Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Faith amid the ruins
My journey has been an interesting one. After an initial four years or so of absolute certainty overwhat I thought I believed, I now admit that my faith has been in a state of ongoing collapse ever since late 1992. There are days I am sure I have the essentials all together, and then there are other days where I am sure that I am to be pitied above all men; "[since] the dead rise not, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die."
Then I remember that God does not work the same way that I do, and his ways don't have to make sense to my modern way of thinking, nor even to my postmodern one; and while that strikes me as surely being a ridiculous cop-out excuse to have faith in something exceedingly unlikely, still it's enough for me. Sometimes.
My current dealings are with the Bible and how I approach it and understand it qua inspired writing. I just finished reading on Monday a most fascinating book by Bart Ehrman, "Misquoting Jesus: The Story of Who Changed the Bible and Why," a decent introduction into the world of textual criticism and the process by which the New Testament has come down to us over the centuries.
I can't speak to the experience of others. In the groups I associated with as a new Christian, there was a lot of emphasis on the Bible as a revealed text. By that I mean that the Bible was regarded as essentially dictated by God, if not in as strict a sense as Muslims believe the Quran was revealed to Mohammed, then still in a manner that left it free of any error at all. And then, I was taught, it was copied faithfully through the centuries so that the Greek manuscripts we have today are virtually identical to what the authors wrote in the first century A.D.
Except for a few places, but nothing that greatly affects anything of importance.
Except sometimes it is pretty significant. My study Bible notes that the first half of John 8, where Jesus rescues a woman caught in adultery, is not found in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts; and proponents of using the King James Version regularly point out that modern translations omit the Johannine appositive, the only place in the Bible that explicitly states the doctrine of the Trinity. (That's because the first time it shows up in any Greek manuscript is the time of Desiderius Erasmus and his publication of the Textus Receptus in the early 16th century.)
Ehrman's book doesn't say anything revolutionary or shocking, at least not to me, but in my mind he does a fascinating job of laying out, in black and white, a part of how the New Testament came to be. He gives a history of textual criticism and the principles that have been developed for assessing which manuscripts are closest in form to the originals, explains the circumstances under which the epistles, gospels and other canon books were copied in the first three centuries A.D. in particular, and then gives specific examples of how the Scriptures were changed, sometimes deliberately, by those copyists. (Hence the standard footnote in many Bibles: "Other manuscripts say 'blah blah blah.'")
I found this part the most compelling reading, honestly. There were heretics like Marcion, who excised all references to the Hebrew Scriptures, because he believed that Jesus was the son of a God who had come to rescue us from the vengeful God of the Jews. We should expect that, but what is striking is that there were also copyists who redacted the manuscripts against heresies, to strengthen the case for what we now consider orthodox belief. Others edited the gospels to harmonize them, which is why some Greek manuscripts have the Lord's Prayer the same length in both Matthew and Luke, and yet in older manuscripts, it is shorter in one of them.
In some sense, I found Ehrman's book to be a window into the mechanism of inspiration. We generally hold as a precept of faith that God inspired the biblical writers. Does that mean that he also inspired the later copyists who added to the Scripture? Sometimes their changes are significant, when they changed a word and it endured into later manuscripts -- does the Greek in the book of Hebrews say that "Christ bears all things," or that he "manifests all things?" -- and helped to form the basis for doctrine; and sometimes it's mind-boggling. John 1, for instance, is a beautiful hymn in praise of the Logos-become-flesh, and yet textually it's quite credible to claim that it was a later add-on to the Johannine gospel, since the motif of Logos, so central to that hymn, is never again used in the gospel.
The book I'm reading now is Ehrman's "Jesus, Interrupted," which so far has focused on the differences among the gospel narratives. Ehrman notes, for instance, that the synoptics place the Last Supper on the night of the seder meal. John's gospel, though, stipulates that the Last Supper was held on the Day of Preparation, meaning the seder meal would have been held on Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified.
So which is it? Was the Last Supper a seder meal, or was it held the night before the seder meal? There's other stuff that we're all aware of, like John placing the purging of the Temple at the start of Jesus' ministry, and the synoptics placing it during the Passion.
Ehrman's point, and it's a valid one, is that when we try to harmonize these texts and insist that they agree when they actually don't, we can create some interesting hermeneutical headaches. The truth is that each of the evangelists had a different point he was trying to convey with the details he included in his gospel.
John the Evangelist emphasized Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The synoptic writers were focused on the seder meal and how Jesus reinterpreted its elements to refer to himself. The christological points are compatible, but the narrative details are not.
I know some people would say that this is an assault on the integrity of Scripture, since its mystery is diminished by close scrutiny, but I don't see it that way. I find that it deepens the mystery, and while it does shift my understanding of the nature of the role Scripture plays in my faith, it doesn't remove it.
The Kingdom of God remains a thing of wonder to me. Perhaps I should say the Dream of God, or the Revolution of God; in some way, I think those expressions encapsulate the subversion that Jesus had in mind when he spoke of the new kingdom that had arrived. It's a revolutionary idea that can shake the world to its foundations if we allow ourselves to catch God's dream.
I don't believe that dream is essentially eschatological, played out in a grand battle between Good and Evil that will culminate on the plains of Har Megiddo. Nor do I believe that it is soteriological, and concerned principally with whether people go to heaven or to hell when they die. And I definitely don't believe that is ontological in the manner that Joel Osteen and other prosperity preachers posit, where Christ simply helps us to realize our full potential and makes us rich.
I find instead that the Kingdom of God is, and always has been, Incarnational, that it arrives within us, and changes not only us but our relationships with others, so that we perceive the connections that join us with the broad spread of humanity.
By God's grace, we learn to see Jesus not only in ourselves, but in those who help us, in those whom we help, and in everybody else whose path we either cross or do not cross. And you realize that if the Kingdom of God has arrived in this manner, then certain actions become unthinkable. War is unacceptable in any situation. So is hunger. So are racism, homophobia, and all the many ills that plague society.
And if you're determined to follow Jesus, that means you have to change not only the way you live your own life in private, but also the way you deal with other people. So when Westboro Baptist Church comes to town, you don't just pray for them, and you don't just go there and counterprotest, you go there and you take a stand for your neighbors whom they hate.
It can be fun to quibble over whether Jesus properly could be called a liberal or a conservative, but that's properly considered a bifuraction fallcy. I find that Jesus is someone who defies easy characterization as liberal or conservative, and who could give us all a blistering earful if we would really listen to him about what he thinks. I find that walking with Jesus means walking with integrity, pursuing justice for everyone, and speaking up against injustice, against evil, and against pettiness when the moment comes.
That's informed political opinions of mine, but I like to think that I can respect that other people have political convictions different from mine, based on the same Scriptures that I hold to be sacred, just I can respect other Christians whose beliefs vary widely from mine. (As far as doctrine goes, I find that very little matters to me anymore in terms of argument, save primarily where it touches on the person of Christ, and even there, I'm passionate only about the essentials.)
I don't even know where I stand on evangelism anymore. I am weary past death of the belief that we must harangue people over their sins so that we can then tell them that Jesus will forgive them the sins that we have labored mightily to convince them that they need forgiveness for, especially when that's not an approach that either Jesus or the Apostles used when they proclaimed who he was. I find it offensive and obnoxious when people hit me with that sort of drive-by evangelism, and I refuse to be party to it myself.
The good news should never have been "You're going to hell," and at this point I am still looking for a way to proactively share in words the renewal and restoration that Christ promises, because I've come to realize that all of us really do have a messianic longing within us for the renewal and restoration he promises. We all seek it, whether we are the activist who wants to see polluted rivers come to life again, the worker hungry for economic justice in a system that favors the wealthy and powerful, or the impassioned teacher who wants to help her children break free of the limits they have placed on themselves. The desire for that Easter experience is common to humanity, and surely there are natural ways to share what we have found that don't rely upon argument.
So, to sum up a long and winding answer to a fairly simple question, I don't know what I'm finding about the Kingdom of God. As I said when I began this, my faith has been in a state of progressive collapse for about 20 years now. I went to Haiti certain of many things, and when I returned two years later, Jenn Drescher could only demand an explanation. "You changed in Haiti," she told me one fall morning. "And it's not a good change."
No, and thank goodness; it was a much deeper change than one that was merely good. While I was there I realized how badly conceived my faith structures were, and how little they could explain life outside the echo chamber of my evangelical experience. To this day Phil and Lonnie Murphy remain two of the most significant figures in my life as a Christian, because of the friendship they extended to me and because of the work they did there.
If things were shaken in Haiti, they really started to fall apart seven years ago when we lost Isaac, and I reached the point that I would have given Jesus the finger and walked out on him if there had been anywhere else to go. About three years ago the last, delayed shreds of grief and betrayal over the loss of our church when we most needed it, took what was left.
I have no theological insights to offer, no great insights into the Kingdom of God to share. All I can say is that everything I once believed is in a shambles. Christ has ruined me for life, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.