Dogmatic Minimalism

Last night my wife and I were discussing the Trinity. The Disciples of Christ professes to have “no creed but Christ,” and therefore, it is not surprising that some in our church do not accept the doctrine. In the discussion, I realized that, despite my liberal theology, I tend to keep standard beliefs as long as I can. So, I’m slow to reject the Trinity. I tend think that these ideas that remain after thousands of years of Christian thinking & praying are likely to contain some truth, and I try to seek out that truth.

Now, at some point I can no longer accept an idea. Most recently this was the case with a very narrow, but significant, aspect of intercessory prayer. I have come to the conclusion that I do not believe that praying to God will cause God to miraculously (which is to say in violation of the rules that govern our physical universe) act. Like I said, it is a narrow conclusion. But I only came to it after much searching for a way to preserve the long held notion that God can grant requests for extra-natural intervention.

There is a legal philosophy that I fell in and out of love with while in law school called judicial minimalism. The idea is that judges should only do what is absolutely necessary to decide the case before them, and no more. Cass Sunstein is a the poster child for the seemingly value neutral movement. I think my caution in rejecting a dogmatic principle I once accepted, or that many Christians accept, is a religious analog to judicial minimalism.

Are you slow to reject an old belief? Will you work hard to maintain a dogma (spiritual or otherwise), or do you think after the scale in your mind tips to 51% against the idea you reject it?

46 thoughts on “Dogmatic Minimalism”

  1. Jim, two things I would like to comment on. One the minimalist approach to things religious. I agree. I come from a tradition heavy in lots of stuff…statues, prayers, novenas, services and on and on. I do believe that they represent expressions of relation to the divine, but are neither as simple as they appear, e.g. prayers often express more about one praying than the prayed-to, nor are they as useless as they may appear,e.g. prayers (intercessary) can make on conscious of what is truly important and what one is powerless to change. But they also obfuscate truth and reality. Sometime more on this.
    The Trinity! There are two schools of thought. Both make more sense in Platonic influenced thinking. If humanity is more real than humans, then the WORD becoming human, changes humanity. That movement of divine to human is such that there had to be a way to retain the Oneness of God, hence the elaborate Platonic definitions and the central life and death issue. If the Logos was less than God then humanity was not saved. (The Fathers of the Church were incarnational in understanding salvation). “God became man so man could bcome God.” Athanasius and others.
    Augustine had more the idea that the Word was the Logos of creation and so spent his (Augustine’s) time arguing from analogy that God is still one, e.g. Love, the object of love and the act of loving. His book, The TRINITY, is a looong complilation of analogies.
    So, historically we are left with a couple of systems of thought from the earliest church that made the Trinity essential although the problem the Trinity addressed was lost. I suggest that today we are not Platonist. Hence the continued nodding to the importance of the trinity and frankly the lack of much existential impact. So, your conclusion.
    Can I susggest one possible modern application, however. This comes from Jon Sobrino and other Latin American theologians. Having multiplicity in unity in one God is a direct understanding of the unity of the human race, no matter what the color, economic, intelligent, power relationship among people. It is a grand restatement of Pauls there is neither male nor female, slave/free etc. These folks, theologians were condemned by governments and Catholic Church because in practice (praxis) they demanded equal education, food, opportunity for the poor. We are one and are vluable as one with mankind, no matter how poor, helpless etc. As such they, thologians were condemned as being Communists! And it all began with a theological paper on the Trinity!
    Sorry, I was long winded and meandering. And yes, begrudginly, I do believe that “I believe in Jesus” hopefully has as much substance.
    Bill

  2. I came at it from a different angle than you did, because I was raised as a Christian but was an atheist for over a decade before I slowly became re-interested in Christianity. But when I returned to my interest in the faith, I saw no reason to accept the Trinity or believe in intercessory prayer. Rather having to struggle to hold onto doctrines that I questioned, I felt more inclined only to accept a doctrine if it made sense to me, regardless of what everyone else thought or what the historical faith felt. I found that more liberating, since I wasn’t forced to defend beliefs that I found questionable.

  3. Wow, sometimes you really hit the jackpot in the comments.

    First, an administrative note, Bill’s comment posted three times, so I deleted two of them. I don’t want people to think I am censoring or that Bill was posting inappropriate material. 🙂

    I respect where Mystical Seeker is coming from, and many folks in my church come from the same place. However, reading Bill’s post, I think you can see that there may be some baby in the bathwater of these old ideas. (I should also note that my wife is largely responsible for instilling in me a respect for such traditions.)

    There certainly can be an element of “defend[ing] beliefs that I found questionable” in applying my minimalism, but there is also an opportunity to discover a new application of an old truth. It allows an evolution from one idea to the next. As they say in the hymn, “to sing a new, new song.”

  4. I would like to question all three of you on the point of intercessory prayer. Recently there was a good study (“good” in this context means scientifically rigorous) which concluded that intercessory prayer made no difference to the recovery from Coronary Bypass if the recoverer did not know he was being prayed for. Interestingly, when he did know he was being prayed for, complications were greater than otherwise by a statistically significant margin. Study is here.

    My question for each of you is: do you think the efficacy of intercessory prayer can be subjected to scientific inquiry? If so, how does a real study like the one cited inform that belief? If not, why not?

    Thanks, I hope my questions are not disrespectful, they certainly are not meant to be.

  5. My question for each of you is: do you think the efficacy of intercessory prayer can be subjected to scientific inquiry? If so, how does a real study like the one cited inform that belief? If not, why not?

    If intercessory prayer causes God to intervene in a fashion that violates natural law and makes recovery more likely, it could be subjected to scientific inquiry.

    The study you cite deals with anonymous prayer, therefore negating any impact that just having a support groups has. So, the conclusion of the study is more limited than my conclusion. The study only demonstrates that God does not intervene to violate natural law when those praying do not know the person they are praying for. I have concluded, more broadly, that God never violates the laws of nature.

    As much for the other commenters as for you, I feel the need to point out that “the efficacy of intercessory prayer” can be made manifest in other ways. To name a few:
    – training us in empathy
    – providing us time to focus on what is important
    – moving us to help those we pray for
    – when done in a group, effectively soliciting the help of others

    I believe a support group does help recovery. I believe making a person feel loved can instill in them a desire to thrive that they would not otherwise have. In other words, I think the laws of nature are more complex even than we currently suppose them to be.

  6. As much for the other commenters as for you, I feel the need to point out that “the efficacy of intercessory prayer” can be made manifest in other ways. To name a few:
    – training us in empathy
    – providing us time to focus on what is important
    – moving us to help those we pray for
    – when done in a group, effectively soliciting the help of others

    I agree with all those points. The problem that I have is that the term “intercessory prayer” seems to imply that God will intercede on our behalf–hence the term “intercessory”. That is what I have a problem with. I don’t think that we can influence God to do things for us just because we pray for them. But prayer as a means of laying before God our hopes and aspirations makes perfect sense to me. I just would prefer that a different term than “intercessory” were used for that type of prayer.

  7. Mystical Seeker, you really touched on something with this, “I just would prefer that a different term than ‘intercessory’ were used for that type of prayer.” A major problem with my dogmatic minimalism is that it makes it tougher for Matt & I to have a conversation. (Well, not actually Matt & I who know each other well and fight through the confusion.) The problem with abandoning the term interecessory prayer altogether is that we might miss out on some therapeutic value in actually asking for something.

    I’m not familiar with “The Secret.” Is it strictly speaking religious? I don’t know. But it combined with semi-religious movements like the Prayer of Jabez, suggest that in some circumstances naming our desires may be valuable in ways that are not directly appearant to us.

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