So, I was listening to an atheist the other day expound the virtues of rational thought. Though important to feed your mind and soul with stuff that strengthens your faith, I also believe that we need to listen to those who do not share our point of view. I found myself smiling as he did what many atheists do when making comparisons with their purely rational stance. He attributed certain beliefs to all those who profess faith in Jesus. As if we all believe the same thing! In my experience, we followers of Jesus have nothing like a common set of beliefs, and if I were to set out to discredit us, I would question the myriad of doctrinal differences that seem to exist! For goodness sake, we can’t even agree on whether it is OK to drink alcohol or not!
I am going to ask a number of questions and hope that this stimulates some thought and debate on why there are so many inconsistencies in the way we view that wonderful collection of books we call the Bible.
First of all, why do I hear constant references to the Bible as ‘The Word of God’, when in the first chapter of John, it is almost universally accepted that referring to the ‘Word’, he is talking about Jesus and not a large leather bound book? Even If we accept the ‘Word of God’ maxim, which words did he intend to be more important than others? We have elevated certain statements and created binding doctrine and yet ignore any number of statements spoken by the same person, or at best explain them away as a cultural blip on the scriptural landscape. I think of the words of Paul in Romans. On the one hand in chapter 3 he declares that no man will be declared righteous by observing the law, and yet in the previous chapter, he maintains that only those who obey the law will be righteous. A complete contradiction.
In one statement to Timothy, Paul extolls the universal benefit of the scriptures, a much quoted verse to support the supremacy of the bible. I happen to believe in the inspiration he talks about. But what do I do with the contradictory statements that women should be silent in the churches and yet should wear head covering when praying? Back in the old testament book of Leviticus, the main verse used to condemn homosexuality is accompanied by statements that propose the death sentence for those who curse their father and mother and also outlaw blended cloth or different crops being planted in the same field. I will attempt to address the subject of homosexuality in a future blog, but for the time being, the dearth of biblical condemnation is at least challenging.
Is the account of the beginning of the universe a literal account or a poetic picture examined through the limited lens of knowledge at the time? Does it matter that an old testament author seemed to regard the earth as flat? What do we do with the overwhelming support for slavery argued in previous centuries based on words that teach how slaves should be treated or how they should behave? How can Christians advocate going to war when Jesus clearly calls on us to ‘love our enemies’? Why can’t we agree on whether alcohol is delicious or of the devil? Why is there such a concentration on hell and eternal damnation when there seems to be so little said on the subject by Jesus himself? Why can’t those of us who profess to follow Jesus agree on the big stuff and let the trivial fade into obscurity?
Truthfully, I have struggled with these questions. One of our biggest mistakes is to unwittingly behave as if God himself is contained within the scriptures. A friend of mine once said that many Christians seem to imagine that the white horse in Revelation 19 would be ridden by a large leather bound book rather than Jesus himself. To my mind, the nature of God must far outstretch the boundaries of a library of books. At this point in my journey, I believe in the inspiration behind the words but equally in the fallibility of the humans who wrote them. I garner truth for my life in the broad message of love and fulfillment, but shy away from the absolutes of this verse or that. I choose to receive revelation through more than just this library of books, and try to stay open to input from nature, art, relationships and the very experiences that life throws my way. Am I leaving too much open ended? I feel a sense of freedom to focus on the love that seems so central to Jesus’ message. But perhaps I am too simplistic. Let me know, I would love to hear.
Not too simplistic at all Dave. If it’s not about love and tolerance, what on earth is it about?
Thanks Mark – Simple is good for me
When I read an autobiography (or biography), I often take away a concept or two that I have learned from the life experiences related by the author. To a degree that would most likely cause concern to some of my more fundamentalist friends, I have a somewhat similar outlook about the Bible. I accept the collection of 66 books as “God breathed” (the authors inspired by God), I can also accept that the authors, like us today, were subject to human frailties, even in their writing. There are heaps of passages that I do not really understand (like some of the ones you mentioned, David). Where does the Bible then parallel my experience when reading an autobiography?
I see the Old Testament as essentially a collection of accounts of God’s dealing with a sometimes rather sad lot of people that he had chosen for a very specific purpose … the coming of the promised Messiah. Without applying specifics from those accounts to our realities today, I believe there are many lessons we can learn about the interraltionships of obedience, disobedience, blessing and curses.
In a similar way the New Testament is a collection of accounts of the life, death and resurrection of the promised Messiah and the birth and development of the church. I am a strong supporter of the idea that Jesus intended for us to follow the example he set through his life. He promised the Holy Spirit to all his subsequent followers so that they could learn and incorporate into their lives the lessons from his own life … the Spirit was to lead us to truth; however, the fraililties of humanity still impact of our individual understanding of that truth.
Jesus said he came to fulfill the commandments (the injunctions giveo Moses as to how the chosen people were to live). Jesus seemed to be saying (to me at least) that the new and living way he was promoting was about the very simple directive: love God and love your neighbour. (I realise I am being rather repetitive from earlier comments; however, this is what I seed to have as the primary guide for my life.) I find it sad that the “Christian Church” has, through the centuries, constucted a very complex, and often differing, set of doctrines that seek to rule the lives of the faithful. I enjoy the repetition of the Nicene Creed as it serves as a good reminder of the essentials of my faith; however, I cannot allow any church or religious leader to dictate to me how I am to put into practice my concept of faith. And by the same token, I have no right to pass judgement on a fellow Christian because he or she has a different faith practice. [So endend my sermon for the day!]
Great Tim – I appreciate the reminders and also nice to know I am not the only one who says – wait I’m really not sure about this!
I think a common criticism to this open-ended view of interpreting the Bible is that it places you at a position where you have to decide for yourself what is important or true or worth holding on to, which reeks to some people of moral relativism. But I think this is not only not a bad thing, but I think it’s essential for anyone who claims to care about morality. Without being forced to make value judgments, what meaningful choices do we make?
If the Bible read like a list of rules and guidelines that straightforwardly covered every possible situation in life, there would be no room for individual moral decision-making. And how can we possibly be “good” if we don’t have the capacity to be “bad” as well?
Besides, those who claim they have the “correct” interpretation of these issues are merely doing the same thing- they choose to believe certain teachers or certain principles above others. I support us recognizing that we all do this, and valuing that as essential to living a morally meaningful life.
A true heretic apparently chooses their morality 😀 . The guidelines are helpful and when weighed alongside our own moral conscience plus the context of the overarching truths of the bible, not selective verses, this can provide a good foundation for life for those who choose to follow the teachings of Jesus. It is clear that no one has a monopoly on the truth whether it be interpreted from history books or other sources. I like your link to morality and the implication that there aren’t necessarily absolutes in many areas of life.