As discussed in the last post, there is more writing below. A few paragraphs from last time were added in to help place it in context.
I wanted to address Rundy’s comments on the last post, but that will have to wait until some other time.
But such calls for unity face an insurmountable Catch 22. If the beliefs expressed in the Nicene Creed are important, then what those beliefs mean is also important. You can’t say it does not matter whether baptism is a sacrament or a mere symbol of a spiritual event and at the same time say that it is important to believe “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” Those two positions on baptism are the exact opposite of one another. To say that we can unify both groups under the banner of the Nicene Creed is to make the Nicene Creed meaningless.
In other words, if the beliefs expressed in the Nicene Creed are important, than their meaning is also important. And if their meaning is important, then all the disputes that currently divide Christianity are also important. And if the beliefs expressed in the Nicene Creed are not important, why bother being a Christian? The nature of the problem seems to indicate that the choices are either apathy or legalism.
But this apparent dualism only exists because humans prefer to focus on the superficial at the expense of the important. The things that people believe are not important. It is the cause of that belief that is important. In other words, when someone says that they believe the Nicene Creed, the first question we should ask is “Why?” Not “What do you think the Nicene Creed means?”
To understand why the cause of belief is more important than the belief itself, we need to think about why we believe things. Let us say that someone came up to you and asked, “Which way did Jimmy go?” And you responded by saying “Jimmy went that way.” In response you are asked “why do you say that?” and you respond by saying “I saw him go that way.” In this conversation you have expressed two things. You have expressed a belief (“Jimmy went that way”) and the reason for that belief (“I saw him go that way”).
Now your questioner could be a real philosophical smart-aleck and he could ask you why you believe that what you see is the truth (After all, the world could all be one great big illusion, right?). And if you were a philosophical type of a fool you could try to justify your belief in what you see (using Occam’s razor perhaps?). But a sensible person will not try to justify why they believe what their eyes tell them. After all, how can you really defend a choice you did not make?
Most of us do not make a conscious choice to believe based on what we see. We are born believing what we see. Or perhaps it is better to say that we are born believing things on the basis of what we see. So in a very real sense, we are subject to our eyes. We cannot make ourselves have the vision of an eagle. We cannot see all that we wish to see. Sometimes things that we fail to see blindside us. Sometimes things that we see do not exist. But in spite of all the limitations of sight, sight still governs what we will believe.
But our eyes are not the only things that govern what types of things we believe in. Many other things can govern what we will believe in. It could be some other person (my daddy told me so), it could be logic (if x is true, y has to be), or it can be any number of other things depending on the person. For simplicity’s sake, we will call that which governs what we will believe in “authorities”.
Now it must be admitted that “authorities” are not as simple or as obvious as the previously discussed examples. Often, we do not fully understand what the real “authorities” in our life are. We often convince ourselves that we believe in things for reasons that are socially approved when really we believe in them for other reasons. And if it is difficult for us to be sure as to what governs our own beliefs, it is even harder for us to perceive what governs other people’s beliefs.
Yet in spite of the difficulty, the question of authority is only thing that really matters in any intellectual discourse. A structure is only as good as its foundation and authority is the foundation underneath all our conceptions of “facts” and “truth.” If we fail to understand the “real” authority behind all of our notions of what is “fact” and what is “true,” then all our discussions and thoughts are worthless. We can only begin to have a worthwhile conversation if we have an understanding of the governing authorities behind our beliefs.
Some might be inclined to argue that placing the things that govern our beliefs and the beliefs themselves into separate categories is a false distinction. After all, our beliefs flow from our “authorities.” This being so, our beliefs reveal what our authorities are. And if our beliefs reveal what our authorities are, what is the point of making a distinction between “beliefs” and “authorities”?
There are two problems with this line of argument. It fails to take into account how people deal with one another and it fails to take into account how people deal with themselves. But the root of both problems is the failure to recognize that the various “authorities” support overlapping beliefs. Thus, if you only focus on a limited sample of beliefs, you are likely to be misled into seeing a unity of authority where there is none.
For example, let us say you meet someone for the first time. You find out that he thinks that the sky is blue and you also think that the sky is blue. Because of this, you think that this fellow and yourself see the world in a similar manner. But you would be mistaken.
The fellow you have just met only believes what his mommy tells him. On the other hand, you only believe what you see with your eyes. His mommy and your eyes happen to agree about the color of the sky, but down the road you are going to find that you have almost nothing in common with this man. Anytime you see something that does not agree with what his mommy tells him, you are going to have a big argument. You will never be able to get him to agree with you because he has a different authority for determining the truth than you do.
In a similar manner, let us say that you meet someone who does not believe you when you tell him how deep the Grand Canyon is. It might seem that you will not get along very well with this fellow. But in truth, this fellow is just like you. He only believes what his eyes tell him and his eyes are just like yours. The only reason he does not believe you is that he has never seen anything like the Grand Canyon. Down the road, you are going to find out that this fellow and yourself get along just fine. After all, he sees the world just as you do. So all you need to do when you disagree is to show him what you have seen and the problem is resolved.
Granted, these are silly examples. But they illustrate the fact that whether people have some beliefs in common tells you nothing about whether those same people are governed by similar authorities. Acceptance of a common body of facts can be a result of a shared authority. But often times a shared set of beliefs is just a sign of people going out of their way to focus on the areas where they agree. In this manner they manage to convince themselves that they share a common authority when really they don’t.
This is one of the reasons why disputes between people can get so nasty. Having first convinced themselves they were “similar” to their opponents because they shared some beliefs, they now cannot see any reason for their disputes except extreme bad faith. So their arguments devolve into rage and personal attacks because they feel that the other party is/should be subject to the same authority that they themselves are subject to.
But the problem of conflicting authorities is not limited to our interactions with other human beings. We humans are not governed by consistent authorities even on the individual level. Often we can ignore this conflict by only focusing on those beliefs that all of our authorities support. But by focusing on what we believe as individuals rather then why we believe, we often fool ourselves into thinking that we are more consistent than we really are. And this can lead to serious problems when we are forced to confront our inconsistencies.