Thought Provoking Thursday – But I Know I am Right!

“There is always the danger that those who think alike should gravitate together into ‘coteries’ where they will henceforth encounter opposition only in the emasculated form of rumor that the outsiders say thus and thus. The absent are easily refuted, complacent dogmatism thrives, and differences of opinion are embittered by group hostility. Each group hears not the best, but the worst, that the other groups can say.”
C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics.

And so just why do we focus so intently on things that divide, while seeking to reinforce our precious opinions and denigrate those with whom we disagree?  This is not only the bailiwick of the religious, though we who profess to have faith seem to be inordinately skilled at it.  It also seems to be the only mode of operation available to the modern politician.  No wonder there has always been a long-standing social motto “You can talk about anything as long as it is not religion or politics.”  The current bi-partisan stand off in the US had me more focused than usual on this, but it seems to be a reflection on a deep-seated human tendency.

So what is going on?  I am reminded of the old religious story of St Peter taking a newly arrived saint on a tour of heaven.  As they pass by a large white building, St Peter urges him not to speak, explaining that the building was occupied by Baptists who believed they were the only ones resident in heaven!  At the heart of our problem, it seems that most of us believe that what we think is right, that our way of doing things is the correct way and more importantly, we know better than those who don’t do it thus.  We reinforce this position by surrounding ourselves with those who agree and as C.S. Lewis opines, we apply our negative filters to those who do things differently.

The sad outcome of our differing opinions seems to be an entrenching of attitudes and a hardening of positions that allows little room for compromise.  And that’s just it.  In so many quarters we are talking about opinions.  This is particularly true when it comes to matters pertaining to what we believe.  I can remember, to my shame, many times when I have put my opinion above relationships.  I have valued being right more highly than promoting unity.  And what is the cost of this attitude?  It is the break down of relationship, the inability to see past the log in my own eye in order to rail against the speck in the eye of those who don’t  ‘see things my way’.

As I have gained the benefit of a few more years painfully realizing that relationships with people are more important than opinions held, I have begun to focus more intently on the issues we can probably mostly agree on.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I still wonder at some of the traditions of the Catholic Church, though I do think Pope Francis is a stand up guy.  Do I question some of our more fundamentalist tenets of faith, and do I still think the Anglicans got it wrong on infant baptism?  Yes, my opinions have changed on some things, but have stayed fairly consistent on others.  What I am realizing more these days though, is that these things are just my opinion.  I may not be right.  Does it really matter in the light of things that really matter, like loving, serving and giving life where I can?

I have a very good friend who I respect and admire but whose political views are alien to my whole way of thinking.  I find myself wondering how some of those views can be reconciled with a faith in Jesus Christ, who I secretly believe was a socialist by the way!  (Don’t go getting all riled up at that throw away line!).  Now, I am asking myself, ‘what can I learn from this different point of view?  How can this opposing opinion color and adjust my prejudices and opinions?’  I am looking for meaningful relationships that are not spoiled by a difference of opinion and I am seeking not to be surrounded by those who agree with me for that would be a place lacking in challenge and healthy provocation.   How am I ever going to change if I never hear something new or examine the stand of those with whom I am at odds?  In many ways it boils down to respect.  It has not always been so for me, but I am learning something new, and I happen to know I am right by the way!

I’ll leave you with a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and hope that we can all agree to disagree from time time whilst promoting reconciliation and understanding to bring down the walls that divide us!

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  Hamlet.

Thought Provoking Thursday – The Bible Part 2 – Questions

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.


Thought Provoking Thursday – The Bible, Fact or Fiction?

OK, Thursdays is for provoking thought!  In other words, I might say some things that you find controversial or at least a make you think!  Hopefully, today’s title is a good start!

First of all, let me be really clear.  I am a follower of Jesus Christ because that is how I encountered God.  The bible has been truly inspirational in my quest for knowledge and as a guide to living a better life and creating a more meaningful story.  My question is;  just how do we view this famous piece of literature and why are their so many different interpretations as to what it purports to say?  Was the universe created in a literal six days simply by God speaking it into being?  Is the writer of Ecclesiastes’ invitation to ‘Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die’ an exhortation to guide us in our daily living?  Why do we not insist on women being silent in church, or demand they wear head covering in all public gatherings?  And why do some believe that the locusts of Revelation 9 are really Apache attack helicopters described the best way John knew how?  Why does it matter?

First of all, a slice of history.  In the 16th century, a rather seismic event took place in christendom known as ‘The Reformation’.  You may recall Martin Luther and the advent of Protestantism emerging as a reaction to the state of disarray that existed in the Catholic Church at the time with warring popes, indulgences and theological schisms.  One of the key outcomes of this movement was a transference from papal based to bible based authority.  This is also what led to the bible being made available to the masses and a whole new church movement.  The protestant movement also gave rise to denominational splits as never seen before as the ‘authority’ of the bible was interpreted in hundreds if not thousands of different ways.  And herein lies the problem.

The bible is, in fact, not so much a book as a library of books.  These books cover many genres of literature, styles of writing, languages and purposes.  There is the poetry of the creation account, the visions of Revelation often referencing the prophetic writings of the Old Testament.  There are the songs of Psalms and the wisdom of Proverbs, the stories of Jesus and the doctrinal teachings of Paul.  Diverse cultures, races and very different ages influence the way in which these writings are presented and all of them need re-evaluating against what we now know in this scientific age.

Let us take the creation account.  At the time of writing, there was no knowledge of evolutionary theory, relativity, quantum theory and hey, as far as they knew, the earth was flat and the sun popped up in the East and went to sleep in the west.  I have no problem personally with the idea that science is merely man’s quest to uncover the mysteries behind the creation of the universe, nor do I struggle with the contemporary writer’s poetic depiction, but I believe it is beyond me to give you any idea of what actually happened back then when none of us were around.  I’m also OK if God made a big bang when he did it, but frankly it doesn’t matter to me.  One thing is for certain, the world as we know it today is very real and very wonderful to behold.

In many of the books of law in the Old testament there are injunctions to put to death those who sow different crops in the same field or create garments from different materials.  Surely we are not meant to continue these practices in civilized 21st century society.  When we move on to accounts of the life of Jesus himself we find that much of what Jesus says is fiction.  What you say, heresy!  But step back a minute.  Jesus told stories, parables…fiction to illustrate truth.  And this is where I think we have strayed from the intention of this marvelous collection of writings.

In many ways, we have treated as fact what is meant to lead us to truth.  Because this library is full of metaphor, parable, allegory, poetry, prophecy, vision, law and history, this is not a book of facts but an inspired guide to uncovering truth.  This truth, in some ways, will never be completely found, as God cannot be confined to the pages of a library of books.  This truth can be seen from multiple different perspectives and often in conflicting expressions.  My mistake so often has been to imagine that my  interpretation of selective portions proves that my way is ‘the right way’.  One of the most powerful causes of my own disillusionment with church has been our tendency to become more and more splintered around issues that are not central to the overall message of the Bible.  Perhaps we can all agree that the inspired message of this library of scripture is that God loves us and wants to have a relationship with us.  Every one of us is entitled to a unique experience just as in any relationship.  We would do well not to dictate to others what that relationship should look like but allow the inspired words we read to change our own story for the good of the world around us.

In conclusion, and answer to my own question, the Bible is neither fact nor fiction, but an inspired reference library for the pursuit of the God of love.