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I recently spent the past few days in (Very) Hot Springs, NC at the Wild Goose Festival—if you don’t know what that is, I could explain it but then I’d have to have you killed. So let’s just say it is a gathering of about 4,000 people, many on the margins of Christian culture, all working through this Jesus business in their own way.

Anyhoo, I spoke a couple of times, had a lot of deep conversations while walking about, and—a highlight for me— led two discussion groups of about 30 people on the topic of why they stay Christian (or not) given their experiences with the church.

A lot of stories were told of pain and healing, but here is the point I want to focus on.

At the end of the day, I think the deep question that these people are asking—people who grew up Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Main Line, or whatever—is “What is God Like?”

That is what they are asking as they navigate a toxic past and are seeking a path forward. They want to know whether the God they were taught is indeed what God is like, or whether God can be experienced differently.

That is the question that seemed to unify these two groups, and it evolved over time because they considered two factors.

The first is simply reading the Bible and finding in its pages diverse portraits of God rather than one unified, stable, unchanging portrait. Along with those diverse portraits are morally questionable images where God seems bound to an honor/shame, transactional, and tribal manner of behaving, typically resulting in violence.

And if I may get on my little soapbox, the admonition of pastors to their congregations to “Read your Bible everyday” can backfire rather quickly if they are paying attention to what they read.

The second factor is the conviction that their own, often painful, experiences cannot simply be brushed aside as irrelevant or unimportant to God. This may be a growing awareness of their sexual identity, suffering abuse in a marriage (and being told that God wants them to bear with it quietly), or many other difficult stories.

All theology at the end of the day is an attempt to answer that question, “What is God Like?” And, conversely what we think God is like drives our theology.

And these two factors hold for all of us.

All who read the Bible are faced with diverse and troubling data about how God is presented.

And all of us are driven by our experiences much more than we realize—even people who acknowledge that they are driven by their experiences!

“Not me, Enns. I’m driven by the Bible.”

No, you’re not, despite the sincere effort, for your understanding of not only what the Bible “says” but what the Bible “is” is born of your context, your location, your place in time and space.

Furthermore, the Biblical writers were also products of their own diverse cultural moments—a diversity that the Bible itself reflects.

We cannot escape our humanity, even when pondering that big question “What is God like?”

I think that is good news, at least for a religious faith that claims at its center the mystery of the Incarnation.

I know some of you have heard your whole lives, “Your experience is irrelevant. Don’t let it affect your theology.”

Is there any example of such a thing in all of history that we can point to? No, I don’t think we can. I’m not really sure how we can’t allow our experience to affect our theology.

Maybe, as Scripture tells us and the Incarnation shows us, avoiding our experience on our journeys of faith is something we were never meant to do.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.