If you asked any Christian before the birth of the modern era and the Enlightenment, “what is the foundation of Christianity?”, they would say “Jesus Christ.” If you asked many Christians that same question today in the post-Enlightenment world, they would respond, “the Bible.” Why is this?
The sort of thinking that gave us modern medicine and sent a man to the moon.
It’s good thinking on a number of levels. It helps human beings thrive in the world. But the nature of the thinking is reductionist by nature. It takes things apart, dissects them and reduces them to little certainties. Admittedly, this is the sort of thinking that I employed in my last blog post to demonstrate the reasons that I have personally interpreted Genesis differently than some of there Christians. But there is another aspect to all of this that might be worth talking about. And that is that this type of thinking is woefully incomplete when talking about topics like “God.”
And the reason for this is that the God that we see in the Bible and the God of Jesus Christ is not something that can be dissected in a laboratory or examined under a microscope. God cannot be contained by reductionist, scientific thought. That’s something that has been a major theme in our music and our writing for years.
But because modern thinking has been so successful in some areas of our society, elements of it has spread EVERYWHERE, including religion. And, again, this stye of thinking can be useful in certain circumstances. But when faith gets reduced down to sets of little propositions and truths rather than a way of life, an essential part of our faith gets lost—our faith.
Faith is just that-faith. It’s not certitude. The Christian creeds don’t say “We know…” They say “We believe” Issues of dogma, truths, and beliefs for the church were very thoughtfully and apophatically approached. Humility and limits in human language and understanding were assumed. It took the Church 400-600 years to even get the language and implications for the idea of the Trinity. It wasn’t a scientific or reductionistic discovery. It was a development (dare I say evolution) of how we can use language to connect with and relate to the Divine.
So, let’s get to the Bible.
Many evangelical, fundamentalist Christians today (especially in the United States) believe that the foundation and cornerstone of their faith is not the person of Jesus, but the Bible. And the Bible is then seen as the ultimate authority on all things ‘true.’
This sort of thinking has permeated evangelical Christianity so far that many Christians (including myself) can have a hard time even reading the Bible without trying to ‘understand’ it. We need everything figured out. So we pay the people who seem most certain to ‘unpack’ it for us so that there is no mystery. No poetry. No need to wrestle and let it scandalize us with its beautiful chaos.
Like I said, this is particularly the case in the United States, where many of the denominations were born in a fight with early American ‘liberalism.’ So many of their basic tenets and values are not necessarily based in historical orthodox Christianity, but in response to what was happening in our culture at the time.
So this brings us back to the conversation at the moment about Genesis and the Bible and orthodoxy and such matters.
There are many Christians who have seen what the fundamentalists are saying about Gungor right now and have been very confused. Why is it such a big deal to some people that I read Genesis differently?
After all, Christians throughout the centuries have argued that if science shows us something about the world that we disagree with because of biblical interpretation, we should be slow to argue that point, because we will look like fools to the rest of the world. Here’s a quote from Saint Augustine:
"Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion. [1 Timothy 1.7]"
While it is true that sometimes the Church has done a very poor job at this (Copernicus, Galileo…etc), most of the Church has argued through history that we need to hear from not only God’s ‘testaments’ of the Scriptures but also the testament of creation.
Those who choose the fundamentalist path for themselves do so for a variety of reasons. Some good, and probably some out of fear. They do so because their faith had been reduced to something less than an open armed embrace of Mystery and of the sort of life that Jesus invited his followers to live. An abundant life full of hope, faith, and love. To the fearful fundamentalist, a re-reading of Genesis in the spirit of someone like Augustine can be terrifying because it attacks the foundation of their faith. And what is the foundation of their faith? Jesus? No, it is the Bible. Rather, it is their understanding of the Bible. So if their understanding and certainty of what certain parts of the Bible are called into question, the whole experiment is called into question for them. This is why they create dichotomies like “either it’s true or it isn’t!” It’s because ‘truth’ has been reduced to something less than ‘I will be who I will be.”
All this to say, when I say to the fundamentalist, “I’m with you”, I am not being flip or sarcastic. I am saying this because I used to stand as a fundamentalist myself and felt threatened by anything more complex than a simple reading of the biblical text. So I can deeply relate to you. And I know beneath the fear, for most of you, there is a genuine searching for truth and a genuine desire for good. At least there was for me. And I know that there are very intelligent people that operate from a fundamentalist viewpoint, just like there are brilliant people from every human perspective. And furthermore, I think the thing that initially gives rise to fundamentalism (a desire for good and order) is GOOD. But what happens in all fundamentalist traditions is that the thoughts and traditions tend to be rooted in fear and then consequently get violent. So, those of you well intentioned and sharp thinking fundamentalists, I suggest you follow the good parts of your system and leave the bad and unhealthy parts behind. The parts that lead to these sort of religious culture wars. Can we all be humble enough to recognize that we are human beings? We are specks of dust. Vapors in the wind. Who are we to know the mind of God?
I have hope that this recognition can help us at least dialogue more constructively. I’m all for good debate and discussion. But let us remember… Faith is not something to be reduced to a set of propositions that we all agree about, but rather a surrender. An opening of arms, eyes, heart and mind trusting that Reality in which we live, move and have our being to finish the work that he began in us. Grace and peace to all of you. I’m with you.