|Pen and Ink Reflections||
Does doctrine divide? I sometimes hear that these days. Indeed, I have even heard people say they do not believe in doctrine at all. That, if you think about it, is quite a contradiction in terms. For anything you believe in, or do not believe in, is itself a doctrine. Doctrine, after all, really just means teaching. So, if someone says they do not believe in doctrine, are they really saying they do not want teaching in our world? Are all viewpoints, from flat earthers to conspiracy theorists, really equal? I suspect that what people really mean is that they do not believe in dogma: understood as authoritatively claimed beliefs which are essentially simply imposed, and resistant to questioning, reason and experience. Modern law and science are not, in that sense, dogma, but they are forms of doctrine: guidelines or teaching which enable us to live, and, hopefully, grow together. The same can be said of doctrines of faith. Like law and science, they can be used to divide. However, if they are open to development, they can be vital as a means to enable us to live, and grow. This is core to our Gospel passage this morning (from Matthew 16.13-20), which both contains powerful and particular expressions of faith in Christ and also an abiding invitational question; ‘but who do you say I am?’ It is, I believe, in that creative doctrinal tension, that Christians best live and thrive…
Growing up, even as a little child I was fascinated by what was then known as the English Civil War (although, to be accurate historically, this is now rightly recognised as several different wars across the islands of Britain and Ireland). It was a bitter and brutal period, culminating in the judicial trial and execution of the King. For this was a powerful revolution. Indeed it saw the establishment of a republic, the Commonwealth and Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell. Moreover, in that latter period there was also an extraordinary flowering of truly radical religious and political life and thought. That, I think, was what especially drew me into the study of history. For the origin of many liberal democratic things we take for granted lie there – for example, the insistence on no taxation or legislation without representation, on regular elections, fixed parliamentary terms, equal votes, and, vitally, on religious freedom for different types of groups, particularly the marginalised. Indeed, Cromwell even reopened England to the Jews, who had been banned for centuries. For his supporters were also part of the movements which helped create Congregationalism, the original founding tradition of Pitt Street Uniting Church...
‘Is your Church involved in a rally or political or symbolic action every week?’
One of my daughters asked me this, shortly after our Earthweb-led involvement in the recent ‘Sound the Alarm’ Green Faith events, followed shortly by the presence of some of us on the March4Justice and planning for today’s Palm Sunday Refugee rally. I had to be honest: ‘well’, I said, ‘pretty much every week we, or some of us at least, are involved in something.’
And why wouldn’t we be?
Today’s Gospel reading after all (Mark 11.1-10) is a reminder of what I would call the ‘prophetic performance art’ which reappears again and again in the Biblical stories. The so-called ‘entry into Jerusalem’ by Jesus is but one example of this - admittedly particularly significant. For it does not stand alone, nor was it originally intended to be simply repeated or venerated. Rather, in embodying Jesus’ own call to transformation, it seeks to inspire us to our own prophetic performance art. In this we are not exactly social influencers like today’s social media stars, but we are like divine influencers in reshaping our world. All of which can sound, or become, quite pretentious. So maybe a better, arguably more biblical, way of putting it is that we are called to become the wonky donkey…