An essential quandary… Do we attempt to name ultimate reality? If we name ultimate reality, we’re susceptible to fundamentalism. If we refuse to name ultimate reality, our religion is irrelevant at worst or undisciplined and unclear at best. So where do we stand? It is a question of boundaries.
I advocate for a permeable boundary line—a tightrope between absolute and relative. It’s not absolutism (fundamentalism) and it’s not relativism (new age). It’s a boundary line creatively holding the tension between the extremes. The boundary line (doctrine) of the Alexandrian Mystics (the Jesus Paradox) is the ticket. It’s the path of sanity and balance—the way of the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
At first, I wanted to avoid the turbulent waters of drawing boundaries because boundary lines are often used to exclude and bludgeon outsiders. I wanted to avoid gate-keeping that presumes to dictate who is inside and who is outside the Christian faith. Religious doctrine is so often used as a litmus test: an either/or proposition that divides people into camps. Litmus tests reduce complex issues into sound bites beginning with “yes” or “no,” pigeonholing people and flattening mystery.
In the beginning, I had a negative attitude toward all church doctrine. Yet, as I got further into the early Jesus debates, I saw the importance of getting entangled. True, doctrine is often politically motivated, often insults intelligence, and often ignites violence. Yet, doctrine at its best guards against corruption and extremism. Doctrine is a protective fence around a tradition. It is the skin around the body. It is the membrane around the cell. It is the fence around the property. And as the Amish say, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
If religious doctrine is a fence, I recommend a chest high wire fence. With this fence around my religion I can be clear where my tradition stands, yet converse with folks from other traditions in a non-threatening way. No fence (new age) is not the answer. And a ten-foot razor wire wall (fundamentalism) is not the answer. Authentic faith is somewhere in between the extremes of rigid exhaustive doctrine and no doctrine.
Matters of doctrine have to be handled delicately because they often sow seeds of violence… If the fence around our faith is too low (no doctrine), any coyote can get into our flock. On the other hand, if our fence is too high (overly rigid and exhaustive doctrine), we’ll create disparities in our souls that contribute to violence in Jesus’ name. We can’t communicate across a ten foot razor-wired wall.
We need a fence that establishes a clear boundary yet allows for communication.
If the banks of the river we call Christian tradition erode away, the river will dry up and no longer quench humanity’s thirst for the transcendent. If the riverbanks are too high, the river water becomes inaccessible to many. I pray for the beloved river! I pray that its banks gracefully hold the life giving water!