My good friend Nate posted a couple comments as a reaction to my recent post “Is Progressive Christianity a Slow Path to Atheism?” (follow the link here)
I told him I was going to answer him in a separate post so we can have a broader discussion among some of you fellow readers. Here’s the comment thread and my answer below:
NATE: This is an issue I’ve thought about a lot, and I suppose it’s one of the reasons that I’m an atheist. I don’t think that progressive Christianity necessarily leads one to atheism, of course, but I definitely see how it serves as a path for some. For me, as I began peeling back those layers that McLaren mentioned, I simply saw no reason to continue believing in the Judeo-Christian god. How could I trust anything the Bible told me when the evidence kept piling up that the Bible was just a collection of commentaries by people who lived a long time ago?
ME: You said, “How could I trust anything the Bible told me when the evidence kept piling up that the Bible was just a collection of commentaries by people who lived a long time ago?”, which is a great question. What if you were to assume for a moment the reality of a God, and yet held separate the various (human) commentaries, past or present, on Him or His works? Then, piece by piece, you began to put a faith back together (“Oh, this fits here. I see how this fits in. I don’t get this…yet, etc, etc) Why I ask is, the more I read, and learn, of scripture, the more I’m coming to understand the allegorical and “larger picture” teachings that a lot of primarily the old testament was written to put forth. Obviously I don’t get it all, and quite possibly never will. But I’m coming to understand a greater depth of what all the Bible was MEANT to be, rather than what too many of us, as 21st century Westerners, are trying to make it into. This is in no way meant to say that anything in the bible is not relevant to us in today’s society, but that a lot of what we’ve tried to make of scripture, throughout recent history, simply doesn’t say what we’ve tried to form it into. Your experiences with the CoC is ample evidence of this, IMHO.
NATE: I think I understand what you’re saying. I don’t see it that way, especially if there really is any kind of eternal stakes involved. But I do understand why some people hold the view you’re suggesting, and I think it’s a far preferable view to fundamentalism.
MY LONGER ANSWER: Hmmm…I’m not sure you quite do understand what I’m saying, and I’m certainly not trying to be flippant here, but let me clarify…
To me, belief is a heart issue, not a knowledge issue. You can’t “knowledge” your way into anything without the heart to back it up. I know of several people who could run circles around me with their biblical knowledge yet I see little evidence that any of it has entered their heart in any meaningful way.
I kinda hate to keep coming back to this, buuuuuuuttttt, this too is one of the fundamental differences between the Eastern and Western mindset: when you’re talking about biblical scripture, you need to understand it from within the context and cultural for which it was written.
As I always say when I mention this Western/Eastern thing, trying to understand it within the context/culture/history of 1st century Jews does not in any way diminish the relevancy to us today in a 21st century Western culture…in fact, most often it enhances it.
And I know you’re probably going to ask why, in the 21st century, we have not been given the tools to understand scripture within the 1st century context and if these tools haven’t been passed down how are we to believe the bible is in any way “inspired”?
Well, I see the answer as something like this: There’s a marked difference, at least to me, between “inspiration” and “legacy”. We have been given an overall crappy legacy by our religious forefathers, with a scant few exceptions. Faith is not difficult. Belief is not difficult.
Religion is hard!
Jesus says, “Believe in me. Believe also in the one who sent me.”
Then came the disciples.
Then came Paul.
Then came the Catholic Church.
Then came the Inquisitions.
Then came the Reformation.
Then came the Protestants.
Then came the Calvinists.
Then came the Hobbesists.
Then came Uncle Jimmy’s First Cousin Bubba’s Best Friend Leon’s………….
Ad infinitum. Ad nauseam.
All of a sudden we’re many, many steps removed from the simplicity of what Jesus originally called us to do: Love God. Love others. Tell the “good news”. Make disciples.
And you can’t “knowledge” someone into discipleship either. You can only do this by giving them—showing them—something that they feel compelled to emulate, something they may or may not already have, something they simply may or may not have yet discovered within themselves.
We rush so quickly to glean the “knowledge” of a thing—in this case scriptural understanding—we miss the deeper subtleties that often lead to a deeper faith.
Take the missive, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Seems simple enough, but there are layers and layers of subtlety within those five words. What is love? How do I show love? Who do I show it to? Who is my neighbor? “What does it mean to love myself?
Discussion. Tension. Wrestling. Ultimately…growth. Faith and belief are not static entities. They change, they grow, they refine.
The problem this represents for the Western mindset is that we are creatures of habit: we glean knowledge, we master it, we feel we “get” it, and therefore it can never change from what we’ve understood it to be. Ever!
Any kind of change in perspective, especially when it comes with something involving “eternal consequences”, freaks us out! (THOSE PEOPLE are not my neighbor!!)
Yet this often continual change of perspective is at the very heart of what the original writers of biblical texts were trying to accomplish. When you have someone, anyone, on either side of the discussion who refuses to budge in their perspective because they’re simply, “right, dammit!”, where is the growth? Where is the opportunity for true discussion? For the airing of differences?
For the gratitude of diversity?
Knowledge means nothing to God without the leading of the heart.
I originally typed “following of the heart” but that didn’t ring true to me. The heart needs to lead the knowledge. This is the beginning of discernment, and everything stems from an acceptance that there is, in fact, a God.
The path of understanding shouldn’t lead to God.
God should lead you on the path of understanding.
THIS is what I was saying.