April 9, 2016

Must Christians be Consistent?

"Forgive me, Major, I don't mean to be difficult, but your faith seems to have led you to something of a contradiction."
"I don't see it as a contradiction."
"I don't understand."
"That's the thing about faith. If you don't have it, you can't understand it. And if you do, no explanation is necessary."
- Odo and Kira, Star Trek: DS9, "Accession"

"Consistent" can mean "(1) unchanging in achievement or effect over a period of time, (2) compatible or in agreement with something, or (3) not containing any logical contradictions."

A long time ago, Christians would greet each other with a kiss. It was a common greeting in their culture, and it was often written in the letters of the gospel that believers should greet one another with a kiss. If we were ask whether or not Christians must be consistent (1) with greeting people with a kiss, we might wonder if we should not exchange kisses for hand shakes or waving (1), we might ask if greeting with a kiss is compatible or in agreement with our own culture (2), or we might wonder if it contains any logical contradictions (3). For many of us, we see it consistent (2) to to use our own cultural version of a greeting in it's place rather than that specific form of greeting. It might not be consistent (1) with the specific command of Scripture, but it is consistent (2) with the sentiment expressed in Scripture to greet one another warmly. There will always be some who believe that consistency (1) means just that, nothing ought to change or be changed over a period of time. For that reason, they do greet one another with a kiss. Now we have two groups of people each being consistent (1, 2) with their own beliefs, that they greet others with a kiss or their cultural equivalent, which brings up the question as to whether or not that's consistent (3). How are we to resolve this conundrum? Wouldn't they have to be in agreement in order to be consistent (3)?

In view of the tendency for Christians to divide themselves up on every matter and every question and every teaching and every doctrine, so much so that tens of thousands have denominations have formed, the reality of the situation is that Christians are consistently  inconsistent. For every "yes" there's a "no" and for every "must" there's an "optional". What constitutes one's person's inconsistency, is another person's consistency. Particularly with subjective areas of belief. The real problems arise when one person declares that his "must" is a non-negotiable, particularly when others view it as optional. He might even try to declare that everyone else is inconsistent. But are they really being inconsistent? If you ask them, they'd probably tell you that they're the picture of consistency, in as much as they understand what they believe to be true.

In an episode of Star Trek Deep Space Nine titled Accession - Odo points out that there's something of a contradiction in that Kira used to believe Sisko was spiritual leader and now she views Akorem is her spiritual leader, to that she answers: "I don't see it as a contradiction." I think a lot of people don't see it as a contradiction to greet one another with a handshake or to wave because it is consistent with the principle to greet one another warmly. To them, being inconsistent might be doing the opposite - spitting on or smacking people in their face would be inconsistent with the principle to greet one another warmly.

Likewise, wearing head coverings has the action, which is popularly considered to be cultural and the principle which continues to be taught in our churches today. For most, consistency is not in wearing an outward symbol that is consistent with the culture of the Bible but inconsistent with our own culture, but rather being consistent with the principle that they symbol represents. As they are fulfilling it in one form or another, they perceive themselves to be consistent with that which it teaches, either the outward action or the principle therein. They see no need to be consistent in both outward action and the principle, though there are some that do feel that way and indeed do obey both.

Again, the episode of Accession is a helpful one, they too had a similar conundrum. Suddenly, a spiritual leader from centuries ago appears and teaches that all of them should return to their ancient traditions, in particular, a name-based caste system that ranked them in status and assigned them to specific jobs based on their family names. It would be as if everyone named "Baker" would have to quit whatever job they do and go start baking, if everyone named "Fisher" would have to quit whatever job they do and go start fishing, not only that, but if "Banker" arrived at a crowded restaurant, "Cleaner" would be expected to vacate her table as she hadn't the status to sit and eat in "Banker's" presence. This created no end of trouble because the current president was "Farmer" and an unclean "Mortician" wasn't keen on quitting being a Priest." People who had known nothing but doing whatever they felt suited them best weren't thrilled with the idea of returning to their ancestor's work or the rank and status system that would prevent them from taking advantage of many opportunities. Ultimately, the spiritual leaders consulted the prophets for their ruling on the matter - they considered that time is linear and that those in the present cannot return to the past. The ruling was reversed - the caste system was re-abolished and everyone returned to doing what they loved best. Unfortunately for us - our conundrum is this one: "Ought the Bible be obeyed in exacting standards, as literally as possible, or ought the Bible be obeyed in principle even if it looks like disobeying the literal commandments?" We don't have prophets we can turn to who would say "Leave the past in the past." We do have lots of spiritual leaders, some who would say "be consistent with the Sacred Text, obey it literally" and we have some who would say "be consistent with the Sacred Texts, obey it's principles".

I think whichever group anyone ends up in, they are being consistent in as much as they believe the text applies to them. For those who feel that women must grow their hair long an wear head coverings, they feel that they are being literally consistent in the same way, for those who feel that they outward symbols don't matter as long as the principle that it represents is being obeyed are also being consistent. There's no inconsistency involved when two people with different convictions are true to what they believe to be true. That's what Christianity has done for thousands of years. Inconsistently consistent, consistently inconsistent - that's Christianity. Some of it is a natural result over a long period of time. Something that somebody believes to be true on the first day is not necessarily going to be exactly the same as what somebody believes to be true of the last day, as information and knowledge and beliefs and teachings changes hands, it also changes. Like a cosmic version of the telephone game. The Bible stands as an unchanging monument to the beliefs of a particular culture at a particular point in history, but even that culture doesn't believe today as they did back then, and that culture isn't this one. I don't see it as a contradiction for a person to decide to be consistent with their own culture, to be consistent with their own beliefs about what it is to be consistent, or to be consistent with what their heart and mind tells them to be true. It's not the end of Christianity to have different ideas about what is true. Christianity has survived two millennia of differing opinions and it's not going to up and die because somebody declares everyone else is being inconsistent, particularly when everyone else is being consistent with their own principles about what the Bible means to them.

 To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible. - Saint Thomas Aquinas

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