Last week, I used the words “growing agnosticism” to describe my faith. That may have been the first time I publicly suggested how deep my crisis of faith has become. I haven’t even gone into much detail here, other than to say I’m in a dry season.
A friend texted me Monday and asked if she should be worried about me. I thought she meant emotionally since that was a dark and depressing post.
Turns out she meant spiritually. She called me a couple of hours later and we had a long interesting talk in which I tried to explain to her what exactly was going on with me spiritually. I realized later that it was the first time I had ever tried to express my heart and thoughts about my faith to anyone besides my wife.
A few days after my friend and I talked, Diana pulled me aside and mentioned that one of our kids was starting to wonder what was going on with me, since I haven’t been to a regular church service in over a year now. I’ve been to Christmas and Easter services, and a couple of dinners, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to attend a worship service since this time last year.
Maybe it’s time to work on unpacking things, or as another friend says, “Let’s deconstruct.”
What’s My Problem, Anyway?
I’ve wondered aloud to my wife on a couple of occasions if I have a problem with God, or with “man’s construct of God.”
I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I mean by that phrase. They’re not the same thing.
Man’s construct of God is what’s given us so many denominations across the world, depending on how one counts “denomination.” There are multiple flavors of Christianity, but can they all be “right?” Are any of them? How are we supposed to know which is the “right” way to worship?
There are a couple of old jokes that illustrate the denominational chasm pretty well. One is Emo Phillips’ classic Baptist Bridge Jumper. The other goes something like this (substitute denominations as you see fit).
A group of people arrive at the same time at the Pearly Gates and are processed by St Peter. The first one approaches him.
“Denomination?” St Peter asks.
“Presbyterian,” comes the reply.
“Okay, here’s your harp, you’re in room 3, but be quiet as you pass room 11.” The person trots off and the next one comes up to St Peter. “Denomination?”
“Right, here’s your harp, you’re in room 16, but be quiet as you pass room 11.” Off he goes, and the third approaches. “Denomination?”
“Right, here’s your harp, you’re in room 5, but be quiet as you pass room 11. Next!”
“I’m a Nazarene.”
“Right, here’s your harp, you’re in room 7, but be quiet as you pass room 11.”
The final person comes up to St Peter. “I’m Presbyterian too, so I’ll be in room 3,” she says, “But why do we have to be quiet when we go past room 11?”
St Peter hands her a harp and replies: “That’s where the Catholics are, and they think they’re the only ones here.”
So we joke about it, but denominations still mean something to us, else they wouldn’t exist. How does one know if they’re a member of the “right” denomination or religion? If there’s not a right one or a wrong one, why do we have so many?
So that’s one part of my confusion. I was raised Lutheran, which is unsurprising given my German heritage. I converted to the Church of the Nazarene around age 30, not long after Diana and I married. Which one is right? Is one wrong? Is one more right than the other?
The Bible is supposed to be infallible and inerrant, meaning it can’t be wrong or untrue. If you’re really a Christian, that’s a basic part of what you believe. Of course, the extent that you believe that depends to some degree on your denomination.
But how can something translated and transcribed by man be infallible?
Trick question. It’s not.
The example I usually bring up is the issue of the inn in the book of Luke. Inns are mentioned twice: in Luke 2 as part of the Christmas narrative, and later in Luke 10 during the parable of the Good Samaritan. In chapter 2, we hear that Joseph and Mary are turned away from the inn. But the word that gets translated as “inn” there, kataluma, is translated in Luke 22 as “guest room,” or “upper room.” Pandocheion is used later in Luke 10 when the Samaritan takes the injured man to the inn to recover.
That mistranslation changes the entire meaning of the Christmas story. It changes it from one of Christ being rejected at birth and being born all alone in a drafty stable to one of Him being born in the animal berth of a family dwelling. Far from being alone but for the animals, Joseph and Mary were probably surrounded by family, especially since Joseph likely had no idea how to birth a child. That was women’s work, after all. He was a carpenter, and wouldn’t know of such things.
The Wikipedia articles on biblical inerrancy, infallibility, and literalism expand on this much better than I could. They also illustrate very well the issues I’m having. Man has been arguing about what the Bible says or means for 1600 years or more, and we’re still not clear on it. How can I rely on it then without devoting the rest of my life to studying it? I don’t want to have to do that, and I don’t think God ever intended that we have to do that.
It should be much simpler than that. If we are to believe the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, then everything in the Bible boils down to about thirty words.
The issue, of course, is how we interpret “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
In a Facebook thread regarding the recent Ohio anti-abortion effort, I pointed out that the Bible is used to condemn abortion, but to justify capital punishment. So some life is sacred, right? Never mind the 115 people exonerated from Death Row since 1989.
At various times throughout history, the Bible has been used to both justify and condemn slavery and anti-miscegenation laws.
Too, history is full of examples of religiously-based violence, where one religion has fought another, or one denomination was persecuted by others. Consider this piece on religious war, this one on religious violence, or the violence surrounding the Mormon Church in the US.
And yet, God is love. They will know we are Christians by our love, right?
By the way, we use our holy book to deny civil rights to someone based on their skin color, or who they sleep with.
Will they know we are Christians by the size of our church’s sanctuary? Or will it be by the size of our church’s charitable service programs?
By the number of people on our praise and worship team, or the number of needy people we feed each week?
Here’s a post I wrote a year ago:
It’s an interesting thought, isn’t it? The quote is sometimes paraphrased “What you do” instead of “Who you are,” which gives it an even better perspective, I think.
Faith in God or Man?
“But Bob, you’re putting your faith in man, not God.”
Some of you are thinking that if you’re not saying it to yourself out loud.
If I say I serve the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible, I’m aligning myself with everyone else who claims the title “Christian,” and everything they say or do. That has nothing to do with who I put my faith in. It’s a public claim by both sides.
If you and I both say we’re Christians, and we’re on different sides of the marriage equality issue, then in the eyes of an atheist or agnostic, who’s the “real” Christian? Who’s the “right” one?
That’s my burden. My actions or inactions make an incredibly more powerful statement about my God than any words I might manage to string together in a conversation or a blog post. If I’m going to talk about God to someone, I need to be able to explain why some people call themselves Christian and ooze hatred. “Free will” seems a weak response.
I still haven’t managed to put a label on my beliefs yet. When I said “growing agnosticism,” that felt right to me. It’s less clear to me now. Some days I’ve used the phrase “agnostic theist,” but that’s not even quite right, because it suggests that I’m not sure about the existence of God. I’m as sure as I can be that He exists.
If I have to put a label on it right this instant, I’d call myself “deist,” but even that is a work in progress. I believe God exists. I believe it’s more likely than not that Jesus was His Son. But I’m troubled with the way man continues to interpret the things Jesus is supposed to have said.
So if you’ve been worried about me, or wondered what’s been on my heart about God lately, now you know.
Maybe this will allow some conversations to begin. I’m not contagious.
Originally published on Bob Mueller
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