Saturday, November 20, 2010

Agnostic Christian

Being a Christian does not mean having all the answers. It does not mean that you have no doubts. It means seeking to follow Jesus wherever he leads.

One of the things I find myself considering and re-considering at the moment is the Bible. What is it? What is its role in the life of the Christian? Here's what I'm thinking:

The bible is not a book of answers, rather, it is a guide book - containing a pattern of how to live or what to do, rather than actually answering the big questions in life. In fact, I'd go further than that and say that it isn't so much a guide book as a record of what believers in the past did and believed. Sometimes the stories are there as a warning rather than as a guide.

Amazingly, its now over four years since I wrote this post about the role of the Bible and this post about 2 Timothy 3:16-17. I was basically thinking the same stuff back then, although I'm probably about to be a little bit more heretical now than I was then...

You see, I don't think I can consider the Bible as, in any way, a proof of anything anymore. I'm not sure I was ever of the opinion: "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it", but I'm now a bit further from that opinion. I'm now more like: "The Bible says it, that shows us something of what the person who wrote that bit of the bible believed, that opens up a whole heap of interesting questions..."

You see, for many years I read the Bible, and occasional books by apologists about the Bible, and occasional 'sound' commentaries on the Bible, but all stuff written from the perspective that the Bible is the inspired Word (with a capital 'W') of God.

More recently (and I guess this goes back to about 1994, when I read Robin Lane Fox's "The Unauthorised Version", if you call that 'recently') I've been reading some books which take a more 'liberal' or 'critical' look at the Bible and the more I read, the more layers of interesting (yet 'heretical') stuff I begin to see in the Bible. Stuff that's always been there but that I was prevented in seeing from my 'Evangelical' perspective.

The problem is, the more you read, the less sure of the Bible you become. Take, for example, the first couple of chapters of Genesis. I was taught to read this as one continuous creation story, and yet when you look at it closely, there are two different stories which are completely irreconcilable. In one, God creates everything, with man being the pinnacle of creation - made in the very image of God - to rule over creation. In the other, God creates the world and sees that it needs a caretaker, so he creates man to work in the garden, and gives strict commands to the man to work and stay in his place. Basically, God has not created a ruler, but a slave. And its into this situation that the Prometheus character comes, offering the man the chance to break his chains and become free. Not a devil, but the one who frees mankind from slavery. These are two conflicting and contradictory versions of the character of God. The weird thing is that most modern Christians believe that God has the character from the first story, but that we originated in the second...

Here, viewed 'critically', it is clear that there were (at least) two different ancient stories, which some later editor lumped together into one edited work. As far as I can tell, based on some of the things I have read, this editor lived in the time of the Babylonian exile, possibly later than that. That is, several thousand years after the events he's compiling a book about. I wonder what stories he left out? Presumably ones that didn't fit with his world view?

But if this is an edited work, representing the beliefs of the editors, that means that quite a lot of information may be missing, and the 'facts' may be nothing of the sort.

So where does that leave us now?


That means I have to be agnostic on many issues. Many, many issues. Almost everything, if we're honest.

Lets go for a biggie... Did God create the universe?

I dunno. The bible says that he created 'the heavens and the earth' (Genesis) or 'the worlds' (Hebrews), but as the bible doesn't count as proof, and nothing I can experience of God now can tell me about events thousands or millions of years ago, I have to remain agnostic on this one. God might have created utterly everything, or he might be part of that everything and only have created a little bit of it, or he might not be the creator, but still be God. (I said I was going to get heretical, didn't I?)

While I'm not denying the actual reality of God, through his Spirit, in the here and now, I'm beginning to perceive a fairly large chasm between our current experience and the written word. No current experience can count as evidence for any historical claim.

The problem with that statement above is that all we know about the relationship between 'God' and 'his Spirit' comes from the book that I've just said we can't be sure about.

Hmmm. Seems like I don't know anything anymore. I am agnostic.


Anonymous said...

The best I can muster up is to say that the Bible represents a Constitution, of sorts.

It doesn't proove anything, and the Christian faith existed for a fair while before it was even written.

But what it does do is give us the rules of the game. It shows what the founders of our faith believed; but more importantly it asks us if we are willing to work with it.

Christianity is not about "knowing" God created the world, its about taking the religion handed to us and seing if it makes a little bit more sense of things. if it doesn't, why? What has it got wrong? If its irredeemable, throw it away. If not, then keep it.

Red said...

Interesting post and I feel compelled to answer :) I, like you have read a lot of books 'around' Christianity and the bible. I like to take an academic approach if you like. I throw myself into whatever I do in life, I always want to know everything there is to know about a subject. So in terms of faith, I read the bible, yes, but I also read books about the bible. I want to know about the history of the bible, who wrote what and when, what were the social circumstances surrounding when it was written and so on. And whilst I find this a very useful excercise in really getting an understanding of what is written, there is a fine line between understanding and doubt. Not that doubt is wrong - I like the Willard quote you have on your blog - BUT... I believe in order for doubt to be acceptable, we have to have a real grasp on what we think we believe in the first place, if that makes sense? The problem with too much reading and head knowledge is that it inteferes with the heart. The thing about faith is that God has given us the right to chose for ourselves what we believe. He is not going to show up on our doorsteps and say 'right here I am, believe now?' and then leave us to it. Even if he did I'm sure many would find a way around believeing that he really appeared to them.

So (and sorry this is becoming lenghty!) in terms of the bible, I think at some point one has to just accept that it is the Word of God. God given, however it happened or whoever wrote it. Something about us in the 21st Century (which is only fuelled by technology and the media) is that we have this in-built desire to need evidence or facts to believe something. We are taught to question everything, to make our own opinion. But the thing about God is, without stating the obvious, He is God. How can we hope to understand all there is to know about God? So many of us are on this quest to really discover 'The Truth', but without opening our hearts to believe, we won't find it.

I'm not sure if that helps or not but I felt I should comment.
red :)

Anonymous said...

I feel I have to disagree with Red's post.

It implies that Christianity is not rational, and that we cannot come to accept it as true without faith... yet

"The thing about faith is that God has given us the right to chose for ourselves what we believe"

This to me is a contradiction.

Either Christianity is falsifiable, and it's up to us to believe it.

Or Christianity is faith-based, and it is up to God to illuminate our hearts/minds to recieve the gospel.

- Perhaps we are both wrong.

maybe there is a missing middle somewhere, where parts of our religion are accessable by reason, and parts that require God to reveal himself to us.

Maybe the Bible offers a route to both of these?

Anonymous said...

The problem with protestantism (said as a proud protestant) is that we tend to seperate the Bible from the community of believers who wrote it.

No one sat down and thought "today I am feeling particularly inspired by an infallible Spirit"

but that is what we keep asking of it.

We can't expect the Bible to work as a stand alone tool-to-salvation. It simply cannot exist outside of a worhipping community.

And worship must come first.

First we worship, and then we believe, not as an end unto itself, but rather we believe that we might understand; God, the world, ourselves

Mike McQuaid said...

Very interesting post and I agree with many of Marko's comments.

In my mind not "knowing" anything is an academically strong place to reason from. I'm sure you and I both have our opinions on lots of issues but it takes humility to admit you don't know for sure. It also makes you more reliant on God and trust in the Spirit for guidance rather than simply picking your interpretation and telling everyone else they are wrong.

Kabas said...

Red said: "Just have Faith. Don't think, just believe.

And tithe! God needs your money."


Ricky Carvel said...

Red said:

"I think at some point one has to just accept that it is the Word of God."

But what happens if you don't? John's gospel is quite clear that Jesus is the Word of God and, by implication, that the writings about him are just that, writings.

They could be wrong. If they're not, then faith becomes relatively easy, but if the writings are a fallible human creation (even if they talk about an infallible divine), then faith becomes complex. But nobody ever claimed this would be easy, did they?

Anonymous said...

"John's gospel is quite clear that Jesus is the Word of God and, by implication, that the writings about him are just that, writings"

You are very close, to my understanding, Ricky.

But let's nuance it a bit:

If we're believing that Jesus is central, and the bible is important for *no other reason* than that it points to him.

That is what makes it sacred.

Not because it is a magical tool, useful for answering all our questions.

But because it reflects the sacred.

As we do.

As our reason does.

We know it points to him because it was written, and used by the people who knew him; or at least by their communities and followers.

The Bible puts us in touch with the tradition of Christian worship, as it was within a generation of Christ's death.

Anything further, about infalibility is a secondary question; one which rides on the mery-go-round of semantics and circular reasoning.

Faith is supposed to be complicated, because it is more about the Spirit of God dwelling within a community of believers...

Not a finite set of rules.

The Bible cannot be seperated from the Church, from fellowship, or from the life-lived-out as a Christian.

Kimmery said...

Thank you very much for this. Lately I've been thinking about being something of an "agnostic Christian," the best way I could articulate it to myself, and reading this could not have come at a better time.