Non-Denominationalism and Epistemology: Why Some Things Can’t Be Learned by Simple Study

For the last couple of weeks, my reading has been dominated by discussions of denominationalism. It all started when Nathan discussed the “feeling” of a doctrine. The key sentence, in my estimation, is this one:

Non-denominationalists might condemn denominations because they alienate real Christians, but I condemn non-denominationalism because it gets rid of history and tradition while opening people to unconscious shifts in theology, and some of that is my gut feeling about non-denominationalism.

This led to some backlash, privately if not publicly. Multiple people contacted both myself and Nathan regarding the post; this seemed like a strong attack on something many Christians believe is the best way to go about things. Non-denominationlists tend to believe that they are simply advocating unity over division, rather than attempting to avoid any controversial topics in their own personal belief structure.

Readers were right, in this case, and Nathan agreed. He spent a little time reminding readers (and, I suspect, himself) about the virtues of non-denominationalism. He wasn’t finished telling us of the problems, however:

 For the accomplishment of specific goals, I believe non-denominationalism is a very useful way to work. As a normal way of running church, I believe that it produces some ill effects and has subtle weaknesses that denominational structures help to prevent.

Most recently, Kevin White joined the conversation. He did so by chance–this wasn’t a direct response to Nathan–but it was appreciated nonetheless. Kevin is one of my favorite writers, full stop. Here’s the relevant passage to our discussion today:

You cannot find a generic human being.  People are not abstractions; they are startlingly concrete and specific. Families, likewise, exist in the world of experience, not the realm of the Platonic Forms. Yes, we can describe and explain families through abstraction and general concepts. But Motherhood can’t call you on the phone, only Mom can.

And the church is the same way. We don’t need abstract teachers, but concrete, specific ones. That is why Paul calls for churches to be led by overseers who “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Titus 1:9, ESV)

The implicit argument in each of these posts, perhaps made most explicit in that last one, is that there are certain ways that we learn that are limited when we refuse to commit to a particular denomination or way of thinking. It’s tempting for us to assume that all knowledge is equally accessible, with only the right sort of research required, but this is not the case. There might just be certain bits of knowledge that could never make sense to us, unless we actually lived within specific and particular traditions.

If Christianity is a stumbling block to the Gentiles, how do we ever convert anyone? It must not be through rational discourse, at least not all of the time. Perhaps this is where the ‘feeling’ of a doctrine comes into play, but I suspect there’s something else going on.

It may sound cliché, but I’ll say it anyway: Christianity takes a leap of faith. You’ve got to, sometimes, dive into Christianity head first before it all makes sense. A professor of mine once used this as an evangelism technique: he’d participate in debates where mostly atheists would show up. He would challenge those who were interested in Christianity to attempt to live it out for 30 days. Go to a regular Bible study, read the Bible every day, seek to live out the commands of Scripture to the best of your knowledge, etc. What he found was that anyone who attempted this and stuck it out either converted or was extremely sympathetic to the belief system; suddenly, parts that hadn’t made sense became comprehensible.

There’s a lot of value in that sort of exercise, and the main reminder is simple: some beliefs only make sense in certain contexts, no matter how true the belief is. You may be right when you say that premarital sex is sinful, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense if you don’t also believe a lot of other things about marriage. Research can only go so far: at some point, some nested beliefs will be outside of what can make sense to you.

Back to the discussion of non-denominationalism, I think nested beliefs are the core of the arguments Nathan and Kevin worked through above: sometimes, abstractions cannot be our teachers. In the same way, neither can arguments devoid of any tradition or context. The ontological argument may be the best example of this, especially when read directly from Anselm. He seems to be speaking absurdly when he says he can prove God by simple word-play. But without understanding the cultural background, especially the philosophical assumptions of the day, you can’t actually understand why his argument even could make sense.

It’s a small leap from lack of cultural knowledge to lack of cultural experience. We say today that you cannot know something unless you’ve experienced it, which is a half-truth. Some things you can know by research, and others you can only know by experience. Perhaps some doctrines require some sort of experience.