For a long time, I've been uncomfortable with the dualistic, neo-Platonic thinking that has characterized Christianity since the days of Augustine. Recently, I've begun to think about the issue in this way.
The Christian faith began as a movement of people in response to Jesus ministry and his sacrificial death and resurrection. The first Christians came to faith in the context of the proclamation of that message and a community of people who found one another. I'm thinking of Acts 2 here, the whole chapter.
It seems to me that not long after the first generation of "Christians" passed, that a shift was made to a Christianity that was more theory than experience. Was Jesus ministry on earth a theory-based one, or was his ministry one where people experienced God incarnate. Did Jesus have a formula for how he was going to prepare the disciples for their work after he was gone? Or, did he relate to them at their point of need, so that he mentored to them to be prepared to be apostles?
A Platonic theory-based religion starts with some pure, perfect notion of who God is, what the church is and what it means to be a Christian, and then tries to conform experience around that theory. It is a Platonic thing because Plato saw the things of this world as imperfect representations of the perfect world of the ideal. What this creates is a dualistic world where we live with the ideal always pressing in on us that we are just not good enough, so to speak.
I'm coming to the conclusion that this dualistic conception is an inaccurate picture of what God has created. First, what God created was good. That stuff is still here, and still good. The impact of sin is through we human beings as agents of sin's corruption. Second, when sin entered in, I'm not sure it bifurcated (nice word) all of creation into good and evil. Instead, I think it obscured a complete knowledge of the world, so that we never see the whole, and even the parts are not absolutely clear. But that is not the same as saying this world is evil and that world of ideals is good.
This dualism is prevalent in the church as some churches are unable to deal with imperfection. They demand of others which they cannot provide for themselves, absolute idealistic perfection. What ends up happening is that things like the Bible become idealistic icons that lose their connection to the real world because we must see them in some idealistic state. Pastors suffer the same dualistic fate as they are unable to be real people with real feelings and real needs, and it is worst for their spouses.
I've concluded that much of the church lives in an unrealistic realm of espousing one thing and living another. It creates anxiety and anger. The psychological damage from this religious/philosophical schizophrenia is serious. It forces people to treat those who are different, as subhuman. In this sense we see people in Flannery O'Connor's words as "artificial niggers." Pardon the phrase. It is also why we shoot our wounded in the church. They represent what we cannot allow, an imperfect and a flawed humanity. And because we know in our own hearts that we are the same, but can not admit to it, it makes our vengeance towards those who are broken that much more troubling.
So, the conclusion I am reaching is that the church has been victimized by idealized theories about Jesus, the Bible and the church. It is not a new thing, but an old thing, and a reason why Christianity thrives in cultures of low literacy. (Clarification: It's not a theory to them; it's real, until someone intellectually manipulates them to think otherwise.) Theorizing does not feed your family when you live at a subsistence level. The idea suggests that there is a golden mean that we all must approach, or we are considered to be outside of the norm. It is seen in the idea that denominations and differing traditions are examples of disunity in the church.
What I'd like to suggest to people is that there is no idealized theoretical world. We live in the only world that exists. In spite of what we read in Revelation, I have the sense that the new heaven and the new earth will be like the earth we already know. There is no pie-in-the-sky. There is only a beneficent God who loves his creatures even as they fail to love him in return. And that we come to understand this, not through abstract idealistic systems of theology, but through the kindness and interest of average people who care for others out of their own experience of receiving God's love. Theology works when it is submitted to the test of experience, not vice-versa.
Does this mean that all theology is wrong-headed. No. It simply means that theoretical systems are idealistic human creations that seek to create a coherent perspective based on a selection of ideas from Scripture and the history of the church.
If you look at the conflicts that afflict us, at the heart of them are claims of truth that start as an idea in search of scriptural justification and end up as a tyranny upon unsuspecting people.
If all this seems far fetched, I encourage you to read Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan where he addresses this topic in a very different context. I'm convinced that he is right. His perspective is a great challenge to all those for whom the church is some idealized image derived from the Scripture. The reality is life is messy, and it is far more dependent upon God's grace and our daily receptivity of it than any preacher can imagine or express. And I would not have it any other way.
In Addition, the next day: After a 400 mile trip today, thinking about this issue, what I also want to add is that when we trust in our theories, we are putting Christ one additional step removed from us. Christ has to fit into the theory, whether that theory is Reformed, Wesleyan, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or eclectic. As I have moved away from the theory-centric faith - its taken about 15 years - what I've discovered is a capacity to live in the moment, being able to tell where God is in that moment. In so doing, I'm more relaxed about doing that which is placed before me. I don't have a formula that I'm trying to conform to. Instead, I'm trying to understand what believers in non-Western cultures understand, how God is a direct, immediate presence. By living in the moment, I am basically saying that I trust that God meets me in that moment. I cannot predict what will happen, or what I must do to follow God's lead. All I can do is commit to being present at that moment.
Part of what I'm reacting to is the multiple times I was taught in seminary that experience is bad and sola scriptura is the only norm. I trust the Scripture. I have a high-view of Scripture, but what I find is that many on both the right and left treat the Scripture as a proof-text for their theories about God, Christ, the church and the faith. To deny the validity of our experience is to deny our essential humanity. I'm far from being an anti-intellectual. I'm spent the last 35 years challenging myself intellectually, and where it has taken me is away from theory toward experience.
What I'm trying not to be is a dualist who separates reality into the ideal and the shadow of the ideal. When we do so, we essentially are saying what we do here has less value because it is less than ideal. All I know is that the faith that remains as an intellectual construct, is a faith that has not received its just validation. Faith is different than belief. It is the intersection of belief with life, and where we find the Spirit of God meeting us.
What will the church be like if it suddenly gave up the theories and focused on experience. We'd have less religion and more reality. When someone claims that their life is in Christ, it wouldn't be a subject of intellectual scrutiny, but rather a testimony to how they live each day.
I said above that I believe that the new heaven and new earth will be much like what we have here now. My reason for saying this is two-fold, first it affirms the essential goodness of God's creative act "in the beginning." Second, it affirms the lives we live now, and that we live by faith. Instead of faith being a future insurance policy, it is a transformative experience of grace, changing us from what we were to what we will be. This is partly why I see all of life as in transition.
In Addition 2, a week later: It occurred to me after rereading this a week later, that a good example of what I am talking about can be found in the Boy Scout approach to leadership development. Scouts is a confessional religion. Each week we recite our creeds - the Boy Scout oath and law - because it is by these values and principles that scouting is founded. The boys learn the oath and law just like Presbyterians learn to say the Apostles Creed. However, ask a boy what the last principle of the law is, and he'd have to recite in his mind the whole thing. Same with confessional Christians for whom the Apostles Creed is so familiar it isn't.
As a scout progresses through the early ranks of Tenderfoot, Second class and First class, one of the requirements is for the boy is to demonstrate how he lives the Spirit of Scouting through the Boy Scout Oath and Law. What we do in our troop is ask this question: "Tell me how the oath and the law matter in your daily life. Give me examples of what you are doing that you can directly connect to a principle in the oath and law. I don't want to know what you think you could do. I want to know what you are doing."
What we are fighting is the tendency to rest in an intellectual adherence to theory and formula rather than active application of principles to life. Life is basically a process of decision and action, followed by reflection, decision and action. The Ten Commandments were not given as a formula, but as a tool for analyzing how I am living. The Sermon on the Mount isn't a formula. The Boy Scout Oath and Law isn't just a good theory. The Apostle's Creed not just an affirmation of faith. These intellectual concepts are intended to be utilized as tools for decision-making and action. With that comes experience, and with experience, wisdom.
Thanks to Pastor M (see comments) and to Bill Kinnon for their kind comments.