Changes (II): Truth vs. Tradition

Change is never easy.  It means getting outside of your comfort zone.  It means cognitive dissonance and internal turmoil.  It means letting go of things we thought we knew were rock-solid certain and moving into what we thought until just the moment before to be the unknown, or worse, error.  Nowhere is change more difficult than in anything related to faith and religion.  People who harbor no religious faith do not understand the difficulty we face when confronted with religious change.  It is one of the most uncomfortable things we can ever experience.

But change is necessary if we are to be acceptable to God.  God demands repentance, a turning away from sin and a turning toward righteousness.  That is a form of change that virtually all people of faith will accept and embrace. Unfortunately, many people do not really understand repentance, and it becomes merely the recitation of a line in a human-derived formula for salvation.

When confronted with truth, it is necessary to embrace it if we are to be acceptable to God.  That was the mind-set of all those reformers who stood up against the excesses and abuses of the established religious bodies of the last millennium and a half, and demanded change from the status quo.  That was the plea of the men from the 18th and 19th centuries, who called people of faith from all denominations to shed the names, creeds, and derivative practices that divide us and become one in truth as we are in purpose—that purpose being to serve and honor God as we understand and know him, to the best of our understanding, knowledge, and abilities.

Change for the sake of change may be acceptable in secular life, just to keep things interesting.  If we are tired of using one recipe for a particular type of dish, we are at liberty to experiment.  Some things will work well, but I can attest that not every culinary experiment is a raving success. 

In religion, however, some things must fundamentally be understood, acknowledged, and maintained.  John wrote extensively about the heresy that denied the incarnation that was plaguing his readers (I John 4.2, 2 John 1.7).  Paul warned Timothy (2 Tim 2.18) about men who claimed that the resurrection had already happened.  These issues relate specifically to the doctrines or teachings about Christ.  The often misused passage of 2 John 1.9 refers to these kinds of heretical cracks in the foundational truths of the faith, not every interpretation of practice that a specific group has elevated to the level of salvific necessity.  Commentators suggest that this passage not only refers to the teachings about Jesus, but the teachings of Jesus, which early Gnostics were ready to dispense with and move ahead with their “superior” knowledge.  (I recall an instance where a participant in a discussion mused over whether or not we are under the two “great commandments,” to love God and love our neighbors, since Jesus taught that before the establishment of the church on the day of Pentecost, and we are only responsible for things after Pentecost.  I think that is a distinct example of worshipping the church instead of its founder, which can certainly be construed as a form of idolatry.  But that is a discussion for another time.)

One of my favorite religious “what-if” games deals with a scenario in which new manuscripts pre-dating all known biblical sources were uncovered in the extensive Vatican archives and found to be indisputably authentic, yet teach something different from what has been taught for the bulk of the 2,000 year history of the church.  What if we discover something new about scripture that requires us to change our specific doctrines?  What if we discover that we have been teaching tradition instead of truth?  Are we willing to change our beliefs to accept and embrace that truth?

Many in my faith tradition will be quick to agree with the concept, but I wonder about the follow-through.  Jesus addressed this type of situation in Matthew 21:

“28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’  29  And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30 And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?”

“They said, “The first.”

“Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32  For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.” –Mat 21.28-32, ESV

That is the kind of change I am thinking about today.  An example of this is seen in our traditional view of Heaven and the end times—what theologians call eschatology.   Our teachings have been based largely on specific passages like 2 Peter 3, describing the fiery end of the temporal reality, but seems to neglect the “new heavens and new earth” of verse 13.  Likewise, the vision and declaration of Revelation 21 seems to be discounted as “figurative” language.  But the language is the same, both in Greek and by translation, in both 2 Peter 3.13 and Revelation 21.1.  Notice the sweeping vision shown to John, as recorded in Revelation 21:

“1  Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea.  2  Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

“3  And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.  4  And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”

“5  Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And He said to me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful.””  –ESV

How many times have you heard in a sermon or funeral message the wonderful promise of Revelation 21.4?  But for many people, the idea of the renewal of creation as promised and declared in verse 5 is foreign.  Since Peter says the elements will be destroyed, Heaven must be on some ethereal plane, where the redeemed will apparently sit on clouds and play harps and lyres for eternity.  But if verse 4 is a real promise of great comfort to us, why do we not accept God’s own declaration, “Behold, I make all things new”? 

It has been observed by many who are rethinking their views of Heaven that God here says, “I make all things new,” and not “all new things.”  The distinction is significant: one speaks to the unifying concept of restoring the “very good creation,” while the other requires a disruption, even a termination, of the flow of the whole story.  As I have often mused, God is a frugal sort, using everything to its fullest extent.  If the creation was deemed by him to be very good, it must be worth restoring.

Perhaps that should be the emphasis of “restoration.”  How do we fit into the plan and help God restore that creation to its pristine, uncorrupted state?  What impact do we have on making the return to perfection that much more of a reality?  By our lives and actions, do we give people a glimpse of a true citizen of Heaven (Philippians 3.20)?

With evidence mounting of our traditional teachings of Heaven being less than congruent with biblical substantiation, are we willing to let go of the “I’ll Fly Away” mentality, and accept that Revelation 21 may just be right: that Heaven will be here, in a renewed, restored creation?  Are we willing to accept the premise of Revelation 21.3 that precedes the promise of Revelation 21.4?  We must, if we accept the admonition that God himself gave to John in Revelation 21.5: “Write, for these words are true and faithful.”

This is just one point of change that must be addressed if the concept is studied and found to be true.  Again, if we are confronted with truth, whatever that truth may be, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us, we must accept that truth.  Like the first son in the Jesus’ parable, we may be reluctant to change our views, but we will be rewarded if we do.  If we continue to hold to and teach tradition, we will have become what we beheld.  If we neglect evidence, if we claim to have already uncovered all truth, we become like the second son, making a show of our righteousness, yet ultimately disappointing our Father.  I’ve done enough disappointing in my life already.  I’m willing to explore, to think for myself, and to seek out truth wherever it may be.  And like Heaven, it may be closer than we think.    

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