Heresy and Hygiene – Dr Marty Folsom

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While there are vibrant and loving churches that exist in the world, the general state of the church is lacking the ability to find a common sense of what health could look like for the whole, for particular congregations, for churches in their neighborhoods, for families, or for persons as disciples. There are many opinions, but even commonly held beliefs, like that God is Trinity, how we are justified by faith, or how we hold the authority of the Bible are more minefields of contention then the fabric of a community of consensus. We do not practice beliefs that hold us together. If one says they are a Christian, it requires a quick follow-up to clarify what kind, so as not to be confused with the disagreeable ones. This has created a field of relating that is generally fractured, contentious, fearful, and self-concerned. We lack the hygiene to maintain theological health that sustains us.

There was a time when clarifying the basic tenants of Christianity meant defining terms and ideas that could be held true in reflecting the God revealed in Jesus and witnessed to in the Bible. This clarifying process then prepared leaders to inform the gathered and sent life of the church as God’s people ready to be instructed to be collaborative with God. Those beliefs that were not reflective of God’s life, witnessing to that life, or facilitating the human’s responsive life to the revealed God were called heresy.

In a similar vein, the history of science was one of overcoming ignorance, superstition, traditions, and inadequate tools to understand and learn how to relate to the physical world. Over time, and especially in the Enlightenment, God was determined to be a source of error in thinking about the world because Christianity’s traditional beliefs were inconsistent with the world as perceived from a “natural” reading of the world. The human perception, operating as an independent, self-validating perspective, came to dominate, self-correct, and progress in its self-appointed task of observing and recounting the physical order of the world. This all was fit within a human definition of thriving—what was good for human progress; using the world as a “resource” was affirmed as the key for guiding the development of human civilization. Consuming forests, damming rivers, hunting at will, and building teaming cities were all part of the palette of progress. What was “healthy” was consuming and controlling.

There came a point in time where the application of scientific thinking came to the foreground. In medicine, technology, production, and so on, science was applied in the flourishing of humans in health, industry, entertainment, and the promotion of the innovative insight that asks how humans might more satisfyingly live in this world. There was much for science to discover.

As science progressed, scientists stopped pursuing “inadequate” quests, like the “heresy of alchemy.” But we must note that even people like Isaac Newton, the father of Newtonian science was deeply interested in alchemy. From those misguided paths many scientific and medical discoveries were stumbled upon. These forgotten paths are part of the process. In time, science itself came to have a creedal sense of method and conclusion that were accepted by the new priesthood, the academy of science. Running parallel, the academy of theological sciences still existed, but it has waned over the centuries and in America is excluded from the university curriculum. The quest for certainty and control has replaced the building of a cohesive culture under God’s wise insight.

Science has expanded the application of scientific knowledge to all parts of human flourishing as defined by health, wealth, and mastery of the lived environment. Science has tried to speak into every field of human endeavor with its paradigm of objective thinking. It seeks to pursue a reasonable understanding that fits each subject in subjection to serving human sensibilities of the good and true. This “lived sense” of science made it desirable and worthy of being funded by developing businesses that could promise a better life, saved from the threats to health, prosperity, and longevity—and the church.

Hygiene, in the life of health, came to describe the basic practices which would serve as daily routines to live out advice based on scientific advances. Brushing teeth, washing hands before eating, washing food, cooking appropriately, and other patterns of cleanliness became an integrated way of thinking and acting that has increased the quality and enjoyment of human life. Thinking about air quality, water purity, and ecological care later became an expanded part of the discussion. A battle is currently in progress in the world to find a balance between the use of all the tools and technology that have given humans the ability to manipulate the world for progressive ends and the ability to preserve the world and its many interrelated systems that are both necessary and beneficial for human survival. The “creed” of internationally acceptable beliefs and practices is still being hammered out with no end in sight.

The church still has its ancient creeds. But it continues to battle over who is right and wrong regarding the nature of God, the authority of the Bible, what does it mean to be “saved,” and how one should live as a Christian, as well as what practices are to be excluded. We would like to think the ancient councils settled all that we need in order to cooperate with God’s will being both believed and lived in the world. But we are far from that.

The academy’s conversations are largely debates among themselves. Little of the simplicity of the life and love of Jesus has trickled down. Ministers are largely dispensers of information and directors of social projects. The part about loving God, neighbor, and self is still far from functional. The diminishing number of people who come to church attend to learn how to fit God into their lives. Few come to enter the present life of the Kingdom of God as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who create a community that shares love, exercises the fruit of the Spirit, and live in daily communion with this Divine Family. Our creeds have not provided the means to show the world how we love one another as the validation that we are disciples.

Our method of creedal and doctrinal formulation has failed to provide the hygiene that is necessary to human living. We need relational hygiene as an outworking of the life of God. We need serious research for the good of the church in order to live out life with the One who comes in love. This One became human so we could live the within a restoration of the law of love that is natural to the shared life of God in Trinity. We share in the Son’s communion with the Father by the Spirit, but also are to live from that in every aspect of our lives. Building on God’s way of being, we need to have applications of what living in communion with God looks like in ways that looks like to promote human flourishing according to God’s intentions, not human ideals.

I am afraid that we are still stuck in a heresy phase; the church is fractured and lacking love. We dabble in spiritual hygiene, but provide little consensus to guide the discussion in the broader world context. This discussion is not a call to make the church more therapeutic based on modern psychology or sociology. I am saying that when we step back from the text of the Bible and see its big picture, it advocates for the healing of the nations, the breaking down of walls that divide us, and the creation of a people who deeply love one another. This healing love is not separate from doctrinal teaching; it is the validating outcome that doctrine is faithful to its call to reflect God’s life.

“Church” could be more than a building with a one hour show, or a museum of past beliefs to be occasionally observed. The Christian life could be one of familial communion with God and each other where God’s kind of love is the dominant ethos. Christians could be more concerned with how they love and serve their family and neighbors, pray for enemies, and have conversations, connections, and collaborations in a manner that shares what Jesus is doing each day in the neighborhood. Church ought not to be about how much money we give, how often we attend, or how much we read the Bible as acts of self-fulfillment of an individual ideal of meeting standards of acceptability. Those are not bad things; they are merely inadequate hygiene to sustain relational and spiritual health in a day by day existence.

We must learn to hear the Great Shepherd’s Voice, walk in the Spirit so that fruit is created as an outflow of the Spirit’s guidance, and every day we know that we are beloved children of the Father whose heart desire is to be with us. We need theological hygiene to begin with daily being washed and nourished by God’s life. After renewing connection with God, we need to see how we live in response to God, but not pursuing a course of self-improvement.

We need professionals who can guide in discovering our fears, shame, guilt, resentments, worry, unforgiveness, unrealistic expectations, and other diseases that are all mentioned in the Bible. Then we need to be taken to see how the Living God deals with these ailments that plague our relations and communities. We must address the hypocrisy that weakens our ability to love like we really believe that God is with us and for us every day of our lives. We must believe that Amen at the end of a prayer is not Goodbye, but is rather an affirmation that God is faithful and we are now ready to faithfully do life together.

Trinitarian theology is not a hobby for bright minds to hold a superior view of God. It is only appropriately nuanced when it hits the broad fields of human relating and speaks hygienic wisdom that is both true of God and facilitates the outworking of God’s love in homes, communities, businesses, and the arts—and our churches. We need practices that engage people more fully in life, overcoming the fear, recovering from fracturing individualism, and creating innovative communities. The triune God wants us to believe and be intellectually advanced. But we must speak, as Jesus did, to all types of people and bid them come to share this new life that is characterized by the rule of love in response to God. We need love action as well as the outworking of beliefs that are held to be true.

Both science and theology are properly functioning when they are characterized by humility, serve God’s loving purposes, attune us to world and persons, and progress in caring for all God’s created beings. Only then can they bring God’s joy to fulfillment because they are functioning to create compassionate communion.