The UCC continues to fascinate me. Or, maybe the fascination has more to do with the readings that I’m attempting to keep up with for the UCC History, Theology, and Polity course that I’m taking. The theme that keeps emerging is the denomination’s serious wrestling with questions of ecclesiology: How is The Church defined? What makes us part of The Church? Is it a common system of accepted beliefs that unites us in the body of Christ? And, if not, what is it?
Most of our founding reformers had pretty specific beliefs, and they expected common adherence to those beliefs. Yet, the UCC professes to be non-doctrinal. Much of my readings has indicated a strong historical thread of rejecting dogma in favor of piety even as reformation ideals continued to shape Protestant faith. The UCC prefers the word “confession,” to “doctrine,” as if that softens the blow of making specific statements about God and faith and church.
Part of me wants to say, “What’s so bad about saying something specific?!” Orthodoxy can be quite generous and beautiful. GK Chesterton speaks of it as a “window into The Eternal.” Doctrine doesn’t have to be a bad word. It can open our eyes to the greater mystery and transcendence of God. However, the other part of me recognizes the value in the UCC’s hesitation. Doctrine has been used to control, oppress, and exclude people. It has taken a dynamic God out of religion and put rules and rigidity in God’s place. The UCC’s strength, in my opinion, is its readiness to honor a diversity of religious experiences and theological insights. This can make for a big God, a God who is capable of acting in ways that exceed our expectations, a God that is greater than our own knowing. The risk, however, is that when “anything goes,” we find ourselves without a solid footing or a Truth to rely upon.
The UCC has taken on a difficult challenge of navigating a narrow path. A statement from my reading that stands out as helpful summarizes the Heidelberg Catechism and the “conviction that Christianity, vastly more than a system of doctrine, must be a Godward orientation of the soul of man that culminates in the transformation of human activities according to the designs of God.”
Apart from the fact that the statement should acknowledge that how we think about God effects our “Godward orientation,” I love the statement and it leads me to the point that’s on my mind. The Church, before it is anything, should be that place, that gathering, where the presence of a most amazing God, the God that Jesus reveals, becomes a living reality in the hearts and minds of its members. This living reality should change us and shape us and guide our actions and inform our priorities.
It strikes me as an unfortunate reality that when people want to meet this God, when they want to tie their lives to something greater than themselves, when they want to know an enduring love that brings them joy and purpose, they rarely think to look to the Church. On the other hand, this reality offers us a mission. It hands us a vision. What a task to take up! What a gift we would be if we could offer them that kind of a Church!