The Bible or Life: Which comes first?

Much religious conversation between Christians and non-Christians is a non-starter: it’s over before it even begins.  Why?  Because before any discussion begins the parties typically have radically opposing views about how to understand human existence.

Here Christians effectively insist: think like me (i.e., accept my beliefs on faith) and then you’ll understand Christianity—and so all of reality—correctly.  Non-Christians, for reasons that I’ve already discussed, find this offensive and effectively insist: think (i.e., get in touch with reality, like the rest of us) and then you’ll understand the world (and Christian belief) correctly.

This antithesis represents the different answers that we hold about starting points: which comes first, Christian belief or life experience?

Most Christians that I know do not even recognize this as being a question.  In other words, most Christians have an implicit ‘answer’ that is short and decisive: the Bible conditions how we understand existence.  Full stop.  Any other view contradicts their beliefs and so must be wrong.  For most non-Christians that I know the question, when given any air time, is less implicit but the response no less short and decisive: existence conditions how we understand the Bible.  Full stop.  Any other view is illogical because it negates experience, and so must be wrong.

Yet both of these views fall prey to reductionism: the claim that we can only understand matters in one way (or else be wrong).  And the result of reductionism is polarization: holding an absolute position that precludes dialogue, just as I have described above.

Strikingly though, I think that both parties are right and wrong: truth need neither be circumscribed by a certain belief system nor limited to a given groups’ rationality or experience.  In other words, both views require re-formulation because both fail to reflect both the complexity / diversity of human existence and the specificity of the biblical text.

Let’s start with the typical Christian perspective.  When Christians consider (and do not dismiss) the above question, how do they respond?  A Christian professor of mine did so by citing what he called the Christian tetralectic (or “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”).  He suggested that in order to arrive at truth Christian thinking draws from four sources: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.  When asked how to adjudicate between them when they are in conflict, he responded that a Christian should always privilege Scripture.

His model assumes that Christianity is good and the Bible is valuable, which indeed it may be.  Yet it fails to assume that Christianity can also be bad and the Bible problematic.

Here are two examples:

First, a philosopher referred to writing as two-edged sword—a “Pharmikon,” he called it.  In brief, writing is valuable for recording events and can contain, and present things in a manner that speech cannot.  Yet writing is problematic in that it effectively replaces memory and can give the appearance of knowledge without any real understanding.

The role of the Bible as Scripture, a text that is determinative for life and practice, is similar.  Scripture helps Christians to understand who God is and what Christian practice is about, but can be problematic when Christians equate these understandings with God and with practicing the Christian life.

Second, the problem becomes worse—and the solution more inaccessible—when entire Christian contexts are characterized by corruption or dysfunction (as the corrupt church in Nazi Germany / apartheid South Africa, but also the dysfunctional church as characterized by over-confidence and informed by a good portion of current, biblical hermeneutics).

Within such contexts the only endorsed interpretations of Scripture are those that validate (and so perpetuate) this very context.  Yet one can only reject such corruption or dysfunctionality by privileging one’s experience and understanding over such interpretations of Scripture.1

While the discussion is much longer, this highlights the need for a crucial modification to my former professor’ model: where his embraces faith (in Scripture, in reason, in experience, in tradition) we need also suspicion.  And we need not only suspicion of others but also the ability to re-orient it towards ourselves.

When Christianity is WRONG

When should a Christian reject Christianity?

The very fact that I ask that question means, for many, that I cannot be a “real” Christian.  But for those for whom it doesn’t (or who are willing to hear me out), here’s what I’m thinking:

In 1984 Nicholas Wolterstorff penned a book about being a scholar and a Christian (gendered language duly noted).  In it, he writes:

“For the Christian to undertake scholarship is to undertake a course of action that may lead him into the painful process of revising his actual Christian commitment, sorting through his beliefs and discarding some . . . It may, indeed, even lead him to a point where his authentic commitment has undergone change.”  (Reason with the bounds of Religion, pp. 96 & 97).

Earlier he summarized his intention for the current chapter and contextualized the previous quotation:

“So far I have been pressing the point that the Christian in the practice of scholarship ought to let the belief-content of his authentic commitment function as control over his theory-weighing.  My emphasis here is almost the opposite.  Sometimes he should allow scientific developments to induce revisions in what he views as his authentic Christian commitments.”  (p 94, his emphasis).

My focus here is the same as Wolterstorff’s: what one views as one’s authentic Christian commitment.  In other words, what a Christian takes to be (and then presumably makes of) the content of his/her commitment to Christianity.  However, my view is not that Wolterstorff’s idea is excessive, but that it is insufficient.

Specifically, Wolterstorff notes that “scientific developments” can bring revisions to one’s beliefs.  I heartily agree.  In essence he is concerned to ensure that our belief is authentic.  Yet surely it is not only scientific developments but existential developments that prompt revisions to our beliefs?  Are not both informers that we should consider?

My point is that certain existential developments (or a series of such) can not only make one doubt one’s beliefs but, under certain circumstances, should prompt one to revise one’s view of the authenticity of Christian belief.  Murder, child abuse, and the deception and power-mongering by the clergy—or particularly, all of them combined—within one’s personal experience may, depending on one’s circumstances, paint the stark and undeniable picture that evil is more powerful (and more real) than the Christian God.

In general terms, it seems to me that where scientific developments can prompt revision of belief content, existential developments can additionally prompt revision of the very possibility of authenticity of the belief itself.

As such, “revising” may necessarily result in rejecting Christianity.  Stated differently, none of us can hold that Christian belief is ultimately true, for we are contingent and finite.  And if our best and most “authentic” resources point to the contrary, then sticking with Christian belief despite such makes us (at least) fools and liars.

My goal is not to castigate Christianity: I am a Christian.  Nor do I believe that God is anaemic or merely an idea (as opposed to an entity).  Nor, finally, do I believe that anything is more central to God’s character than truth and love.

Rather, I am concerned that in their efforts to encourage their fellow Christians to think through hard questions, these Christians would render their fellows less human.  How so?  Because despite our contingency, for Christians the only “unrevisable” revision is Christian belief itself.  Yet in some cases, failing not only to accept but to encourage the disbelief (and even atheism) of others vis-à-vis their experience of this God or that Jesus–the central issue raised by the biblical prophets, that is, false religion–is tantamount to a betrayal of their very humanity.

In theological terms, denying our most authentic existential resources denigrates both our creatureliness and the biblical affirmation that creation is not only good but is good enough as a resource for all to help us decide how (and how much) God is good, is love, or just is.

Think about it this way:

Insofar as atheism claims to be the pursuit of truth relative to religion, and truth is quintessential to the Christian God, can there be a religious–and indeed, Christian–significance to atheism?

Love and truth: the road and the destination

Before going further I think it important to indicate why I’m writing about this topic: why I think it’s an important topic and what I hope to gain by writing on it.

First, my general topic is evangelical Christianity.  More particularly, given my experience of God “showing up” in my existence, I’m interested in why evangelical Christianity is a good thing and what “works” about it.  However, in order to get there much of what I’m going to write about is why evangelical Christianity is a bad thing and what doesn’t “work” about it.

For some people, holding such a contradictory stance (because I really do mean bad—not just “misunderstood” or “regrettable”—and I really do mean doesn’t work—not just “in process” or “fallible”) is a non sequitur.  This is because in many cases Christianity as a whole is either a very good thing or a very bad thing.  And the matter is settled.  If you are in either of these camps, I hope in the course of my writing to change your mind about this.

Literally.  In other words, if you are a Christian (or are well-disposed towards Christianity) I hope to have you see the very real problems and failures with Christian belief and practice and to embrace better ways of believing and living: ways that orient you toward yourself, others, your world, and God with more truth and greater love.  In essence, “better” because they are more Christian in being more authentically human, and more human in being more truly Christian.

And if you are a non-Christian (or are ill-disposed towards Christianity) I hope in the same course to have you re-consider the possibilities and value in Christianity—I hope to re-open what is likely, for you, a closed discussion.

I hope to do this by offering resources such that accepting these possibilities is not an act of stupidity or desperation but is legitimate and valid.  “Legitimate” in that it is commensurate with your best aspirations for selfhood and your clearest understanding of truth about the world and your existence.  “Valid” because it engages an essential interaction of affirming (you and your beliefs) while yet critiquing (them in direction of your / their ownmost possibilities).  Legitimate and valid, in essence, because their acceptance completes selfhood, understanding, and relationship in the direction of more truth and greater love.

Throughout this writing one of my key presuppositions is that these two things are co-central to both human existence and Christian faith (or more so, to the Christian God): truth and love, love and truth.  Yet this is not only where I’m coming from but, actually, where I’m ultimately headed.

Yes, literally.  As Augustine believed that the goal of human life was happiness (not God or relationship with God), so I believe that that which is most essential to human existence is love and truth (not God or relationship with God).  Now I too, like Augustine, believe that God (the Christian God, whose identity and character do need fleshing out, though we’ll put this off for now) has a good bit to do with how this works out—more on this too, later.

But suffice it for now to indicate my belief that love and truth are the two key constituents to the topic under discussion, both as its goals and its means.

Two roads not to take

It is difficult at the outset to know which direction to take: to discuss how/why evangelical Christianity has value, or to begin by examining how (and how much) evangelical Christianity is broken.  I’ll explain my choice by way of analogy.

After completing my graduate studies I ran across something that I had never experienced or had an interest in: a community dance.  I fell in love.  After so many years of living “in my head” I was suddenly aware of just how much of me simply could not be expressed through my intellect, or even my voice or pen.  Unlike church I attended regularly for several years, finding it a catalyst for catharsis: within my dance I could bring out my pain, my frustration, and loneliness.  I did not dance them away, but let them be.

Before I left Vancouver I had a chat with the founder.  He had started this dance—a family-friendly, no drugs / alcohol, not-for-profit event—because he just wanted to dance.  No club scene, no strings.  I was considering starting a similar community dance in my new town but had no skill as a DJ.  The best tip he gave me was this: play what you like.  You won’t please everyone, so if you can’t get into it then it’s not worth doing and really, it won’t work.

As with dancing, so too those who read these entries may have diverging views about what should be said first in a blog making such big claims (i.e., Christianity is real—prove it!  Evangelical Christianity is deeply flawed—prove it!).  Yet in keeping with my favourite DJ’s perspective, I’m going with what’s on my front burner at the moment and will move on from there.

But my story about dancing is more than a long-winded analogy.  Beyond being cathartic for my negative emotions dancing was also the space where I could best express my response to the fullness of the love and truth that I encounter: through my existence, my family, my world, and my experience(s) of a God who actually shows up.

Joy.

And that too is why I’m doing this—why I’m writing.  (As an aside I think it should be odd to us, and evoke some suspicion, that the word joy itself is “weird” nowadays and that its connotation seems, somehow, deeply awkward).  So if you’re expecting me to start by laying down proofs you’ll be disappointed, or perhaps happily surprised.  Because being intellectually convinced of something, as important as that is, comes second.  Or rather, where any truth claims to be “full”—making a claim on both my existence and all of existence—and also to be supremely about love, it must be as philosopher Søren Kierkegaard notes: truth that is “for me,” and intimately so.

In my own experience the greatest “truth-for-me” is to be deeply beloved by one who knows me truly, and whom I deeply love in return.  Thus my view that truth and love are co-central to both human existence and Christianity / the Christian God comes not only out of intellectual intuition or theological interpretation but because it has been my experience, and this experience has transformed my life.  Absolute (or ultimate) truth may indeed exist, but as I have no absolute (or ultimate) access to it, it means nothing to me unless it is true for me.

So which road am I taking?  Neither.  I refuse the view that the binary opposition between proving Christianity or disproving it is the only way to go, nor do I believe that “proving” in any modernist sense even represents a valid option.  Instead the path, full of detours and discursions, will take love and truth as joint polar stars towards a way of being that looks for validation through reason and experience, even the experience of joy.