What I Am Sure Of

I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about questions, writing about the push and pull of mysteries of the faith, things so many people take for granted.  It may be frustrating to some of you that I don’t always come to a conclusion.  To borrow a phrase from Donald Miller, I don’t “resolve.”  But please bear with me.  There are some things I do believe…

The charge has been leveled that evangelical Christians, and conservative ones in general, can’t stomach ambiguity, ambivalence, and uncertainty.  And surely bumper-sticker catchphrases like “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It” only add to that image.

But the truth is, people aren’t great with ambiguity, ambivalence, and uncertainty.  That’s why, once we choose a political party, we ignore almost any horrible deed by our side, because it’s “better than the other guys,” whether it’s torture – I mean, “enhanced interrogation” – or drone strikes on Pakistani civilians and U.S. citizens abroad.

Similarly, when we settle on a religious framework, we tend to stick to it, minimizing or exceptionalizing its problems, from ‘crack that limp wrist’ to ‘build a fence so they’ll die out‘ to the ongoing abuses of complementarian fundamentalists.  But much of the time the problem isn’t the theology so much as the certainty itself.  None of us is immune to confirmation bias.  The problem comes when we don’t fight it, but instead sanctify it.

It’s true that we go through times of transition, mostly as young people, when we examine our parents’ beliefs to see which ones are really ours.  The children of conservatives may become socialists, the sons of hippies, Young Republicans, the daughters of butchers, vegetarians.

Of course, times of change and transition aren’t only for adolescents. Sometimes having children sparks a new period of wrestling, brought on by sleepless nights and the awesome wonder of new life.  Sometimes age and approaching retirement, with its distant rumblings of mortality, sparks yet another time of change.

But beyond this?   Most people don’t have a stomach for uncertainty.  As human beings, it’s our nature to prefer flawed, even wrong, answers to rightful questions.

It’s far too easy to stop wrestling, struggling, “working out our salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12-13)  We get comfortable, and soon we find we’re no longer following Jesus across dusty Judean roads, over craggy mountains, and into the land of the half-breed heretic Samaritans.

Instead, we’ve set up our comfortable seats at the temple (always the same pew, every Sunday).  And the sad part is, we don’t even really expect Him to come to us.  We think He has come to us, and we’re good.  We’ve got it.  We got our inoculation, we’re right with God.  We’re all right.  “I’m not a sinner.  I never sin.  I’ve got a friend in Jesus…

And that certainty makes us hard.  It calcifies and ossifies, grinding our compassion and empathy to a halt.  Outsiders become, not the ones we seek out (like the woman at the well), but enemies of the faith.  Our approach is not genuine interest and sacrificial compassion, but alarm and hostility.  We cry “persecution!” from our well-cushioned pews in our air-conditioned churches every time something in the outer world slaps us in the face.  But persecution isn’t a slap in the face; it’s a bullet in the head.

There’s a reason we call it wrestling with a topic.  Wrestling is hard.  It’s sweaty.  It’s physical.  It’s exhausting.  Working out our salvation with fear and trembling requires a lot of energy.  More than that, it requires pain.  Fear and trembling.  This is going to hurt.

Wrestling with God is going to hurt.  And it should.  The Marines have a saying: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”  If you can’t stomach the pain of questioning, you’ll have to accept the weakness.  But please, don’t claim that weakness to be a stronger or truer faith.  Shouting heretic and TYPING IN ALL CAPS doesn’t make you right.  It didn’t make me right when I did it, either.

This is what I believe.  I believe that Jacob didn’t wrestle an angel.  He wrestled God Himself, a pre-incarnate Jesus.  And though he wrestled all night until his arms ripped and his lungs raged like fire, though he almost lost his leg, Jacob wrestled.  He held on, and in the end God blessed him.

And I believe God still waits to wrestle with us all.  It won’t be pretty.  It won’t be easy.  It won’t be painless.  But it will be worth it.

Amen.

Proof-Texting and Cherry-Picking

Cherries from the Jerte Valley by Hispalois, Creative Commons

Cherries from the Jerte Valley by Hispalois, Creative Commons

It’s only human to sift through the evidence and latch on to any fragment that supports your case.  Prosecutors do it. Lawyers do it. Even preachers and theologians do it (there’s a song in there somewhere, I think).  It’s only human … which means it’s certainly not divine.

The things we believe are vital to our subconscious, especially in Evangelical Christian circles.  In a very large sense, we are what we believe. You’ve probably heard of confirmation bias, the tendency to subconsciously interpret the evidence before us (whether textual, physical, or statistical) in a way that’s consistent with our existing worldview.  We cherry-pick and reinvent to protect our self-image.  And most of the time we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

So it’s not that surprising when someone accuses me of not taking the Bible seriously.  What they generally mean is “Anyone who doesn’t agree with my interpretation of the Bible doesn’t really take the Bible seriously, and here are the proof-texts to prove it!”

As if using isolated verses out of context to prove your point in an internet debate actually amounts to taking the Bible seriously.

The Bible is simultaneously a divine work of amazing unity and a related group of human works spanning several centuries and many genres, including poetry, history, prophecy, apocalypse, epistles, and genealogies.  It’s kind of like Jesus in that way – simultaneously fully divine and fully human, as Peter Enns wrote.

Both aspects have to be appreciated and respected, if you want to take the Bible seriously.  Isolated verses thrown out with no cultural context (and in translation, no less), used to silence opposition and win arguments?  That’s how the world uses knowledge: as a weapon, a means to an end, with the end justifying the means.

I’ll quote a comment I made earlier (I won’t link to the debate, because I think that would just be “pointing fingers” at the person I was arguing with).

The truth is, we can cherry-pick individual verse and parts of verses from the Bible, and honestly, we can use them to “prove” anything – subjugation of women, Biblical support for slavery, predestination, free will, Manifest Destiny (the necessity of conquering “pagan savages” so you can teach them about Jesus), vegetarianism, socialism, capitalism, whatever.

THAT practice is what offends me. Not the scripture, but the use of individual verses (and verse-fragments) as a tool to back up whatever point we’re making.

The Bible can only be respected if it is studied as a whole unity, understanding that it was divinely inspired, but written by human hands. We respect it and take it seriously by studying it as a whole, praying for God’s guidance, AND by learning about the genres, culture, and lives lived by the people who first heard it.

The point is not that I’m wiser or more spiritual than some random person I’m arguing with on the Internet.  I’m not.  I’m as vulnerable to confirmation bias as anyone.  I’m as prone to cherry-pick and proof-text as anyone.

The point is, we all have to be aware – and beware – of our own biases and tendencies.  We want the Bible to shape what we believe, but too often it’s the other way around.  Sometimes I think we’d all be better off if we stuck with the basics:  Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.