I’ve had some further discussion with people in church about the original sin thing. One problem that John pointed out is that Mennonites, in contrast to the well-developed Roman Catholic distinctions of dogma, doctrine and theology, don’t have a very strict idea of what beliefs make up the core truths of the faith. “For Mennonites,” he said, “the real dogma is behavior.”
I’ve been thinking about this at some length, since this is a distinction I keep running up against throughout American Christendom. On the one hand, following a version of sola fide, there are people (usually conservative) who state that the primary element of Christian faith is right belief, and that the main question humanity needs to answer is which god to worship. On the other hand, there are the (usually liberal) advocates of centering faith around good behavior, to the point where what you believe about God, or even whether you believe in God, becomes irrelevant. That was essentially the bone of contention in the debate over the follow-up post, as well as what Graham is talking about here.
Now, the first thing that crosses my mind about all this is that the old distinction between faith and works, or the more modern contrast between belief and action, is to some extent artificial. Behavior requires constant improvisation, as we always have to deal with novel situations; and so behavior cannot be as unchanging as, say, the Nicene Creed. (This may be one reason the Mennonites produced the Amish: if your religion is based on behavior, it’s safer to keep the environment exactly the same.) So what people really mean when they talk about “behavior” in this context is certain principles governing behavior, such as pacifism, loving your neighbor, helping the poor and so on. But once we’ve gotten into the question of principles, aren’t we already in the realm of ideas?
From the other side of it, believing in and worshipping God still constitutes doing things. Even totally mental actions are still actions. I remember once at my Lutheran church, the pastor was giving a recent convert the good old Lutheran assurance that she didn’t have to earn God’s love with works, she just had to believe in and accept Jesus. She responded, “But isn’t that a sort of ‘work’?”
So I think the distinction lies elsewhere, and I was getting an inkling of it in that discussion over original sin. It’s not a question of beliefs vs. actions, it’s a question of actions that serve God vs. actions that serve people. In other words, actions like worship, prayer, sacraments and so on please God but have no direct apparent impact on your neighbor, while things like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and so on quite obviously affect those people without any apparent supernatural element. That’s why evangelism tends to be the domain of conservatives, although it’s certainly “behavior”; it’s aimed toward the proper worship of God, rather than serving your neighbor’s earthly needs.
The Anabaptists were (and still are, at least at my church) reacting against a Christianity that emphasized the former over the latter, which is why the movement was allied with the humanism of Erasmus et al. But I think it’s another matter that requires a proper balance, because going too far the other way also has problems. It can turn into another way of displacing God — making humanity the real center of things, with God just benevolent wallpaper.
Thinking about this has collided in my mind with something else that’s been rattling around in my brain for a while. A while ago a blog called Mystic Bourgeoisie discussed Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I hadn’t thought about Maslow since we briefly went over him in one of my college psych courses, but apparently I would have heard a lot more about him if I’d gone into marketing. Brian Millar’s discussion of it in the second half of the post (under the subhead “Crossing the Line: the Curse of the Pyramid”) is nice and concise, so rather than repeat it here I urge you to read it yourself.
Now, Maslow is not as influential in society as a whole as he is in marketing. But looking at his pyramid again, I saw that like many philosophers he managed to spell out a lot of assumptions of the society at large. They are, essentially, materialist assumptions: that the most important needs for a person are the needs of his body, followed by the less-physical-but-still-earthly social needs, followed by the totally metaphysical spiritual needs.
As Millar aptly points out, this highly logical scheme really doesn’t track with actual human behavior. It would come as a shock to anyone from an honor/shame culture — which is most of the planet — that “esteem” ranks so far up the pyramid, when they were weaned on phrases like “death before dishonor.” In fact, quite a lot of people in world history have preferred suffering and death to social humiliation. More to the point of the subject at hand, if spiritual needs were really at the apex than rich people would be a lot more spiritual than poor ones, since their more basic needs have already been taken care of. But if anything, the reverse is true.
Now, I don’t think most Mennonites adhere to the hierarchy of needs quite that rigidly. But I do get the feeling that a lot of the “behavioral dogma” believers assume that God holds a hierarchy of priorities something like that. That is, the most important thing Christians can do for others is to serve their physical needs, and secondarily their social needs; and only after that is taken care of are they free to worry about whether their neighbors are having the proper relationship with God.
But the Bible, in fact, frequently inverts this assumption. God is concerned about how people treat each other, but he’s also interested in people’s relationship with himself — not as the endpoint, but as the starting point. “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation,” says Habbakuk. But my point is not to assert that the physical needs of one’s neighbor are irrelevant; after all, we still have Matthew 25:31-46 to deal with. It’s not that I would turn the pyramid upside down; it’s that I don’t think you can so neatly stack human needs in that way. Our physical, social and spiritual needs are all tangled together.
I think another problem here is that, in our modern empirical way of thinking, we tend to see service to our neighbor only where we can trace a direct path from our action to our neighbor’s benefit. So giving a hungry person food obviously serves him, whereas munching on a communion wafer doesn’t have such an obvious effect. Yet there are plenty of intangibles that go with common beliefs and worship; special communal cohesion, meaning, direction and so on. The fact that it is difficult to observe and quantify the exact pathways of such intangibles doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
So anyway, getting back to the question of dogma, I think that God’s expressed desire in the Bible is not just that people obey him, but that they know him. And while stuff like Trinitarian theology can get pretty arcane (quick recite the Athanasian Creed!) I think that at its best, dogma declares things about God’s character that make his commands make sense. It seems strange to me to set out commandments while throwing a sort of veil over their source. The point of the Incarnation, as I see it, is that God was thus unveiled, and it seems to be denying quite a basic human need to refuse the gift.
(Mystic Bourgeoisie link via AKMA.)