Recently I’ve been reflecting a little more about creed, faith and God from a more practical and personal angle.
The thing is, I do believe in natural religion, natural in distinction to revealed religion tied to a particular faith tradition.
My own mother comes from a Chinese ancestral worship background and had some minimal Western influence reading Victorian and Regency era novels, as well as Agatha Christie detective novels. But she never studied beyond 16 after her ‘O’ levels and went straight to work.
The thing is, she doesn’t practice any of the traditional ancestral worship Chinese practices nor any of the syncretistic Taoist/Buddhist amalgamate. Sure she still can be a little superstitious about the existence of ghost or spirits as a distinct possibility, but it is not something she took seriously. I remember once she described a visit to a Chinese spiritual medium and telling us how sceptical she was whether it was real or not or whether he was really possessed or maybe it was just a psychological fit or ailment. Thus the spiritual realm existed as a mere possibility in her imagination or mind, the object of occasional speculation and maybe little habits, but not real enough for her to spend a single penny or waste a single minute on it.
The thing is, she still believes in God. How she came to that belief, I have no idea; there is simply nothing in her own family’s religious or cultural practice to suggest the idea of a monotheistic God to her. Yet she does curiously. (And she did not go to a mission school) Maybe it percolated to her through reading English novels and it just “clicked” and made sense. But the God she believes in is primarily the very “Chinese” retributive sort of God. Evil doers will not be able to escape with their sins and will be punished, good people will be rewarded, that sort of thing. Very Chinese.
For myself, I took my mother’s iconoclasm a little further. I started out as an agnostic leading towards atheism. I remember arguing with my parents about the existence of God and all that, and, even though they were not religious practitioners or believers in any faith, but they scolded me and said that I must still believe in a God who rules and orders the world sort of thing even if I did not have a religion. I’m sure to Western minds this must be incomprehensible.
Looking back, I cannot help but see this as the strongest empirical evidence for me of Romans 1 the concerning the discernability of the Godhead and divine power to all mankind from nature.
So I do believe in natural religion. I do think that it is common sense to all that God orders and runs the world, in the same way that I believe in the uniformity of nature or the existence of the external world or that no civic order can survive which does not attempt to regulate the deprivation of human life. It is “common sense” and “obvious” to all. Sure, there are many who don’t exactly believe in a monotheistic God because of either superstitions, false religions or atheism, but then again, there are many who don’t respect private property or human life either. The existence of idolaters and atheists no more suggests that divinity is not part of natural reason and inaccessible to mankind then the existence of law breakers imply that civic mores are not part of natural reason or inaccessible to mankind.
My own path through Christianity did not run through theology but philosophy. Some of my first readings in Christianity were apologetic books and Descartes Ontological Argument and stuff. In fact for a very long time I wasn’t really interested in theology, I was more into analytic philosophy. I think what fascinated me the most was reading this book “Mathematics for the Non-Mathematician” by Morris Kline. It was a book introducing various concepts and aspects of mathematics along with a little historical commentary and background. However, what caught my attention was his explanation of the logic behind Newton’s Calculus, the development of the scientific revolution and Newtonian physics and how the Western scientists combined the Greek view of a rational order by mathematical forms with the belief in a rational Christian God who orders nature with mathematical precision and regularity. I was hooked and fascinated. That was the major impetus for me to change my intended degree from arts to science. I wanted to learn more about all about the God of nature and order and reason and all that stuff.
Anyway, the point is, I’ve always had a latent respect for natural revelation and natural religion. My interest in theology only arose after I got more involved in Church Life. Of course getting more involved in Church meant learning more about theology and the Church. Then there was the whole existential crisis for me about what were distinctly religious practices for if the Church was simply here to advocate for social justice and huddle in their little cell meetings.
But otherwise, I have to say that my belief in God preceded my reception in Christianity. I became a Christian only because that is the “God of the Westerners” and to my mind were the most reasonable and sensible people responsible for those wonderful science and technology and reason stuff, so of course their God must be correct too. This is a very Chinese “Mandate of Heaven” pragmatic mindset. (I read somewhere that being “Western” is also explanatory of a lot of Chinese motives in China for becoming Christian).
As far as “special revelation” or religion is concerned, I think ever since my “low church” turn, I’ve simply grown more and more sceptical about clerics, creedal religion and technical orthodoxy. I think for the most part, people’s belief in God is dependent more upon their natural instincts than dogmatic instruction. What some piece of paper (creeds, documents in the Vatican, confessional standards, etc) say is one thing, what the masses of people actually think or understand is another. Very few people, except for a few “religiously inclined”, actually bother to be dogmatically or theologically precise about their faith. (I’ve met Roman Catholics who say that the Lord’s Supper is just a symbol and even a practicing Evangelical Christian who gave a modalist or Sabellian view of the Trinity).
I have of course a vested interest in pushing this point. I simply really don’t think that getting the correct creed or precise doctrinal formulation to be really all that important, and I am applying this point to the doctrine of the Trinity itself. No matter what is officially said in some musty tome or document, most Christians won’t be able to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity properly. They would more often than not be functional modalists, Tritheists and even Arians. Someone left the following comment on my blogpost discussing how widespread the doctrine of the Trinity is among believers:
Christian missionaries tend to claim that the majority are Christians – but they dare not claim that they are Trinitarians! The majority do not understand the doctrine at all and the missionaries dare not press the point.
I have tried, on many occasions. to decipher the view of the majority and the most ‘hopeful’ candidate was emphatic that Christ is NOT God , but “The Word of God’ (the mouthpiece of God). This is in spite of incessant indoctrination by the evangelicals that Christ is God.
So, I guess I am now a little more fatalist and sceptical about the place of doctrine and creeds in the Church’s life. Increasingly precise formulation tends to be the fetish of certain psychological types (of whom I confess myself to definitely be one of them) but which escapes the vast majority of actual people.
So where does that leave me? I would have to say that that would make me a classic latitudinarian. I still do believe that the Bible is God’s Word to us, and that the Bible’s teachings are true and that every other religious claim which contradicts it are false. But for the most part, I believe that for most people, our natural religious instincts found in our reason and common sense, implanted by God of course, constitutes the substance of our religious lives. The Bible is given to perfect and correct the corruptions of those instincts, not supplant it. I think the end of revealed religion is the restoration of natural religion, the forgiveness of sins exists to set mankind back upon the path of divine fellowship. For this reason was Christ sent to us, both to be the express image of God’s grace to us and his love for us, and also to be the true pattern and image for human life, speaking and doing all things by divine commission and authority granted to him from God. But unlike the classical latitudinarians, I do not have an optimistic view of human nature or believe in the inherent goodness of mankind or whatever. My belief in reason is essentially realistic, not romantic, empirical not platonic, in the objective scientific sense in the true tradition of the Enlightenment. I still believe in Hobbesian empirical observation of a nature red tooth and claw and that civic polity and norms are necessary curbs to our corruptions, etc. I think that even if the seeds of divine reason are in us, we don’t often use it very well and often act against our better judgement, etc.
Naturally, I still will discuss theology and stuff, but I don’t think our religious lives literally rest upon a single iota in the Nicene Creed, nor does Christendom rest upon a precisely formulated dogmatic document. To be sure, we need truth and sound judgement to live rightly, but highly technical truths and abstract concepts tends to have very little to do with actual life, thus in a sense, one needs be concerned with divine revelation and the Scriptures to discern the truth, but ultimately we must not forget the end for which the Scriptures were inspired:
for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,that the man of God may be competent,equipped for every good work.
(2 Timothy 3:16-17)