reinforce the views I was given, and when I add additional history to my understanding, have forced me to pull back from the conclusions and doctrines and political understandings. I don’t intend to discuss my doctrine or sociology here – but that will be a natural outgrowth in the future.

So I offer this set of observations, in no particular order. Each one should stand alone in considering its effects on my theology and sociology.

  • A lot of “traditional” Christian values from today’s evangelical church are in fact rather new. When someone says “the Church has always believed X” they’re probably not actually able to prove that, and they’re quite possibly wrong.
  • The Roman Emperor Constantine’s formal adoption of Christianity as the Roman state religion led to a very significant reworking of Christian values and practices in the early church. Those changes had massive effects on today’s doctrine, as the results have percolated over 1,700 years of history.
  • There was a lot of dissent in the process of assembling the Bible in the first few hundred years after the Apostles. There really was never a final universal acceptance of the canon of Scripture, although it all settled out over time. But the Catholic church still has a different set of accepted scripture books than the Protestant church.
  • Modernism, Rationalism, and the Renaissance had massive effects on Christian values and practices starting in the 1500s or so. It led to the current evangelical emphasis on a sharply-defined set of doctrines and interpretations. That emphasis would have confounded early Christians.
  • Without the Rationalist mindset, the early church and the Hebrew faith which preceded it – in other words, the faiths that wrote the Bible – were grounded in an acceptance of mystery and a comfortable acceptance of not “knowing” things and not having provable, inarguable doctrinal positions.
  • Jewish rabbis – one of which was Jesus Himself – were fully expected to bring their own interpretations of the Torah and the rest of their Scriptures into the public square; the Jewish doctrine and thinking were constantly evolving and each rabbi was expected to contribute. The modern idea of a fixed, immutable doctrine would have been unthinkable to them.
  • Synagogues and early churches did not have a single person leading their theology and doctrine and worship. They were accustomed to cooperative worship, with itinerant teachers who might not all agree with each other, and where each member of each small assembly was expected to contribute to the meeting and to the thinking and religious discussion. There was no provision for an institutional church under single headship. Today’s “church” experience was unknown to any Biblical writer or audience.
  • We modern Christians use quite a few words in a religious context that do appear in the Bible, but because of 2,000 years of church history have nearly completely lost their original meanings and contexts to us. However, those original meanings were critical to accurately understanding the original teachings.
  • Calvin, a hero of the faith to many evangelicals, held positions that should deeply trouble modern Christians. Among other things, he explicitly supported and oversaw trials and executions of heretics, and he supported attacks against Jews.
  • Luther, another hero of the faith, also had troublesome positions. He despised the Jewish people and believed they should be persecuted if not executed. He argued for putting women to death if they refused sex to their husbands. He denied the canonicity of several accepted books of the Bible.
  • The efforts by American churches in slave-holding states to rationalize slavery and racism had a significant, and lingering, effect on Christian doctrine, even when racism was (mostly) expunged from the vocabulary and practices of those churches.
  • Those doctrinal effects of the slavery era have continued to affect how American churches address racism and injustice still today.
  • Many Black churches generally operate from a theology position that is noticeably different from most white churches.
  • A lot of modern Christian thinking actually derived from African theologians including notables like Apollos, Simon of Cyrene, Origen, Tertullian, and Augustine, the latter two of which actually heavily influenced Calvin and Luther.
  • It’s a mistake to believe that Americans took Christianity to Africa or the Caribbean. Instead, Americans exported their own version of Christianity to cultures that already had Christian beliefs and practices. They were simply too arrogant to notice or accept a different theology.
  • Modern Native American Christians often have a rather different view of Christianity than most other American Christians, and are much more comfortable with theology and practices that appear dangerously animistic to traditional Christians. But they back up their ideas with (their interpretations of) Scripture and demonstrate a strong faith in, and relationship with, Jesus.
  • Most complementarian, patriarchal doctrines that thrive in fundamentalist and more conservative evangelical churches are relatively recent arrivals on the doctrinal scene.
  • There are far more women named in positions of authority in the New Testament than I had ever known.
  • Several Bible translations in modern use went out of their way to suppress these identifications of women, such as changing “deaconess” to “servant” or changing their names (such as the feminine Junia to the masculine Junias), to suit their complementarian theology, but without any other justification than fitting their existing beliefs.
  • Jesus seemed to go out of His way to honor women and give them roles in His sphere that confounded the deeply patriarchal society in which He lived.
  • Modern evangelical and fundamentalist patriarchy looks very little like early church practices.
  • The Bible is full of far more pro-justice and anti-oppression language than I was taught. In fact, I find that a primary focus of the Lord is in fact justice and salvation from actual tangible earthly oppression and poverty. The Lord repeatedly scolded His people for failing to do justice and show mercy and care for those who needed it. Jesus made it pretty clear that those who failed to live up to these standards would not be saved by their other piety.
  • Most of the Bible was written by and to oppressed people.
  • “Plain reading” is strongly dependent upon the doctrinal position of the translators.
  • “Plain reading” is also strongly dependent upon the reader’s existing assumptions and cultural views.
  • The Scriptures were written by people who thought like communalists, not individualists. Modern Western readers often miss a lot of the significance of stories and parables in the Bible because we don’t see the world and culture and society and family relationships the way that the Bible’s writers – and their audiences – saw things.
  • Not all communalist thinking is good. Not all Jewish or early Christian practices are worth emulating. There are things about our individualist, modern ways of thinking that are better. Being too focused on either extreme is risky.
  • A lot of today’s denominations “crystalized” after an initial beneficial change in doctrine or practice was prompted by the Holy Spirit. But they then locked into their new positions, and resisted further change.
  • The word “homosexual” didn’t actually exist in the Bible until the Revised Standard Version appeared in 1946.
  • Jesus taught explicitly about intersexed people, in His reference to eunuchs. Isaiah speaks a prophetic word that in the Lord’s Kingdom eunuchs would be given honor and a family name better than their peers who could bear children.
  • Eunuchs were commonly recognized and understood to Biblical writers or audiences.
  • Most of the passages commonly used to oppose homosexual activity and marriage would have been understood very differently in the context of the writers and original audiences.
  • The identification of the nation of Israel as central to end-times theology is a fairly new development in Christian thinking, appearing in the 1800s and really only ramping up with the State of Israel in 1948.
  • Rapture theology is a recent development in Christian doctrine. It did not exist prior to the mid 1800s, with John Darby.
  • Dispensationalism is a recent development, also appearing in the 1830s with John Darby.
  • Evangelical churches and preachers have a deeply embedded practice of using fear of suppression of their views, and fear of loss of their status, as a motivating tool for their constituents.
  • Warfare language pervades the doctrine and practice of evangelical and fundamentalist churches. It seems important to recognize and separate myself from the emotional and soul-arousing thrust of preaching, to make it possible to assess the accuracy and validity of the message. Far too much of modern teaching seems to depend on whipping people into a state of fear – if not of hellfire and brimstone, then of demonic activity, or persecution or oppression by godless state actors or media or news organizations.
  • The Founding Fathers of American, those who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, were hardly unified in their sense of America as a Christian nation. While they almost all believed in God, and some of whom did argue that the America experiment could not succeed without Christian principles, they were hardly unified in their pursuits of religion in government. Some preferred a state church, while others argued vociferously against government-led religion.
  • Many of the Founding Fathers held very unorthodox understandings of theology, and many of them were deists or theistic rationalists that rejected several foundational principles of modern orthodox Christianity (including the deity of Christ). Many were strongly influenced by modernist and rationalist worldviews that elevated human reason’s role in theology, with principles from Aquinas, Kant, Locke, Hobbes and other philosophers appearing throughout their writings.
  • A great many things that are claimed to be long-standing American principles and practices don’t hold up under historical scrutiny. The claims are heavily idealized at best. I am increasingly convinced that our view of history is dangerously short-sighted and self-serving. We have a tendency to ignore aspects of history that don’t fit our worldview and theology. (And that tendency is hardly American-only.)

I will likely revisit and adjust this list as I learn more.

I have not abandoned my Christian beliefs, to be sure. But I am infinitely less inclined to argue strongly that the particulars are Correct and True. I just can’t KNOW, when plenty of opposing information exists and is believable and well-sourced.

More to the point, I find that I have a hard time tolerating those who insist – in the face of plenty of historical and factual evidence – that their views are Absolutely Correct and that all other views are damnable. I am also increasingly unhappy with those who say that this process of carefully examining the foundations of our beliefs is dangerous and faithless. If your views cannot withstand close examination, it’s not faith, it’s foolish blindness.

But as I said, this post is merely a first examination of various “facts,” and I will leave the resulting effects on my beliefs and doctrine for future writings. This is just a step forward, an opportunity to leave a record of my changed understandings for my future self, and to do so in the hopes that it can also benefit your own search for Truth.

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