August 4, 2023
Experiential Problems with Faith
This one was tough. I originally wrote a pretty antiseptic description of the issue, then realized what a gut wrenching, soul sucking struggle this has been for me. My 20s were spent in a lonely search for a father figure—I learned to love my dad, but he could never be the nurturing presence I needed. At his funeral, I sobbed because there was no longer any hope for resolution of the tangled mess he’d left behind. I loved Mom. She had her own struggles, but her love and encouragement gave me the ability to have any deep relationships, even if they were few and far between. Losing her was awful.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that seeing God as Father (or Mother) hasn’t been easy or wholly positive for me. I’ve struggled all my life to feel anything about God other than fear, and that has changed only in the last several years. I wanted a dad more than anything, and I’m still looking.
I’ve been in a near constant state of gradual spiritual evolution over the last 40 years (since college), a process which reached a turning point around 2016. Even though I was more comfortable calling myself “Evangelical adjacent” than Evangelical, Evangelicals were still my people. I went to an Evangelical college, listened to Evangelical music, and grew up in a church that anyone from the outside would have called Evangelical. My discomfort was with the anti-intellectualism and vestigial fundamentalism I saw in too many Evangelical churches, and I was Reformed, definitely not Fundamentalist. Those folks were nuts or at least the unwashed masses.
I thought carefully about my beliefs and nuanced them when I learned they didn’t comport with reality. I was distressed by the growing overlap between my people and the Republican Party—a lot of them even thought the Republicans were wishy-washy and needed an infusion of real conservatism. I, on the other hand, voted almost exclusively for Democrats, although I remained officially unaffiliated with any political party. I wanted to be a bridge or at least a moderating influence. I believed in compassion and read Tony Campolo and Ron Sider and Shane Claiborne and thought the Emergent church movement was the bees knees—I was a Progressive Evangelical™.
After the 2016 election, I was one of those hoping vainly that 81% of my people really hadn’t voted for Donald Trump or at least that they had done so with their noses firmly plugged. Sadly, I was wrong. While Evangelicalism may have started as an attempt to soften the rough edges of fundamentalism, the fundamentalists had won. Even more, this could no longer be called a movement where faith drove actions—it was clearly a movement where the safety and comfort of the tribe were paramount. What would Jesus do? Carry an AK47 and blow away bad guys. Loving your enemies was for liberals and wimps. I saw the fruit of their faith, and the fruit was rotten.
In the midst of processing the 2016 election, I was learning new paradigms for viewing faith and scripture—a few examples will suffice:
- Penal substitutionary atonement was only one of many views and a late one at that. It also led to a really toxic view of God as The Great Punisher rather than as a loving father or mother, depending on where you looked in scripture. Mother hen works too.
- A view of scripture as inerrant simply couldn’t hold up. In the first place, what did inspiration even mean? I could buy that the holy breath of God’s spirit infused the many writers with wisdom, but dictating the actual words, all the actual words, was implausible. An omniscient God would have done better proofreading.
- Would the God of truth mess with natural law to perform miracles? Yes, it might be loving, but it would also mislead us as to the reality of the world, wouldn’t it? Would God give wisdom to a chosen few and let the confused masses go to hell? Or did we need to filter our data to exclude miracles—“well, that’s about a miraculous number of standard deviations from the mean”?
- Discoveries in psychology have led to materialistic explanations for much that we’ve thought of as spiritual experience. These could simply be the physical mechanisms by which a spiritual experience occurs, or could we have been over-spiritualizing—indulging our hyperactive agency detectors?
- What is God’s nature? What is the meaning of perfection? Are we stuck on ideas of perfection from Plato, 2,300 years old? Any belief that leads to the conclusion that our ideal bodies would be spheres (yup, both Plato and Origen) is suspect to me, and I’m thinking we need to tweak that one a bit.
This is a work in progress, and there is (already) more to come. At the very least, it will help me to clarify my somewhat jumbled mass of thoughts, although don’t anyone take that as license to label me as confused—I’ma fight you on that one. This is about seeing how my thoughts fit together in a unified whole or as unified as I can manage, not flailing to find the lifeboat of Approved Knowledge. Too many people are sure they know The Truth. If there is anything I’ve learned, it’s that we should be careful of saying anything is certain and even more careful of any person who says they are certain of All The Important Truths. I’ve never seen that work out well.
The Sin of Certainty
It has been suggested that selfishness is humanity’s original sin—viewing our own desires as more worthy than the needs of others. I’d like to suggest (along with Pete Enns) that the original sin of theology is certainty—believing that we can know anything beyond doubt regarding God, that we can somehow make God manageable by precisely defining the attributes of the divine. That is not to claim we can say nothing about God but that it is an act of hubris to suppose that we can somehow constrain the transcendent.
I come from a people who love to think carefully and in great detail about God. Actually, they like to think in great detail about almost anything. They believe logic is boffo, and nuance is the bees knees. And they love to use words, lots of words, to communicate their very logical thoughts.
I honestly appreciate the care that Reformed folks take with theology and their devotion to getting it right, but many fall into the trap of worshipping their theology rather than the living God and Creator of the universe. They turn a loving relationship with a divine person with into intellectual assent to the supremacy of the maximum entity. If they use the right words, all the right words, they can somehow make God comprehensible and overcome their terror at confronting the infinite. Maybe we need God to be terrible and awesome and loving and forgiving. In the words of C. S. Lewis, Aslan isn’t safe, but he is good.
I often say I grew up Evangelical adjacent. Well, ever since the fundamentalists ran roughshod over the more thoughtful pockets of Evangelicalism, they have taken certainty even further by rigidly defining a caricature of God and removing all nuance. Their theology has become a bludgeon with which to smite their enemies and keep the doubters in line. It’s a stick with a carrot of eternal bliss. Oh, and the stick is eternal conscious torment in hell for anyone with unapproved beliefs. And if you were once one of the Chosen (well, faking it, because God protects the salvation of those who are Real Christians) and have chosen to abandon God’s Eternal Truth, you have committed the Unforgivable Sin, and not even the Holy Spirit can return you to the Narrow Way by the Work of the Blood of the Lamb. It’s a scary place to be, and some poor souls fleeing the carnage believe that is where they are headed.
If I’m done with Evangelicalism, why write about this at all? Why not just chuck it and be done? There are several reasons:
- I haven’t said I don’t believe in Christianity but that I don’t know how to believe in it—I am agnostic, not antagonistic. Scripture may well be inspired and authoritative, if not inerrant—I just need to find a new basis for believing that.
- I believe, at minimum, that there is a God because I can’t conceive of a universe without a first cause or creation without a Creator.
- From what I see in the world, I believe God is most likely good—could altruism exist in a world created by an evil deity? Possible, but not probable.
- I want to be like Jesus.
- Christianity is still the language I know—it’s the only coherent way I know to talk about transcendence—and I’m not giving that up, even as my understanding changes drastically.
- My deconstruction has proceeded over such a long period of time that I need to define exactly what it is that I have rejected, if for no other reason, so I understand it myself. Explaining in writing forces me to think clearly.
- While I’ve seen Christians behave horribly, I’ve also seen Christians do enormous good. It’s not that I believe Christians are all bad, just that the Christian exceptionalism that believes the Church is somehow immune to human failings is full of shit.
Let’s look at the ancient words of a mentor to a young pastor:
2 Timothy 2:15 (New Testament: A Translation):
Hasten to present yourself proven to God, a worker unashamed, cutting the word of truth straight.
I don’t take this as Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to be really good at apologetics. I think Paul is encouraging Timothy to do good work and to be intellectually honest—no shortcuts or laziness, no manipulation of his flock. If I’m going to believe anything about the transcendent and eternal, I’m going to endeavor to do my best work. I don’t wish to mislead myself or anyone else with sloppy thinking or halfhearted actions.
Or this, where Paul sends his guidance to a community he cares for and loves:
Philippians 2:12-13 (New Testament: A Translation):
Thus, my beloved ones, just as you have always been obedient (not as if only in my presence, but a great deal more so in my absence), work out your own salvation in reverence and trembling, for it is God who is making active within you both the willing and the working of that which is dearly desirable.
One’s approach to the divine shouldn’t be flippant or slapdash—it needs to be done carefully and with reverence for the person and subject you are approaching. We can hope that God will honor that by giving us the will and the ability to become more holy ourselves each day.
Sooooo . . . where am I going?
- First, I want to document and discuss my deconstruction from both intellectual and experiential perspectives. This has been a long process, really more of a spiritual journey than deconstruction, per se, with roots all the way back to my teens and 20s.
- I don’t expect this to be a process where I arrive at some destination and sit there, fat and happy. I hope to continue to evolve and grow as I learn and experience more, in a process of reconstruction. Or maybe this is all one long pilgrimage, and the last few years have just been a particularly active period of change.
- Lastly, I want to discuss the idea of faith as hope, as it is described in Hebrews 11:1. This is one of many paradigms or perspectives I’ve been exploring as new ways to understand belief and faith, and I’m finding hope and peace as I move from the relative security of the beliefs I was raised with.
This is a work in progress, and I’m posting as I flesh out my basic outline, and not necessarily in order. I’m creating an archive where posts are arranged in a logical progression, so stay tuned. I don’t know where this will lead, but I have enough structure, material, and commitment to follow this arc through to its logical conclusion. After that, we’ll see what comes next. Maybe more cat pictures.
“Deconstruction” has become overused and weighed down with cultural baggage, but I still find it a useful concept. I am disassembling pieces of my spiritual heritage and the framework I’ve built to determine what can support belief and what needs to be discarded or renovated (made new again). This isn’t hipster indulgence (as if—I’m 61 years old), as it is sometimes labelled by religious curmudgeons and the overly certain, but an in-depth analysis of beliefs I’ve inherited and a thorough exploration of alternatives.
There is a sense in which I didn’t deconstruct my faith at all, but because of a weak foundation, it collapsed under its own weight. Once I came to understand key doctrines, like the inerrancy of scripture and penal substitutionary atonement, were untenable, secondary doctrines that relied on them began to crumble like a dynamited building until all that remained was a pile of rubble. Rachel Held Evans called this the unravelling of her faith—tugging on one troublesome thread unknotted the whole garment into a jumble of loose yarn. More technically, this can be described as a collapse of plausibility structures—having left the Evangelical bubble, Evangelical theology became unsupportable of its own without me consciously deconstructing anything.
Whatever the metaphor, there are elements of my received tradition and personal faith that need to be replaced. For some, a patch and some TLC will do. Others I’ll need to discard, no matter how I’ve grown into their familiar shape. An old shoe may feel comfortable but give out when I need it most. Better to break in a new pair than to turn an ankle or slip and fall.
Intellectual & Rational Issues
I intuitively organize my issues with Evangelicalism and my inherited faith into intellectual and experiential pots. I’m a pretty intellectual guy, and the majority of my issues fall into that category, which I’ve further divided into the nature of revelation, the authority of scripture, and philosophical problems.
What can we know about God? As the first cause and creator of the material universe, God is, by definition, transcendent, and as such, not observable as an object in our experience. Transcendence means the idea of God is necessarily an abstract concept and hard to get our heads around—if we could understand God as something in our experience, God wouldn’t be transcendent. There are parts of God that are necessarily outside our experience and any experience we ever could have and can only be understood, partially, by metaphors, using objects within our experience. We describe God as father, mother, son, savior, almighty, creator, spirit, wind, shepherd, king, and a thousand other familiar ideas, which can only hint at the full and true nature of God.
What it comes down to is this: at best, we can understand only bits and pieces of God, that are limited to partial manifestations of God within the material universe or what someone with knowledge of God tells us. God must be revealed to us.
Some attributes of God can be gleaned from observing and thinking about the world around us (general revelation or natural theology)—I believe God exists as a creator because I cannot conceive of a universe without a first cause—but that is limited to generalities. I believe God is probably good based on the good I see in the world, but the doctrine of the Trinity would never occur to me, as it were, out of the blue.
Specifics must come from special revelation—God communicating directly to people. (That is, unless dogs can know the Lord. Cats clearly are demon spawn.) I have not had experiences that I can point to as direct communication from God or empirical observations of God’s presence. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to or haven’t tried, and I’ve had plenty of experiences that are consistent with a loving, good, and creative God. However, none of my experiences has compelled me to believe—I would have loved it if they had.
Many others claim to have had direct experiences of God in prayer, religious ritual, and miracles, and I’m not questioning that they have had these experiences. To accept those for myself as indirect evidence of the divine, however, I must first trust their witnesses as objectively true or sufficiently persuasive for me to believe. Christians have an entire library of testimony to the existence and nature of God in scripture, and to take that received tradition as evidence I must also trust those I received it from and its writers as reliable witnesses.
Authority of Scripture
In Reformed Christianity, Scripture is the single most important revelation of the nature and work of God, and if one takes sola scriptura seriously, it is the only true revelation of God.
All Evangelicals hold a high view of scripture, and I come from the Reformed tradition, which holds to Sola Scriptura—scripture trumps all other sources of revelation and truth. Most Reformed folks also hold to some form of inerrancy—the idea that scripture is without error, although that has been nuanced some:
- Scripture is without error in the autographs (original written form).
- Scripture is without error in all it affirms: this can exclude simple factual disagreements in different accounts and accounts of events which are descriptive rather than prescriptive.
However, I learned that an inerrant view of scripture was not the only way to view inspiration and one that didn’t hold up well. Scripture simply had too many contradictions on its face and was clearly told from too many perspectives. While I’ve had to reject inerrancy, I still believe scripture has a lot to teach us. I’m left, however, with more questions than answers.
- As discussed above, what is the nature of revelation, especially general revelation (natural theology) vs. special revelation (scripture)?
- I believe God exists, but how do we trust divine revelation—how do we know it really is from God? What does it mean for scripture to be inspired?
- If scripture is both inspired and a thoroughly human document, how do we read it? Certainly not as Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.
- How do we read from the perspective of the Biblical writers and their intended audiences? How do we avoid flattening scripture into a 21st century message to 21st century, white, middle-class Americans?
- How can we minimize confirmation bias and reading long held interpretations and cultural assumptions back into scripture? In other words, how do we read scripture again for the first time?
- What is objectivity? We are finite beings with finite perspectives—how do we take on the perspectives of others? Does a truly objective interpretation exist? Would it be helpful even if it did?
My faith rested on scripture and what I read there. We read scripture, recited scripture, interpreted scripture, studied the minutiae of scripture. Our carefully considered worldview was based on the truth of scripture. Every action we took was held up to the mirror of scripture.
There were hard passages, but we responded with nuance and respect for the primacy of the word of God. I was schooled, catechized, and steeped in scripture. When I hung out with the Baptists, I memorized scripture. Certainly, there were questions, but we had well constructed answers, which revealed the depth and beauty of divine revelation in its pages.
For most of my life, my answers to those questions came from received tradition. I grew up believing in God—Christianity was the air I breathed, and belief effortlessly infused my mind. Scripture was the inspired word of God, which taught us all we needed to know for eternal life. It was something I did without conscious thought, even as I learned, and my beliefs became more mature and nuanced. All of that, however, rested on a foundation of trust in my teachers, regardless of whether that was their stated role.
I was taught that scripture—sola scriptura—was the highest form of revelation. We could use our reason to understand scripture, but its truth trumped all church tradition and presumed encounters with the divine. Popes could speak ex cathedra, and their word was infallible, but we were Reformed, and we would have none of that. The Bible was the inspired, infallible, inerrant word of God, and that was what we believed, the strong foundation on which we built our faith. All else was distraction, the wisdom of man, vainglorious striving.
What happened, then, when the witnesses I trusted behaved badly? Could my trust in scripture stand?
As I grew older and saw more clearly the social and political biases of the church in which I was raised, my beliefs grew more and more distant from those of my childhood. I believe that was a worthy maturation, and it enabled me to hold on to a form of those beliefs well into my 50s. I came to see pillars of my faith tradition, especially a penal substitutionary view of atonement, were not the only way to believe—there were historical options I had never been taught. I had never been exposed to whole strains of Christianity, like Orthodox, Catholic, and mainline Protestant positively and even taught they were heretical. As I read and met Christians from other traditions, I was impressed with their commitment and even piety. These were people I’d been taught were liberals and not true Christians, because they twisted scripture, or they didn’t believe Jesus was God. That, or they were legalists, they worshipped Mary, or they were even John’s whore of Babylon. The people I met didn’t fit these distorted stereotypes, and I had to question the wisdom of the people who had taught them to me.
As the poor behavior of my people became more and more pronounced, I had to question the foundations of their profession—was this actual faith, or was it tribal affinity? Were they trying to be like Jesus, or were they just being American conservatives? If character really didn’t matter, as it appeared, what did? Was their conservatism an outgrowth of their faith in God and a reflection of the character of Christ, or was their religious practice an outgrowth of their accustomed way of life and loyalty to the Republican Party?
I have to believe it’s a mix. My people sincerely wanted to be good, but they were blind to how much of their idea of good simply supported their way of life. Liberal ideas like redistributive justice disrupted their comfortable suburban lifestyles and challenged their enlightened sense of noblesse oblige. Are we really good when we give a tiny portion of our wealth to aid the poor or when we blame our problems on the moral decay of immigrants? How is that being like Jesus, who taught us to love the stranger and exalted hated half-breed foreigners as exemplars in his parables?
If I couldn’t trust those who had taught me that scripture was the literal word of God, how could I hold a belief so counterintuitive, so apparently fantastical—that a transcendent, omnipotent being had created all that exists?
Not only was my trust in scripture weakened by the abysmal witness of Evangelicals; reading outside my Evangelical bubble showed me much of what they had taught me was simplistic or just wrong. I learned that much of the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures was likely ahistorical—the children of Abraham weren’t a persecuted minority in Egypt who were bred as slaves but a neighboring Canaanite tribe which became large and difficult and were kicked out by the Egyptians, because they didn’t play well with others. While the gnostic gospels were obvious (albeit ancient) fabrications, core doctrines like the trinity still were unsettled (see eastern church), and none of the gospels were written by apostles. The documentary hypothesis was not liberal hooey but a good faith attempt to understand how the Books of Moses had come to be—oral traditions which had solidified over time into written texts, likely compiled during the Babylonian captivity. The Old Testament had excellent textual integrity from the time it was first written down but was composed in a long process of compilation, borrowing, and revision to support the message each evangelist wanted to deliver. Peter, Paul, and James had real theological differences and argued like cats on a hot summer night. Some canonical epistles were pseudepigraphical, and Paul wasn’t the author of Hebrews. It might have been Apollos—no one knows.
Slavery in Egypt, God’s miraculous salvation, the exodus, and the conquest of Canaan have been the core of Jewish identity and theology for millennia, but now they are revealed as a tribal oral tradition which told history from the perspective of a badly behaved playground bully? And the doctrine of the trinity was a compromise report by a committee? And the Eastern and Western churches still didn’t agree on the nature of the Holy Spirit?
Scripture was sounding less like a holy book dictated by God and more like an unholy mess banged together in a long, difficult, painful process by very fallible, and sometimes distasteful, men, mostly. It was, in short, very human.
For Jews, Catholics, and even Wesleyans, this is hardly news. They have long argued with scripture, and scriptural commentary in the various Targums and Mishnah have nearly the same weight as the inspired word itself. And what does inspiration mean anyway? Not settled. Not simple. Not inerrancy. Even inerrancy has been nuanced and stretched until it means very little, by people trying desperately to hold on to the word in the face of mountains of contrary evidence. This is what happens when evangelicals attempt to be intellectually honest.
Philosophy, in particular, is difficult for me, because I have very little formal training in the subject. I’m trying to be as accurate and fair as possible, but don’t be surprised if I get some details wrong. Oh, I’m also bringing in some Greek words, and I’m bound to screw that up.
I am not a philosopher, and sometimes philosophy’s intricate parsing of words and ideas really can feel like obsessing on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin—it may be an interesting question, but it has little or no bearing on our lived experience. However, philosophy also tackles questions with concrete implications for how we live our lives, which was its original goal—this wasn’t simply the love of knowledge or disputation (annoying ancient Greeks aside) but of wisdom, the practical application of knowledge and experience. Both philosophy and theology seek to address questions of transcendence and meaning (Who are we? Who is God? Why are we here?) along with more tangible / concrete concerns (How do I love God? How do I love my neighbor? Paper or plastic? Is this storm bad luck or divine judgement?).
The study of anything simultaneously so broad and so tangible and intimately connected to living our daily lives is bound to lead to hard questions. While the questions alone haven’t caused me to reject the tradition I was raised in, many of the answers I’ve heard from current Evangelicals fail miserably, presenting a contradictory and bleak view of life and a misanthropic God. I confess to adopting some of philosophy’s stance of radical skepticism, at least as regards the divine. I don’t mean that belief is impossible but that I need to reexamine mine from the roots (Greek: radix, radices) up. What can we really know about God? Does God exist? What is revelation? Can it be trusted? Which beliefs are tradition? Which are conjecture? Which are just plain ludicrous?
I’ve struggled to be accurate and intellectually honest in writing about those failings, partly because I have no formal training in philosophy and partly because these are difficult concepts to communicate, even more so to communicate why they matter to me.
The Nature of God
Evangelicals (especially Calvinists) like to define the attributes of God, most of which can also be called perfections:
- Omnipotence—God is all powerful. God can do anything except that which is logically inconsistent (e.g., making a rock so heavy that they cannot lift it) or inconsistent with God’s perfect nature (e.g., lying).
- Omniscience—God knows all that occurs in creation, including all of our thoughts. God knows all truth.
- Eternality—God has always existed. In fact, God existed before time, if before time is even a thing.
- Transcendence—God (or parts of God) exists outside our reality and is unconstrained by it or its physical laws. God is not contained by any kind of reality but rather contains or surpasses reality.
- Immanence—kinda the opposite of transcendence. God is intimately part of our existence (while simultaneously transcending it). Like I said, difficult concepts.
- Non-contingency—God is the source of all creation and relies on nothing else for existence. God was not made and cannot be destroyed.
- Perfection—This can refer either to God’s general perfection (i.e., the perfection of each of God’s attributes) or to God’s inviolable goodness. God is good, all of God’s actions are good, and God enacts good for all of creation.
As interpreted in much of Evangelical thought, these attributes can lead to viewing God as a maximum entity rather than a loving, personal being, and a major theme of (good) theology is to nuance God’s attributes to avoid conflicts or inconsistencies. A key point is the meaning of perfection—does it simply mean infinite or maximal, or is more about wholeness? For instance, classical theology takes God’s non-contingency to mean that God is absolutely immutable or unchanging, but this robs God of any ability to interact with creation or, heaven forbid, change their mind. An immutable God cannot feel our pain or desire a relationship with us. How can this square with a belief in God’s mercy or love? A God who can’t feel or respond to our pain is hollow and barren, hardly worthy of our worship.
The Problem of Evil
Any discussion of the existence and nature of God must take seriously the problem of evil. If God is the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenvolent being of classical theology, then how does this perfectly good deity cause or, at minimum, tolerate the presence of evil in creation?
Theodicies comprise an entire branch of theology devoted to answering how a good God and evil can coexist. The subject is far too complex and deep for me to cover here, and it may be the single knottiest problem in all of theology; however, I can’t simply ignore it. Briefly, evil can be classified as moral (caused by human actions) and natural (due to events in the natural world). Some events may be atrocious or painful but bring about a greater good (e.g. the pain of childbirth)—these are called instrumental evil. In other cases, on balance, the world would have been better off had the events never occurred—these are called true or gratuitous evils. Even if one only looks at true, moral evils, why would a loving, omnipotent God allow these to happen? Why allow pain and suffering at all, much less without any redeeming purpose? While the formal argument concludes that God cannot exist, I questioned more whether God was good.
I believe God exists because I can’t conceive of a world without a first cause, and the problem of evil doesn’t particularly weaken that belief. It does make me believe that we need to think very differently about God’s attributes and perfections. Does omnipotence require absolute sovereignty over all events, or do we have free will? Does omniscience require complete knowledge of future events? If God is sovereign and omniscient, how are we responsible for our actions? Is our agency a higher good to God than sovereignty?
In order to maintain the ideal of a perfectly good deity, Evangelicals, especially Calvinists, have imagined a bizarre parody of a loving god, who is also so holy as to be unable to tolerate the presence of even the smallest flaw in his creation. In counterpoint, they have constructed a view of humanity as so totally depraved that they are entirely responsible for the evil they suffer and deserve eternal conscious torment inflicted by the same god. And it is only by the grace of this graceless god that they will be spared.
Frankly, this god scared the shit out of me, so much so that, well into my forties, I was periodically reduced to screaming “please god, no no no” into my pillow at the thought of eternity. My choice seemed to be spending a never ending existence with a god who, at the least provocation, would have tormented me eternally or, if I was lucky, annihilated my soul. Actually, less than the least provocation because, if I was unlucky, this god would have determined before creating me or anything else that he would torment me eternally. Why create in sixfold goodness knowing that you would later declare your creation fallen, then zap that sucker to hell? That seems a bit pointless or even megalomaniacal and not at all like a loving and patient mother or father.
I eventually came to a belief that God was loving and good, but I first had to abandon Evangelical and Reformed ideas about the nature of God and what was accomplished in Christ’s work of atonement (at-one-ment). Their version of God only made sense if I stuck strictly to their postulates and abandoned all my intuitions about what a loving God should be.
This Evangelical view of God and evil either leads to or enables some awful beliefs, weaponized by demagogues in times of tragedy. They see the literal hand of God in tornados and tsunamis and earthquakes and say, “This tragedy was God’s punishment for <insert scapegoat here>’s sinful ways”, or “God is calling you to repent of <sin de jour or fundraising rant>”. But what of the collateral damage? Do innocent children deserve to die because God was ticked off about the “gay agenda”? Would God wipe out the homes of the poor to teach a lesson to the rich? That isn’t the God that Jesus showed us.
There are better ways to understand the problem. Open and relational theology (ORT), also known as Process Theology (developed by Alfred North Whitehead), posits that God can be affected by external events and that, while God may be more powerful than any other being, God may not be infinitely powerful. In answer to the question of evil, ORT answers, because God can’t. Maybe exercising absolute sovereignty over every event would destroy the purpose of creation. Maybe God’s power over humanity is persuasive rather than coercive. Boy, does that get Evangelicals hot under the collar, but it may be the best answer I’ve heard so far.
Materialism or Physicalism vs. Dualism
This gets a bit technical, so first, a few Greek words (from a non-theologian):
- Sṓma (also sárx): the physical body, flesh. Sárx can be used of a corpse.
- Psyché: soul, life. The life force which leaves the body at death, that which transcends the physical. Note: this does not refer to the mind.
- Pneúma: spirit, literally breath. This is very similar to soul but also implies that which can commune with the divine.
The usages of these terms has changed over time, but these, more or less, were their meanings in the first century, when Platonists ruled the earth.
There is a growing consensus that consciousness is an emergent property of the human nervous system rather than a distinct, metaphysical entity—it is different from the physical nervous system but still arises from it. This implies that mind/body dualism, which asserts that the soul and body are distinct and separable, represents a misunderstanding of our nature(s). If consciousness is, at its root, a material or physical property, then what of the soul, to say nothing of the spirit? Is a human endowed with a soul at conception? At birth? Or does it develop as a child matures? If consciousness is an emergent property of the physical body, then can our soul go to eternal bliss apart from it? How would a new, heavenly body be essentially (of the same essence) the same person I am now?
Our theology was birthed in an era dominated by philosophical ideas inherited from the ancient Greeks. How must it be revised in light of what we’ve learned in the past hundred years? Even if scripture isn’t consistently dualistic (it’s not), the idea of a temporal body and eternal soul has so infused our thinking that we assume it without pause.
This is a tough one because we all want a God who can intervene on our behalf. I mean, what good is a God who is all powerful but can’t or won’t use that power to give us a hand? What are miracles? Are they God benevolently helping people out of a tough spot? Altering natural laws? What if favoring one person harms another? Be careful of what you wish for, the folks tales tell us—unintended consequences lurk behind our wishes, and they can be far worse than our original plight.
If we define miracles as events which occur or appear to occur outside normal physical laws, laws created by God, then what does that imply for our ability to know those laws? An important concept in Christian theology is that God is entirely truthful and reliable, and scripture tells us we can know God by observing creation. Altering natural laws in special cases feels like fudging the data. Lying. Can miracles confuse or mislead people as to what those laws are? Some people see this simply as wisdom being given to the faithful and the wicked going astray, which implies God lies to the damned. I believe the God of truth would find that abhorrent. And if one of our purposes on earth is to glorify God by learning and discovering the nature of creation (which I believe scripture teaches), would miracles inhibit our ability to understand creation correctly? If creation speaks of the glory of God, wouldn’t God want it to speak truthfully and accurately?
If God won’t miraculously mess with the physical world, and our soul is an emergent property of our physical body, does that preclude God communicating to humanity through what we call our soul or spirit? Is the metaphysical or supernatural truly outside the natural world or simply outside our current knowledge? Are there mechanisms within the bounds of natural law that we do not yet understand and that God uses to communicate with us directly?
Perhaps God can interact with the physical universe in ways that are miraculous but not supernatural. As one small example, quantum indeterminacy has been proposed as an alternative that would allow for divine intervention that didn’t contravene natural laws. We already know that matter doesn’t behave in entirely deterministic ways at the quantum level—is it a stretch to believe that God could shape that indeterminacy to cause events which appear miraculous but operate within natural laws? Or to speak to us in even the most mundane ways?
What if the miraculous is not necessarily supernatural? Perhaps God is both more subtly and more actively and intimately involved in our lives than popular conceptions would suggest.
I could be accused of burying the lede here, because changing my view of atonement, actually, just learning there were alternative views of atonement, was the first domino that fell and knocked down a whole series of beliefs.
Atonement is simply how we become at one with God (at-one-ment). More specifically, it is how the life and work of Jesus achieved oneness between God and humanity. It’s not terribly hard to define, but it’s a bear to explain. There are multiple atonement theories, some of which are compatible, some of which vary in the details, and some of which flat out contradict each other. Explaining atonement requires an understanding of the concepts of sin and punishment (especially hell), both of which are complex and nuanced, having evolved over literally thousands of years. Even within the confines of scripture they are referred to by multiple terms and in multiple languages. What began as the words of a nomadic middle eastern herdsman, speaking ancient Aramaic has passed through Hebrew and Greek to English over multiple millennia. Concepts which can be expressed in a single word in one language and culture may require paragraphs to explain in another, especially when they encompass/address issues of ultimate meaning, eternity, the beginning and end of time, and the divine. Easy peasey, eh?
The theory I was taught as a child was Penal Substitutionary Atonement (sometimes abbreviated as PSA). It was taught most famously by John Calvin, who was trained as a lawyer, and holds that we are separated from God fundamentally by a legal debt—we have broken God’s law and must pay for those infractions (aka sins). It is accepted unquestioningly by the majority of Evangelicals, most of whom are completely unaware that it came from Calvin and his infant sprinkling ilk or that it is only about 500 years old, out of a Christian history of roughly two millennia. There is close to zero chance that they know it is only one of many atonement theories and even less chance that they know what any of those alternatives are. I know this because, even though I was a theologically sophisticated layperson, I didn’t know that there were alternatives myself until my mid-fifties.
In order to understand what Calvin was claiming, it would be helpful first to unpack a couple of concepts:
- Hell—More generally, this is the concept of punishment, with hell being the state or place of punishment for sin after death, possibly eternal. The earliest notions of our post-life condition were simple nonexistence or perhaps existence as shadows of our livings selves in an equally shadowy underworld. Even in the New Testament, Gehenna was a vague metaphor referencing a constantly burning garbage dump in the valley of Hinnom, outside Jerusalem. In Reformed thought (aka Calvinism), this developed into eternal conscious torment—a place of agonizing, never-ending torture, perhaps in literal flames, inflicted by God himself. Some, seeing hell as the natural consequence of our decisions rather than of God’s divine anger, define it simply as eternal separation from God, devoid of any love or even contact with another being, a la C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. Not a happy place in any definition, but also not the hierarchical kingdom of pain ruled over demons with pitchforks envisioned in Dante’s Inferno. Dante was imaginative but not at all literal. And the fact is, scripture isn’t clear as to the nature of heaven or hell, other than that one is good and one is bad. It’s not even clear if hell is a place or state, whether it is temporal or eternal, or who is condemned to go there—it could be people who have rejected God, or it could be the accuser and his fallen angels, if those are actual beings and not metaphors themselves. It seems all we can do is imagine what our eternal existence, might be like and leave it to God to know the specifics. All else is simply speculation.
- Sin—I learned growing up that sin was simply an infraction of God’s law, a definition that fit nicely with PSA. Sin is often translated in the Septuagint as hamartía, that is, missing the mark, as in archery. This is also the most common word used in the NT. Similar to hell, the concept of sin developed though the OT. Several words are used for sin, which denote violating a norm, incurring a debt. At this point, suffice it to say that a definition of sin requires a whole lot more detail and nuance than we got in Sunday school or even Sunday sermons, and salvation is far more than a cross bridging a chasm.
I grew up being told again and again that Jesus died to save me from my sins. As I grew older, I learned this was a very particular kind of saving—Jesus took the punishment for me (and all the elect) breaking the law of God. Any infraction of this law resulted in eternal separation from God and torment in hell. Only Jesus, the Son of God, could live a sinless life and substitute his righteousness and suffering in death for my totally depraved life and those of all who believed in him and accepted his free gift of salvation. Note that the salvation in question had moved from saving me from my sins to saving me from hell—not at all the same thing. Since all Christians continued to sin after being saved by the blood of the Lamb, the Bible must have gotten that bit wrong.
Well, what if it didn’t? What if we didn’t need Jesus to intercede for us before the harshest of judges but instead for him to save us from our sins? What if living as a follower of Christ was less about avoiding sin and more about loving God with all our being and loving our neighbors as ourselves? Could Jesus’ work have somehow changed how we lived our lives rather than rejiggered the legal calculus of the universe? Frankly, that seems to be the much tougher problem and vastly more helpful to our existence in the here and now rather than in the by and by.
Scripture says that Jesus conquered sin and death, and I suppose that could be interpreted to mean he was God’s whipping boy if you turn your head and squint just right. Seems to me more likely that he did what scripture says—he broke the power of sin (that which harms our relationship with God) and death (eternal separation from God or maybe nonexistence) over us and replaced them with joy, purpose, and shalom, that is, deep peace and flourishing, and possibly eternal life with God. I can only guess what that actually means.
For all my rants about the intellectual difficulties I have with Evangelicalism, those mostly just piss me off. My struggles with the experiential side of my faith are what really hurt. I understand, no, I know in my bones why my dad pursued Pentecostalism when I was a kid—the deep longing for a tangible experience of God. When we are hurting, all theology and rhetoric become meaningless, and all we want is an assurance that there is Someone who knows us better than we know ourselves and loves us with a white hot passion. Someone who holds us firmly in their arms and guards us from any fool who would do us harm. We want a mother and a father and a faithful friend whose tenderness dries all our tears and whose power shakes the foundations of the earth. We are the motherless child crying out in our loneliness and pain for someone to comfort us.
And all I hear is utter silence.
Where is the loving God we learned about in Sunday school? The one who is with us everywhere and in every trial? Why is it that we can see our breath more easily than the omnipotent and immanent God of the universe? How can I know that God is there? I want to trust my own experience, but I haven’t had any encounters with the divine, or what I thought were, in decades, and the ones I have had all have materialistic explanations. All the ecstatic experiences people describe can be accounted for by hormones and neurotransmitters. Sure, the same can be said for any human emotion—so how can I know these are genuine experiences and not just biology? Since I no longer believe in the inerrancy of scripture or trust the authority of the church that raised me, how can I know anything about God, much less know God?
Even so, I’m not coming to the question primarily as a skeptic but simply as one who has a hard time with feeling close to anyone or anything. I’ve never been much of a joiner and have always struggled with feeling a part of a group. I was bullied and isolated as a kid and a nerd in a small class of jocks and jock wannabes. Dad tried, but he had a pretty stunted emotional vocabulary—I learned to love and accept him as an adult, but our discussions stayed, for the most part, at a surface level. I was closer to Mom, and she is probably why I have managed to form any healthy relationships. My few romances were brief, intense, disorienting, and mostly nonexistent—I miserably pined for lost romances far longer than I was in any. My best relationships were with a few close friends, but then life would happen, they would move away, and even those would fade. I spent a lot of time as a lonely young man.
I’m left with a philosophical conviction of the existence of God but no real idea how to have a relationship with that God. If I’m going to spend eternity with this dude, I’d like to have a clue. Talking to God is mostly a rational, verbal affair for me. Talking with God is a dim hope. I’ve tried various forms of contemplative practice but found only the noise of my own brain—centering prayer with mostly chaos and not so much centering. The one bright spot is that I’ve learned I’m not alone—contemplative practice takes work and it takes time to learn to quiet the inner voices that rage back and forth. Heck, it takes time to learn to quiet the inner voices wondering what’s for dinner so I can focus on writing. I have a long way to go before I can feel I’m communing with God.
Having deconstructed my faith or experienced its collapse of its own accord, what will fill the void? As it is often said, nature abhors a vacuum, and having abandoned one faulty system, it wouldn’t do to carelessly replace it with another, which may be as bad or worse. I have no desire to go from an Evangelical fundamentalism to a progressive fundamentalism, and trust me, fundamentalist progressives are real. Do I need something more flexible? Perhaps a set of general principles to guide my exploration? But that sounds so liberal—I might as well become a Unitarian. Seriously, how do I avoid wishy-washiness and rigidity? The perspicacity of scripture, if it’s a doctrine worth anything, doesn’t mean that all I need is me and my Bible—that kind of thinking has led to some seriously wackadoodle theology, untouched by reality or rational thought. Crackpots reading scripture “literally” without reference to historical, linguistic, or theological expertise have created nonsensical systems of belief that should appear as ludicrous in the light day. Sadly, they often convince others with their sincerity and passion and form communities who live in either bubbles or walled fortresses of self-reinforcing fears, cut off from and immune to any logic or grace that would contradict the beliefs they hold to with white knuckled fear and rage. These are the Jim Joneses and David Koreshes who lead their followers into mass suicides for the cause, and the minor crackpots who simply make life miserable for those around them and leave wiser people shaking their heads.
One possible metaphor is that of a pilgrimage. What do I take for the journey? As the terrain changes, I require different kit to complement my strengths and counter my weaknesses. I’m no longer a young man in need of certainty but a seasoned traveller exploring ancient paths new to me. I may cross untracked wilds, following only the contours of the land. I may find refreshing springs and sunlit glades. I may even fall into a pit and have an adventure. What is crucial to a pilgrimage is that I have a goal and that I keep traveling toward it.
A pilgrimage need not be in a straight line—actually, meanders make it more interesting. The sin of certainty would insist that I plow ahead on the straight and narrow way, regardless of
The Power of Myth
I’ve been reading Inspired by Rachel Held Evans, partly because it was available on my Bible study app and partly because I no longer know how to read scripture or what “inspired” even means. I enjoy her humor and frank honesty about her own struggles and misbehavior—it feels like she has invited me into her secret society of misfits and screwballs. That’s a crowd that makes me feel right at home, even if I, like Rachel, look pretty normal at first glance.
In the aftermath of the Bible’s collapse, at least the the Bible I was raised with, I’m having a hard time putting any stock in it as an unbiased, factual account of history. I was raised in the buckle of the inerrancy belt, which is kinda like the Bible Belt, only more northern, Dutch, and Reformed. We were all in on the efficacy and perspicacity of scripture, except that we didn’t gamble or play cards. Actually that was the Wesleyans, who were so holy that they didn’t do much of anything. Calvinists were just opposed to fun. So, naturally, when the fall came, I fell hard. It’s not so much that I reject scripture; it’s just that after believing that every word had to be divinely inspired and true, now I couldn’t trust that any of it was. How could I? I’d been taught for so long that inerrancy was an all or nothing proposition that when I could no longer believe it all, nothing was my only other option.
If I can’t take scripture as literal truth, then how do I take it? One perspective is as myth—I don’t mean myth as in an old fib or fairytale, but myth as in an origin story—how we organize the otherwise random events of our lives into coherent narratives that give us meaning and purpose and explain us.
We’ve so denigrated stories that the word has become an insult—just a story—but stories held in common are what hold a culture together. People are willing to fight and die for their stories—that George Washington couldn’t tell a lie, Abraham Lincoln ended slavery, and God blesses America. If our stories are good and true, they lead us to do things that are good and true. If our stories are self aggrandizing and full of holes, they can wreck our lives.
I no longer believe scripture is an unbiased, factual account of history. I do think it’s a bang-up collection of stories about life. Even though the world around us has changed immensely in the last few thousand years, people are pretty much the same, and we have the same kinds of problems. If we read scripture in the right way and in the right context, we can learn a lot from it, whether or not we believe it came from the mouth of God. Or maybe if we would like to believe that but just can’t right now—maybe our community will have to believe for us. Others pray for us, not meaning that they intercede with God for our benefit, but that they pray our prayers for us because the words of our prayers, any prayer, cannot currently escape our lips. Our community believes the stories of scripture for us in the same way.
If myth is one end of the narrative spectrum, then metaphor is the other. Myths are grand, transcendent stories which help to explain why the world is as it is. Metaphors are nuggets of meaning, comparisons which carry associations and contextual significance rather than storylines. Metaphors are true without being isolated ideas or propositions. They imply stories without being limited by them.
The transcendent is, by definition, beyond our experience and, being beyond our experience, beyond our words. We can’t describe the transcendent directly, so we use metaphor—imperfect parallels that are within our experience. Everything we say about is God is necessarily metaphor and approximation. We no more know that God is a man than that God is a bird—God is described as both a father and a mother hen, so both images are legitimate. It’s as Paul says—we see as through a glass (mirror), darkly. Not an optically perfect glass, but a first century steel mirror that revealed the basic shape and hinted at the color but distorted the view. We are all searching for metaphors that reveal God in the way that our experience and intuition tell us is true because, absent some revelation appearing as a bolt out the the clear blue sky, that is all we can know. I’ve already said I can’t trust scripture as an inerrant documentation of the voice of God because it’s far too human for that; however, I can trust it as a story, a library of stories, really, collected and refined by millennia of tradition and the wisdom of those who passed it on to us. It carries all their speculation, meditation, and wonder at God, as well as their love and devotion and desire to serve God and God’s creation. Did God breathe into all of this, strangely warming their hearts? Why, yes, I can believe that. And what does that mean? It’s yet another metaphor for a reality beyond my comprehension.