Shape and Place of Doctrine in Today's Essay

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Shape and Place of Doctrine in Today's World

A religion is a way of life. The more religious one considers oneself, the more that one has made a commitment to become closer to God, and to declare oneself a member of a specific community. Today's churches are the result of centuries of development. Bastions of tradition, most creeds hearken back to an earlier day. Their ways and general beliefs were largely fixed in another time and place, one that was often quite different from the world in which we now live. Christianity is only one of many world religions whose origin goes back to Ancient Times. Indeed, there are faiths still practiced today the origins of which pre-date Christianity by some considerable period of time. The earliest Hindu Scriptures were being recited even as the Pharaohs of Egypt thought themselves the greatest rulers in the world. Judaism, the faith that is most directly ancestral to Christianity, traces its history back nearly as far. Ancient Egypt was the setting of many a Biblical episode. Other forms of worship go far back. Zoroastrianism extended its influence over much of the Middle East and the Roman Empire. Mithraism is a direct descendent, and Manichaeanism and Gnosticism were both affected to a greater or lesser extent. The home of Christianity was a melting pot. Ancient Palestine was traversed by the followers of almost every Western religion. Worshippers of Isis and Mazda, Aphrodite and Mithra, and Baal and Osiris communicated with one another, and influenced one another. The Christianity that began as an outgrowth of Judaism was also a product of all of these influences. And, if you were a True Believer -- it was taught and preached by the Son of God. The Christianity that developed in those distant days was a product of its time.

In a similar fashion, the Lutheran Church developed out of Roman Catholicism in the Sixteenth Century. The issues and concerns of that age shaped the new church. For millions of people the Lutheran Creed offered answers to existing problems. It provided a blueprint for a an agrarian, pre-industrial lifestyle, a plan that would remain applicable so long as conditions remained similar. But conditions were destined to change ... And to change dramatically. First came industrialization, and the end of the traditional rural way of life. Next -- modern technology, high speed transportation and communication. Suddenly the vast world in which Lutheranism had been born was no longer so vast. In an instant, individuals from different parts of the globe could speak to each, and listen to each other. Radio and television brought far-away places -- and ideas -- into every home. The tried-and-true premises of the Old Faith were now in direct competition with alien ways of thought, and ways of living. Whether the result of scientific developments, or cross-cultural fertilization, it was becoming increasingly difficult for many religious people to continue to blindly accept, on simple faith, what they had been taught. To a much greater extent than at the time of Martin Luther, Christians of all stripes are presented with a range of information that potentially challenges traditional ideas and beliefs. For the modern person who knows of Buddhism, Taoism, and many other "alien" religions, the problems of doctrine are immense. As well, science has explained many things that, in the past, could only be explained by way of religion. Such rational arguments present a powerful challenge to the teachings of any faith. Take science, and knowledge of the world together, and you have a potent mixture. The well-educated Lutheran of today may be filled with new questions that his Church can simply not answer.

Popular belief, or "conventional wisdom," has long held the idea that blind religious faith -- the kind that ignores obvious scientific explanations of natural phenomena -- is necessarily an example of gross ignorance and irrationality. But as modern "scientific" researchers are beginning to discover, such a conclusion is simplistic at best. The effect of new studies

... Has been to open up a new range of historiographical questions, questions that lay aside presuppositions about the assumed cognitive superiority of scientific knowledge, or the triumph of western scientific rationality over other thought forms, or the victory of scientists over theologians in the struggle for cultural authority.

The origins of Protestantism lie in the battle between different "truths." Even before science had made such strides that traditional, religious explanations of the physical world had begun to be overturned, there existed a battle between the reasoned truth as Lutherans and other Protestants saw it, and the irrational, or perverted "truths" of the Roman Catholic Church. Men like Rene Descartes sought to re-join science and religion in a way that would be acceptable to all. Even if certain dogmatic ideas could not be proved to the satisfaction of everyone, all churches could at least take confidence in the existence of an absolute truth. "Descartes sought to provide foundations for knowledge that were absolutely certain, and thus to stem the tide of doubt that prevailed in his time."

The carefully reasoned system of inquiry that Descartes employed was especially appealing to Protestants. So long as an absolute truth actually existed, Lutherans and Calvinists could find solace in the fact that a methodical study of the Holy Bible, and other "authoritative" religious texts, would provide the needed answers. "The Church, as a source for absolute truth claims, came to be substituted, through Luther and other reformers, by the authority of individual conscience and appeal to the Bible."

The kind of religion that Martin Luther had preached was an apparently rational creed. Taking into account the level of scientific knowledge that existed in his day -- and for a considerable time afterwards -- it seemed fully possible to understand the cosmos in rational terms. Martin Luther's doctrine made sense because one could follow it logically to the same conclusions that Luther himself had reached. Any thinking person could reproduce these "truths" in the same manner as a scientist reproduced the experiment of a colleague. Follow the logical method, use the same materials, and you will obtain the same end result. The raw material of Lutheranism is the Bible. To a much greater degree than in the case of the Roman Church, all Protestant denominations tried to establish the truth of their creed by resorting to the Bible. As long as one took the Bible to be the ultimate authority, one could always argue from a point of strength. What Luther, and Calvin, and John Knox did not foresee, however, was the gradual substitution of scientific discovery for Holy Writ. In the Sixteenth Century science was not yet advanced enough to be anywhere close to offering a complete explanation of the natural world. Much that men and women believed was still based upon conjecture. One's suppositions were drawn rationally from the entire body of human knowledge as it then existed. All that was beyond the direct ken of science was to be found in the Holy Books. The absolute truth may not have been easy to find, and certainly, judging from the significant argument between Lutherans, Calvinists, Presbyterians, Catholics, and so on, there could be many widely-varying interpretations of the material available for analysis. Still the material to be analyzed was fixed. Everyone was working from the same starting point, and using the identical equipment.

Unfortunately for the believers in the possibility of finding absolute truth in the Bible, the century after the Reformation turned out to be an age of considerable progress, and new discoveries in the scientific community. By the end of the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment, the rational investigators who called themselves "scientists" had uncovered many disturbing facts. These scientific facts were in direct conflict with Holy Writ. The Bible it seemed was not infallible. And as all notions of truth and order were consistently traced back to a now fallible Bible, what of all the values upon which human society is based?

Conscience, in short, demands that our minds and hearts attend to their built-in hunger for the true and the good. It prods them along in their search for it -- and then insists they embrace what they believe they have found. Conscience, of course, is neither omniscient nor infallible. Regardless, it must be obeyed if we are to keep our integrity. After all, conscience takes the truth, as we understand it, and applies it to concrete circumstances to judge what is good. To refuse to follow its judgment (even when it turns out to have been mistaken) is to consciously reject what we believe to be true and turn our back on what we believe to be good, which violates our nature, if nothing else.

But if the Bible was wrong, what did that say about an infallible Deity? Who now would be the keeper of the human conscience?

In the Twenty-First Century, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America makes many demands upon its followers. Adherents of the Church follow Martin Luther's…[continue]

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