Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Slippery slope

The air around me is alive with the scrape and din of rocks striking one another as as I slide down the slope.

I'm no longer trying to get back to the plateau where I once comfortably stood with my fellows. I'm not even sure how far up the hill it is. I've had to accept that it's too far behind and too far above for me to go back. Even if I could measure the distance, I couldn't make the return journey. The entire side of the hill where I am is a mass of shifting stones and sand that makes it impossible to get traction.

There's no going back, but at this point that's not a problem. I don't want to.

I was told that if I ever stepped off the plateau that I would find myself on a slippery slope with no firm surface to plant my feet, and I've found those words to be oddly prophetic. I haven't raced pell-mell toward destruction, but I've never been able to fully arrest my slide either. I've slowed sometimes, and once or twice I've gained a measure of respite atop an especially large rock, but it never holds for long. I manage to catch my breath, and then something in the mass of rocks shifts, and my slide starts again.

It's terrifying. It's exhilarating. It's freedom.

Others are shocked or even alarmed to see me going down like this, but this is where I'm most comfortable. It's where I belong.

I started out on the plateau when I was 18 and had just awoken to the wonders of God. Like others who discovered something they had missed seeing as children, I took my lead from those who been awake a while longer. What I saw was that the Bible was taken seriously, because it was the Word of God. And because it was the Word of God, you had to believe what it said.

I had never encountered this level of regard for the Bible before, growing up in a mainline church. There, we regarded it as sacred, and we read short passages from it every Sunday, but I personally couldn't have said why. We just did.

Among the believers I now found myself with, disagreeing with the Bible would be like disagreeing with God, because it was his Word, plain and simple. And treating the biblical narrative as anything less than a literal record of what it reported was tantamount to disagreeing with what it said. It was about as close to heresy as you could come without actually falling into it.

If 2 Kings 20 said that God made a shadow go ten steps backward as a sign for Hezekiah, then he really did. If the book of Jonah said a great fish swallowed the prophet, then that's what happened. There were allowances made for figures of speech, like Joshua stopping the sun, but everything contained in the Bible was true and factual and authoritative, because God had said it. It was his Word.

And if we started taking some parts of the Bible at less than face value, then where would we be? On a slippery slope, headed toward destruction.

So, although there were times that I would walk to the edge of the plateau with a question in mind and watch the pebbles at my feet come loose and begin to roll downhill, for years I kept myself safely on the plateau.

And then one day, I discovered that the plateau had become a cage.

Some people see doubt as an enemy of faith, a highwayman who stands in the road and assails her with any weapon he can find, and so they try to outfit faith with clever arguments, with safe company and familiar routines, and even with sheer denial. And so, for them, the plateau is a welcome place to be, and so they stay there, along with other people who have their own reasons for living there.

I like to think of faith and doubt as old friends who, when they meet each other on the road, take one another's hand and abandon well-trod paths for unfamiliar ones that they can explore and enjoy together. And so, one day I gave voice to questions I had deferred for years. I opened the cage, walked to the edge of the plateau, and took a step into the empty space above the slippery slope.

Does it really matter if Jonah didn't ride in the belly of the whale? I asked, and decided, no, it didn't. What if Moses didn't really write the Pentateuch? What if the book of Esther is a piece of fiction? What if the book of Job is? What if the book of Genesis is a collection of myth, legend and folklore? What if the Bible is only as inspired as "Les Misérables," and no more or less?

With each new step I took, more of the rocks came loose and slid away, carrying me farther down the side of the hill, so that before long I was caught in the the roar and clatter of a massive landslide. I know some people who have gone this way and been crushed to death beneath the avalanche, and God knows how my hands and knees are scraped and bruised and I've got a goose egg or two from the times I lost my balance.

But this is a journey that can't be stopped once it's begun in earnest. I've known a few people to insist that God dictated the writing of the Bible, word for word. It doesn't matter if we're talking about the poor grammar of Mark's gospel or the more refined Greek of the Johannine epistles. God wrote it, and he can write any way he wants.

For most of the rest of us, it was more of a given that God had done it "somehow," that he had inspired these writers, and they produced the works he wanted, colored by their personalities and experiences, yet still infallibly expressing his will and intent without error. It's as though God temporarily switched off Paul's capacity for sin while he wrote his letters, or completely overcame Jeremiah's sense of self as he wrote his scrolls.

I'm afraid I'm too far down the slope to be entirely satisfied with the vagueness of that explanation either.

Here where the stones rattle and shift as I slide another ten feet, I can't see the single, unifying vision that I would expect to find running the length of Scripture with that manner of inspiration. The Bible contains a broad polyphany of voices, often in harmony with one another, and often in opposition.

At times it exudes the narrow xenophobia of men like Ezra, who regarded the presence of Gentile wives among the Israelites as a stain to be removed no matter what suffering it caused the sundered families. Other times the voice is as comforting as fresh cookies and a glass of milk, like the book of Ruth, which celebrates the inclusion of Gentiles in the covenant. In the Torah you see the same essential conflict: allowances to exploit foreigners, and orders to treat them with great kindness.

I batter my hands and kick with my feet to find some way to steer my descent, but the gravel and the broken stones don't give me much control. Earlier biblical authors clearly saw God as a tribal deity who gave his people moral laws to follow but who unmistakably had a preference for his people. By the time of Isaiah he had grown in their understanding to a transcendent deity who cares for all the nations and desires to draw them all close to him.

The Bible seems less a consistent stream of unchanging revelation than the writings of a people who were seeking to know and understand God at the same time that he was seeking to know them. Their understanding, which had begun to bloom by the book of Isaiah, reached its full flower in the person and teachings of Christ.

It's a flower that grows here amid the rocks where I have been scuffed and bruised, battered and beaten, torn and scraped, on a downward slide I began close to three years ago. The flower refreshes me, soothes my aches, heals my scrapes and bruises, and assures me that I will make it alive to a place I once thought was only ruin.

I once was taught to think that the Bible had talismanic qualities, that it was a special book, above reproach and free of any error or blemish. I don't know if I can say that any more, personally, though I may one day find a way to say it again in light of new understanding.

For now, while the greater problem lies in our interpretation, I accept that the Bible also has errors in its science and in its history, that there are areas where its morality is downright appalling to me, and that there are other parts where its theology just makes no sense, no matter how often I read it.

For now, from where I sit on this slippery slope, I have to accept that the Bible is inspired in the sense that all great literature is inspired, and perhaps a bit more. It's written and edited by people who were seeking something deeper than what they knew. These were people who set out with the intent to write Scripture and pursued God and his wisdom with everything that they had in them. For all their faults, they hungered for God, and wrote what they did because they wanted to share what they had found.

For all their differences, those voices are united in their passion for God. What brings all those voices into focus, what gives them all unity, is the revelation of Jesus.

Thank God he's there. I don't think I could stand this trip down the mountain without him.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A living hell

Hell is a blanket that will not keep you warm.

Hell is unrequited self-love. It echoes like an empty mailbox on Valentine's Day.

Hell is winning the first baseball game of the season, and the last baseball game of the season, and every game in between. It is being rejected when you didn't even know you had applied.

Hell is always thinking about the life you wish you had, the life you hope to have, the life you will never have, and never about the life you do have. It is having everything you ever wanted.

Hell is knowing you are wrong; it is knowing you are right. It is absolute certainty with no room for doubt, for learning, or for growth.

In hell, the damned know themselves as they are, but are unable to change. The dream of heaven is so strong that they can reach out and touch it, but they lack the faith to do so.

When you are in hell, you always get your way.

Hell is a land where the sun never sets and the stars never show their face. It is a land where there is no rest from toil and labor. No one dances in hell. No one laughs. They do have sex in hell, or something like it; but it is a sad and lonely act of desperation as the lost strive for something that they know is beyond them, and it only leaves them feeling empty.

There are no schools in hell, no books. In hell, there is nothing left to learn, nothing left to accomplish. There is nothing left to look forward to.

Hell is the distance between yourself and other people.

The way to hell is paved with no intentions at all; we simply lay it one brick at a time, unthinking, on a long, steady, lonely slope that we tread our entire lives.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.