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The Church is not a truth provider

For many centuries the Church has been seen as a “truth provider”, an institution that “knows” the truth and shares this truth with its members.

This is a presynodal conception. Let us get ret rid of it.

See also Tell me the Gospel in 60 seconds.

As long as one member of the Church disagrees with a teaching, this teaching can’t be fully true.

Estonians don’t only have the reputation of being the least religious country in the world, they are even proud of it. This deserves some thoughts. Many people of good will in Estonia refuse to even ask about the Gospel. Our government refuses to cultivate anything that mentions the Gospel. As a result, many people in Estonia have no chance to hear about the Gospel.

As a Christian I believe that there is no salvation without the Gospel. That’s why I am sometimes a bit worried about the salvation of our nation.

The main job of the Church, which is to announce the Gospel, is not well done in Estonia and in the world.

It is true that “among the most important causes of the crises of the modern world are a desensitized human conscience, a distancing from religious values and a prevailing individualism accompanied by materialistic philosophies that deify the human person and introduce worldly and material values in place of supreme and transcendental principles” (20190204). The situation has complex causes. We can blame our history, or those who “threw the child out with the bathwater”.

But it might also be that we as the Church fail to explain the Gospel in an understandable language. Who is responsible when people fail to understand the Gospel: the teacher or the pupil? We have a collective guilt of not doing our job very well.

(1) When you are a child and go shopping with your mother, and when you see that your mother has put her coat inside-out, will you let her get exposed to laughter of other people? No! Of course you will help her to turn her coat right. (This image is from Marie-Noëlle Thabut, une vie avec la Bible

(2) Estonians are a sceptical people. When you tell them something that is in contradiction with plain common sense, they simply turn away and are unforgiving: they will distrust you for the rest of their life. Each time the Church is seen “wearing her coat inside-out”, people of good will turn away from her and from Jesus. The Church in Estonia happens to say things that are in contradiction with common sense because she has issues in her understanding of the Gospel. She lacks directives from a superior instance. The vision of the Synodal Church inspires our hope that these issues may get fixed.

(3) Here are some real-life examples where people who believe in the Gospel came to the conclusion that a church teaching is in contradiction with common sense.

(4) We perceive it as a shame that people get excluded from our communion when they dare to “try another time” after their marriage failed, or when they dare to live as a same-sex couple.

(5) It is a shame that we remain silent when Non-Christian organizations do our work. We are called to actively express our thankfulness and distribute “Thank you” badges (pronounce a benediction or “certificate of approval”) to organizations who do our work. See also Non-Christians doing our work.

(6) We often focus on internal questions and fail to realize that our primary job is to bring the Gospel to those who didn’t yet hear it.

(7) We still cultivate the belief that our faith is “private sphere”. This belief is a natural consequence of our history, but we are called to overcome it.

(8) We still follow obsolete faith teachings that ignore at least 50 years of human scientific evolution.

One Gospel, many teachings

(9) There are many teachings about the Gospel, many theological schools, many ways of understanding and summarizing the Bible. They constantly grow, evolve, influence each other. They sometimes give opposing answers to concrete questions. No single faithful can claim to understand them all.

(10) We see that our interpretations of the Scriptures can conflict with each other. As long as one member of the Church disagrees with a teaching, this teaching can’t be fully true.

(11) Each teaching bears temptations to sin (to harm others). A teaching, however well intended, can turn out to be wrong or misleading. A major job of the Synodal Church will be to constantly evaluate and judge every teaching document by issuing her approval or withdrawing it.

Humans have right to mercy, institutions don’t. (“Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.” Luke 17:2)

(12) A teaching is just a collection of words in some human language. There are many good teachings about the Gospel, but the Gospel is more than any teaching, it is a divine message. It is revealed to us in much more than teachings: in nature, in the thankful smile of a poor, in a personal experience of success or failure. But also in rites, sacraments, and other non-verbal signs that deserve regulation and formal approval.

How to teach the Gospel

(13) The mission of the Church is to “announce” the Gospel to “all peoples”, to every group and class of humans. That’s why the main operational activity of the Synodal Church will be to publish and maintain reliable teachings about the Gospel.

(14) You cannot announce something without formulating your knowledge about it. But what is knowledge?

(15) Individual knowledge, also called faith, is the sum of beliefs you rely on, the result of what you have learned during your personal history. It is stored in your heart. Your faith tells you in every concrete situation, spontaneously and without further reflection, whether a given choice is “good” or “bad”. It says this with a varying degree of conviction, ranging from “vague feeling” to “doubtless belief”. This choice happens unconsciously and independently of how skilful you are for explaining it to others using words.

(16) Community knowledge is similar, but with a fundamental difference: it isn’t stored in your heart. It is stored somewhere else. It needs a medium. Every collection of teachings maintained by a community is such a medium. Every community is defined by its teachings. Teachings are the heart of every community, they are also the heart of the Church.

(17) The Church has developed a rich treasure of teachings about the Gospel during her long history. The teachings of the Church are probably the biggest and most complex documentation library in the world, collected during more than 3000 years, with document types ranging from blog entries, news, homilies, prayers, songs, books, films, to dogmatic constitutions, research reports or law collections, with audiences ranging from 2 year old children to experts of every branch of science, with the biggest community of contributors. Maintaining this documentation library is a huge and never-ending task.

(18) Meanwhile humanity has entered the digital era. If already the discovery of book printing 500 years ago caused revolutionary changes to the way of teaching the Gospel, how could we assume that the digital era would be less revolutionary for our work? How is it possible that a few private corporations manage to provide a billion of humans individually, day by day, with teachings that these humans crave to read, although much of this information is useless or even harmful to them or others (see 86-90)? And at the same time the teachings of the Gospel produced by the Church are followed –boldly spoken– by some insiders?

(19) Every teaching includes answers to moral questions. No teaching can be ethically neutral. Even a teaching about how to cook an egg assumes certain choices regarding moral questions (e.g. “Is it good to eat eggs?” or “If it’s okay to eat them, isn’t it better to eat them uncooked?”). The Gospel does not say “everything is okay”. There are things in this world that are not good. The Gospel is a moral message and gives answers to ethical questions. It tells us what is good and what isn’t.

(20) Every teaching is meant to be reliable. That’s why teachings exist. A teaching makes no sense when nobody relies on it. But what can we teach reliably about the Gospel if we assume that God is beyond human knowledge? Or more shortly: how to explain the unexplainable?

(21) The Bible is a first answer to this question. It is recognized as a historic text by all scholars of all religions, and as such a milestone in human history. The Church is the community of those who use the Bible as their Holy Scripture, as the immutable base of their teachings.

(22) But the Bible is a very fundamental document. It can give contradicting answers to certain concrete questions of the visible world, which evolves constantly. It can get interpreted in different ways, leading to different sets of teachings. Each church institution has its own set of teachings. While parts of these teachings are in harmony with each other, some of them differ considerably among the church institutions. Which confirms that God is beyond human knowledge.

(23) Teachings evolve constantly. Teachings are neither eternal nor immutable. The Gospel is eternal, the Bible is immutable, but teachings aren’t. The teachings of the Church need constant maintenance because they are our interpretation of the Gospel for now and here.

(24) The ultimate goal of every teaching is to be true, i.e. that it reflects reality without distorting it. We trust that our teachings are the truest teachings in the visible world, but we must keep in mind that no teaching about God can be perfect or definitive. Ideally our teachings are in harmony with God’s plan, but it would be an illusion to claim that they are perfect.

(25) A rule of thumb: As long as one member of the Church disagrees with a teaching, this teaching can’t be fully true.

(26) A corollary: Publishing a teaching and then discovering that it needs to be reviewed is an integral part of our learning process. We are on a journey, we do not stand still.

(27) Teachings cannot contradict science. When some new discovery brings scientific evidence that a given teaching is suboptimal or even wrong, the the teaching needs to get updated. “The tree is known by its fruit” (Mt 12:33)

(28) An important feature of every teaching is to be clear. The current teachings of the Roman Catholic church are impressive but not very clear. You need years of education before you can claim to understand them more or less.

(29) Another important feature of every teaching is to be accessible. Every human must be able to access them without paying a license fee and without being distracted by commercial advertisements.