People say a lot of ridiculous things about God, but many don’t have the philosophical knowledge to be able to identify ridiculousness as such. So while I may not be able to give you a long list of sound doctrines, I can definitely help you acquire the tools to discern what those sorts of things are. Today, we will look to the philosophy of language to help discern between good and bad interpretations of the Bible.
In his analysis of language, St. Augustine considers language to be a system of signs. I tend to agree, though there are many philosophical nuances which have arisen in the intervening centuries. These words which I am writing right now refer to experiences and abstractions or relations of experiences. All these things together, I will call “phenomena,” or those things which occur in your head as you are thinking, feeling, seeing, hearing, emoting, etc. Language is a process by which we map words to phenomena by way of custom. There is nothing about the letters “c-a-t” that describe an actual cat in any way except by virtue of how we have, as a culture, decided that “cat” refers to this particular class of fuzzy and possibly evil creatures which are incredibly cute when they do just about anything at all.
What I am about to tell you as a consequence of this is actually very controversial and may summon up the specter of logical positivism, a thoroughly-refuted philosophy. I assure you, though, that this is not logical positivism but a simple application of our understanding of language.
If people make claims which correspond to no phenomena whatsoever, they are saying nonsense. Positivism, I should note, would reduce this to “sensory phenomena.”
For example, there are a number of debates about the precise nature of the Trinity, with some pastors nearly requiring that people adopt a certain view. This is totally unknowable; God is beyond the reach of our phenomenological experiences. So if someone is trying to argue for a particular doctrine of the Trinity as being really-and-truly the case, you can confidently say, “You don’t actually know that,” because God’s true nature is beyond the grasp of our phenomena.
Now there are different doctrines of the Trinity to which we can relate and actually apply to our lives. Much of what I argued about the nature of abuse actually stems from a view of the Trinity as three persons cooperating as one but retaining their individual natures. This just so happens to align very closely with the existentialist philosophies I used to explain it. Do I actually know that God exists as three persons? Heck no, but the way in which God has revealed aspects of His nature provides us with a certain sort of picture which we can use to guide our lives.
Every self-respecting protestant knows John 3 for its 16th verse: “God so loved the world…” But there is more to that chapter. Jesus tries to explain being “born again” to Nicodemus, which, taken literally, is a thoroughly confusing idea. Nicodemus asks for clarification, and here Jesus says something very interesting: “Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” (John 3:11-12).
When we talk about spiritual things, we are not saying what they are, we are saying what they are like. Being “born again” is a phrase we use to understand something of what goes on when Christ works in us, but it is a mistake to treat it as more than this. Just in writing this paragraph, I have realized how many bad assumptions have gone into popular understanding of the notion. When we think of birth, it is something which happens once and for all, an event with no reversal. Now while I don’t believe in losing one’s salvation, I’m not sure we have applied this analogy correctly. I used to do door to door evangelism through my church growing up, which I now consider to be a really bad idea. We might get people to pray a prayer in the moment, after which we would consider the person “born again” with no regard to the life change which took place afterward. They had, after all, assented to the proper beliefs, at least for a moment.
What is so dangerous about this view? Well, there is a great deal of likelihood that nothing actually happened in a lot of those people. They may have had an emotional night, or they may have felt morally obligated to assent right then and there (a form of inflicted being-for-others/abuse). Chances are that many people whom we visited experienced no real change, but because we had this doctrine of what it means to be “born again,” we were totally unequipped to question what happened. If instead we understand that Christ was trying to explain a spiritual process in terms of phenomena which we understand, we will realize that he is, again, not saying what it is to be born again but what it is like. At that point, we would be a lot more hesitant to jump up and down and say, “Oh boy! It happened! They were born again!” when we really don’t know what that truly is.
I can think of a host of other doctrines which could use some recognition of nuances: sin, judgment, atonement, salvation, etc. It’s not just a cut and dry “this is how it is” sort of scenario when it comes to any of these. If someone is trying to tell you the exact nature of the spiritual state of affairs on any situation, they are wrong by simple virtue of the fact that it is literally impossible to talk about spiritual affairs precisely. All we have are analogies and metaphors, because our language does not have access to these higher concepts.
Now we are all prone to overstep the limits of our knowledge; however, if a pastor or leader routinely does so, I would advise you to question their authority. If instead the pastor encourages you to understand these concepts in such a way that your love for God and for one another grows and blossoms into something wonderful, then follow that man (or woman). Christian doctrine is for meditation and contemplation, not for strict methodological application. The nature of language prevents us from being legalistic in our understanding of spirituality, which is both a frustrating and freeing thing. If you want clear answers, take up mathematics. The Christian life is oftentimes confusing and the path is far from straightforward. Fortunately, though, we do not have to have all the answers; if God required this of us, then He would have made it possible at all.
But it’s not. Allow room in your doctrines for a broader view, because no one has all the answers. The Bible is not perfectly clear. Anyone who tells you otherwise is misled.