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Tiny Green Lizards in Your Ears

January 2, 2012

Imagine, for a moment, that a study discovered that people who believed that there were lizards in their ears lived on average a decade longer than everyone else. This study also verified that absolutely no one has lizards in their ears and that it is actually quite damaging to have a real lizard put in your ear. The benefits only come from completely imaginary lizards that cannot possibly exist.

The question, of course, is what you will do with this knowledge. One choice is to become concerned that there are, in fact, enough people who believe that lizards live in their ears to perform an adequate study on the phenomenon. You could go about interrogating your friends and relatives about the possibility of non-human life in their ears and all but forcing those who claimed that things lived in their ears to get MRIs to show otherwise. Alternatively, you could go about telling your friends and relatives about a fascinating study you read demonstrating that most people have lizards living in their ears. When your acquaintances developed headaches you could tell them that this was probably due to an uncomfortably-wedged ear-lizard. If you spun your ridiculous lies well enough you could (you might hope) become enmeshed in them yourself, gaining, on average, a decade of life.

I ask this for a fairly simple reason. By dissociating truth from useful effect I can highlight an interesting question: do we like truth because it is true or because it does something for us? Normally, of course, the two are tightly joined. If we believe that money is printed by rabbits our finances will rapidly be in shambles. If we disbelieve in Newton’s Third Law we’ll never develop a space program. If we believe that most people like to be yelled at we’ll find it hard to have healthy relationships. However, there are times when the difference between truth and falsehood has no immediate negative consequences. Most of us know when it’s better not to volunteer the truth (“Incidentally, I was just thinking that you are perhaps the least competent boss I’ve ever worked for”) and I assume all of us have run across people for whom the desire to be seen as right (a separate phenomenon from the desire to actually be correct, a phenomenon which leads to plenty of self-correction and healthy doubt about one’s omniscience) destroys relationships. So how to we evaluate the value of truth?

One position is that truth is simply valuable in and of itself. Given this position it would be good, somehow, to adopt a true position that led to one’s complete destruction, were such a position to exist. Christianity is often framed in terms of this view of truth: accept these things as true, period. However, I’d like to argue that this is not necessarily the true heart of Christianity and that adherence to this model can create some practical problems.

Let’s start with a simple example: monophysitism. If you don’t recognize this term, that’s fine – I have reasons for choosing an example not everyone would recognize. Monophysitism is the belief, condemned by the Council of Chalcedon, that Christ’s divine nature absorbed his human nature leaving him with only one nature (hence “mono” physitism). I picked this example for three reasons: it’s very old (the major debates took place in the 400s), it’s a little difficult to understand what the argument was about, and the creed that came out of the controversy (the Chalcedonian Creed) remains popular even today. So what’s the big deal about monophysitism?

At first glance monophysitism would appear to be a good example of truth, not impact, being important. It’s obscure and yet it’s a big deal. Surely it could only be a big deal if Christianity were mostly a matter of being right. However, I picked an old example for a reason: even today with near-universal literacy in the Western world, we might not expect most of our church members to articulate clear doctrine on contentious issues. In the 400s we can expect even fewer people to know what position their church held on the monophysite controversy. If a few people in every thousand Christians were actually monophysites in the sense of understanding the and adopting the position (this is just my off-the-cuff guess at the level of theological education in the Middle East in the 5th century) how could this be a matter of truth? If almost no one actually held incorrect doctrine because they held no doctrinal position at all on the issue of Christ’s nature or natures why would this be a big deal? Did the Council of Chalcedon anticipate that one day people might be taught thoroughly and adopt this position more universally or did they just act in a disproportionate manner?

I have a much simpler proposal: whether or not an individual congregant adopted a monophysite position, it mattered whether that congregant was being taught by monophysites because of the practical teaching that stems from monophystism. Without a much more detailed study I can’t develop this point in full but simply consider what it would mean for Jesus not to have had a human nature. Sure, there are some reasonably obscure theological issues with this (some of which depend on theological concepts that probably post-date this controversy) but it means, quite practically, that Jesus was not really a human like you and me. Sure, Jesus resisted temptation but he wasn’t human. He did not lift up and exalt a human nature through perfection, he did not show us a way to live as a human, he was an alien who did an alien thing which, I suppose, one could attempt to imitate but at the end of the day you’re human and he’s not. That, I think, has real implications for the practice of even the illiterate farmer. He may not be the one who works out these implications but the people in charge who give him advice will be doing so. Bad doctrine will lead to bad practice and that bad practice will be far more universal than the doctrine ever will be.

Of course, monophysitism starts out slow. An obscure point is changed, a practical teaching reality is seen to be altered, and bad teaching eventually leads to bad practice. It’s slow. It’s not anything as dramatic as, say, teaching people that Jesus wants them to stab random strangers in the street. However, I think that’s the whole point. Monophysitism is a big deal because it’s a subtle poison. Much like actual poison, teaching that is dramatically awful gets vomited back up. Teaching that doesn’t have ill effects until much later is much more effective. However, an issue can arise where people start identifying poisons only by consulting the list of things that have been specially noted as poisons before. If the obvious things haven’t been specifically condemned as heresies it’s easy to believe that what’s important is adherence to a list of obscure statements rather than believing that this list of obscure statements is a warning against subtle threats and your common sense is a warning against more obvious ones.

Before I discuss the very practical application of this principle, let me cite one more source to make my argument: Paul. Most of what we regard as Paul’s theological writings blend pretty seamlessly into his “life application”. Or, rather, Paul seems to think they go together but the effect for a modern reader trained to see “theological” and “life application” can be a bit more like whiplash. Take Ephesians. Paul starts out with these very lofty theological ideas. He sketches ideas of election, sovereignty, redemption, and eschatological fulfillment. Somewhere in the middle he addresses the issue of Jewish-Greek ethnic conflicts in the church and by the end he is giving very practical, everyday advice. However, it’s easy to bind this all together. My paraphrase of this main thread of the argument would go something like this: “Christ is the true king, the only lord of the world, who will one day reign over all things. He has purchased you back from death and chosen you to be his people. Therefore, you cannot act like there are important differences between you because that’s denying that Christ is really king and claiming your former identities. What’s more, you can’t act like the world because that’s admitting that the world’s rules are the real rules. If Christ is Lord and King you can’t be anything but fellow-countrymen living by Christ’s rules.” The theology isn’t separate from the practical but, rather, the direct cause of the practical.

So what’s the issue? What happens if we decide that Christianity is a list of propositions to accept as true and ignore the practical? Well, it makes detecting heresy all the harder. Strange practice may be a visible sign of something wrong way back in the gears of the machine. It also means that we are likely to forget that for most people Christianity never consists of varying ideas about the Trinity, Christ’s nature, the exact method by which Christ’s death brings us redemption, and so on. For most people Christianity is a matter of trusting Christ and living that out. The ideas that I’ve mentioned require study to understand, in some cases requiring study to understand enough even to pick a wrong position. This brings us to direct practice.

Let’s be honest: the church in America, and, I’m sure, all over the world, is afflicted by charlatans. The health-and-wealth gospel, the politics-as-religion teaching, and social-norms-from-an-era-I-liked-better as the heart of the gospel are all quite common, sometimes even in opposite manifestations! Some of these are easy to see (politics as the gospel) and some are harder (the line between social-norms-from-an-era-I-liked-better as the gospel and the gospel as itself is mostly a matter of seeing what isn’t there – namely, the parts of the gospel that the era the preacher liked better consistently violated). However, not all of them are “core issues”. I don’t think this makes them acceptable, however. If the preacher rakes in cash from his preaching and lives in a mansion while his church members are poor then I don’t know that we should regard that as any less poisonous than, say, Modalism. The effect on people is itself an issue. If teaching isn’t helping willing people grow in Christ then there is probably a problem with the teaching. If the teaching is actually harming people then I don’t see much need to ask whether it fulfills some theological criteria. If, much as Paul argues, Christ is really doing things then we should see real effects. If the effects we see are very un-Christlike then this probably speaks to the teaching behind them.

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