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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Now what?

I've continued my reading tear in an attempt to learn more about the historical Jesus, church history, and pluralism.  My most recently devoured titles:
Religionless Religion was very helpful in surveying several of the major religions in the world, helping me understand better their view of God and the universe as well as the amazing amount of common ground they share.  It's provided me with a better understanding of people reared in belief systems different than my own and it continues to shape my own spiritual outlook.

But it is Jesus Interrupted that has me contemplating the most.  I read Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (Plus) several years ago; it was the first book I had read that introduced me to the imperfect canonization process and uncovered the nature of many of the "errors" in the Bible.  Misquoting Jesus was a tough read though, especially as an introductory book.

Jesus Interrupted was a much easier read - much more concise and approachable.  Ehrman introduces us to the historical-critical (HC) method of biblical study as opposed to a devotional one.  Although I had heard of the historical-critical method before, I was unaware that it is taught in all but the most conservative-evangelical seminaries in the world.  Briefly, the historical-critical method has us look horizontally at the bible, comparing and contrasting events to uncover the most likely historical reality (if any).  The HC method also triangulates this information against other historical information to discover the most likely "historical truth".

The HC method is not necessarily an investigation of faith, but a matter of history.  That being said, for many of us who grew-up in conservative "Bible-believing" churches, the historical / literal reading of the Bible was a huge source of our faith.  We were taught that the Bible is THE "Word of God".  Some would dodge the "literally perfect" challenge with a dance to the "inspired Word of God" argument; "Sure, there might be some clerical errors here and isn't perfect and his hands are on it, but God directed man's hand, the canonization process, etc. to deliver the message He wanted us to hear."

Confession: I no longer believe this either.  I see a collection of stories, mostly of unknown authorship, attempting to describe spiritual and life experiences, as best they can, from their perspective, in their time and circumstances, knitted together by people trying to express their own ("Orthodox") view of what they thought everyone had to believe.  That being said, there is something sacred about their stories - about everyone's story; but that is a topic for another post.

What has me puzzled right now is why it's taken me so long to get here.  I'm certain that every pastor I've known over the past several years was well-trained in the historical-critical method and knew much more than what I now know about the Bible.  But why didn't they teach it?  Why was I and the rest of my congregation kept in the dark? Shouldn't they have wanted to "share the truth" about the book that we raised (in some cases) to the status of deity?  Isn't the truth supposed to set us free?

So many questions.  I feel as though I've been set free from much through this study, but why now, why on my own?  Why did I spend so many years just blindly gulping the dogma and church doctrine? Why don't more Christians want to look deeper into their scripture and why don't more pastors bring scholarship to bear in doing so?  Are parishioners too stupid to handle the truth?  Will they stop believing things like the doctrine of the tithe and stop giving?  Yes, I've got some pretty cynical views about church right now.  The scholarship about the Bible is nothing new, it's been there for decades and to some degree, for a couple of centuries now, but it seems to be a secret outside of the seminaries.

I've heard the arguments from some of the conservative evangelicals: "That sort of stuff will cause people weak in their faith to stumble!"  If that is the case, perhaps they need to stumble.  These same people will parrot platitudes like "Well, every challenge we have in life makes us stronger..."  If this is the case, then perhaps a stumble in faith is exactly what most Christians need.  If they hold the Bible up as a perfect deity and worship it, perhaps they need to be set free with the truth about where their scripture came from and come to grips with it.

Others might respond "So what's the harm with people believing the Bible literally"?  Oh, I don't know, just spit-balling here, but supporting things like genocide in the name of God come to mind.  Behavior is shaped by our beliefs.  I have no problem with people holding a view of a judgmental God who will torment people for trillions of years because of the "sins" accumulated in 30 years (or 30 days, or 30 minutes) unless they can recite the correct creed and "believe" the right things about him, until they act against the rest of us.  We've elected presidents who thought they were on a mission from God to rid the world of evil-doers and thousands of innocents have died as a result, but again, I digress.  

Back to the title of this post - Now what?  All of this historical study has not damaged my faith per se.  I still see mystery in the universe and in my own experiences.  Things have happened to me that I cannot explain.  Learning more about other faith traditions has helped me see beauty all around me (and especially in other people) like never before and I want to learn more.  But I'm having a problem putting a label on where I'm at.  For now, "Progressive Christian" seems to fit since I was raised in the Christian tradition.  I also find a lot to like about the Unitarian Universalists who don't view the world as "us vs. them" and don't judge people according to their beliefs.

My challenge now is a practical one: How can I play nice and participate in a faith community where the vast majority of the participants believe sharply different things than I do?; things about God, Jesus, the Bible, people of other faiths?  Bluntly, most are where I once was so I want to be sensitive to that.  But I also want to be true to my own faith journey.  I live in a conservative community and progressive congregations to not abound here.

Now what?

Blessings my friends.


  1. While my trajectory is quite different from yours, I think, I eventually wound up as a Unitarian Universalist. What I like about it is the openness to a wide variety of traditions and sorts of belief (or lack thereof). I sometimes find my UU friends a bit too hostile to conservative Christianity; many of them feel beleaguered by it, living as we do in the Bible Belt. Nevertheless, we wind up being pretty inclusive.

    Of course, to become a Unitarian Universalist in Southeast Missouri, I had to get together with like-minded friends and start our own fellowship.

  2. I tend to agree on the idea of some weaker faiths, with their socially unacceptable problems, needing shaken.

    You want to read Spong on language. Executive summary: a theological idea might be fluid, open to experimentation and play with the meaning, but language crystalizes it. Then the next generation hear the crystalised form and get a different, rigid, model in their heads instead.

    Where I disagree with Spong - arguably, I branch out on a limb of my own so far - is that he strongly disputes whether some passages of scripture are "the Word of God" because of the problems they have. I re-apply the rule that "it's only humans who've written what they thought, or wanted to say, at the time, as a result of their thoughts about God". I also have my own approach to God, namely, as "the sum of all experience". Putting two and two together, I can therefore say that the "word of God" *is* people writing their God-experiences, and that any scriptural text is therefore "word of God". See, I've come full-circle. Of course I agree that some texts appear or can be interpreted as offensive or violent, or might condone oppression of women or slavery etc; I also know that they're only the product of their cultures... but where others use that to reject the scripture, I still "own" it as the word (and say it's explained by the culture differences). I'm approaching it from the liberal-historical-critical flip-side but still keeping the potential to use the old language, re-envisioned.
    (Corollary aside: because they are experiences, suffering and natural disasters are also *part of God*. You don't need to "look for God in...event", God is it. God is. Period.)

  3. (comment continued....)

    Now, this doesn't justify a pastor preaching a conservative understanding per se, but it hopefully might allow you to retain some of the more meaningful terminology whilst shifting your understanding of the basic principles.

    Now^2, if that sounded like a placatory argument to justify the old establishment, then something else that frustrates me, that you might understand, btw:
    I've realised that things that we used to call "the Gospel message" are actually taking scriptural characters and texts and fitting them into a Hollywood B-movie plot, *as though this is the only way some people understand it*. Two examples: the whole meta-model that misunderstands "the universe" as "God sent Jesus to take away our sins on the cross" (substitutionary atonement, let's say, backed by John 3:16) - now that's a B-movie plot. A smaller scale version of the phenomenon concentrates on "it's a battle out there!" (let's say, backed by Ephesians 6) and makes its songs about victory and so on. (Classic example: the hymn `Thy hand O Lord has guided', which burbles on in an almost forgivable fashion but I refuse to sing the lines "The faithful few fought bravely, /To guard the nation’s life" - no fighting, no conflating nationalism with faith!!)
    I digress, but the point is this fitting-the-characters-into-your-own-model/story. Whenever you can put your finger on that happening, you can see a belittling of God right there.