Kristine raised the issue of whether and how “critical belief,” in other words belief that is both believing and independently thoughtful about various issues in the Church, is possible. (I hope she’ll agree that I’ve more or less captured her question.) For me that raises another (broader?) question: what bounds do my relations with others put on my behaviors, including criticism? Since I doubt that the connection between the two is obvious to anyone but me, let me explain:
In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul addresses the question of how we should use our freedom and knowledge. Pagan cities made the meat offered in pagan sacrifices available for public consumption. Observant Jews did not eat that meat because it had been offered to idols, but most other people did, taking advantage of a free source of an expensive commodity. The question the Corinthians apparently asked Paul was, “Can we eat that meat?”
Paul’s answer is interesting:
(1) We know that an idol is nothing, so we know that there can be nothing wrong with eating meat offered to an idol.
(2) However, there are those who do not share our knowledge, in other words, who do not understand that offering the meat to something that is no god has not affected the meat in anyway. These people think that eating that meat defiles them.
(3) If such a person sees me eating the meat offered to idols, he will be encouraged to do that which defiles him (because he thinks it does?he believes he is breaking a commandment, so he is defiled).
(4) If the exercise of my knowledge, which really is knowledge and not just opinion, causes another to sin, then I sin against that person, and if I sin against him, then I sin against Christ.
(5) So, “if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend” (2 Corinthians 8:13).
The question isn’t whether I am right, but what effect my behavior (whether questioning or eating meat) will have on others.
When I first understood this chapter, it moved me deeply. I was a student at the time, embroiled in campus and other politics, opposing the war in Vietnam, tired of BYU’s dress code, arguing about which movies could be shown on campus, and so on from the sublime to the ridiculous. However, all of a sudden it wasn’t enough to be right. As the first verse of the chapter says, “knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth [builds up].” Now I had to ask whether my acts would build up the Church and, particularly, those weaker than I.
Though 2 Corinthians 8 was an important point in my intellectual and spiritual development, part of the reason it was important was that it made most things more difficult rather than less. It was easy to decide that while living in Austria I wouldn’t have a Coke because none of the members in that area did and I ought not to offend. But it wasn’t easy to decide what to do about the war and other matters on which a more public stance seemed necessary. Though I was convinced that asking what effect my acts might have on the faith of others was crucial, I wasn’t sure how to answer that question. And couldn’t I, by parity of reasoning, argue that it would be equally wrong to make my brother angry by exercising my knowledge? But if I made that argument, how could I ever take a position contrary to that of the majority on a highly-charged issue? However, if I never took a position that might make another angry and never did anything that might cause someone who is weak to stumble, then wouldn’t I merely be insisting on maintaining the status quo?
I continue to think that Paul’s argument is an important guide to how I should live my life, I still believe that critical thinking is necessary to a faithful life (or at least to my life, though probably not necessary to everyone), and I still don’t have an answer to my question.