Tuesday, February 22, 2011

I want to believe

I loved the X-files when it was on.

One of the interesting dialectics was the difference in approach to mystery between Mulder and Scully. Scully was the perennial scientist/skeptic, always believing that a rational explanation could be found. Mulder, on the other hand, was always open to the supernatural, otherworldly, irrational explanation. (And we all know who was right!!)

Although I admire people like Scully, at heart I'm a Mulder. I WANT to believe in the unseen, the supernatural, the REALLY big picture. Ultimate reality.

That's why when I enter a significant period of doubt, when the foundations of my supernatural worldview are being shaken to the core, it's horrible. I hate it. I despise it. I don't like it. It's unwanted and unwelcome. It's nothing I've asked or wished for. It's alien and foreign to my very being.

Must be the devil.

Who do I thank?

In my current spiritual malaise I'm finding an automatic reflex troubling. Thanking God.

When good stuff happens, or even just when I hit the cool sheets of my bed, my first instinct is to whisper, "Thank you, God."

But what if there is no God? or I don't know who he is?

I WANT to thank somebody. And to have that option removed would be a big loss. What do I do with that impulse? Thank the "universe?" Thank random chance?

Sometimes I am really grateful. But who am I grateful to?

I  don't know if I'm making myself clear. Do you understand what I'm struggling with?

It reminds me of the zealots who emphasize the Christian foundation of the United States. They will speak about the institution of "Thanksgiving Day," and say, "Who do you think they were thanking?" (God, of course.) They have a point.

I'm frustrated with this post because I don't think I have expressed myself well. So, to beat a dead horse... I have strong gratitude impulses. What do I do with them???? What do atheists do with them?? It's hard to imagine a satisfactory answer that doesn't involve god.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Of course the earth's not flat, silly!

The "Dean of Cincinnati" raised a point in this post that I have thought about quite a bit in the last few months.

Evangelical, bible-loving Christians, dismiss evolution out of hand despite any evidence, because "we believe the bible." In other words, the bible trumps "so called" science. And, if they were to accept evolution as true, it would put a major crimp in their ability to trust the bible in other areas.

HOWEVER... a few hundred years ago, a similar phenomenon happened. Science began to discover that the earth was round and not flat. It also discovered that we revolved around the sun, not vice versa. In the day, this caused as much stir and controversy in the church as evolution does today. The scientists who heralded the new truth were figuratively burned at the stake as infidels. This was serious business. A lot was at stake for the church.

So... what's my point? Well, science won. And somehow the church was able to reinterpret all the scripture passages to fit with this new worldview, and life went on.

I speculate about whether the church will be able to do the same thing with evolution. IF it gathers increasing scientific support to the point where it's as undeniable/irrefutable as the Copernican revolution, while the church adjust? Will it successfully reinterpret all the relevant passages in a satisfactory way, and move on? Or will this be a death nail in the coffin of bible-based Christianity? How elastic is evangelicalism? How much of the veracity of the bible can be chipped away at and still retain its aura of inspiration/infallibility/inerrancy?

These are good questions. Important questions.

In my opinion, the Darwinian revolution is more significant than the Copernican one. Why? Well, it's not too difficult to understand that when the biblical authors described the world, heavens, etc., they used metaphors that they could understand. For example, they might say "the four corners of the earth" to mean the whole earth. It's easy to understand what they were getting at. It does not seem to strike at the core of any important doctrine.

However, if there was no literal adam and eve, there was no literal fall, there was no serpent, there was no cain and abel, etc. etc. The whole foundation  of what the rest of the bible addresses starts to disentegrate.

I think that will be a much bigger challenge for the church to adjust to than the Copernican one.

How do you think it will turn out?

a belief in we know not what

I resonated with a thought from this blog.

After talking about how poorly americans do on simple biblical literacy tests, he made the comment that we don't believe the bible... rather, we believe in believing the bible.

Well said.

Friday, February 18, 2011

What would Jesus NOT do?

This video is an interesting take on a pre-incarnation discussion between Jesus and the angels about what sorts of things he would do when he got to earth.

What did you think?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

To Divorce or Not to Divorce. That is the question.

I was reading a post about divorce by Gullible's Travels. It reminded me of what prompted my most recent faith crisis. (Yes, I've had a number in my life!)

I've been a Christian counselor for several years, and have done a lot of marriage counseling. I consider my approach to be very Christian, faith-based. My general tack with marriage has been to do whatever we can to strengthen the relationship and have a good marriage, including strong boundaries and stuff; but if it's still broken or abusive or neglectful, go ahead and divorce. You're not honoring God to stay in a loveless marriage. As I would say, "This marriage is dead. Let's give it a proper burial." Keeping it alive on paper did not seem God-honoring to me.

Then one of my clients challenged me on it. He said, "I'm not sure I can continue with you. Ultimately, we have different views of God's will in this matter."

And so I read the new testament cover to cover in a month. And it couldn't be more clear. ONE exception for divorce; sexual immorality committed by your spouse. THAT'S IT!! It couldn't be more clear by Jesus or Paul. (Some construe porneia to mean lust or pornography or sexual abuse or workaholism or whatever. I'm pretty sure that the people who heard Jesus and Paul understood exactly what they meant. Knocking boots with someone other than your spouse.)

To go even further, if you divorce for ANY other reason, and then get remarried, you're committing adultery. ANDDD... you are causing your spouse to commit adultery if he/she gets remarried... even if he/she had been completely innocent in the original divorce. The only out in those circumstances was if your former spouse died. Then you were released. (Not if they got remarried. Only if they died. Dead. No longer breathing.)

And there was no way I could intellectually chalk this up to being a "cultural" teaching. The reasons given in the bible for this teaching had nothing to do with culture. They had to do with Adam and Eve and Christ and the Church and the overall sanctity of the marriage covenant.

I had to finally admit it. I either had to follow and teach this line of instruction, or ignore it and continue with my "principles," or reinterpret it to be more palatable, or question whether the bible is the inspired/inerrant "word of God."

I couldn't quite come to direct my clients to follow this instruction... it is repulsive to me... especially when there is abuse, neglect, addiction, etc. etc. I still don't see how it honors God for the spouse to stay married in those cases. Unless you're going to say "stay married, but live separate lives?" But again, how does that honor God? And is that a just sentence to impose on an innocent spouse? What if they are "burning with lust?" No wonder the text records Jesus saying, "This is a hard teaching, and not all can accept it."

So, for this reason and a couple other similar New Testament teachings (which I'll address in a future post), I am tapering off my clients, as I really don't know what to tell them anymore, while I reevaluate my faith; to wit, is the bible really the inspired/inerrant word of God; and, if it is, what does it say, and how does one correctly apply it to life today.

I should have that all figured out in a week or so.

Oh, there's this woman that I grew up with. Her husband left her for another woman several years ago. She has hung in there, praying for a turnaround, etc. But New York finally got no-fault divorce, and he is currently divorcing her. (He tried before and she wouldn't let him!) I have been waiting (hoping) for this divorce to happen, cuz I like her! But then I got thinking... He's divorcing her and she was never sexually immoral. He's divorcing for the WRONG REASON! So... she can't get remarried or she'll be committing adultery! And if I marry her I'll be committing adultery as well. Might be enough to abandon my faith for I guess....

Funny thing... 50-100 years ago this was not a difficult teaching to believe/accept by the church. It was par for the course. Divorce was unthinkable, even if there was sexual immorality! And remarriage was clearly only practiced by degenerate Hollywood movie stars. Amazing how dramatically the attitude in the church has changed about such a pivotal topic in such a short time. That in itself should lead one to question whether any and all of our current beliefs/practices aren't 98.3% culturally biased.

Lastly, in my personal situation, after 15 years of a miserable marriage, during which I had lapsed into agnosticism I suggested to my wife that we try an open marriage. We would still try to work on our relationship, but we would also be free to date others, as long as we were up front about it. We did that for about 6 months. (What an interesting experience.) Ultimately, she found someone that she had the feelings for that she never did with me, and is married to him today. Our divorce was mutual and amiable. Several years later I "came back to the Lord," and for the sake of argument, lets say I still am with Him. So, according to scripture, am I free to remarry?? Try to figure out that boondoggle. I remember Jay Adams had a book out about divorce and remarriage that outlined with engineering precision when and if divorce or remarriage were permissible or not. I'll have to look that up and see if it addresses my situation.

Talk amongst yourselves.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Giving God props

One of my kids recently had a common illness that progressed to the point where he had to be admitted to the hospital. He didn't get better, so he had to have major surgery. When they opened him up it was worse than they thought, so the surgery was even more major. I posted updates on facebook and, of course, many people said they were praying.

When I finally posted that he was coming home from the hospital there were hallelujahs. Good still heals! God still answers prayer!

Even though I'm in this questioning mode right now, I pretty much believe there is a God, and I pretty much believe that he hears our prayers, and I pretty much believe that he can and does answer. I'm just not sure I would hold this up as an example.

"If you pray, God will allow you to get sick. Then he'll allow it to get worse. Then he'll allow you to have surgery. Then he'll allow you to have even more serious surgery. Then he'll allow you to go home after a few days to recover for 6 weeks."

If that is supposed to be an example of God's miraculous healing ability, it's a good thing he had help! I'm sure those that said these things were trying to bolster my (or their, or others') faith, but I think that kind of cheer leading backfires.

It seems that we're all too quick to give God props for the most mundane of things. Calling the natural order of things supernatural. Albeit, you can call natural processes supernatural, in that they were created by God, and upheld by him. But that's not what these folks are referring to. They are claiming divine, special intervention, because of their prayer.

When unbelievers or skeptics hear this kind of cheer leading, they just roll their eyes. They do not take it as proof that there is a God, or that he intervenes in the life of man. They take it as self-deluded fanatics who are so unsure of their faith that they have to prop it up artificially.

So, is giving God props a prop? Does he need us to tell him and everyone else what a great job he did, when he didn't do anything? Do we need to prop up his reputation artificially? Honestly, I see that as almost as bad as blaspheming the holy spirit (calling the work of the holy spirit the work of the devil). I think we're supposed to call a spade a spade.

When I look at healing anywhere in the bible, old or new testament, it doesn't look anything like what my son went through. It was immediate. It was without medical intervention. My son's situation was far from immediate, and required lots of medical intervention. By any rational criteria he is very fortunate to have had the advanced medical science we have available today. And lucky he had good health insurance.

Now, one could posit that it was God who helped human beings discover medical science, and God who helped his parents make the money to afford the quality insurance that covered the procedures. But I truly see these possibilities, even if true, as very different from what we normally consider to be a miracle, answer to prayer, or healing. They just are. I applaud the Catholic Church in their efforts to authenticate a miracle (or a demon, for that matter). They do their best to rule out naturalistic explanations.

What's the harm in ascribing God's miraculous intervention to seemingly natural events?
  • It makes an idol out of our "conception of God" vs God himself.
  • It makes skeptics and unbelievers even more convinced that religion is the opiate of the masses.
  • It keeps us from confronting our real feelings about God... anger, sadness, disappointment, confusion.
  • It may inoculate us from the real thing. If everything is a miracle, eventually nothing is. It would be better to wait, and fully celebrate the real miracles, should they happen.
  • It keeps us stuck in an infantile view of God, wherein he really needs a lot of our PR.
  • It keeps us stuck in infantile faith, wherein we can only have a relationship with God if he is demonstrably proving his existence and care at every moment of every day.
  • This may be a summary of several of the above points, but it keeps us from a true and real relationship with a real person (God). If we are constantly reinterpreting situations to fit our conception of the way we think God is (or should be) acting, it is difficult to see clearly what he actually is or is not doing. And how do you have a relationship with someone if you don't have a good handle on what he is or isn't doing?
It must be frustrating for God. He must be like, "You think THAT was me?? geez... What were you thinking? Wait till I show you some real stuff!"

Tainted Perfection

When I consider the big picture of the universe and science I see...
  • majesty and awe-inspiring beauty and coherence and intricacy from the macro to the micro
  • ample scientific and intuitive evidence (for me) of an extra-universe creator/designer
  • Lots of particulars evidencing imperfections and natural processes
When I consider the big picture of human beings I see...
  • a majestic and remarkable phenomenon, biologically, socially, intellectually, etc. "God-like" to some extent. A stamp of the "divine."
  • a remarkable likeness to the animal kingdom. A stamp of the "natural."
  • pervasive dysfunction. Something has gone wrong.
When I consider the big picture of the 66 books known as the bible I see...
  • grandeur, majesty, truth, revelation, a coherent story. "Inspired," if you will.
  • particulars evidencing contradictions, inaccuracies, cultural influences, human fingerprints
As an evangelical, I was allowed to believe that human beings were tainted perfection; I was allowed to believe in a universe that revealed God, but was marred; but when it came to the bible I was to see it as perfect and without taint, and to see it otherwise would obviate its ability to reveal meaningful truth about God.

Is it not possible to believe that the universe can reveal to us a lot about God without needing to be a perfect revelation? Is it not possible to believe that the bible can teach us a lot about God without needing to be a perfect revelation?

Oh, but once you give up the 100% verbal inspiration of the bible, and its necessary follow-on of inerrancy... you open the flood gates to liberalism, you start down the slippery slope toward atheism.

That may be true. But do we hang on to a belief that is not true in order to protect ourselves from falsehood?

This is a revolution going on in my own life right now. I have either believed unquestionably in the bible, or I have jettisoned it completely. I seem to be pulled in the third way lately... the bible "contains" truth.

This is at once liberating, exciting, challenging, and scary. It's a lot easier to just say it's all true, and then ignore or try to resolve the "apparent contradictions" and "apparent scientific inaccuracies." But in some ways I feel like I'm liberating God from the box he's been shoved into. I'm free to explore and discover who he really is!

This is where evangelicals will say it all goes wrong... because once you lose the bible as inerrant truth, you end up believing anything, or nothing.

That's a valid point. When people abandon the inerrancy of the scripture, they do tend to come up with some pretty whacky stuff! On the other hand, people who believe in the inerrancy of scripture have come up with lots of whacky stuff too.

The metaphor of forensics just came to me. For the most part, people described in the bible lived out their relationship to God existentially. The scriptures are the forensic evidence left over. An attempt to record God's dealing with man. Forensic evidence is often tainted. And it can be easily misinterpreted. But you can generally use it to help point you to truth. The truth is there. It is "perfect." The evidence you bring may not be perfect, even when it substantiates the truth. Some evidence is found to be unreliable, and needs to be chucked. Some evidence is incontrovertible. Is it possible that the bible is a huge collection of forensic evidence? Some incontrovertible, some imperfect but helpful, and some just not true? How does one determine?

The creation of the "canon," of course, was a human attempt to do just that... separate the reliable evidence from the unreliable. There's nothing wrong with that process, right? And to my knowledge, God never told us, "These are the 66 books that are to be believed; reject the rest." It was a human process. Some books made it, others didn't, and some were on the fringe. Each group tries to identify that which is reliable from that which isn't. And so, if you ask Jews, Catholics, protestants, Muslims, Mormons, Christian Scientists, etc., which books belong within the circle, they would all give you different lists. Heck, even Luther wanted to exclude the book of James! My point is that it is an inherently human process (although each group claims, of course, that it was a process superintended by God). Once the process is completed, you can admit that books outside the circle contain truth, or substantiate what the books inside the circle claim; however, you can't admit that the books inside the circle contain any error. This leads to a transition of belief about these books... Accepting what they say becomes a "matter of faith," no longer subject to intellectual scrutiny. What's up with that?? By accepting them on faith, what you are in effect doing is trusting a previous generation's intellectual scrutiny. And they may have never originally intended to mean that by including them within the circle they were affirming that everything within them was 100% true... but it is almost inevitably what happens with subsequent generations.

Sorting out the wheat from the chaff... It would be safe to say that the literary, textual, philosophical, and scientific criticism of the bible over the last few centuries has been an attempt to do just that. When you take off the inspired/inerrant goggles and examine the bible fairly, like you would any other book... it's pretty messy. Tainted perfection.

"For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us." (2 Corinthians 4)

Paul was certainly not referring to the scriptures in this passage, but I like the picture. The picture of us, being jars of clay, imperfect, human, cracked... but through whom the light of God shows through. Can we not view the scriptures that way? Like jars of clay? But through whom the glory of God shines through??

The question that remains, however, is not "Is all the evidence that has been brought to the table 100% reliable and inerrant?", but rather, "When you give proper weight and credit to each piece of evidence submitted, what truth does it point to?" To me, this is a much more fruitful question and process.

Let's stop deifying the bible!!

But in my tradition, to give up inerrancy is to give up God. So it's a scary proposition for me. I want to believe. (I identify with Mulder.) But I no longer want to idoloize the bible. It is grand, majestic, without equal. But it is tainted. As are we. Can't we just admit that?? I think the focus on inerrancy has caused way more heat than light; it clouds the issues. Maybe inerrancy was a doctrine cooked up by the devil to distract us??

I love truth. And since I was little, I've wanted nothing more than to know God, and the truth about God. (Whoops, I just slipped and typed dog by mistake. I'm not inerrant.) And, as I mentioned before, on this pursuit of truth, the truth about God, I have either accepted the bible carte blanche, or I have likewise set it aside carte blanche. And this time it's the middle way. I CAN'T set it aside. There's something real there. But neither can I accept it unquestioningly anymore. It's friggin' messy.

The biggest intellectual challenge I have with setting aside inerrancy is the bible's statements about itself. For example, when someone says, "I believe that Jesus was a great moral teacher," and you respond, "Yes, but he CLAIMED to be God. Was he wrong about that??", it is somewhat similar to me saying that the Scriptures contain very important truth about God, and someone responding, "But it CLAIMS to be Truth/the Word of God. Is it wrong about that??" It's a complicated problem, to be sure. You might say that once you dismiss inerrancy then what the bibles claims about itself becomes irrelevant; it's just circular reasoning. You might also say that in validating itself as the Word of God, it isn't necessarily making the case for inerrancy. However, you have to explain the following:
  • The gospels (including Jesus) and epistles refer to many events in the OT as literal, factual events... creation, adam, the flood, cain and abel, abraham/isaac/jacob, the exodus, sinai, david, etc. etc.
  • The NT says that Paul wrote that all scripture (referring to the old testament) is inspired by God and useful for, etc.
  • The NT says that Peter mentioned Paul's letters alongside of "other scriptures."
  • The gospels record Jesus rebuffing satan using scriptural quotations.
  • The gospels record Jesus saying "For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished." (Matthew 5:18)
  • The gospels record that Jesus often taught from the law, prophets, and writings... before and after his crucifixion/resurrection. It never mentions him saying, "Don't believe this part."
  • The Old Testament is replete with praise for the law, word of God, etc. (See Psalm 119). This would seem to be speaking primarily of the Pentateuch, or more specifically the covenant at Sinai. (This DOES seem to be an example of "idolizing the bible," in a sense.)
These are not easy data to explain. It does cause me to lose sleep. However, when forced to choose between the challenges of inerrancy and the challenges just mentioned, I choose the latter. The claim to inerrancy is such a grand claim that it demands equally grand proof; and I just don't think it's there. In fact, it only takes ONE disproof to take down the whole edifice. ONE.

I think it's possible to have a "high" view of scripture, without subscribing to inerrancy. And I suppose that is what I have been advocating for in this post... a high view of scripture. It is wonderful, life-giving, revealing, imperfect. It is like us. It is like the creation. The image of the divine all over it, with many natural/human fingerprints.

As an aside, those who take a low view of scripture will often say that Jesus was the only true, real, accurate expression of the divine "word." They then for certain need to have a low view of what the Scripture teaches about Jesus, for it paints him as one who had a high view of scripture!

So, I am being challenged to pursue God, the God of the bible, without the presupposition of inerrancy. It's tough. I would liken it to a devout Catholic who finally admits that the pope is not infallible. Can he continue to believe in the God taught about by the Catholic Church when he doesn't believe what the church teaches about itself? It's a dilemma. However, I believe he can come to the place where he says, "The church contains truth about God, but it is not 100% infallible in all things at all times." Likewise, I, must walk a more mature path.

The other thing I think I'm being called to is parallel tracks. In the past, when I have seriously studied theology, I have set aside my "personal" walk with God. I have always found it difficult to have a one-on-one "walk with God," when I am in the midst of authentically scrutinizing my beliefs. I mean, how do you talk to God, when you are questioning whether he is even there, or what he's about?? However, how can you claim to be pursuing the truth about God, when you have effectively banished him from your life? So, this time, I am seeking the both/and way... academically and intellectually pursuing truth about God, and devotionally seeking connection with God. It's a challenge!

In case you have not been steeped in inerrancy teaching, here is a summary of the doctrine, taken from the "Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy." (http://www.bible-researcher.com/chicago1.html)

A Short Statement
[on biblical inerrancy]

1. God, who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only, has inspired Holy Scripture in order thereby to reveal Himself to lost mankind through Jesus Christ as Creator and Lord, Redeemer and Judge. Holy Scripture is God's witness to Himself.

2. Holy Scripture, being God's own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God's instruction, in all that it affirms: obeyed, as God's command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God's pledge, in all that it promises.

3. The Holy Spirit, Scripture's divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning.

4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God's saving grace in individual lives.

5. The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible's own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.

PS - Every time I write "inerrancy," blogger gives it a squiggly red underline, not recognizing the word. Damn liberals!

Wikipedia links

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Pronunciation = Orthodoxy

I was listening to a New Testament professor by way of podcast today, and I knew pretty quickly that he was not to be taken seriously.

He pronounced it Thessa-LON-ica.

Every true Christian knows it's pronounced Thessalo-NI-ca.

I mean, how can I take anything as true from someone who hasn't even been to church??