Most faith traditions contain beliefs that once were at the very core of their teaching, but are no longer. Beliefs such as: God favors polygamy.
They also uphold beliefs deemed binding upon followers at all times and everywhere. Beliefs such as: To break the cycle of birth-death-rebirth, obey the laws of karma.
It has long been a failing of many faith communities to confuse the first kind of beliefs with the second. They forget that, in the oft-quoted words of James Russell Lowell, “Time makes ancient good uncouth.”
But what if Lowell’s pithy aphorism applied to the second kind as well? And especially to the idea that a religious doctrine can never be changed?
Consider, for example, the doctrine of the triune nature of God. This belief has been at the core of Christian teaching for over 1700 years. But there has been vastly more disagreement among Christians about its status and meaning than ecclesiastical pronouncements have ever admitted.
Acknowledging these disagreements can be especially important to overcoming a particularly dangerous division today, between Christians and Muslims.
For Christians, the doctrine that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit subordinates the authority of every religious prophet — from Moses all the way to Muhammad — to Jesus. For Muslims, neither Jesus nor Muhammad was a god. Only God is.
Though Church Councils in the fourth century settled on the idea that Jesus Christ is one in essence with God, not all thoughtful Christians did. Many affirmed a likeness in being between Jesus and God that fell short of identity. They did so on the ground that God is one and as such is indivisible in nature.
Few Christians have ever fully understood the Trinitarian controversies in their fourth century context. And among those who have, there has never been agreement that the way the Councils resolved them was the best way. The truth is that one party to the early debates simply got more votes than the other, and then set out to silence the losers by anathematizing them.
What is especially “uncouth” about all this for our time is its leaving Christendom unable to provide the support that Islam needs as it seeks to reaffirm its own doctrinal core to the extremists in its own midst who need it so desperately. Both religions revere the one God that extremists in both know not.