The Problem of Memory: Forgetting the Teachings of the Church

Augustine: not an American, or a Western European. (Source: Wikipedia)

I wrote this in Denver last year, but for some reason didn’t post it. It seemed like it might be important then, so figured it might still be worth posting now.

I’m writing this introduction on Tuesday, June 7th. This morning I had a conversation with a woman at the Network Coffee House on 14th and Pearl—a place of community for the homeless and impoverished, and one of the most beautiful locations in Denver. When the woman told me that her name was Grace, I remarked that this was one of the most powerful words in the English language. She agreed, adding ‘I’ve only recently started to learn what it really means. We learn a lot of words in America, but we aren’t always rightly taught what them.’ We spoke for a while longer, musing on how wonderful it is that when learning the meaning of our own names, we can also learn both who we are and who God is.

The reason I’m beginning with this story (with Grace’s permission) is that it neatly connects with a subject I’ve been wanting to write about for a while—namely, how the way we’re taught meanings goes on to shape our world, and then how easy it is to assume that this shape is the world, rather than a particular account of it.

This is particularly relevant when it comes to growing up in a church. And it is relevant to the ways we might seek to grow within, or distance ourselves from, the Church. It is natural to approach various aspects of Christian faith as we have been taught to see them. But in doing this, we risk thinking that what we have been taught is what is—meaning that if we wish to reject what we have been taught, we then feel a need to reject the subject of that teaching in its entirety. And in doing this, we risk amputating significant elements of our faith because we have been taught them falsely, as opposed to looking past false teaching in order to discern whether or not there is a truth behind it which has been distorted.

Learning the World, Learning the American Church

Grace spoke the truth when she said that a lot of words are taught in America. And when we learn words, we don’t just learn language—we also learn the world. In the words of Stanley Cavell:

When you say ‘I love my love’ the child learns the meaning of the word ‘love’ and what love is. That—what you do— will be love in the child’s world; and if it is mixed with resentment and intimidation, then love is a mixture of resentment and intimidation, and when love is sought that will be sought. When you say ‘I’ll take you tomorrow, I promise,’ the child begins to learn what trust is, and what you do will show what trust is worth. When you say ‘put on your sweater,’ the child learns what commands are, and what authority is, and if giving orders is something that creates anxiety for you, then authorities are anxious, authority itself uncertain.

Of course the person, growing, will learn other things about these concepts and ‘objects’ also. They will grow gradually as the child’s world grows. But all he or she knows about them is what he or she has learned, and all they have learned will be a part of what they are. And what will the day be like when the person ‘realises’ what they ‘believed’ about what love and trust and authority are? And how will they stop believing it? What we learn is not just what we have studied; and what we have been taught is not just what we were intended to learn. What we have in our memories is not just what we have memorised.1

Now, as this second paragraph suggests, if we’re taught words falsely, we may one day come to believe that the world we were taught into doesn’t exist. ‘Love’ is indeed a perfect example of this—as well as possibly being mixed with resentment and intimidation, we are taught by any number of stories that ‘love’ is easy happiness in the company of another, a future free from conflict and trouble, filled with effortless affection, prefaced by the sign ‘and they lived happily ever after.’ We learn ‘love’ from Disney and rom-comes as well as from our parents. And when we grow up (unless we are one of those strange few for whom this story does come to pass) we will find that relationships with others are never easy, that they always contain the possibility of conflict, that they are rarely sustained by either affection or passion, and that we can never cut to the credits before things get difficult.

There are at least two responses open to us upon making this discovery. The first is to say that love therefore does not exist—that it’s a fantasy, a falsehood, and always has been. The second is to say that what we’ve been taught about love is false, meaning that we must learn both the word and the world anew. In the first case, we claim that we have been taught the truth about a false thing; that what we have been is what love would have to be if it did exist, that this thing does not exist, and so love itself is a lie. In the second case, we claim that we have been taught something false about a true thing; that there is such a thing in this world as love, but that what we have been taught has distorted its truth.

The same analysis can apply to ‘God.’ Growing up, even outside a church, a lot of us are taught the meaning of the word ‘God.’ And as we’re taught this word, we’re taught both who God is. In some churches (and some universities), ‘God’ can taught to mean a very specific person: this ‘God’ is the mechanical creator of the world, a supernatural projection of human wrath and human taskmaster. This can taught in a sense which imposes creaturely images over the divine in the most literal sense. And if we grow up being taught these things, and then come to believe that there is no mechanical creator of the world, no such judge, no such taskmaster, we again have two options—we can conclude that therefore God does not exist, or that what we have been taught about God was false.

Growing up in churches, we’re taught a lot about both love and God. As we’re taught about these things, we’re also taught other words and other worlds: ‘original sin,’ ‘the Church,’ ‘organised religion,’ ‘hell,’ ‘Biblical authority,’ ‘predestination,’ ‘holiness,’ ‘purity,’ ‘goodness,’ ‘tradition,’ ‘prayer,’ and so on. In each of these cases, what we’re taught shapes the world of our faith, to say nothing of our faith in the world. And in each of these cases, if we grow up and discovery that the world we’ve been taught doesn’t fit the world as we find it to be, we again have at least two options—we can hold a) that what we’ve been taught about doesn’t exist, and so the truth about a lie; or we can hold b) that we’ve been taught something false about something true.

One final note on this, before getting to the significance of the matter: it is also easy to assume that what we are taught is what has always been. When we learn that ‘water is H2O,’ for example, we also learn that, if water is indeed H20, then it has always been H20. Similarly, when we learn what ‘sin’ is in our church, we also learn (more often than not) that this is what sin has always been. And when we are taught about the essentials of Christian faith (especially if we’re taught them in terms of homosexuality, gender roles, the avoidance of hellfire, and the suppression of scientific inquiry), we are taught that these have been the essentials of the Church for all time, that this is the main reason that they are so central to so many Christians now. On this basis, we can then conjure up an image of a church in Hippo, 400CE, and see that this church according to a picture of the modern Catholic Church, or a group contemporary Western Evangelical churches, or a group of contemporary progressive churches, and so on. We can read a fifth century theologian writing about Scriptural authority and sin, and assume that their words meant the same then as they do now on the lips of the Phelps family.

When it comes to American religion, however, the world which is taught is in fact a very new thing—even newer than America itself. It is a tempting and an easy mistake to think that churches has always been American. It is tempting and easy to read Plato, Augustine, and Aquinas as if they were writing as citizens of a country which did not yet exist, then criticize or praise them accordingly. And it is important to realize that the America which, since the 19th century at least, has done so much to shape global religious consciousness is indeed a very new thing.

False Teaching about Something True, or True Teaching about Something False?

A lot of falsehoods are taught in some American churches. There is the exhortation to good works in order to avoid Hell, either by attaining or affirming our election by an otherwise vengeful god. There is the moral superiority of Christian faith, and the necessity of purity for Christian believers. There is the emphasis on sin as devaluation, and the imposition of the fear which comes when eternal fate depends upon temporal deeds. There is the inerrant authority of the ‘literal’ word of God in Scripture, and an attendant hostility to certain forms of human inquiry. All these are taught as orthodoxy, moreover—as if The Church has, for all time, taught these same things.

Now, I’ve met a lot of Christians who have come to believe that what they were taught about God is false, but have continued to believe. When it comes to ‘original sin,’ ‘Biblical authority,’ and ‘the Church,’ however, these same Christians have taken the other option—in coming to believe that what they were taught about these things is false, they have concluded that this is because they were true teachings about a falsehood. In line with this, we have a contemporary progressive Christianity without original sin, without Biblical authority, and without the Church. And this might be a problem—because what is being rejected in these instances is typically a particular (and particularly American) distortion of its subject, not the core of the matter; an application of the doctrine, not the doctrine itself. If we reject the truth with the false teaching, moreover, then we may be in just as much error as those who teach falsely about that truth.

Let us look at a contemporary progressive rejection of original sin in favour of rehabilitating Pelagius, for example, a recurrent theme in my experience of progressive Christianity. Now, if the doctrine of original sin is and always was what it is sometimes taught to be in certain Western churches, then this would make perfect sense—but the account of original sin which is being rejected is in fact a Pelagian account of sin, and the alternative proffered just as destructive. By rejecting the subject of the teaching along with the teaching itself, and by assuming that what is taught now is what has always been, we have in fact enshrined the very figure whose theology the mainstream Evangelical doctrine of sin represents. And this can cut ourselves off from the truth of Augustine’s account of original sin—that human beings are necessarily complicated, imperfect, fallible beings, whose psychologies are such that we are always capable of causing harm without malice, who should be loved through God’s unconditioned grace, not on the condition of our own perfection. Churches which teach and reject the doctrine of original sin which infects public consciousness are not, in fact, teaching or rejecting tradition. Those who teach are teaching heresy. And if we reject the heresy as if it were tradition, we throw the baby out with the bath water.

Similarly, Scriptural authority has been taught to follow from a particular form of Biblical literalism—namely, the assumptions that if the Bible is authoritative, it is because of the literal truth of its contents, and that if its literal truth is challenged, so too is its authority. Many of us have, quite rightly, rejected the doctrine of biblical literalism. But many of us have still affirmed this fundamentalist argument behind this doctrine; that Biblical authority must rest on this literalism. And so we’ve gone on to reject Biblical authority in general, acting as though Biblical literalism were indeed the ‘traditional’ approach to Scripture. Again, it is so easy to not just reject false teaching, but also the truth which it teaches falsely. And it is so easy to treat that false teaching with more respect than it deserves, actually trusting its claim to rest on the bedrock of Christian tradition. In fact, Biblical literalism (or ‘Bibliolatry’) is a new development, grounded in secular principles of the Enlightenment, not traditional Christian doctrine. Scriptural authority, meanwhile, is abnegated by those who would use it to divide the world into saints and sinners, ratherthan see in it the witness to the grace of Jesus Christ.

Finally, ‘the Church.’ There are plenty of writings disavowing organised religion, plenty of more or less rigorous books explicating how Jesus needs to be rescued from the Church, and plenty of tracts denying the Church on the basis that Christians don’t need a central authority to regulate their faith by determining whether or not they are going to hell.

But though there have certainly been churches which fit these descriptions, this is not, and never has been, what the Church is. Even in Calvin, with his particular account of ecclesial authority, the members of the Church could not judge any individual’s eternal fate. In my experience, moreover, moreover, most epoch making theologians invest relatively little time in the concept of hell, still less in how to know who might be going there—the fact that we spend so much time on this subject would probably baffle Luther, let alone Aquinas, Ockham, or Julian of Norwich. The Church is not, for these and countless other theologians, a body which finds its identity through its response to a perpetually looming and absolutist doctrine of damnation. It is instead the body of Christ, and so a human witness to grace. Historically, meanwhile, it hasn’t been much more or less than the space where people gather as a community in the name of Jesus Christ—not because an individual’s faith needs to follow certain prescriptions, but because it is good for us to worship together in solidarity and fellowship; not to provide a central authority, but to try and discern with each other’s help what it is to live as Christians (discerning which sometimes leads to doctrine); not to sort the perfect from the damned, but because we are all imperfect, and so we will always flourish better together than we will alone.

Learning and Forgetting

When we are taught words, we are taught worlds. And when we are taught words in a church, we are taught a particular version of the world of Christian faith. Very often, we come to believe that the world we’re taught doesn’t exist—and so we must always forget a lot of what we’ve learned.

If we are to forget certain teachings in an attempt to discern Christian faith, however, a part of this must be realising that the teachings we wish to forget might be false because they themselves have forgotten the lessons of the Church—because they are false teachings of true things, as opposed true teachings of false things. These teachings may well be false in the way that ‘happily ever after’ is a false picture of love: not because original sin, biblical authority, and the Church are fantasies or deceptions, but because they have been shoe-horned into simplistic and misleading stories, and so distorted beyond recognition.

Now, none of this actually entails that original sin is therefore real, or that we must accept Scriptural authority—we cannot affirm these doctrines by making a distinction between false teaching and actual falsehood (there is every possibility that there is a third option: that modern churches teach a false account of a false thing!). Even so: if we want to denounce false teachings, we must do it fully. We must show that these teachings are not just false in themselves, but also false presentations of the truths they purport to describe.

‘Progressive’ Christianity has done a lot of good: it has manifested a Christian faith which refuses to recognise homosexuality as sin, gender regulation as God’s priority for humankind, and science as rebellion against God’s authority (although the term ‘progressive’ strikes me as a fundamentally dangerous one, laden with far more colonial baggage than is usually acknowledged). But I believe that it too often gives too much credence to American Christian Conservatism, when it claims to represent the core of Christianity orthodoxy throughout the last two-thousand years. I believe that both conservatives and progressives can too easily orient themselves according to a false picture, with the result that neither those who seek to reform or those who seek to preserve have their eyes set on truth.

If we wish to forget lessons we have been taught, then, we must go further than rejecting falsehood—we must show how these teachings have forgotten the orthodoxy they presume to represent. For our own part, there are are many cases we must unlearn what we have been taught. But a significant part of this may well be to remember truths which our teachers themselves had forgotten, instead of throwing them out with false teachings.

For my part, I believe that both a forgetting and a learning of this term ‘grace’ must be at the centre of our efforts—as it has had to be through each of the Church’s many crises.

*All the links are other posts I’ve written in the past, which seek to actually argue the claims here, rather than just make them! I apologise for the self-indulgence of only linking to my own writing.

  1. Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Scepticism, Morality and Tragedy, p177

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