By Stephen Marshall-Ward
When I read Socrates’ statement, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing”, I think about how this statement is the antithesis of how the church often presents itself historically. One of the greatest distinctives of the Church is that it is the authority regarding spiritual things. I could see how we could argue that is a good thing, an important thing, even a “God” thing – but I’m not convinced. The more I learn the less I feel I believe much of what the Church has taught. The Church would teach us that, at this point in the discussion, we need to look at the life and teachings of Jesus. If we do that, I’m even less sure that it is right for the church to position itself as the all-knowing spiritual entity. Within Christian denominations throughout America, even around the world, is the supposition that what we know and what we teach is truth and is not up for debate. For these fragments of the Church, it is as if they are saying, “Now we’ve arrived – so now we can stop thinking.” More progressive church teachings would suggest that as individuals we shouldn’t ever reach a point where we act like we know everything, but instead that we should be learning. And yet still some of those very institutions still lift themselves up as the all-knowing. Just look at the mainline denominations in America and how long and arduous a process it is to change anything. When seeking truth there needs to be a system of balance, and therefore debate – I get that. But I wonder if there is a better way.
The question that I am proposing is this: is there a better way to think about even the Church as an all-knowing and truth-bearing institution? This is a question I have not answered for myself.
I’m simply asking: does the Church know everything? Well, the church is made up of people. Does an individual person know everything? No. I think it is safe to say that no individual person knows everything. If that is true, one could also propose that no singular institution knows everything either.
Some might say is that the more collective our understandings the better chance we have at getting to the truth. I suppose this is why some churches discuss or even debate issues. So, if we know that individuals don’t know everything and individuals would do well to learn from others so that a greater truth is understood, wouldn’t this translate to institutions who are made up of individual people?
Why wouldn’t the Church, as an institution that lifts itself up as a truth-bearer, be equally open to a posture of openness, learning, seeking, and changing as one of its primary “dogmas”?
Is that possible? Are there pitfalls within that posture that would bring it all down? This would beg the further question: would bringing it all down be so bad? I am proposing some difficult questions. I am certainly not the first person to ask them. As a student I am very interested in answers – but even more interested in the discussions. One of the most important transformations in my spiritual life was when I finally reached the place when I was able to say, “I’m ok with not knowing. I don’t have to know everything. The important thing is to open myself to continually learn.” It was when I reached that point that I had freedom to become everything I’m intended to be. I wonder if the same can be true for the body/institution we call the Church.
This relates to the setting of the Requiem Mass that my colleague, Michael Austin Miller, and I have just completed. In this Requiem, among other things, we present five indictments against the Church. But rather than just leave them as indictments, we have attempted to propose answers we think might be associated with God’s better way. These answers might require some openness to change.
The first indictment is as follows: “Only partly reformed, the Church has spread fear-filled judgment through the worship of its dogma. But Jesus persistently taught with expansive courage and open questioning toward perpetual reformation through the glory of rebirth -- from death to new life.”
If we are going to be reformed people (people always learning) we have to be continually reforming – always learning, always willing to change.