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Do You Believe…?

This past week I headed over to the mainland for my credentialing interview at the MB Conference centre in Abbotsford.  The purpose of this meeting (and the twenty or so odd page document I had to produce beforehand) was to determine if I was fit to become a pastor in the BC Mennonite Brethren Conference—to see if I would be admitted into the “pastors guild” as it were.  There was a touch of anxiety on Tuesday afternoon, but all in all it was a very affirming and encouraging experience for Naomi and I.  To top it off, I passed, so I suppose that’s the main thing.

Over the last few days I’ve been reflecting on the experiences of writing the document, answering the questions, going through the interview process, and what these things are meant to accomplish.  I’m obviously familiar with having to meet academic standards in order to progress to different levels but it was an odd kind of a thing to be scrutinized to determine if I was “pastor material.”

Particularly interesting, from my perspective, was the second-to-last question I had to answer in my document: “Do you subscribe to the Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith in all its aspects?”  On the one hand, there is nothing particularly strange about checking out a potential pastor’s doctrine—indeed, it is crucial in order to detect crazy theologies or dangerous personalities.  In this sense, a question like this is a vital one from a conference perspective and I had no problem answering it.

On the other hand, the question seemed a strange one to me.  How is it possible for any one person to come to precisely the same conclusions as any one denomination on important theological issues such as the nature of God, the doctrine of creation, the scope of salvation, not to mention thorny questions such as those related to gender roles and sexual orientation?  Was the conference expecting me to say that I had come to an irreversible, unqualified, and fixed position on every matter of doctrine and Christian practice and to say that in every case my views exactly matched their own?

Well, not exactly.  One of the things that I came to deeply appreciate over the course of my preparing for and going through this credentialing process was the latitude of the MB Confession of faith—their willingness to speak confidently where Scripture speaks confidently and to not be dogmatic when Scripture is not as clear.  Consequently, the conference has not made the question of women’s place in ministry a confessional issue, nor have they declared a single position on, say, the mechanism or time-frame of creation.  It was good not to feel this intense pressure to have everything sorted out (or worse, have to give assent to something that I strongly disagreed with) at the outset of entering the BC Conference and I welcomed the implicit freedom to learn and grow that this communicated to me.

It still felt strange to say that I agreed with the entire MB Confession of Faith because I don’t know if any two people think about faith and doctrine in precisely the same way, much less every pastor in one little denomination.  However, I appreciate the MB approach to Scripture and their reticence in requiring rigid doctrinal precision in every conceivable matter.  We are dealing with mysteries and deep questions here, and doing so with fallen and finite minds.  Humility—epistemological, spiritual, or otherwise—is rarely a bad thing, and I am happy to be part of a conference that recognizes and honours this.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. “Was the conference expecting me to say that I had come to an irreversible, unqualified, and fixed position on every matter of doctrine and Christian practice and to say that in every case my views exactly matched their own?”

    Does the conference expect you to have an irreversible, fixed position on the creedal doctrines? Are you expected to believe that you will never change your mind?

    It’s hard to imagine how our minds could be changed in the future about beliefs or ideas that seem so obvious. I’ve always left room for the possibility, but I can’t always imagine how my mind could be changed in the future – so much so, that I thought it would never happen in some areas of my life.

    Your question above makes me question if there’s any area in my life where I believe whole-heartedly that something will never change.

    October 6, 2008
  2. I think that the conference expects me to affirm the central doctrines which are held by all Christians at all times in all places, and to be committed to those positions unique to Mennonites, specifically. But as I said, my experience in Mennonite churches and in my own study on the matter is that there is room for differing conceptions on some of the more peripheral issues.

    I don’t think that I would be free to question, say, the bodily resurrection of Jesus and still retain my standing in the conference. But if my mind were ever changed about matters that important, it’s hard to imagine having the desire to stay in the conference anyway or the ability to do so in good conscience.

    Having said that, for me the central doctrines of Christianity are the ones that I find it most difficult to imagine ever changing my mind on. I don’t think it’s possible (or at least advisable) for any of us to live and think in a state of having our strongest beliefs held loosely, even if these beliefs remain implicit and inarticulate.

    (Incidentally, I’m curious to hear if you came to any conclusions about your last question).

    October 6, 2008
  3. “I don’t think it’s possible (or at least advisable) for any of us to live and think in a state of having our strongest beliefs held loosely, even if these beliefs remain implicit and inarticulate.”

    I struggle with this statement. Because if we don’t leave room for correction, then we’re not trying to protect the truth, we’re trying to protect our beliefs. And our beliefs and the truth are not always the same thing.

    Regarding my last question, I’m quite dissatisfied with my simplistic responses to it. Yes, 2+2 will always equal four. And I still haven’t been able to understand scientific explanations for a reality without time (I do understand manipulations of how long something may take to happen, but a reality without time?).

    Nevertheless, mathematical equations are only a part of a greater reality. “Father Time” may be immortal, but what about “Mother Nature”?

    I’ve written here (before I became and atheist) and here about mutability. In the first post, where I think I misinterpreted Buddhists’ pursuit of non-attachment (meaning letting go of over attachments), I quote the Dalai Lama from his book, The Universe in a Single Atom. The other post includes two poems (Shelley and Wordsworth) on mutability after which I comment on the seemingly immortal themes in the human experience that greek gods are said to rule. I suppose, for the Christian god, one of the themes would be righteousness.

    So, I feel I’ve only scratched the surface on this question, and haven’t been able to come up with a response that comments on my daily metaphysical assumptions.

    October 8, 2008
  4. I struggle with this statement. Because if we don’t leave room for correction, then we’re not trying to protect the truth, we’re trying to protect our beliefs. And our beliefs and the truth are not always the same thing.

    I think you’ve made a very helpful and crucial distinction here (protecting the truth vs. protecting our beliefs) and you are absolutely right that our beliefs and truth are not always the same thing. You’re quite right that we have to always allow for our thinking to change when we receive new information.

    I suppose I’d like to think that on the kinds of meta-questions that I was responding to in the interview process – the kinds of questions that all of us need some answer to, even if it’s not an answer we’ve thought about as much as we ought to have (what does it mean to be human, what’s wrong with the world, what’s the solution, etc) – the commitment I’ve made is based on a decent understanding of the options out there and what’s at stake in deciding about them. In that sense, I’ve committed to one way of looking at the world and interpreting the data and will remain so committed unless powerful evidence to the contrary was to arise. In your case, I gather that you feel that you have come across such evidence and have moved in the opposite direction.

    I think the important thing to note is that the world does not interpret itself, and that to learn and grow as human beings requires commitment. It’s not as though we have “just the facts” and if everyone could only see that they would all believe the same thing (of course there are people who think this, on both sides of the atheist/theist divide, but hopefully these people are in the minority). At some level, a decision is necessary – a decision that this lens is the one with which I will look at the world. We can’t just try on a Buddhist lens one day, a Christian one the next, and a Hindu one after that. We’re not given enough years to “test-drive” all the various options out there, nor would it necessarily be desirable if we were. That’s what I was trying to get at in my comment above.

    Re: the last part of your comment, I think you moved from epistemological mutability (how/why do we change our minds) to metaphysical mutability. That seems to be a different question entirely – one that would require many more words than the excessive amount I seem to have already generated in response to the first part of your response…

    October 8, 2008
  5. “We can’t just try on a Buddhist lens one day, a Christian one the next, and a Hindu one after that. We’re not given enough years to “test-drive” all the various options out there, nor would it necessarily be desirable if we were.”

    Do you know how long or short of a time it would take to understand which religion (which denomination/sect/tribe, church/mosque/temple, priest/imam/rabbi, small groups…) is the most fitting one to commit to?

    “I think the important thing to note is that the world does not interpret itself, and that to learn and grow as human beings requires commitment.” (italics mine)

    Could you explain what you mean here? Because obviously every individual’s learning of him or herself while growing from toddler to elder has been influenced by people around them and the making up of their own mind.

    October 9, 2008
  6. Do you know how long or short of a time it would take to understand which religion (which denomination/sect/tribe, church/mosque/temple, priest/imam/rabbi, small groups…) is the most fitting one to commit to?

    I obviously can’t give you a number of months/years. But I do know that there are a lot of religious options out there and that for most, if not all, of them, sustained immersion into the group’s rituals, experiences, sacred writings, and ethical norms is an essential part of becoming a member of the religious community. I don’t see how it’s possible to do this for all the options out there.

    Re: your second question, I would simply repeat that being human is about deciding, and deciding involves commitment. Living and thinking in the world is not just about reading the transcript of empirical reality. You and I obviously look at the same data and come to very different conclusions. I’ve committed to one “lens” through which to look at the world; you’ve committed to another one. In both cases risks have to be taken and personal investment is required.

    October 9, 2008

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