Monday, February 15, 2021

Unexamined Assumptions 1

As usual, the likelihood of me finishing is small, but I have tried over and over to find a way to express my sense of things Christian, biblical, and philosophical. I have started many attempts here. I have started many attempts privately. I have emailed snippets to my children. Let me start again.


1. We cannot help where or to whom we are born. We are born at a place and time, and we have no choice whatsoever in the occasion. We thus learn to swim in a certain water. We are inevitably indoctrinated without knowing it. Even if we rebel against that "indoctrination," the thesis sets the terms of our antithesis. That is to say, our starting point sets the terms for any rebellion.

I was born into a wonderful home. My parents not only believed in God, but they lived in full surrender to God in keeping with their understanding. They were incredibly loving. In fact, as the youngest child and the only boy, I was possibly spoiled. They came to my sports and academic events. They cheered me on. And they bragged to others about me--probably too much.

My parents were intelligent, and they genetically bequeathed to us children an above-average intelligence. None of us are exactly geniuses. I have joked to my children that any biography of me might nicely be titled, "Not Quite a Genius." But we are no dummies. Three of us have been involved with education. One is a nurse. All five of us are involved in ministry.

2. At the same time, our belief system, our paradigms, were fairly simplistic. We had the beliefs of fundamentalists without the rigid flavor. We did not go to movies or eat out on Sundays. But exceptions were made. If your ox falls in a ditch on the Sabbath, you can get it out (Luke 14:5).

I would describe our worldview as "pre-modern." By pre-modern I mean unreflective about our assumptions. We didn't know what we didn't know. Of course, no one can be reflective about all their own assumptions. Perhaps I grew up with a vague awareness of other alternatives. We used the King James Version, although we were aware of other versions out there. We didn't believe in evolution, although we didn't really know much about it. We might make fun of the other options without knowing much of the arguments.

In the 1980s, with the rise of the Christian right, we would conform to the rising "anti-modernism." The difference in my mind between a pre-modern and an anti-modern is that the pre-modern either isn't aware of the other options or only has a vague sense of them. The anti-modern fights them. The anti-modern fights and debates evolution. The anti-modern fights the NIV translation in favor of the King James.

And that seemed fun to me. Again, I never had a harsh attitude toward people on the other side. But the idea of vanquishing the ignorant or perverse infidel was fun. It was the sport, the fun of it. Obviously, evolutionists were stupid. Obviously, there must be something wrong with the character of those who advanced the NIV.

I was not afraid to be around those sorts of people. I had a certain ignoramic cockiness about me. "Bring up your challenges to what I think. I'll figure it out." I was quite confident the side on which I had been born was right about it all. I even thought once in high school, "How amazing it is... what are the odds that I would just happen to be born in the group that had everything right?" 

Of course, those odds aren't good for anyone. In fact, I seriously doubt there is any group that has it all right. The cocky confidence of my certainty in high school and college would begin to erode in seminary and beyond. When I was doing my doctoral work in England I would remark to myself, "I wonder if I would have had less of a faith crisis if I had been raised in a group that was more educated." 

3. I was not smart enough to come up with answers to many of the ideas I encountered as I moved further in my learning. And the answers I read from others often didn't make any sense to me. My Damascus Road experience was Easter Sunday in 1987. For some reason, I read the whole book of Galatians that day, April 19, 1987. I am very thankful to God for that turning point, when I realized that I aligned more with Paul's opponents than with Paul.

Why did my trajectory change? I do think in part I was not smart enough to come up with "ingenious" explanations to support my anti-modernism. Others were and are. But I would say now that they are not really interested in the truth. They simply apply their considerable intellect toward justifying what they already think, toward "cooking the books."

I think also I had perhaps been infected by science. I have always loved math and science. I was convinced of the scientific method long before there were post-liberals to try to talk me out of it. And, ironically, fundamentalism uses the tools of modernism to fight against it. So my quest against evolution developed the very scientific tools that were used to support evolution.

It did not happen all at once, but I eventually became convinced that God was on the side of reason and evidence. I don't mean to say that the "evidence demands a verdict," but that the truth is reasonable. It is not irrational to be a Christian. X usually marks the spot. We should not have to "cook the books" to make the evidence come out our way. 

If you could prove to God that he did not exist, he would say, "Well, what do you know about that?" and disappear. It is of course a ludicrous statement. I say it simply to indicate that I believe God is on the side of truth, of reason, and of evidence. Faith is not usually blind. Faith is reasonable. "I believe in order to understand."

4. I am writing these reflections because I believe the American church has a serious problem, a truth problem. Our fundamentalism and anti-modernism have made us gullible. We are prone to what I might call "magical thinking." While we say we are fighting for the truth, we are often only fighting for our traditions or tribes. We are irrational. We believe conspiracy theories. To put it bluntly, sometimes we not only make God look stupid but immoral.

I believe God looks on our hearts. If we have to have it all figured out, we're in trouble. If we can only get to God by climbing up the mountain to him, we are in trouble. If revelation is not God stooping down to our weakness and speaking in "goo-goo gah-gah," we are in trouble, for that is all we could understand.

Sometimes the Bible plays a strange role in our ignorance. While we may not realize it, we all interpret the Bible. Its meaning and application do not come installed on our hard drives. We have to input its meaning. We have to interpret it. Often, we use the Bible as a mirror for what we already think. We see what we want to see. We make it mean what we want it to mean.

It is a strange thing. A complete imbecile can take a Bible and think that he or she understands the very mind of God when in fact only pronouncing stupidities. The Bible can be a tool of power whereby an idiot claims to speak for God when really only babbling. I am not strictly speaking of intelligence here, for there are plenty of incredibly intelligent idiots. Meanwhile, there are plenty of individuals with the heart of Christ who may not have a high IQ.

Even worse, plenty of immoral people have used the Bible as a path whereby they might seduce the people of the church and the world. Every year we hear of the fall of another spectacular preacher, speaker, or apologist who all the while was involved in some horrible scandal. So we see also that even knowing the truth isn't quite enough. "It is not the hearers of the Law who are righteous before God but the doers of the Law will be justified" (Rom. 2:13).

Of course, I wonder if these individuals often do not have a balanced sense of the whole truth. I wonder if there are Christian intellectuals who know things with their head but do not clearly manifest "knowing" Christ with their whole heart. I believe the real, whole truth fits with a real knowledge of Christ. But what if many in the church neither know the full truth nor the true heart of Christ?

5. In the following pages I want to share a little of my own intellectual and spiritual journey. I certainly do not claim to be a model of spirituality, and I welcome insight from others in that area. Matters of the Holy Spirit and wisdom are not a matter of science. My sense of things is very much open to revision and growth of understanding.

By contrast, there are many other things that I think I know beyond a reasonable doubt. Certainly, I may be self-deceived. I would be a hypocrite if I were not open to critique on these things. But these are not just my ideas. These are matters that I would consider a consensus of those who know the most about these issues and have an open mind. 

There are always ingenious come-backs. Many will know that I do not always use the word ingenious as a compliment. In my opinion, some truths are so obvious that only an ingenious person could come up with some way to explain them away. My response is usually to smile, admire the ingenuity, and of course suspect that this person isn't really interested in what is true.

Most of these things concern the Bible, but there is inevitably some philosophy and theology mixed in as well. For example, while I respect and am quite fond of the King James Version, I do not think it gives us the most likely original text of the Bible. There are implications here. If God did not think it essential to preserve the exact wording of the biblical text, it probably implies something.

My goal in these pages is to lead the reader to a more informed faith. I know that assumes that my understandings of many things are somewhat informed. You will have to be the judge. You are welcome to lead me on further. The goal is to walk away from an ignorant faith. The goal is to lead us away from a fundamentalist faith. 

I write these words in the aftermath of the 2020 election...


Martin LaBar said...

"While we may not realize it, we all interpret the Bible. Its meaning and application do not come installed on our hard drives."

John Mark said...

I do hope you continue this. I will mention one similar experience. When I became a full-time preaching pastor with limited experience and even less education I preached from Mark's gospel for two solid years. My epiphany was realizing how much I liked the Pharisees. I could relate so well so often. Judgmental and hypocritical while at times sincerely wanting to be godly (as some surely did), I wonder if I would have followed them to the end. I hope not.