Rev. Dr. Stephen Rankin, a professor and chaplain at Southern Methodist University, posted yesterday about the idea of the United Methodist church having a magisterium much like the Roman Catholic church does. Rankin’s concern pivots on the problem that many United Methodist clergy do not make religious distinctions between the faith in God through Jesus Christ as in the New Testament from other religious traditions such as Buddhism. A magisterium would, if we are being honest, attempt to control the doctrine that is taught by clergy. While I certainly share his concern for the United Methodists teaching Jesus Christ as something unique from and eminently more true than any other form of religion, simply having an institutional mechanism given to a few leaders responsible for enforcing doctrinal standards causes me much concern.1 The concern isn’t in and of itself a fear of any governing body controlling doctrine; there are many reasons within the New Testament to suggest there should be some form of doctrinal accountability, along with pragmatic reasons around such an authority helping to maintain effective teaching, ministry, and meaningful unity.
Rather. my concern rests on the tendency for institutions to promote oversimplified epistemological structures. By that I mean that institutional authority and bureaucracy are inclined towards reducing ambiguity and in so doing, allows for only one type of legitimate body of knowledge. If something appears to potentially be off base from the normative standards and policy, such as a theological teaching that can be imagined to lead to a contradiction with theological standards or a particular action that is on the margins of policy, such mechanisms have a tendency to shut down these possibilities in lieu of maintaining conformity to the standards. Therefore, the only legitimate basis of knowledge within the organization is particular expressed values and policies. Any other knowledge is treated as either wrong, false, or if they are feeling charitable, inconsequential for the mission and purpose of the organization. All other forms of knowing are considered illegitimate, at least for the purposes of the organization.
The problem with that as it pertains to Christain faith is that this flattened, oversimplified epistemology is not witnessed in the New Testament or the early Church. While the New Testament maintains the unique and unsurpassable nature of the faith and knowing of God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, they did not treat all other rivals systems of knowledge as automatically illegitimate. Paul in 1 Corinthians is engaging with a congregation that is influenced by a street variety of Stoicism. Stoicism taught what amounts to a pantheistic cosmology, whereas Paul had a more robust sense of God’s transcendence. They were certainly competitors when it came to knowledge about God; this is not to mention the disagreements on some ethical matters. So this Stoicizing of Christian doctrine certainly lead to a lot of problems in what is going on in the church at Corinth; Paul attempts to address it in the various ethical topoi of the letter. However, Paul’s tactic isn’t to say “that Stoicism stuff is pure rubbish; you need to abandon all of it and just follow Jesus.” No. Rather, Paul uses some Stoic ideas and terminology throughout the letter on behalf of his own argument, as if there is some legitimacy to some of the Stoic ideas, but to evaluate this knowledge critically in light of the knowledge of God in Christ and the Spirit. In his later correspondence to the Corinthians, he refers to “tearing down every discursive argument and heavenly speculation that has been built up against the knowledge of God, and taking possession of every idea for obedience to Christ.”2 For Paul, other rival systems of knowledge must be challenged as it pertains to knowledge about God, but they are not to be rejected as entirely off base about any theological truths, nor does Paul reject them as stating anything true about the world itself.
Similarly, the early Church did not develop an outright rejection of anything not Christian. Justin Martyr saw the Greek philosophers, particularly Socrates and Plato highly. Tertullian, not one for avoiding hyperbole in drawing a distinction between Christan faith and philosophy in his famous “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” still spoke of the Stoic philosopher Seneca as “often one of us.” 3 Many of the early church fathers we perfectly capable of appreciating and appropriating insights from rival philosophies. Rather, the rivals the early Church tends to treated as entirely illegitimate were paganism, Gnosticism, and, at times, Judaism; what was characteristic of paganism is the teaching about others divine powers and the liturgical worship of then, Mean the other two intellectual forms explicitly taught very different things about Jesus; Gnosticism tried to fit Jesus into a Neoplatonic mold; Judaism rejected the legitimacy of Jesus as Messiah. Thus, the main times where the early Church fathers sought to delegitimate rival, intellectual and religious systems as when they tried to offer vastly different pictures of the heavenly realms and the nature of divinity and/or they reinterpreted Christ. Otherwise, there was a qualified openness to other religious and philosophical systems.
An epistemological framework that can make sense of Paul and then the early Church fathers is the idea that there is a knowledge about God that must conform to Jesus Christ; this type of knowledge is exclusive and particularistic. All other spiritual and heavenly speculations are criticized and then either used differently or discarded. They may even have a very broad, basic idea that has some truth as it pertains to God; Paul allowed for the possibility of theological knowledge based upon knowledge of the created order,4, but that this knowledge was neither full, exhaustive knowledge nor was this form of theological knowledge effective in saved people from their sins. In other words, whatever might be true in other rival intellectual and religious systems isn’t worth basing your life upon. However, there is also other bodies of knowledge about the world that other religions and philosophies may provide true ideas about. For instance, the Buddhist tradition has many useful insights into human psychology, particularly as it pertains to consciousness and attention. In fact, a focus on present experience to allay anxiety and worry is similar to what Jesus teaches about focusing on the matters of today so as to not worry.5 The one caveat is to not treat this psychological knowledge as knowledge that is true about God and God’s will, or that God must act in a way that is consistent with this knowledge. This is to metaphysicalize natural knowledge, and this would be inconsistent with Christian faith. However, one can appropriate insights from Buddhism,6 for instance, for understanding certain “worldly” matters. But in light of Christ, this is not knowledge I would put my trust in for the totality of my life, nor would I teach others to put their trust in this knowledge for their whole life either.
This may seem complicated, but I would suggest it only seems that way because in Western Christian circles, we are only familiar with flattened out epistemic practices in the first place. Either only Christianity is true or all knowledge is true; there is no multiple tiers of values and truthfulness of different bodies of knowledge. It is complicated only because we are not familiar with it. However, if church liturgies and discipleship took on epistemic forms that are more authentic to the early church’s epistemic practices, particularly as it pertains to God’s divine self-disclosure through Jesus and the Spirit, I would suggest that both the clergy and laity would be much more equipped to critically evaluate and discern the two different tiers of knowledge and other rival intellectual and religious systems. Then, a magisterium-like authority would be less likely to enact a flattened, oversimplified epistemology. Then pastors would be able to say “We put our faith for our wholes lives in God knowing through Jesus and the Holy Spirit” while at the same time saying “there are some true insights elsewhere that may help address very specific, particular problems.” This form of discipled and liturgically formed epistemological imagination will not so easily collapse into either exclusive particularism where all other religions and philosophies must be rejected outright or inclusive pluralism where all religions and philosophies are treated with equal legitimacy and value.