Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. – II Timothy 4:2-4
“God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old. I believe that it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.” – Georgia U. S. Representative Paul Broun, October 2012
Christians have been confounded by facts ever since David Hume invented empiricism.
One of the most bizarrely interesting things that evangelicals and atheists appear to share is the notion that Biblical stories must be proven in order to validate the Christian religion. Many Christian literalists bandy about facts (and, just as frequently as evinced by the good Congressman’s opinion above, comments that sound vaguely fact-like) to prove the Bible “right,” while some earnest areligious use facts to prove the Bible “wrong,” and in so doing, both sides miss the boat in some important respects.
First, the Bible is the last thing anyone should use as a yardstick to measure the Christian faith.[i] Almost all Christians in this country own it. Most have never read it. Many have never cracked it open at all. Those who have opened it generally only know the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, and some of the stories kids learn in Sunday school. Some of these stories, like Noah’s Ark and the conquest of Jericho, cast God’s character in a morally ambiguous light, which, to the casual passerby, doesn’t exactly reflect well on the rest of us. Non-Christians – please cut us some slack. Christians – please tread lightly.
Second, I would argue that fact-finding in the name of faith renders faith unnecessary. I’m not entirely certain where that leaves a book like the Bible if the point is to “prove” it correct per certain Enlightment-era approved empirical arguments. The Bible is a work of faith intended to be read in faith by people of Abrahamic faiths. It’s not a science textbook, which does not mean we do not live in a universe that operates according to certain scientific principles which I strongly suspect God knows about. This is the creation we’ve been given to occupy. When we hold up scientific facts as some sort of demonic temptation designed to distract us from our relationship with the God who created the heavens, the earth, and the physics that keep both in their places, we’ve entered a fantasy land that God has never meant for us to inhabit.
Third, excessive emphasis on “Biblical authority” allows us ignore the fact that we’ve done a lot to compromise the kingdom of heaven on Earth. Focusing on fact-finding means we don’t have to wrestle with all those ambiguous mysteries, questions, and doubts that arise when we try to hold competing images of an all-powerful, all-loving God and ourselves as sanctified beings up against a profoundly screwed up world that God and Jesus Christ both commanded us to care for. Jesus commanded us to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and visit the sick and imprisoned. He didn’t insinuate one damn thing about whether or not the earth was created in six 24-hour days, probably because time tends to draw out for the poor and sick he expects us to look after.
It’s not about the Bible being right, wrong, or factual. It’s about the lives we live being true and good. We have on good authority how to do this. Per Moses:
So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments[ii] of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. – Deuteronomy 10:12-13
And per Jesus Christ:
‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” – Matthew 22:36-39
If our sacred text aren’t helping us live life as God intended – in service to God and to each other – no amount of fact-finding is going to redeem anything.
Several years ago, I realized that I could not take the incarnation of God in Jesus seriously if I tried to understand it rationally. That discovery seemed like heresy to me at the time. As a college-educated Christian of at least average intelligence, I believed it was my God-given responsibility to approach the throne of heaven with all the rational faculties with which I’d been gifted. But I eventually realized that we are creatures of body, emotion, and spirit, as well as intellect. Trying to apprehend the complexity and mystery of the divine with only one faculty is like trying to eat a steak with one tooth. You can give it a try, certainly, but ultimately, you’ll probably give up and just move on to jello.
Ultimately, whatever is “true” about God is true regardless of what any of us believe. There are moments when the presence of the divine overwhelms every rational thought and doubt and I know without equivocation that Jesus Christ is God. In those moments, what possible difference could rational understanding of the world – e.g. embryology, evolution, the Big Bang theory – make?
The rest of the time, the best I can manage is faith.
[i] I am the religious equivalent of what rabid aficionados of politics refer to as a “wonk.” I’ve read the Bible through cover-to-cover six times in four different English translations. Since starting seminary, it amazes, and frankly, rather horrifies me to learn how few liberal Protestants – including those studying for the ministry – bother with the Bible. Okay, okay, so Genesis is full of kinky sex and the wrath of God, Exodus raises the wrath of God to heights worthy of acclaimed movie director Cecile B. Demille, and then you have a couple hundred pages of levitical law to slog through before the account of the Israelite invasion of Canaan and subjugation of the indigenous people. But then you get to the book of Ruth and that’s really a very sweet story. Unless you exegete it from a liberation or feminist perspective…
[ii] These would be the Ten Commandments, which have an awful lot to do with being nice to other people.
© Marian the Seminarian, 2012