the unreliability of doctrine as a foundation for action

What I’ve previously identified as the “indefinite malleability of doctrine” is evident in a report in the NYTimes “An ICE Raid Leaves an Iowa Town Divided Along Faith Lines” (here). As has happened elsewhere, when ICE raided a local cement factory, taking 32 people into custody, reactions in the community of Mount Pleasant were not simply divided, but divisive.

Although the headline refers to divisions along “faith lines,” the faith involved is different interpretations of Christian teachings—with those on both sides of the debate quoting different passages from the same scripture, the Bible that they claim to share.

Whether one asserts that Trump was chosen by God and that we have a duty to obey our government, or see kindness as a duty higher than that of obedience—doctrinal and textual supports can be offered. This has of course often been the case, as for example in the arguments both for and against slavery in Antebellum politics. (Readers are encouraged to insert their own additional examples here _____________________.)

Despite which, the intellectualist fallacy—that thought determines action—is so deeply ingrained in our social rhetoric, that the (obvious) consequences of doctrinal malleability are ignored. Since doctrine is indefinitely malleable, it can be warped to support positions committed to for other reasons, whether economic or social, racial or gender, psychological or familial. It cannot therefore be relied upon as a foundational guide for proper action.

This includes Buddhist doctrine and Buddhist morality. Discussions of contemporary social issues in Buddhist contexts seem to often have recourse to finding some doctrinal basis somewhere in the vast array of Buddhist texts, and then building an argument for the position one wants to promote from there.

Without making it a doctrinal claim, but rather simply an intuition about how the world works, the vision of all things as interconnected obviates any foundational approach to morality. Any doctrinal claim is indefinitely interconnected with everything else, and therefore cannot be employed as a foundation for action.

One of the facets of sailboats that fascinates me is that the mast and boom and sails are all in tension with one another. The boat is an interconnected whole, the mast connected to the keel, but in dynamic tension. It is the tension that allows the boat to sail, to move before the wind, not some foundational grounding—which would instead sink the boat or mire it in a single place. This is just an explanatory metaphor, not an argument by analogy. If it helps you to understand what I’m trying to say, that’s good enough.


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