Lent is one of those extended periods where you reflect upon how you practice being a Christian and it reveals a lot about what you believe as a Christian. Sometimes you find that you don’t always “believe” what you profess. For example, many Christian profess belief in the doctrine of the resurrection, but we live like (pardon the sarcasm) #YOLO! We say with our mouths that we don’t believe this is our one and only life, but then our actions show a striving and self-preservation that is no different from those who do think this is their one and only life.
Sometimes we write off others because we don’t find their doctrine to be orthodox enough. Now, don’t misunderstand me: truth matters and we must pursue truth. As a Christian I am prone to try to give “the Great Tradition” of Christianity the benefit of the doubt with “faith seeking understanding”. I have no qualms with reciting the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed. That said, dogma as words, or intellectual assent, tells us only so much.
For example, many Christians in Germany before, during, and after WWII may have been willing to recite Creeds or confess the central tenants of Christianity (I am aware that many would not since for many Christianity was Christianity only as it supported and upheld German culture as they understood it). Yet these same Christians acted wrongly. They were blinded by the Nazi State. Their confession was impotent in the face of evil and it could not inspire them toward genuine Christian action. Yet, Rudolf Bultmann, the arch-heretic for many, may have been one of the most subversive theologians in Germany under the Third Reich.
There is a very interesting story in Konrad Hammann’s Rudolf Bultmann: A Biography where as the Confessing Church was taking shape and making their stand against the so-called “German Christians” (Nazi approved State Church) one Karl Barth had to admit that his understanding of Bultmann’s theology had led him to presume Bultmann would join the German Christians, not the Confessing Church. Here is Hammann’s telling:
On the occasion of the Bonn theologians’ visit to Marburg, Karl Barth “was impressed by Mr. Von Soden,” whom he had previously considered merely a representative of theological liberalism, “to a degree that even [he] found surprising.” Moreover, Barth confessed to Bultmann in a nighttime conversation on November 11–12, 1933, that in view of Bultmann’s theology he had felt certain that Bultmann would go over to the “German Christians.” This confession hit Bultmann hard, for it suggested Barth’s inability to imagine that anyone who held theological views different from his own would combat the heresies of the “German Christians” as resolutely as himself. At any rate, he apologized to Bultmann: “The facts have now clearly shown that I was mistaken in this case, and also that something was therefore amiss in my basic understanding (Kindle Locations 6359-6366).”
Often I have looked back at how I viewed my country entering into Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11 with great shame. In my late teens and early twenties I did not have a theology that could challenge the idea of the United States using the type of force we’ve used to defeat so-called “evil”. My Christianity provided no caution; no red flags. I’ve long come to repent of this and I’ve realized something: we must always be careful not to think that our doctrine on paper suffices. How our doctrine works in the real world says much about it. Barth may not have been able to understand how Bultmann’s theology on paper led him to resist the German Christians and the Nazi State, but it did, and that forced Barth to pause and apologize. Whatever shortcomings may be found in Bultmann’s theology one thing is true: it led him to resist a great evil in his day.
May we all be cautious when it comes to being satisfied with being orthodox on paper. As the saying goes, “the proof is in the pudding” and what we really believe emerges when tested—whether voluntarily during a season like Lent or not during the crises of this life.