Monday, June 01, 2009

How I Changed My Mind

My change in perspective has come about in several ways.  The first step was in realizing that the doctrine of "inerrancy" that I had been taught and embraced for much of my Christian journey was basically wrong. The aftershocks of that still rumble through me every once in a while. I had become so used to looking at The Bible as a singular "Word of God" in which every word, every story, and every principle had been handed down through perfect, divine revelation that when I began to poke at the concept a little and noticed it crumbling under pressure I was distraught.

When I was younger, I attended a Christian University. I took several religion courses, some as requirements, and some for my own personal interest. I probably would have majored in Religion if I had belonged to a denomination in which women were valued in leadership roles. However, I belonged to the SBC which has been, and continues to be, disproportionately obsessed with enforcing traditional gender roles in the Church. As such, it seemed like getting a Religion degree would serve no purpose in that particular denomination for me. It would be useless as far as pursuing any official role in ministry. I wasn't really open to other denominations at that point, convinced that while the SBC wasn't perfect it was as close as possible to what I thought of at the time as "biblical" Christianity. 

I wasn't ignorant of New Testament studies, or even the knowledge that the compilation of the Canon was not as straightforward as it seemed. I had a divided mind on the issue without realizing it. That divided mind was reinforced and affirmed not only by my fellow students, but by most of my professors. I was blind to the fact that the ways in which we spoke about Scripture were contradictory. On the one hand, we would have great discussions about conflicts surrounding the formation of the Canon, or particular doctrines, noting the uncertainty of what it all meant. On the other hand, each Sunday would find most of us in very conservative churches affirming that Scripture was the "Word of God" in that mystical, magical way that imported great meaning into every verse we read.

Some of my professors were also ministers in local churches who, without a doubt, taught their congregations the doctrine of inerrancy. I didn't think it at all unusual.

The two prongs undergirding inerrancy, without which it can't stand, are the beliefs that everything that happens in history happens by God's purposeful, sovereign will, and secondly that the writers of Scripture were somehow more holy and peculiar in their relationship with God, passing along insights which were given only to a very elite group of people. Without belief in those two ideas, inerrancy cannot hold up.

I've recently connected the first idea to Calvinism, finally understanding the ways in which it interacts with that strain of Christianity. It is no coincidence that Calvinists and the doctrine of inerrancy are so interlocked. It's hard to tell which came first; the belief in inerrancy causing the formation of Calvinist theology, or the idea of God's far-reaching, sovereign, active control of every aspect of the Universe causing a belief in inerrancy. Because the Church assembled these texts, it must be God's will that The Bible we have is the one we were meant to have and has been carefully inspired and preserved by God. In other words, it happened in a particular way, so God must have willed it to happen that way because nothing happens, in this view, that God hasn't willed to happen.

Is that clear as mud?

If you're a Calvinist, then you have no problems that can't eventually be solved through this circular logic. I don't mean to sound uncharitable, because to be truthful I can't find any belief system which doesn't at some level have circular, self-validating logic. We can't know all things, so any comprehensive opinion on the matter will always have some basic presuppositions guiding it. Some presuppositions are simply more sweeping in scale than others.

Now I have long glanced down my nose at Calvinism ever since my freshman year in college when one of my new friends explained that her pastor taught that Christ didn't die for everyone's sins, but only for those whom he chose beforehand. Everyone else was just plain out of luck and better bring some marshmallows to roast during their long stay in Hell. I was outraged, aghast, revolted, and convinced that this was the worst heresy I had ever heard of. Slowly, I began to realize that not only did this particular friend believe this, but so did many other people, including some of the professors I knew. There were variations in how strongly individuals held to TULIP(only follow that link if you're up to tasting some strong Calvinist Kool-Aid), some expressed a weak assent, while others wholeheartedly viewed it as the "theory of everything" making sense of the Cosmos for us lowly humans.

I was young and earnest in my faith. While never completely reconciling myself to Calvinism, I did begin incorporating some of its theology into my view of God. I was proving the principle that humans, despite their best intentions to be objective, are notoriously easily influenced through time, repetition, and the appearance of authority. Because pastors and professors were communicating these concepts, they must be at least partly true...right? 

To concede that they were completely wrong would have shaken my faith to its core. I wasn't at a mature enough age to handle that kind of dissonance and keep any shred of belief intact. It was all or nothing. To believe that the people who were teaching me were gravely mistaken would have called into question any trust I might have had that I  knew anything about God, or that my experiences with Him had any merit to them.

So what changed?

Well, I could never get around the Calvinist version of God's Sovereignty and the horrific tragedies throughout history. There are really only two ways to reconcile them.  One way is to dispassionately declare that God willed even the most terrible things to happen because he had some higher purpose, or just because he wanted to. He has some master plan going on and even The Holocaust was a part of that plan.  Another way is to consider that much of what transpires on this blue planet is in no way connected to God's divine will. Evil is perpetuated by people who make evil choices. Not everything that happens occurs on the basis of God's active choosing.

I could never, in any way, make God the author of Evil in the way that Calvinism does. Calvinists will say that's not what Calvinism teaches, going to great lengths and producing voluminous works to try and redefine very basic ideas of good and evil and causes in order to portray God as both Sovereign and guiltless of evil.

It doesn't matter how many words are used to do this. Even my 9 and 7 year old children would be able to see through that kind of reasoning in a few minutes....see my last post for more evidence of that. (As an aside, I think it's funny that people always tell us to "be as little children" when we question things, implying that children readily believe whatever they are told.  My experience with children is that they are the most severe critics and detectors of BS....hardly unquestioning drones.  They naturally poke and prod at most everything they are told.)

If God doesn't cause everything to happen...if circumstances aren't the way they are because God caused them to be...if events happen in history which aren't God's will....then on what basis can we declare Divine intervention in the compilation of the Canon? It doesn't mean that God couldn't have intervened and caused the Church to assemble this particular set of Scriptures. It doesn't mean that God couldn't have inerrantly inspired the biblical writers. However, it does mean we can't appeal to the logic of " it happened in this way, so it must have been by God's will."

So, if you're not fully Calvinist in scope, you can't rely on that presupposition to support inerrancy.

I'll work on another post about the second prong of upholding inerrancy next.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

As for inerrancy: the Alps are not perfect cones, either, but they are definitely mountains. Fundamentalists get so worried about defending the perfect-cone-ness of the Scriptures that they miss climbing that mountain.

Anonymous said...

Ass't, still want to argue about the unfair stereotype of right-wingers being violent? Or was Dr. Tiller killed by union thugs? Maybe Jim Adkissson in Tennessee who shot up the church because he wanted to kill liberals was really an environmental protester. Idiot.

terri said... are way out of line.

Your comment has nothing to do with the post or AVI's comment.

If you have something constructive to say, then say it. If you're just going to do a drive-by with both barrels aimed at fellow commenters....refrain from commenting!

Another post like that will be immediately deleted.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Roeder was mentally ill, as I read it. He was an anti-government extremist but not group-connected, as is often the case with paranoid schizophrenics. What is your basis for calling him right-wing? Other than your convenience. I see no other basis. Adkisson espoused many right-wing beliefs, but was also affiliated with no groups. That is the common way of murdering extremists left and right.

I repeat, if you are going to "count" such people against the right-wing solely on the basis of killing someone on the left, then by all logic Dylan Klebold and Michael Carneal must count as liberals. Really, I don't see any basis for that. (Though Ted Kacynski and Mumia would probably qualify under any such split.)

Organised rather than individual violence is a better measure of political persuasion. The FBI regards ecoterrorism as the #1 domestic terror threat. NILRR records an average of 300 incidents of union violence a year for the last 30 years.

I think it is you who are trying to paint this as an either-or, all-or-nothing issue. The Right has the reputation for violence, and there is some evidence for that. I believe the Left deserves that reputation more, but the evidence for that is of a different sort. In the same way that plane crashes get more ink even though they kill fewer people that auto crashes - they are dramatic, intense events with a strong narrative - violence on the left is not connected as part of a greater whole. Yet many component groups of the Democratic coalition do indeed have violent factions.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Oops. Terri posted while I was composing. Sorry to keep the argument going. Delete mine if you see fit.

Retriever said...

Terri, loved your post.

As far as theodicy goes, was briefly taken in my youth with the Kushner idea of God as not causing all but reacting to all, as a kind of comforter and cheerleader when evil things happen. Then decided that better an all-powerful God whose ways I could not in this lifetime understand than a wimp of a God. I find that I like the answer to Job better in middle age. Or is that just the whimper of someone saying I found that there is a God, and I'm not it?

My working solution (probably could be trashed by someone more logical than I am) is to believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful God, who loves us and wants every single one of us to live with Him forever. He goes to extraordinary lengths to pursue us individually and as groups. He has plans and purposes for each of us. He wants us to choose to follow Him willingly.

Much as a kid following a parent on the beach can either reach and stretch to step in the footsteps of the parent walking ahead of them, or can get bogged down striking out on their own in the slurpy sand, making their own prints. Finding it at first easier as they don't have to stretch and leap to fill the longer stride of the parent. Only to get bogged down on their own after a while.

Or think how in a race, if one is just behind the leader, their body breaks the resistance of the air, and one actually has to use less energy to run oneself (if in the right spot). Tho this is unethical as a running strategy in a human race, it contains some of what we must do with God. We can freely choose to distance ourselves from Him, strike out on our Own, but it will be harder.

I also love the image Irenaeus seized upon from Ephesians (sic?) about the Spirit being like a great wind upon the ocean and our wills and efforts being like the sails on a boat that we can hoist with great effort and catch that wind and move as we were meant to or struggle to tack another way, more slowly and with more difficulty, perhaps even having our sails ripped to pieces and getting wrecked.

As to the suffering of the innocents? With sickness and disease, I simply put it down to the riotous diversity and gowth of biology. Yes, Creation is too beautiful and complicated to be random. But all kinds of mistakes in the replication processes in the body that devastate us. Like frozen monks hungrily recopying manuscripts so many times over that the texts become distorted in the end.

The suffering of children and the young the hardest to bear. I believe in and have seen miraculous (and genuine) healings, but they cannot be prescribed, ordered, or controlled. Perhaps they work as random reinforcers for the faithful? As in psychology which discovered that unpredictable rewards sometimes motivate more powerfully than regular ones that one can be sure of. I put it down to disease and our living in as yet fallen and imperfect world. Even a great artist or writer who has a perfect design may find it takes a while to put into three dimensions at first.

The most poignant metaphor for God when the innocent suffer is the view of God as the absent landlord, the One who could save us , but can't be bothered. Famously agonized over by some of the Jews suffering in the Holocaust. An abandonment nightmare. Unbearable.

I tend to resort to what may be a heresy (?) and figure that at this particular historical moment between the Resurrection and the Second Coming, Jesus asked us rhetorically "Why stand ye gazing at heaven" meaning that we have to turn our attention to bringing as much of His love into this broken and hurting world as possible. Our hands, our voices are God's main instruments FOR NOW.

But we are so imperfect. So, like Chinese knock-off parts or shoes, we critters in the image of GOd, look good initially, have great intentions, but often fail and sometimes cause horrible harm.

terri said...

"But we are so imperfect. So, like Chinese knock-off parts or shoes, we critters in the image of GOd, look good initially, have great intentions, but often fail and sometimes cause horrible harm."

Well said...and I agree!

Part of what I am thinking about for my next post is how we view "holy" people...all those wild-eyed prophets and unusual characters.

It's remarkable how frequently the historical figures which inform the pillars of Church tradition frequently had enormous character flaws.

Martin Luther was anti-semitic. Calvin approved executions for people found guilty of opposing him. Augustine had his licentiousness. It goes on and on.

Yet these were also great minds attempting to honor God.

Our humanness always seems able to break through.

terri said... problem continuing the conversation. I don't mind conversation even if it meanders off-course.

However, name calling and insulting attacks tend to bring out my motherly side in which I respond with that look and tone of voice all mothers possess when they roll their eyes, throw their hands up in exasperation and exhale emphatically.."Why can't you just PLAY NICE!?"


Buz said...

Please clear up my confusion here ... do you then believe that things happen that

(a) God does not want to happen but He could stop them if he wanted but he chooses not to stop, or

(b) God does not want to happen that is is UNABLE to stop?

Also, if the scriptures are not inerrant, how can you tell which parts are right and which parts are not?