August 2020

What’s your doctrine?

I have just read a book by Timothy Radcliffe. As always with him, I was deeply moved by his insightful thoughts and by his complete inability to think up a good title. This one is called Alive in God. In it, he makes the arresting statement that everyone lives by a doctrine: the only difference between people is that between those how recognise that they by a doctrine and those who don’t.

I have thought about this a lot, and the more I think about it, the more obvious it is. People sometimes complain about religious people making comments on political or social issues because they let their faith rule them. But in fact everyone has certain ‘principles’ which govern they way they think, and, if they don’t  think all that much, the danger is that their guiding principle is just ‘me’ - ‘myself’, ‘my family’, ‘my country’ or something else equally insular. And if we don’t give thought to what we feel are the important principles in life are, we tend to regard our way of thinking as being merely common sense.

To give an example, I was a while back confronted by someone who informed me that teaching children that there is a God is indoctrination: when I pointed out that teaching children that there isn’t a God must equally be indoctrination, this was met with bafflement.

There are occasions when we are brought uncomfortably face to face with what our doctrines must be. I was told recently by someone that pulling down statues like that of Edward Colston is wrong because because ‘it is wiping out part of our history’. OK, apply that as a general principle. It was wrong of the people of Russia to tear down starts of Stalin: it was wrong for the people of Baghdad - aided and abetted by Americans - to tear down statues of Saddam Hussein. But if you think that tearing down those statues was all right, and tearing down a statue of Coslton was all wrong, then your problem is not with statues but with what they represent, and - let’s tread a bit carefully here - you are, by and large, against murderous tyrants but perfectly happy with slave-traders.

It sometimes takes a nasty jolt for us to recognise what our doctrine actually is - the principles guiding us to what we think is right and what we think is wrong. And finding our doctrines uncomfortably exposed can be - and should be - a challenging experience.

Jesus came into a world of division, oppression and injustice preaching a doctrine of peace, justice, love and reconciliation. What was not to like? Quite a lot actually, now as well as then. For each of those four ingredients involve giving of oneself, not taking for oneself: they involve making oneself vulnerable and putting others first. And that goes against the principles of our time - the same principles that have brought about warfare, division, suspicion, insularity and indeed slavery. 

I am one of those sad naive people who believe that the world could be a better place. But it will only be a better place if we think about our values, about our doctrine, and are prepared to be sacrificial enough to apply them. As someone who tries to be a follower of Christ, I try to practice peace, justice; love and reconciliation. I don’t always - often? - get it right, but I still keep trying. All I would suggest to you is that you give some hard thought about the doctrine by which you live, the principles that govern your thighs and attitudes, and ask yourself if they are directed towards making the world a better place or directed towards your own self-interest. It might make for some uncomfortable thoughts, but it might at the very least be a pathway towards honesty.