Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Dogmatically Held Preferences v. Preferentially Held Dogmas

I'm very unashamed of expressing what I'm confident is the truth. But, there are categories of truth--not regarding the epistemic value of a concept (in other words, there is not a gradient from falsehood to truth; they are binary poles that contrast with each other and don't overlap), but regarding the way in which the knowledge of the truth is applied.

Explaining Liberty

There's a concept of Christian liberty, which is demonstrated in Romans chapter 14. It's in the context of observing dietary restrictions, but has a wider application. The verse in Romans 14:14 does the best to give a succinct explanation of this concept:
14 I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.
In other words, suppose that something is not a sin to do. If you realize this, and do that thing (suppose as an example the drinking of alcohol), then you are not sinning. But suppose that someone does think that imbibing alcohol is a sin; then if they were to do that act, even if drinking it were not a sin, the act of going against one's conscience and doing what one believes to be a sin against God makes it a sin. It's a matter of the heart, as Matthew 5:21-30 explains. Sin begins in the heart, and that's why it's possible that for two people doing the same thing, one is committing sin and one's conscience is clear. 

There are certain things that are unequivocal in Christian doctrine, and these doctrines are called essential doctrines. Then there are foundational doctrines, ones that have massive importance to the faith but which it is in theory possible for someone to be mistaken about and still be saved. Then there are areas of practical daily lived-out faith that fall under Christian liberty, where it's fine for one person to forbid something and fine for someone else to allow it. Paul explains it this way in 1 Corinthians 10:23
23 All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful; all things are permitted, but not all things edify.
This is the basis for allowing Christians to variously persuade themselves to take specific positions on subjects not explicitly condemned or required in Scripture. The idea is that by the proper application of Biblical exegesis, believers will reach the right conclusions. Allowing them liberty in what conclusion to draw ensures the greater positive benefit that they reach their personal conclusion for the right reasons, i.e. that their thought process is reasonable. It would be far worse if, as in Islamic tradition, every minor aspect of life is rigidly controlled, but those adhering to it benefit little because they generally don't understand what the overarching spiritual purpose of those restrictions are.

Liberty to Adhere to a thing Preferentially or Dogmatically

A dogma is an authoritative doctrine that sets forth truth and morality in absolute terms. 
A preference is a choice we make as to what we'd rather do based on personal feelings or opinions.

A preferential dogma is a religious rule that is held, not because it is true and ought to be followed, but because the person judges that it is relevant to his or her interests, essentially that it is useful for them. Dogma then becomes no longer absolute but is harnessed and subjugated by the absolutism of the person's vain preferences. Vast bulks of religion around the world is of this nature. Men who make God a mere tool to serve their ambition have a preferential approach to dogma. They hold to what they feel like because it suits them.

A dogmatic preference is a rule of conduct that is recognized as not-binding on others, but which the person who adopts it is convinced that it follows soundly from consistent application of spiritual truths that are unalterable and may not be dealt with preferentially. Therefore, in his opinion, it is not really a preference, only inasmuch as it is simply the best or better alternative--and if the premise is that we should do what is best, then it is no question but that this thing must be done. But it is recognized as a preference in the sense that others may not be convinced of its necessary association with fundamental doctrines, and that the adherent won't attempt to force his preference on others as an across-the-board rule for all to follow.

Preferential dogmas result in people being forced to follow the opinions of others.
Dogmatic preferences result in people being free to do what they think best and to learn from the experience.

Examples of dogmas held by preference (preferentially held dogmas):
  • KJV only true translation
  • Anyone who thinks you’re sinning by celebrating holidays or wearing pants of a certain length, etc.
  • Making a preference into an article of faith in a church, such as forbidding alcohol
  • Frowning upon "interracial" dating or marriage
  • The idea that a 10% tithe on income is required to be paid by the faithful to their church
In fact, I'd go farther and say that while you may have personal preferences for a given Bible translation, dress code or fashion, alcohol, beauty, etc, when you go and tell others that they are wrong for not being as strict as you, that may very well be a sin itself! It's not the preference that's wrong, it's when you start to forget that it is just that -- a preference, not the only hold on the truth, nor something that everyone needs to follow lest they be in error -- that you cross the line into religious (do this do this do this don't do this) fanaticism.

Examples of preferences held dogmatically (dogmatically held preferences):
  • Making a personal choice to not participate in a celebration because of its association with pagan ideals
  • Man asks woman on date, drives, and pays for dinner.
  • Individual churches' decisions on how frequently (every week, monthly, biannually) to hold Communion
  • Refusal to patronize stores that serve halal meat products
  • Lifelong celibacy v. marriage. 
  • Whether you are in favor of jewelry piercings
These lists could be enormous in length if I sat long enough and thought about examples I've come across in daily life. But suffice it to say, in general, dogmatically promoting a preference is not wrong, and it's even admirable (so long as your preference isn't totally made up but actually a reasonable induction from Scripture!!), but choosing to promote dogmas merely because you prefer them to others is a dangerous path where you place yourself as the highest authority on Scripture and morality. Since that is not your rightful place, you are bound to become a tyrant, sooner or later, and find yourself deposed from your throne.

Exercise liberty but do it with restraint. And respect the liberty of others.

~ Rak Chazak

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