Learning To Love the Questions

Religion, for me, has more to do with living in the uncertainties, with loving questions, than with answering them. In the end, the hole in the soul is not filled by answers. It is healed only by deeper questions. (Alan Jones, Reimagining Christianity)

“If you read the Bible and come away with more answers than questions, you haven’t understood the Bible,” a seminary professor of mine once said. As a young seminarian I was crestfallen by the comment. After all, I was taking his exegesis class to learn some answers to my questions about the Bible. I was prepared for him to give me the tools to get at THE answers hidden among those cryptic passages, and here he was telling me that he would do no such thing. Instead, he would give me more questions than answers. I considered asking the school for my money back, but trudged on with the class anyway. Little did I know that soon I would learn to love the questions, and be leery of any answers, especially the tidy, easy ones.

My professor was adept at pointing out the contradictions of scripture, but instead of being afraid to admit that such contradictions existed in a book held “inerrant” by some people, he taught us to see purpose in the contradictions. They are there to make you think – to move you beyond simple, pat answers. If one part of the book tells you that you’re saved by faith alone, but another part tells you that works earn you grace, you have to stop and think. You suddenly have more questions that you do answers, and you begin to expand your thinking. Some more conservative believers, bent on getting more answers than questions, will seek to harmonize such passages but then they tend to harmonize in the direction they want to go anyway. Living in the questions keeps you off balance – taking into account all the evidence for or against seemingly contradictory positions. Living in the questions means you keep your options open – thus keeping both your mind and (probably most importantly) your heart open to the stirrings of the Spirit.

Not everyone can live in the ever changing landscape of the questions. People crave certainty because it gives them a sense of security. They want to know that they’re following the right path. They want to know that the religious tradition they’ve invested their lives in is the RIGHT one. Many get that security by defending their faith tradition tooth and nail and condemning to eternal hell those who dare to believe differently. When they read the Bible they read it as love letter meant just for them. They find what they like, use it to form their hard and fast answers and disregard the rest – pulling out the “God’s Word is inerrant” argument if faced with any hard questions.

If conservative Christians deserve any credit it’s that they understand this part of human nature better than liberal Christians do. The conservative strain of Christianity is growing because our world is so off-kilter, so dangerously uncertain that the last place you want to feel off balance and unsafe is in your faith. There you want certainty and security. Conservative churches have given this to their flock, mostly in the form of a literal interpretation of scripture. Read literally the book can be seen as God’s inerrant directions to us on how to live and takes our fears away by assuring us that we’ve found the one and only way to get to God. They’re on the solid rock and all other ground is sinking sand.

Many liberal Christians don’t mind it when the sand shifts now and then – that’s the opportunity they need to grow and learn and ultimately draw closer to God. It’s that hallmark of questions and uncertainty that turns many away from liberal Christianity. Who wants questions when you can have answers? Who wants faith rattling doubt when you can have unquestioning belief?

It’s been said that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Those who have certainty have no need for faith. Their questions are all answered and they know they’re right. Those of us who love to live in the questions, however – we need faith, lots and lots of it, to make it through each new question and to continue to exist in the old ones.

The Bible = Certainty

Those who need certainty, however, seem to zero in on the Bible. They’re so certain of their beliefs, they say, because the Bible tells them they are right. Instead of seeing the Bible for what it is – a compilation of divergent writings with unique voices and perspectives that often contradict one another or contain factual or scientific errors – they see it as God’s instruction book given specifically to them. They take the words literally, reading out of context and without any idea of the history of the book. With that kind of belief, the Bible soon becomes an idol – a leather-bound version of God that they can have, hold and display on their coffee tables as a sign that they have found the one and only true way to connect with God.

Such beliefs can lead to some strange ideas about the Bible. Driving around Atlanta a few years ago I saw a battered pick up truck sporting a bumper sticker that read, “If it ain’t KJV, it ain’t Bible.”

“Well, there go the original autographs,” I chuckled to myself. Apparently those Hebrew and Greek writers had it all wrong and God had to wait around for some real infallible writers to show up in the 15th century. It made me want to get up beside him, honk my horn and yell, “1611, brother!” But, then I’m not even sure he’d understand a reference to the date the “real” Bible was published. For him, apparently the Bible fell from heaven written in perfect Olde English and that was the end of the matter.

I’ve also heard the King James Version referred to as “the Bible Jesus read” – an even more absurd thought if you actually take the time to consider the statement. How handy it was for Jesus to have his entire life written out for him so he could follow along.

“Blessed are the … oh, wait just one minute, it’s here somewhere!” Jesus says, flipping through the red dotted English pages. “Poor in Spirit! That’s it. Thank heaven I’ve got the KJV to back me up, because you know, if it ain’t KJV, it ain’t Bible!”

Take a poll and you’ll find that many people who believe the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God have no idea what the thing even says. It’s doubtful that some have even read it – since there is that big old “begat” speed bump pretty early on in the book. Some people believe that the Bible says such things, “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” Actually, Ben Franklin said that and the scripture teaches a very different lesson – that the helpless have a special place in God’s heart.

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly….But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6,8)

Other popular phrases attributed to the Bible include Hamlet’s “To thine own self be true” and the family values favorite “spare the rod, spoil the child.” While the Bible does favor disciplining children, this particular phrase is nowhere to be found, but you can’t tell that to the literalists.

We can hardly be surprised that so many people hold so many erroneous beliefs about the Bible. We hand people an ancient book, written in ancient languages and interpreted over and over again, and expect them to simply get it without giving them any history. Often, they are not even encouraged to read it, instead relying on what the preacher says it says. More often that not, the slogan “The Bible said it, I believe it” is truly “The pastor said the Bible said it, I believe it.”

When they do read it, they’re not equipped to understand it. Instead of learning about the history of the book and the differing contexts in which each book was written, they’re left on their own to read the English version their church prefers and apply it literally through the filter of their modern beliefs and prejudices. Of course they’re going to think the Bible condemns homosexuals, since the word is right there in black and white in passages like 1 Corinthians 6:9. They’re never told that the biblical writers didn’t have that word at their disposal since it was only coined in 1869. They’re never told that the translation is a mixture of two obscure Greek words and represent a “best guess” by interpreters as to what Paul truly meant. Instead, they substitute a modern word for an ancient concept that may or may not be homosexuality as we understand it today. These intricacies of interpretation are never explored by the average Bible reader because it’s right there in plain, unmistakable English – God hates fags!

The Bible – Taking it Seriously, not Literally

I’ve often said that I take the Bible too seriously to take it literally. I made this statement on an Internet message board and a conservative Christian poster called the idea ridiculous – and I suppose it would be to someone so accustomed to reading literally, but it’s not. Anyone who seeks to take the Bible seriously could never take it literally in its English form. Such a method of reading does violence to the text. It’s easy to read our own prejudices and beliefs into the passages when we read it in our preferred English translation. It’s harder to do that when we employ what the theologian call the “historical-critical” method. This form of interpretation (or exegesis as the seminarians call it) puts the text back in its historical context and extrapolates from there. The first question you’re trained to ask in this method is “what did this passage mean to the original audience.” In this way, we strip ourselves of the tendency to approach the text through our modern knowledge and filters. We force ourselves to think as ancient Hebrews or early Christians whenever we read a passage. Putting the passage into its historical context can be eye opening. We need to know what the passage meant to the original audience before we can even begin to understand what eternal truth it might convey to us today.

This method is mainly practiced in those highfalutin seminaries and generally looked down upon by the average man (and it usually is a man) in the pulpit at your average church every Sunday since it would deprive him of a literal reading of the English text where modernist boogymen can be found and vilified. Forcing yourself to understand the historical context of a passage robs literalist preachers of their biggest weapon – the ability to instill fear in their congregation by projecting their modern prejudices into the text with their literal readings.

The beauty of the historical-critical method, in my opinion, is that it sweeps away those modern prejudices and modern knowledge that we take for granted when we read the Bible. If we truly are to put our selves in the shoes of the ancient Hebrews or the early Christians reading early writings that later became scripture, we have to put aside our knowledge of things like biology, how women become pregnant, how the weather works, the knowledge of a round earth revolving around the sun and much, much more. We have to put aside our knowledge of sexuality and how fluid sexual orientation can be. Only when we step outside of our own narrow prejudices and modern knowledge can we begin to understand the context of the writings. Reading this way reveals more questions than answers. We must do our homework and find out about ancient cultures and their beliefs. We must dig to find answers, and discover how little we truly know about these ancient ancestors. Just trying to put a passage into context often brings more questions than answers and makes the task of bringing the truth of the passage into our modern times just that much more difficult. To read the Bible this way makes us learn to love the questions – to be comfortable in our uncertainty and to be leery of anything or anyone that claims to have settled all the questions once and for all.

Those who use the Bible as a weapon against modernity resist such interpretation strategies, preferring instead to read modern ideas and knowledge into the English text as a way to back up their long-held beliefs and prejudices and give them that satisfaction of certainty. Such a reading violates the integrity of the text and again, leaves faith behind as certainty takes its place. Those who take the Bible seriously then, cannot read it literally. How a person chooses to read scripture, in the end, reveals more about the person reading the scripture than it does about the truth of the scripture.

The Bible – A Short History

Another good inoculation against reading the Bible literally – and a great way to begin to take it seriously – is to explore the history of the Bible and how it came to be on our coffee tables.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but when I was actually shocked when I learned that the Bible was not originally written in Olde English. It’s more embarrassing to admit how old I was when that knowledge came to me. What came next was anger. Why hadn’t my Southern Baptist church informed me of this fact? Why didn’t Sunday School teachers let me in on this knowledge? Why weren’t there classes on the history of the Bible in my church? Why weren’t there church leaders teaching us how to interpret scripture? Why weren’t we even informed about our own faith tradition?

The answer to that question came to me in the form of my mother, who, upon my announcement that I was going to attend seminary, said, verbatim, “Why do you want to go and mess yourself up like that?”

It was then I understood that, in her mind, and in the minds of many other conservative Christians, asking questions about your faith only invites trouble. “You’ll shipwreck your faith,” my mother warned me. Asking too many questions leads to too many unanswered ones, and unanswered questions lead to uncertainty and uncertainty leads straight to the fiery pit of hell where all the unbelieving heathens who asked too many questions always go. You’re better off just believing what you’ve been told and keep your questions to yourself.

I disregarded her warning as so much blind faith hogwash. “What was wrong with questions?” I thought. Isn’t that how we find answers in the first place? I went in to seminary with eyes wide shut – not anticipating the broadside that would be Christian history. In my second semester, I could see the rocks looming ahead of my ship of faith.

“Oh dear,” I thought, “my mother was right. I’m about to shipwreck my faith!”

Learning about how we got all the doctrines, like the Trinity and virgin birth, etc., nearly did my faith in. I was incredulous that anyone would believe what the church Fathers had come up with. Blood was shed over doctrines we blithely give our allegiance to today. Lives were lost, torn apart – people persecuted and hounded from the faith, all for believing something different than the anointed authorities. The entire faith seemed ridiculous. I had more questions than answers and I hated it. I can certainly understand why some people abandon their faith in the middle of seminary. I almost did!

It was that experience though – that near faith-killing shipwreck – that eventually made my faith stronger than before. I found that after all my neat answers about faith, Christian history and the Bible had been demolished, I had to reconstruct them or abandon my faith all together. My faith was stronger than my doubt and eventually, after much prayer, study and more prayer, I was able to rebuild my faith and learn to love the questions.

Exposing our questions about the Bible to the harsh light of history can be disturbing, even faith quashing, but it’s important that we take the risk, that we put our faith to the test and come out the other side with a stronger, more resilient faith than before.

If finding out late in life about the original languages of the Bible was embarrassing, imagine my embarrassment in seminary when I learned that for the first 300 years or so of its life, the early church had no such thing as a Bible. Many believers think that when early Christians referred to “scriptures” they were referring to the Bibles we hold today. Nothing could be further from the truth. The first gospel, Mark, was written some 40 years after Christ’s crucifixion (around 70 CE). Matthew and Luke didn’t come on the scene until about 20 years later (around 90 CE). The latest gospel, John was written about ten years later (around 100 CE), some 70 years after the crucifixion! It’s almost certain that none of the apostles for which the books are named actually wrote any of them.

It’s true that early Christian churches used these gospels and the letters of Paul (the earliest Pauline text was 1 Thessalonians written around 50 CE, some 20 years before Mark) in their worship services. It was through the use of these books that they became “scripture.” The first list of the 27 books that became the New Testament we consider canonical today appeared in 367 CE. It would be many centuries later before a general consensus was reached among Christian leaders as to what texts would truly make up the Bible. There were many other texts that early churches used that didn’t make the canonical cut including Gnostic gospels like Thomas and other writings such as The Acts of Paul and Thecla which told the story of a woman apostle.

For those who base their entire belief system on the Bible, these facts can and should be disconcerting. For some 300 years Christians did just fine, and discerned God’s will fairly effectively, without a leather-bound book to consult. Instead of consulting a book, or being tempted to reduce that book to an idol and worship it as a literal communication from God, they trusted in the spirit to guide them. They trusted in community to point them toward God. More importantly, they trusted in their own experiences of God, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, to guide them in their lives. They didn’t need a literal Bible written by infallible people to connect them to God.

For those who wish to return to the roots of the early church, the first task is to understand that the only “scripture” our fore fathers and mothers had were the Hebrew Scriptures. Our coffee table idol didn’t exist. Their main tools for reaching God were such old fashioned ideas as prayer, discernment, community and experience. This is where early Christians derived their connection to God and experience of the people were honored and given authority. What we forget is that the Bible is not a handbook for how we need to live each moment. Instead it is a book of stories, a book filled with how other people have experienced God. The Bible writers were not writing a book of rules for eternity, but were simply telling us about how they experienced the living God.

“More than anything else then,” wrote Paul Alan Laughlin in his book Remedial Christianity, “it puts the reader in touch with her or his own spirituality on the experiential level; and this, one might say, is the fundamental dynamic and true value of the Christian – or any – faith. Had the Bible been single-minded, definitive and utterly consistent, it might have stifled spiritual search and growth. As it is, however, it calls and challenges the reader to forge a living, growing, active and uniquely personal faith. At the same time, it comforts the reverent seeker with the examples of biblical authors, whose words fashioned not a flawless vessel to contain God, but a window that provides salutary glimpses of divinity, despite its surface imperfections.”

In short, the scriptures are not there to give us ready and pat answers to all our questions. It’s there to encourage us to ask questions, hard questions – to seek, to search, to learn how to know God in through own unique experiences. The common truths of the experiences are eternal, even if the particulars of the experiences are different from person to person.

The Bible – Its Authority

The heart of the battle between fundamentalist Christians and their liberal counterparts is the question of the authority of the Bible. For our more conservative brothers and sisters, the answer is clear, the Bible has final authority. Whatever contradicts the scripture is anathema to any “true” Christian. For liberals, the Bible is among the authorities Christians must consult when facing tough decisions. Other things can come into play – experience, reason and yes, even tradition. Fundamentalists may take these other things into account, but when it comes down to brass tacks, the Bible trumps them all. For liberals, however, such things as reason and experience can trump both Bible and tradition.

This differing take on authority between the two more extreme camps of Christianity is best illustrated in the case of the acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people not just in society, but especially within the church. We are warned that if we accept GLBT people the whole truth of the Bible is negated. What that argument misses, however, is that we as Christians have disregarded many things the Bible speaks approvingly of including polygamy, subjugation of women, division of the races, and slavery – and we’ve done it without compromising the ultimate authority of the Bible. We read approval of these things in the Bible as cultural mores we no longer hold. Even the most stringent literalist will not take the admonition to kill those involved in adultery as a rule we should enforce today. That same literalist may also be divorced for some other reason than Jesus’ admonition that divorce was only permissible if the wife was unfaithful. So, even the most stringent literalist among us would have to admit that the literal Word of God has room for mercy for adulterers and faces no condemnation for divorcing his wife for some reason other than infidelity – a violation of Jesus’ direct command.

So, the issue of authority becomes rather sticky for those who wish to use the Bible strictly against the GLBT community. To do so they have to disregard the many things that we’ve already decided that the Bible is wrong about. Moving forward with the acceptance of the GLBT community does no violence to the integrity of the Bible. Denying rights to an entire class of people based on a certain interpretation of scripture does, however, as those of different races and different genders can certainly attest to. Far from damaging the authority of the Bible, acceptance of GLBT people in society and in the church would actually strengthen the integrity and authority of the text because it would prove that God is still alive, still speaking, still able to do a new thing through the Holy Spirit moving in and through God’s willing, seeking and questioning servants.

It is the scriptures themselves that reveal God telling us, “Behold, I do a new thing! Do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19) Those who cannot perceive God doing new, startling and wonderful things are those who cling to the letter of the law of the Bible while quashing the spirit of the words. If God is still alive and still speaking then God will speak new things to us – things not recorded in books, ancient or otherwise. Some of the new things that God has spoken to us since the scriptures were penned include:

  • Monogamous relationships
  • The ability to eat pork and shrimp
  • The ability to lend money at interest
  • Freedom for slaves
  • Freedom for women
  • Freedom for GLBT people

Jesus even showed us that we must be open to God relating to us in new and unfamiliar – yes, even uncomfortable – ways. He spent his entire ministry showing us that God does not want us to follow old, soul-killing laws, but instead, Jesus showed us new ways to reinterpret the scriptures.

In Matthew 5, Jesus repeatedly said, “You have heard it said … but I say to you …” What we have heard is what the scriptures (the Hebrew scriptures, remember) have to say about such things as murder, adultery, divorce, breaking oaths, exacting revenge and how to treat our enemies. All these things are scripturally sound, but Jesus reinterprets the scripture – turning them around, negating the old in favor of the new.

Those who follow Jesus’ example, reinterpreting scripture to include Good News for GLBT people get accused of twisting scripture – and the Pharisees too, accused Jesus of the same thing. They were convinced of the authority of their interpretation of the scripture and could not tolerate some itinerate preacher telling the people that God could say something new. The literalist Pharisees of our day are the same way – accusing those who speak a new word in the Spirit of twisting scripture for their own ends. They deny that God could say anything new, they could not perceive it.

If God cannot say new things, then God is as dead the trees on which the words of the Bible are written. Even the scriptures testify against such a thing. God is always doing a new thing – the eternal question then becomes, do we perceive it?

The Bible – Why I Love it

The Bible writers understood the power of a good story. It is through story that we make meaning in our lives. When you meet people, what do you ask them for? You ask for a story – “tell me about yourself.” It is through their stories and our own stories that we make sense of the world. We live in an ongoing narrative that gives us power, a sense of belonging and a meaning for why we are here.

The Bible is nothing but a powerful book of stories – stories of how our ancient ancestors thought, believed and encountered God in their lives. I don’t need the story of Adam and Eve to be literal. I don’t need Adam and Eve to be true historical figures to understand the truth of their story. The story reveals the nature of human beings to soil their own nests – to act in their own self interest, without regard to the interconnectedness of us all. Why does it matter if Eden truly existed or had two inhabitants known as Adam and Eve? The truth of their story – the story of human nature – is what is important, not their existence.

I don’t need a literal Noah and his ark or a worldwide flood to understand the idea behind repentance and redemption that the story conveys. The story has many similarities with the older story of Gilgamesh, which, again is a story that I don’t need to be literally true to learn the underlying lesson.

Here is where my heresy grows life-size, however: I don’t need a literal, historical Jesus to understand the universal truth and power of the message he conveyed. That’s not say that I don’t believe in a literal, historical Jesus. I certainly do. The point is I don’t need him to be a living, breathing person – I need the message he came to tell us. I need his story. I need the essence of his life, whether it’s a real one or complete fiction. His story is his power, not his earthly life. His message is his meaning – not whether he was both divine and human. His message – that we are to love God and treat one another just as we wish to be treated – is paramount. His message – that we are all interconnected, weaved together by a God that loves us and only wants the best for us – is what is important. His message – that we give of ourselves, that we live abundantly and love wastefully – is the only thing that matters – not the man or the divinity or any dogma or doctrine created about him. The truth of his message is what matters.

That is why I love the Bible. It is filled with stories that convey so much truth. The reason the Bible has been around as long as it has is because of that eternal truth contained in the vehicle of story. We so often confuse the message with the messenger, preferring to worship Jesus, believing doctrinal things about him, instead of actually putting his message in our hearts and living it. I agree with Alan Jones who says “I am not a believing Christian but a practicing one.” It’s not about what you believe about the Bible or Jesus or God or Christianity or anything else about religion, it’s about what those beliefs translate into in your life. Do your beliefs make you rigid, selfish, greedy, mean or thoughtless? Do your beliefs make you exclusionary, politically ruthless and suspicious of other people of faith? Or, do your beliefs make you more open, compassionate, gentle and caring? Do your beliefs make your look outside of your own self-interest, your own concerns and draw you into the lives of those around you?

To be a practicing Christian means to be able to live in the questions – to love them – to nurture them and take joy in finding even more. It is in the questions that I hear God speaking. It is in the questions that I feel God’s presence. It is in the questions that I learn to continually lean on God for any understanding that I can gain and to let the unanswerable questions rest in God’s infinite wisdom. Loving the questions is a place of rest, as much as it is a place of unending searching. The place of unknowing, of letting go of the need to have to know, is ultimately a place of peace, because you know that your life rests in, through and with God, and in that place, even the questions are beautiful and refreshing – even healing.