How a conflict in computer coding philosophies can inform Christian beliefs on doctrine and practice.
Code-First or Product-First?
In the technology world, when it comes to programming apps or software, there’s a conflict between code-first and product-first perspectives:
- Code-first programmers make their computer code perfect and a solid foundation for a program, saying “If the code is not good, the product won’t work well.”
- On the other hand, Product-first programmers start with the problem that the product is going to fix, and are okay throwing out even good code to get there, saying “If the product won’t work well, the code is not good.”
Yes, product and code work hand-in-hand, but their objectives are different.
- Code-first starts with prioritizing the code and works forward to the product, and Product-first starts with the user’s experience and works backwards to the code that will deliver the product for it.
- Indeed, they are almost two different audiences: the Product-first target is satisfying the user’s problems, whereas the Code-first target is making it easier for fellow programmers to maintain or scale the code.
The truth I got from this article is this sentiment: Code does not have an abstract perfect state. Code is only good if it leads to a good product.
I wonder if the code of Christianity has a similar conflict. And by code, I mean doctrine and beliefs.
Polity or Practice?
We can very neatly divide Christian philosophies into these two camps as well:
- Doctrine-First Christians hold to “orthodoxy”: beliefs that have been present since the Creeds and Councils. That’s fine, but these codes are often intermingled with Christian opposition to women’s ordination, marriage equality, and decolonialism. To this group, the weight of centuries of Christian tradition means that the doctrine is sound. Good doctrine leads to good practices.
- Practice-First Christians hold to “orthopraxy”: the practices of Christians are more important than the doctrine. If a doctrine doesn’t lead to living out the love of God and neighbor, or denies the Spirit’s presence in particular demographics, then is it a good doctrine? Good practices inform good doctrine.
Obviously, just like computer coding, we are tempted to say the best combination are those who hold to communally-held beliefs and who make sure their practices lead to goodness for God and neighbor.
But is that what people really mean? I’ve heard many a Doctrine-first sermon where people’s practices are named as not living up to the beliefs—but rarely do I hear from that same perspective that the Doctrine could be wrong. It’s always the people who are wrong, not the belief system that has been handed down from generation to generation. The Code is perfect.
That hasn’t been the sentiment in recent years as bottom-up theologies have emerged where particular demographics reflect on, critique, and adapt the top-down doctrine from centuries of Christian thought. The experience of Latin American Catholics organizing in their unjust political and economic systems led them to Liberation Theology: different ideas about what and who the Catholic Church was to be in polity and practice. The experience of women has led to Feminist Theological critiques of polity and practices of denominations and institutions—and Womanist theology by those who find the former too white and Western. The experience of Palestinians causes Palestinian Liberation Theology to be more nuanced about empire and colonialism than the dominant Christian culture abroad, which unflinchingly supports Israel.
Christianity has been Doctrine-first for a long, long time. But thanks to the global nature of the world and the ease at which experiences can be shared and reflected upon, the past century has been an explosion of Practice-first perspectives, drawing from the experience of the polity and practice in their contexts.
Why Experience Matters
Doctrine-First Christians are suspicious of experiences like the above and how they inform what we believe about God and each other. Rev. Dr. Kevin Watson, formerly of Candler School of Theology, writes about why he believes United Methodists embrace “Experience” to be one of their four sources of authority:
“many contemporary Methodists are so loyal to the quadrilateral [Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience] precisely because the appeal to experience provides an authority for adding new things to Christian truth.”
Well, he’s right. The Christian truth used to mean that women were excluded from the pulpit, except women appealed to their own experience of being called to preach. The Christian truth used to mean that slaves should obey their masters and African Americans couldn’t preach in white churches.
There’s a difference between adding new things to the Christian truth and showing how the founders’ limited experience denied the truth that has been there since the beginning. Good doctrine does not have an abstract perfect state…because it was written by an imperfect someone, even with perfect divine inspiration.
So much of the pushback to Christianity today comes from denying personal and corporate experience as a source of authority. And yet we know it does. Liberation theology, black theology, feminist theology, queer theology, Asian liberation theology, womanist theology from Africa, Palestinian liberation theology, all come from the experience of Christian polity and practice by these people groups.
And all those experiences from a rainbow tapestry of human experience are constantly silenced by the self-proclaimed authorities in Christianity, who almost always are straight white Western men (who look like me). Little wonder they want to silence experiences of the Holy Spirit that give authority to something they don’t have. And a very good reason to expand our reading and our engagement to people whose life experience is far, far different from our own.
Removing Deprecated Code
Pro tip: It’s possible to get an A in Bible and still flunk Christianity. ~Fred Craddock
Experience matters. Your experience matters. It matters in how we live in the world. It colors how we experience God and respond to each other. Experience matters in theology. It matters in activism. And it matters when it comes to doctrine.
Doctrine-first has its place in Christian theology: it is important to name what we believe, to test it by reason and experience and scripture and Christian tradition, and to pass it on to future peoples.
The question is whether you allow a feedback loop back to the beliefs: does the experience of it by people that don’t look, love, or live like you, shape that “perfect” belief? And if so, how can your belief system or denomination listen? Can it remove outdated computer code (“beliefs”) that has deprecated and lost power over time?
Questions for the Hacking Christianity community:
- What do you think of the code-first and product-first descriptions?
- When you think of practice-first Christians, how does that practice inform their beliefs?
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I don’t think Doctrine-first theology actually exists. Doctrine is a formulation of religious norms based on the experience of those who define the norms. All doctrine was born out of political/social/communal struggle within the greater Christian community. It is a means of expressing the general consensus (ie. Creeds, conclaves, councils, etc.) and defining the whole by it. Therefore, it is nothing more than the experience of the majority at that time, in that place, among those people.
Or something like that.