CAN A RELIGION CHANGE ITS MIND?

World Religions
At the mere typing of the title to this blog post, I can feel the imminent backlash winding up, readying itself to strike with all the ferocity of Paul’s words in Romans, “me genoito!” “Can a religion change its mind? Certainly not! How can Truth be changed?” And on it goes. The issue is, it appears, to consider one’s religion “changeable” is to run the risk of striking at the very core of one’s identity, rooted in the religion in question (http://wwrn.org/articles/39854/).

The author’s use of examples from various religions provides very little in the way of making the thought more palpable. One who considers himself “orthodox” according to any tradition might be at peace with the thought of “other” religions adapting to cultural, societal, and scientific pressures. But to have one’s own convictions challenged is difficult to accept. If he is a Christian, he might ask, “What bearing does it have on my faith if the Mormons changed their policy on polygamy? Mormonism isn’t the True faith, so of course they need to change! What I believe, however, is true. Therefore, it must not change.

Since I write from a Christian point of view, I am also concerned that even offering Biblical examples might not help in settling disputes like this. There is a deep conviction in Christianity that Christ indeed did not “come to abolish [the Law or the Prophets] . . . but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17-19). Under this conviction, then, the church is comfortable with the decision made at the Council of Jerusalem, when the church concluded that circumcision would not be required of Gentile converts (Acts 15). Again, this is fine for a Christian because–I presume–modern Christian convictions are not the ones being challenged. Instead, it is the practice of the old establishment that is threatened. However, this kind of reasoning, I imagine, does not sit well with our Jewish friends.

So how can a religion change its mind? I suppose it is up to each faith community to decide if, and under what conditions, change is possible. This idea is not not foreign to the Jews. “Although Christians often talk about Judaism and the five books of Moses as ‘the Law,’ it is far more than law to Jewish believers. It is a guide to life. . . . Seen in this way, the Torah is a dynamic source of life and legislation that speaks to each generation anew.” This is the task of hermeneutics; the interpretation of Scripture and application of its teaching in practice. Christians in Africa participate in this kind of interpretation. As some African communities accept the Gospel, Christian practices do not necessarily replace their traditional practices. In these cases, a member of the community can consider herself a Christian, yet seek the help of a diviner for healing. These ideas may be difficult for many to swallow. But as the article suggests, “The key . . . is to distinguish ‘principles’ that are immutable and ‘models’ that are a product of the time and place the stories were told.” This difficult task, as mentioned, is a task that must be reserved for each faith community to decide.

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Can a religion change its mind? http://wwrn.org/articles/39854/ #uwreligions
(PH)

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6 thoughts on “CAN A RELIGION CHANGE ITS MIND?

  1. Great blog “PH”, thanks for sharing your thoughts! This is an important topic to consider, especially in our society where often times truth is viewed as subjective and the church is working to stay current and present the gospel in a relevant way.

    I know one issue that the church has wrestled with is what practices in the Scripture are historical and which are normative; in other words: which practices were cultural and for one historic group which are no longer binding and which are to be continued through all generations. One key example that comes to mind is Paul’s view of women in the church and in leadership. Strong cases can be made for both the historical and normative views, and this isn’t the place to go into those, but instead the point is that great care must be taken when determining what was just for the original audience and which are for all Christians in all times. For centuries our spiritual forefathers have wrestled with and discussed these items and we would do well to study and learn from them before adding our own thoughts. We also need to be very careful if we change anything about our beliefs and/or practices as it can quickly become a slippery slope. And considering these are our fundamental beliefs involving our salvation, we cannot afford to be wrong.

    -KM

  2. “CAN A RELIGION CHANGE ITS MIND?” is a good topic to study and debate. Apart from using the word “change”, I think “develop” is a better vocabulary to describe the progression of religions. We know that the development of doctrines of certain religion may takes years or even up to centuries. The questions are, is it a religion changes its mind? Or the people change their mind?
    A very good example to demonstrate how different “minds” of specific religion were developed is Christianity. By studying the church history, it is not difficult to follow how, for example, Orthodox and Roman Catholic were developed.1 Simply saying, they were developed and shaped through interpretation of Scriptures and acceptance of people at different locations and era. “Interpretation” is such a powerful word that it is not possible to clearly distinguish whether it was the Christian doctrines changes itself or the people changed the doctrines.
    All religions claim their faith and doctrines are the truth. They will not agree what outsiders said that they are “changing”. However, I agree that you already told the true that “ I suppose it is up to each faith community to decide if, and under what conditions, change is possible.” Especially contemporary computerisation makes the world smaller, and multi-cultural communities also makes religions to “develop” unavoidably.

    Reference
    1. I am currently reading the book, “Church History in Plain Language” written by Bruce Shelley. It is a pretty good book, recommend for interested fellows.

  3. PH – a thought-provoking read! Thanks.

    I find it interesting that we assume stability of religious convictions and activity is not only possible but, in fact, optimal….

    Having just set down CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, the words of the “affectionate uncle” are still swimming in my head; particularly regarding our human struggle with change. Why do we expect things to stay constant? And more so, why do we expect comfort, docility, and non-change from religion, when the key religious forefathers (Muhammed, Buddha, Mahavira, and Jesus to name a few) spoke and acted in extremely upsetting, dynamic, and shocking ways?….Do we really think all that “change” was simply a “phase” that we moved past and then settled from??

    Is “religion” really so different from the realities of our own lives? And if not, isn’t change in our personal lives what cause us to redefine what “really matters”, what are our key priorities, what are the “unshakeable” truths? Why should it be any different for religion?….In this way, I am not convinced that change is something we “prepare for” in the church (or religion)…nor something to be feared. Rather, I see change as a natural part of reality …I am not suggesting there aren’t unchangeable tenets of Christianity (or any other religion) gasp – that’s just crazy!…but to expect all aspects of a religion to remain static is…well…impossible. So it seems to me, change is a rather helpful tool … a sort of a “check point” that continually reminds us of the roots of our religious convictions but also a challenge of what really is “at the heart of the matter”.

    My two cents. MK

  4. Hi PH,

    I saw this article too and was hoping someone would write a blog on it for discussion! It was certainly an interesting article. One “narrative” that works for me as I consider what it means for religions to change their mind, is that most examples given in the article were peripheral beliefs or changes to practice. Basically, they changed how the religion expressed the core beliefs, but didn’t change the core beliefs. Throughout this course it is so clear how history, personal experiences, and political events affect religious belief. However, the core beliefs tend to persist. For Christianity this generally holds true. Of course there is great argument over what is “peripheral” and core and that continues to be the source of the major rifts in the Church as a whole and a challenge for all faith communities to decide on, as the article mentions. However, I think Augustine had a good approach: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

    I also sometimes think that those looking at religions from outside like to pick up on inconsistencies and point those out as proof of the fickleness of faith. Cardinal Ratzinger mentioned in his book, Truth and Tolerance, that the reason many have left the faith may be because they perceive it to be changeable by a group of people and not fundamentally constant and true. If the Church can uphold unity in the core gospel message, then I think all the other changes are natural responses to passing time and context.
    Thanks for your posting! -SH

  5. This is a very interesting discussion. As I read both the article and your blog I found myself realizing that this is what we often face within the Christian church as well. Some examples of varying ways we interpret and apply (or not) some of Paul’s admonitions in his letters come springing to mind. And, being the often self-centred creatures that we are we sometimes have a rather subjective view. We take one of these, interpret it differently than it perhaps has been in the past or in other communities and apply it to our own circumstances. In that very process this new interpretation and application become our ‘tradition’. And in our minds this new tradition makes sense. It gets sewn into our own life of faith and then when someone comes along a little further down the road the very idea of changing it seems unsettling!

    In Christianity this idea of ‘tradition’ has some voice into how we interpret and live out our faith, but it is not the only voice and it certainly isn’t the dominant voice. For us scripture holds that place. And yet as we think about this idea of changes to religions we are wise to remember that this is not the same for all religions. Your choice of the story from Acts 15 illustrates this well. Gentile faith and practice was in formation and was obviously developing into a faith whereby what you believed had primacy so Paul asks Peter and the others to consider letting gentiles set aside this practice of circumcision. And yet, as we have read, for Jews their faith is primarily “a way of life” (Understanding World Religions, Kindle loc. 5811) so traditional practices are central. The idea of setting aside circumcision, a, if not ‘the’, central practice, must have struck at the very core of their faith. It was inconceivable to be a Jew and not be circumcised. (Something like being a Christian without believing in Jesus’ divinity.)

    While these changes can sometimes be steps of progression in a religion, other times, depending on how close to the core of identity the change strikes, they end up being a step out of that religion into a new/different one. Where is the line? I suspect many times it’s easier to discern as you look back on it rather than in the moment.

  6. What really makes Christianity different?
    According to Hexham, Christianity, unlike other religions, has more interest in the correct doctrine. The quest Christians ask is: “What is the correct belief?” Although Christianity has some formula for ritual and life practice, like baptism and communion, these practice are interpreted quite different in various traditions. It might be fair to say: “there is no uniform practice of the faith, but there are doctrine to mark out the boundary of Christianity faith.”
    I believe this makes Christianity quite different from other religions. The doctrines are about who is God, who is human, and the relationship between them. Ironically, in our church history, the definitions evokes lot of new thoughts in response to culture, science, and all spectrum of our universe. Here I am trying to say: doctrines doesn’t built up a close system, rather, it helps us to see our realm as an open system that God intervenes through either direct activity or through the change of our age.
    Do we change our mind? yes. but it should never be a change by outside force. It should be a change by seeing and feeling the change, while at the same time, the spirit works in us to response to the outside change. Christianity doctrine, actually, shows us a picture how this change is possible in us. Not to changed to something, but changed by someone.

    David Wang

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