I miss college. I enjoyed my time in college so much, I decided to stay for a fifth year–that, or I had (have) no idea what I wanted to do. I think I realized too late how good I had it. I spent thirteen years going to school getting ready for college, and four years trying to finish college, and then sometime midway through my fifth year I was like, “Wait a minute…. My only responsibility is learning new things, and that will probably never happen again. This is kind of awesome.”
I was definitely one of the people who talked a lot in my classes. One of my favorite memories of college happened in a Philosophy class. It started off as a very quiet class. On one of the first days of class, and the professor asked if anyone knew anything about René Descartes…. No response. He asked if anyone knew of any French philosophers…. Again, no one moved a muscle. He rubbed his forehead and goes, “Has anyone ever heard of France?” I think two hands went up. You could tell he wanted to get a conversation going, but nobody was biting–It was a very “Bueller… Bueller…” sort of situation. Later on, as he was talking about Dualism and Plato and whatnot, he was trying to explain the concept of forms being different than the actual object. He gave examples of a chair or a ball being different than the purposes of a chair or a ball–very heady stuff. Then he asked the question “Where do the purposes reside? Where do they live?” My hand went up, he called on me, and I asked, “In the ocean?” Every head in the class turned to see who had just made an ass of himself…. There was about five seconds of silence, and I smirked, “Oh PURposes…. I thought you said PORpoises.”
I don’t want to take complete credit for how awesome that class turned out to be, but I was definitely a big part of it.
I’ve been thinking about my old philosophy classes recently–especially with regards to the Church’s response to the issue of homosexuality and gay marriage. To many people, the issue could not be clearer. Their argument is this: The Bible says being gay is sinful, the Bible is free from any error and the Bible never changes: therefore being gay is sinful. This argument is not limited to homosexuality–Really, you can insert any sin in place of homosexuality and the argument stays the same. It boils down to this: “The Bible says it. I believe it.” If you’re a person operating in this mindset, any disagreement with you is easily dismissed by telling yourself that the other person doesn’t believe what the Bible says. The argument has been framed as one between people who believe what the Bible says and people who are creating a god in their own image. “Who are you to decide which parts are true and which parts aren’t?” they say. “Either every word of the Bible is completely and factually true, or the Bible is worthless!” They scream,”CULTURAL RELATIVISM!!” But I believe there are some deep philisophical presumptions behind these beliefs.
It comes down to a belief in “Biblical Inerrancy”–The belief that the Bible is factually true in every way…. So the Earth is 6000 or so years old and was created in six 24 hour days, Jonah was definitely in the belly of the whale for three days (he may have been…. I don’t know), and Noah’s flood actually killed every person and animal on the planet other than the ones on the ark–every part. This strict adherence to inerrancy has some interesting ways of explaining scientific discoveries (“God created the Earth with dinosaur fossils in the ground to test our faith” sort of stuff), but it also informs people’s views on many other controversial topics. It forces adherents to perform mental backflips in order to make sense of apparent inconsistencies. Now–let’s never mind, for a moment, that the Bible (when you consider the WHOLE Bible) is not nearly as clear on the some of the divisive issues of the day (for example–homosexuality, as well as issues of damnation, hell, and Rob Bell’s salvation) as most people think. Let’s ALSO never mind that there are many things (things like slavery and systemized misogyny) that the Bible seems pretty clear on that we (because of our collective conscience or continuing revelation–call it what you will) have reasoned ourselves around or out of altogether. Let’s focus instead on WHAT people mean when they say that the Bible is inerrant, as well as WHY they insist inerrancy has to be accepted.
When people insist that the Bible is inerrant, they are insisting that every word is factually true. Now “true” can mean different things for different people–A person can believe that everything in the Bible is TRUTH, while not confessing the factual truth of every word. Take, for example, the Biblical account of Judas killing himself. Matthew 27 tells us that Judas hung himself in a field purchased by the chief priests, while Acts 1 says that he died by falling “headfirst there, his body split open, spilling out all his intestines” in a field he himself purchased. Now, someone insisting on Biblical inerrancy (sometimes referred to as a Biblical Harmonist) would take these two seemingly contradictory accounts and explain that, because the Bible is inerrant, BOTH accounts are true–That Judas must have hung himself, the branch broke, he swung upside down (to fall head first) and then he landed on the ground and his intestines spilled out–all in a field that he AND the chief priests bought. Whereas, someone interested in TRUTH might say, “Judas killed himself in a field purchased with the same silver coins he was paid to betray Jesus,” and feel just fine about that.
This whole “TRUTH without necessitating factual accuracy” thing is not without precedent–Jesus did it all the time. When an expert in the law asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers….” and continued on with the story of the Good Samaritan. This story may or may not have actually happened (It probably didn’t), but either way–This story is just dripping with TRUTH! But we do not need to believe that there was an actual man walking from Jerusalem to Jericho who got beat up and left for dead, was passed by a priest and a Levite, and helped by a dirty Samaritan in order for this story to be TRUTH. Or in order for this story to change your mind and your heart and your life.
I think that this insistance on Biblical inerrancy is a result of an underlying presumption of the nature of “PERFECTION.” We say, “God is perfect, and since God is perfect, he never changes. If God changes his mind, then he was wrong before, AND GOD IS NEVER WRONG!!!” But this idea of equating “perfection” with “unchanging” is a very Greek way of looking at things. The Rabbis and teachers of Jesus’s time would have been very familiar with the story of Hezekiah, to whom Isaiah brought “the word of the Lord” and told him “you are going to die. You will not recover from this illness.” (Isaiah 38:1b) But then Hezekiah prayed and wept bitterly, and a few verses later it says that God Heard his prayers, saw his tears, and decided to add another 15 years to his life. This Perfect God that they worshiped was somehow both a God who could change his mind, as well as a God who “remains the same” as David said in Psalm 102. But this sort of dissonance doesn’t sit well in our Plato-influenced minds, so we make up rules to fit God into our pre-conceived notion of perfection–Rules and concepts and words like Immutable, Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent, Impassable…. All to describe a Being we couldn’t (and shouldn’t) hope to limit or define. And, because of our pre-held ideas about perfection, we are left with a God who can do ANYTHING…. Anything but change. What if real perfection is being able to improve? Again, this is not without precedent, as Luke tells us that even “Jesus GREW in wisdom.”
Then, it’s thought, we’re left with this quasi-transative relation: If God is perfect, and God wrote the Bible (I’m leaving alone the difference between the concepts being “God-inspired” and being “God-written”…. For now), then the Bible is perfect. And if the Bible is perfect, our pre-held concept of perfection tells us that it cannot change…. Therefore, (because of a few verses in Leviticus) God hates gay people and is going to send them to burn in Hell for eternity. And people pass this sort of crap along and call it “Speaking the truth in love,” all the while attempting to deify a text that makes no claim to its own inerrancy. We do this to relieve ourselves of that scary feeling of uncertainty that comes with relationship to a God (and a Bible) that is full of mystery and even contains a few *gasp* contradictions. And we do this all at the expence of folowing the things it clearly commands…. Namely, the command to love our neighbor.
It’s kind of like drawing a perfect circle on a piece of paper and saying “Look! It’s perfect!” And it is! But then, when people look at the circle under a microscope, you see that the line actually looks bumpy. Instead of trying to explain away the bumps (that are naturally going to occur when you draw on paper), we should be focusing on this amazing circle—“Look at the perfect ratios! It represents pi to 100 decimal places! It couldn’t have just been chance that this circle is SO PERFECT!!” The Church’s insistence on inerrancy of all microscopic bumps of scripture misses the awesomeness of the perfect circle—if only we might change our definition of “perfection.” “Now, you might say, “It’s not MY definition of perfection. It’s GOD’S definition of perfection!” Really? Examine how you came to that conclusion. Did you use your logic and intellect? Do you also ascribe “perfection” to your own intellect?
We use vast stretches if imagination in order for this Magical, Wonderful, TRUTH-FILLED book to fit into a self-created (and often illogical) idea of factual “perfection,” when all along, we were never meant to act like there are no bumps under the microscope (nor were we meant to explain them away, or even damn the microscope)—The Circle is Perfect! There is nowhere near enough time in our lives for us to fully soak in the TRUTH of something as simple as “We love because He first loved us.”–We certainly don’t have time to devote to setting firm and unchanging boundries in Orthodoxy concerning issues that are clearly mysterious and even *gasp again* evolving. This conservative view of Biblical perfection attempts to stifle the mouth of God, which is still speaking to our hearts today–EVEN NOW!!! Our faith in God is not built on the authority and perfection of the Bible–It is built on the authority and the perfection of Jesus Christ, and the continuing revelation of His Holy Spirit.
Wow. That was Jesusier than normal…. I need to pull in some bathroom humor.