A recent post on the Sojourners’ blog wonders what would happen if Christians introduced people to their God rather than their religion. The author laments that people are too much in love with “their” worship, Biblical interpretations, baptismal requirements, form of communion, theology, and the like. He asserts that these things are what divide Christians, and that they should be more in love with their God.
It’s hard say what is wrong with this assertion. It’s much quicker to say that there is just about nothing right with it. The little right is that worship, theology, baptismal requirements–let alone the much-beloved social customs, political commitments, leadership styles–are not God.
Not my God, your God, their God–not God. Because there is not my God, your God, their God. There is just (maybe) God. Augustine of Hippo is often credited with saying “if you can comprehend it, it is not God.” Comprehend, in the sense of understand, or in a broader sense of total ownership. None of us has a comprehensive understanding or ownership of God. If anyone approaches me with the claim they do, the needle on my crap detector goes off the scale. Yours should, too.
And it is not possible to introduce anybody to God. An introduction can only be made between entities that are not known to one another, if a third party, known to both, facilitates it. And none of us know God.
At least, damned few of us know God without the mediation of “my” theology, worship, morality, rituals, Biblical interpretation–and thus, the most anybody can possibly know is his or her own God. All of these are methods and techniques by which we learn about God, get to know God, and relate to God. If God has any reality for the vast majority of believers, that reality depends on the particular teachings–doctrines, in the broadest possible sense–of the concrete ecclesial community to which the individual Christian belongs.
The most that can happen, then, is to introduce a non-Christian to the particular concept of God that a particular Christian holds as a result of the particular teachings and practices of a particular Christian denomination.
I propose a term for this: Introdoctrination.
It has a modesty and a provisionality that would not be bad for the churches to instill in those whom they hope will spread the “Good news”. The most anyone can then say is “this is the God I have come to know through what I have learned through the worship, theology, Biblical interpretation my church has to offer.” “These are the moral guidelines, social practices, and political commitments to which I subscribe because I believe they are what the God with whom I am in relationship requires”.
It isn’t snappy. It isn’t definitive. It doesn’t give assurances of going to the heaven or hell that no living person can properly promise or threaten.
And that is what makes the idea of introdoctrination important. It is not a new concept–it goes back at least 80 years, to the middle of Archbishop William Temple’s ministry. He frequently claimed that no one human person, or one particular denomination, had full possession of the truth of Christ. No matter how well we know our own traditions, no matter how beautiful and rich each individual tradition is, Temple was convinced that each one held an important truth, but not the whole of truth. All Christians needed to learn the aspects of the truth of Christ which their tradition did not hold as central. And no Christian had to abandon his or her views, but to accept that other traditions had much to offer to the whole mosaic of Christian belief and practice.
Only the word is new. The idea of modesty, that none of us have it all, or all right, is not new. The idea of provisionality has been a part of Christian tradition since the letters of St. Paul: we see (God) now in a glass, darkly; but one day we will see (God) clearly and face to face.
Until we do, we have to be honest that a vanishingly small number of Christians (or followers of any other theistic religion) have knowledge or love of God apart from what our religious communities have taught us. And the little sisters with whom Honesty holds hands are called Modesty and Provisionality.
Honesty, Modesty, Provisionality. If we ask these three sisters along on the journey, we’re more likely to be spreading genuine good news than if we leave them home because they seem to be dull spiritual companions.
But they open the way toward more interesting conversations. They ask more questions, and listen more carefully to the answers, than the arrogance which is too often masked by religious zeal. They invite rather than demand. They learn as much as they teach.
Honesty, Modesty, and Provisionality are precocious and wise. They are more mature than they look at first. They understand more than their small size and unassuming presence might indicate.
And they tell us that it is not possible to introduce people to “my God”, because “my God” isn’t nearly the whole of the story. They understand, in a way that the author of the Sojourners article does not, that any conception of God is overwhelmingly likely to be the product of religion–and until we do see (God) face to face, even the broadest conception of God is going to be a composite of the products of many religions.
So, we can’t “introduce” anyone to God. The most that can happen is that we can invite the sisters Honesty, Modesty, and Provisionality into the conversation, and admit that we can only introdoctrinate people to the God we understand through all of the methods and techniques by which we ourselves have been introdoctrinated.