July 4, 2008

Christian Agnostic, Part III: Scripture

"Is there anyone who ever remembers
changing their mind from the paint on a sign?
Is there anyone who Is there anyone who really recalls
ever breaking rank at all for something someone yelled real loud one time?
Oh everyone believes in how they think it ought to be
Oh everyone believes, and they're not going easily

Belief is a beautiful armor, it makes for the heaviest sword
Like punching underwater, you never can hit who you're tryin' for
Some need the exhibition, some have to know they tried
It's the chemical weapon for the war that's raging on inside
Oh everyone believes from emptiness to everything
Oh everyone believes, and no one's going quietly ...

[John Mayer]

I'm not a huge fan of summer school, and to make matters worse, I'm taking an online class for the first time which is turning out much as I expected it to: there have been some pleasant surprises (it seems I provoke a lot of conversation with controversial opinions), but on the whole, it's a bit rough. Suffice it to say that I'm glad it's the only online class I'll be taking. One of the aforementioned conversations that we've been having (the longest running thread to date, actually) is about scripture. What is it? How do you treat it? Who gets to say how to interpret it?

It's been tense.

And why not? Scripture is the basis for the belief of so many Christians worldwide, and so of course they want to protect it, to make sure that nobody does anything "sacriligious" to it. Truth is truth, they say, and scripture is inerrant in every way. To be clear, I have no problem with saying that - that it's inerrant, I mean. But I do have to ask, what is inerrancy? Scripture might be "inerrant" (not wrong), but what does that tell us, and how does it help?

I think what claims of biblical inerrency usually mean in context are that OUR INTERPRETATIONS of scripture are inerrant. It doesn't matter what the interpretation is, though it is usually a literalist interpretation that has little regard for anything but one's first impressions of the text. "God informs my worldview," it is claimed, "and thus I have no use for human investigation and discovery because God has already told me what it says." Most often what happens is that we start to think that as Christians, we have some sort of monopoly on Truth. And that's simply not true. The next time you go to the doctor, for instance, you're likely to be treated by an agnostic or an atheist. That's not a rule, of course, there are plenty of doctors who are Christians too ... and Hindus and Jews and Sikhs. The point is that they are very, very smart and continually making discoveries about the truths of our bodies, about chemistry and physics; they are investigating truth, and they are using it to better people.

Now, what am I NOT saying? I'm not saying that the rest of the world has salvation figured out. I'm not saying that Jesus is one among many paths to truth. I'm saying that, while a more holistic truth requires Jesus as its foundation, truth is far bigger than one simple yet necessary statement. Anything that is true must be of God because He is Truth (and that I know it says in
scripture). But so many Christians resist this because it might mean sharing their perceived power over others with salvation language; it can feel very intoxicating to "know" that you are going to pardise while those around you who do not think as you do are going to some place ... else, with pain and suffering and "gnashing of teeth," and potentially, nails on chalkboard. Scripture is accorded a category unto itself; we think that because we're Christian we already know everything there is to know about the human condition because "it says so in the Bible," and all we have to do is find the relevant verse (ah, proof texting).

See, the issue is not whether somebody else is actually wrong or not. The issue is that we Christians want to be right already. We don't want to have to do the research, to go through a process of investigation and positing ideas that could turn out to be wrong ... because that would make US wrong. Furthermore, we don't want to have to rely on so-called "secular" research in the social sciences - sociology, history, archeology, psychology, etc. - because that would mean using something developed without a Christian label. We don't want to be the ones informed or influenced by those "less holy" than we are, the "heathens" who've rejected something we hold very dear (that which defines us as Christians). And so we'd rather simply confirm what we already think is true under the guise of having God "on our side" instead of taking a chance and looking through their lenses once or twice.

Searching for truth is hard; it means doubt, it means risk, it means criticism, and it means failure; it means a lot of things that make us uneasy and distort the image we want to portray of a people who have all the answers. We are uncomfortable with those three little words - "I don't know" - because those words inflict that unfomfortable feeling that we may not yet be perfect. But I have news for the Christians that the rest of the world has already figured out:

You're not.

Deal with it. Admitting this is the first step towards recovery. Or maybe re-recovery. You do not have all the answers yet. You are not yet complete, you do not yet "lack nothing," you are part of a world that is still in rebellion. This world is in the redemptive process. Your refusal to see this is, ironically, confirmation of your status as a sinner. But that's ok, there's still hope for you, you have time yet to grow in understanding and grace.

So is scripture inerrant? I think so, in the "inspired" sense of the word. Yes, God mystically, somehow (I emphasize the "somehow") influenced those who wrote the text, and that makes it good and useful and helpful and something we should preserve to the letter, but what is that to you, a mere human being with a culture and a history and a zip code? You look through a lens like everybody else, and your lens has some smudges on it (perhaps some you drew there with indellible ink) that need to be wiped away. When you read the Bible, you read it as through an opaque window; you can make out some of it, but more likely your culture and history and social influences have grown you into a person that reads things a certain way with certain biases that don't necessarily reflect God's biases.

To read scripture as an agnostic, then, is to read scripture through the lens of one who is starting from scratch, who makes every effort to draw no conclusions from the start because he or she does not live in the illusion that he or she has all the answers. The agnostic Christian reads scripture assuming that God will confront him there, but knows that God worked through particular people in particular cultures in order to create the books we read today. This isn't about taking off our lenses, it's about understanding why we have them and that we CAN'T take them off, and learning to see through them more clearly. And so we start further back than our assumptions and learn about the culture, learn about the literary elements, learn about the psychology, learn about the history ... we take apart the context and reassemble it until we understand how the authors might have thought, why they might have said things the way they did, used the images and metaphors the way they did. Those authors, the ones that God inspired, were human beings with free wills who chose to phrase things in a certain way, chose to speak to a particular people group, who had parents and kids and sore feet and sandles.

To approach it this way is to approach it with humility: you do not assume its agenda for it, but rather you learn how it was read by those who read it first, and then you begin to draw applications for our time and our little corner of the planet. In this way, you honor both the authors and the Inspiration for the scriptures. But when Christians close their minds to the outside world and its ideas, to truth in other corners of humanity, we begin a process that leads inevitably to one end: we will eventually close our minds to God.

And that is the start of our downfall.

(to be continued)

1 comment:

Jeff Rudy said...

"All truth is God's truth." This notion helped me realize that we ought not pit Scripture against plain evidence coming in nature, etc. This was the beginning also of my redefined understanding of "inerrancy"...this is a very tricky word and concept. Often "inerrancy" is taken to mean everything is literally/journalistically perfectly accurate (i.e., the creation was 6 24-hour periods, Samson killed EXACTLY 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, etc.). Like we have discussed and you point out, it's tough but we must try to not make Scripture say what it does not intend to say.