In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, come alongside Pete as he works through some common issues that make it hard to stay Christian then shares a few reasons why he stays Christian despite the aforementioned problems. Join Pete as he explores the following questions:
- What are some common issues that make it hard for someone to stay Christian?
- How can we work through divine violence in scripture?
- Do you have to reject science/evolution in order to be a Christian?
- What is the problem of evil?
- Why stay Christian in the face of issues like suffering in the world and how Christians treat each other?
- What impact has modern scientific thinking had on our thinking about God?
- Is the Christian faith fundamentally rational?
- What place does reason hold in regard to faith?
- Is Christianity set up to be theologically clear and certain?
- If personal “God moments” can’t be proven to anyone else, are they insignificant?
- What can we learn from periods of struggling and doubt?
- What does it mean to consider faith a journey or a pilgrimage?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Pete Enns you can share.
- “When people who read the Bible run up against this violence, it can be very startling—and indeed, it should be. It is a legitimate issue to be worked through, not masked or avoided.” @peteenns
- “Evolution is absolutely a threat, not to Christianity, but to a version of Christianity that insists that the Bible is something like an owner’s manual for addressing science.” @peteenns
- “When Christians feel crushed by such so-called ‘people of God,’ the consequences are huge. The Christian faith at that moment, at least that version of the Christian faith, is exposed as something that just doesn’t work.” @peteenns
- “If the body of Christ doesn’t get along, it exposes the Christian faith as a sham. A faith that eats its own not only drives people out, but also sends up a red flare to the rest of humanity.” @peteenns
- “We can’t think about the Creator in ways that make no sense in light of what we know about the creation.” @peteenns
- “Like Psalm 19 says, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God.’ I think this is still true, it’s just that what we know of the heavens has changed considerably and what they reveal, loud and clear, is mystery.” @peteenns
- “I’m human and I have come to believe that God understands that, isn’t put off by it, and is present with me.” @peteenns
- “It’s part of the mystery of faith that things normally do not line up entirely. When things don’t line up, it’s not a signal that the journey is at an end, but it’s just a way of saying you’re on the journey.” @peteenns
MENTIONED IN THIS EPISODE
- Website: thebiblefornormalpeople.com
- Blog Post: 5 Challenges to Staying Christian
- Blog Post: 8 Thoughts on Staying Christian Anyway
- Book: The Sin of Certainty
- Book: The Bible Tells Me So
- Book: The Evolution of Adam
- Podcast Episode: Faith & the New Normal (Ep. 189)
- Podcast Episode: Adam, Evangelicalism, & the Metanarrative of Evolution (Ep. 148)
- Podcast Episode: The Uncontrolling Love of God (Ep. 111)
- Book: Open & Relational Theology
- Support: patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Jared: Hey everyone, just wanted to make a note that we actually have our own Bible for Norm… I know it’s been a while.
Jared: You know, we are still fairly new though. We’re only six seasons in, so give us a break.
Pete: We’re figuring this stuff out.
Jared: We have our own Twitter account for The Bible for Normal People.
Pete: I know, and I can’t wait for this because I want those cute animal things where they talk to each other, that kind of stuff.
Pete: Can we do stuff like that? Anything. Just Twitter, it’s sort of new. I’m not sure how many people are aware of it.
Jared: I don’t even know how it works.
Pete: I’m not sure how many people are aware of it. Is it a thing out there? Anyway, yeah, we want to do that. So, we’re going to be doing Twitter. So, we’re gonna be doing that.
Jared: So, you can go to @theB4NP. That’s the number 4, @theB4NP. We tried to just do @B4NP, but apparently, Twitter has rules and it has to be more than four characters.
Jared: So, it’s @theB4NP.
Pete: Okay, well, that’s true.
Pete: Yeah. Okay. All right.
Jared: All right, check us out on Twitter.
Pete: Thinking we can grasp God with our minds without ever thinking those ideas will need to be adjusted, I think that’s the cause of religious strife and wars, holding on to our ideas with complete certainty and conviction and never budge. If things like plundering and pillaging or child trafficking, or kidnapping, torture, and murder are all part of God’s divine plan, then this so-called God is no God at all.
Pete: Folks, for those of you who follow me and have dutifully memorized everything I’ve ever written or said, you will no doubt remember that back in 2013, nine years ago, hard to believe, I posted a blog which was the results of a survey I took. I asked my readers: What are the issues that make it hard for you to stay Christian?
So, here’s the deal. People do have legitimate experiences for not staying or in some cases also not becoming Christian. And I actually honor those experiences, in part because I share many of them. And they shouldn’t be dismissed, in part because they’re just so common. And I followed up that post a few weeks later with another: “Reasons for Why I Stay Christian Anyway,” not why you or anyone else should, but me. Why do I? So, that post resonated, actually both posts resonated, with a lot of people back then. And whether or not you were a part of the survey, I’m sure many of you resonate with the issues that the survey raised. By the way, I also touch on these in The Sin of Certainty, which came out in 2016. So, you might be familiar with some of this just from reading that book.
Anyway, I still see these issues coming up for people all the time. And I also reflect personally, on these big questions quite frequently, in fact. So, I felt motivated to do this podcast on revisiting those thoughts afresh nine years later. Okay? So, that’s what we’re going to do.
So, back in 2013, again, I grouped the survey results for what makes it hard to stay Christian into five categories and here they are in no particular order, by the way.
- God’s violence in the Bible
- Science and the Bible
- Suffering in the world
- The exclusivity of Christianity
- How Christians treat each other
These are the top general issues that people said made it hard for them to stay Christian. And you know, these are not simply intellectual issues, though they are that, but they’re also felt in the gut. Processing these things is unnerving, decentering, it’s frightening. And many who answered the survey had some hard experiences in their church or family over one or more of these issues. And some have suffered more than I care to describe.
So, let me first flush out each of these. Not that any of this is new to you, but just to prime the pump and then we’ll turn to the second point, which is why I stay Christian anyway even in the face of these challenges.
Okay, so first:
Violence in the Bible: Divine violence in the Bible, that’s really the point. Okay, so God, stop me if you’ve heard this one, God is portrayed in significant portions of the Bible as causing physical harm–like disease, death, war, drowning, things like that–or just letting violence play out, even against God’s own people. Now, divine violence does not seem to be… Here’s what makes it so difficult, divine violence doesn’t seem to be the last measure, but it’s more reactive. God appears rather touchy, sort of vengeful, and violence is really an expected go-to means of conflict resolution.
And I very much get this. You know, side note, it’s probably the most mentioned issue that my college students have brought up to me over the last 10 years. And it will not do, in my opinion, to minimize this biblical reality. To say, for example, as some do that, “Well, it’s not so bad, God could be more violent,” or “God is not as violent as some of the other gods of the other nations.” Or, “Well, these people really, really deserved it.” Or, “Well, this violence is fine, because it merely foreshadows the final judgment when everyone gets what they truly deserve, except Christians, of course.” Or maybe God’s violence – this I’ve never really wrapped my head around this one- but, “God’s violence is how God shows His sovereign love for the world.”
And I’m sure you all know, at least the big examples of divine violence in the Bible, they’re not exactly hidden. But in the Hebrew Bible we have the flood, we have the Red Sea incident in Exodus where all the Egyptian army drown. We have the divine warrior motif in general, especially like the bloody conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua. We have the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions, which wreak havoc on the Israelites, a lot of people die, a lot of people are relocated, and that’s God’s punishment and other incidents like that.
Now, in the New Testament, we have some examples too. One of which is pretty well-known is the story of Ananias and Sapphira in the book of Acts, and that’s not a pretty story because they get basically struck down by God for hoarding some of the money that they should have given to the community. And of course, the book of Revelation, the last book in the New Testament, is a pretty bloody book. And some consider the crucifixion of Jesus also to be an act of divine violence. I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think that’s not a good way to read what the cross is all about. But let’s not go down that rabbit hole.
The point is that divine violence is a thing in both Testaments. And it’s been an issue for a long time. Jews and Christians have had to address it, and there’s no easy way of wrapping this up neatly. For what it’s worth, my own approach, which I laid out a bit in The Bible Tells Me So, is that these acts of divine violence are not acts of God. They’re more projections onto God of the writers own Iron Age warring understanding of the role of gods in the ancient world in general. And other ancient nations did that as well, this was just the climate.
The phrase that I’ve used to describe this phenomenon in the Bible is that God lets his children tell the story. We see in Scripture, God being described in ways that made sense from the perspective of the writers. Now interestingly, in the Bible itself, we see movements toward critiquing this violence. And one of my favorite examples in the Hebrew Bible, concerns King Jehu’s bloody coup. This is where He massacred all the sons of wicked king Ahab and took the throne for himself. And you can read the whole story in 2 Kings 9-10. And in chapter 10, the Lord himself praises Jehu for a job well done. He did exactly what you’re supposed to do. But the prophet Hosea–right, another book of the Bible, this is in chapter one–the prophet Isaiah says that God will punish Jehu descendants for what Jehu did. It seems to be a critique of Jehu’s coup in 2 Kings. And of course, you know, in the New Testament, Jesus has a few things to say about not continuing on the path of violence, namely in the Sermon on the Mount.
Now, having said all this, my main point is that it’s not really to solve it. But it’s just to point out that when people who read the Bible run up against this violence, it can be very startling. And indeed, it should be. It’s a legitimate issue, in other words, to be worked through. It’s not something to be masked or avoided or play down. It’s just a reality that’s there and we have to face it and do something with it. The stress that people feel already in chapter six of the Bible, where everybody drowns, right? I mean, that’s made all the worse when they’re told by family and friends and church, etc., that they’re not even allowed to be bothered by the fact that everybody drowns already in chapter six of the Bible.
So anyway, divine violence is a big deal. Moving on.
Science: Now many in the survey, lamented the fact that in order to stay Christian, they had to reject a lot of science, at least they were told that. And the science in particular that they had to reject is, drumroll please… Evolution. Now, I don’t want to spend too much time on this topic, mainly because some of my recent solo podcasts have been focusing on science and Christian faith, that’s episodes 189 and 148, if you haven’t listened to those yet. And also the 10th Anniversary, which is the Second Edition of The Evolution of Adam came out just a couple of months ago, where I take a deep dive into this issue. And actually, I’m writing a book now where I’m folding science into some other issues to talk about what we know about God. So, I don’t want to rehash all that stuff, because believe me, I could be here for hours.
So just briefly, right? Here’s what I want to say: I’ve actually been doing a lot of thinking in recent years about the impact of science on Christian faith, especially the impact of evolution. And here’s the thing, evolution is about more than just biological evolution, even though that gets much of the attention. In truth, this is what cosmologists and other people who study this stuff are saying, in truth, all of the universe is in a process of evolution, the cosmos, the planet we live on, and all life on our planet. Other sciences also affect how we think of God and the nature of faith, things like cultural anthropology, neuroscience, psychology, quantum physics, and a lot of other fields.
The thing is, when I hear church leaders say, and this is the experience of a lot of the people who took the survey, when I hear people say, you can’t be a Christian if you believe evolution, I have to say, I get it. I do understand why someone would say that, because they’re right. Provided…
I’m just kidding. Just sit down here.
They’re right, but they’re not right. They’re right provided their understanding of what it means to be Christian is all there is. See, evolution to pick just that example, is absolutely a threat, not to Christianity, but to a version of Christianity that insists that the Bible is something like an owner’s manual for addressing science. I believe, rather, that science is helping us. In fact, it’s sort of even forcing us to reframe the kinds of questions we ask and the answers we give with respect to God and the Christian faith. And I’m echoing here, Episode 189 a bit if you want more details.
But let there be no mistake, for many, science is a serious challenge for staying Christian because it’s a serious challenge to how many Christians have been thinking about the nature of God and the nature of the Bible for a long time. You know, I don’t blame people for rejecting a version of Christianity that insists that the explosion of scientific information, even just over the last hundred years, should be ignored. The good news is that throughout the history of Judaism and Christianity, serious thinkers have understood the need to work through the really profound, theological, philosophical, and hermeneutical issues raised by our changing understanding of the world around us. And it really breaks my heart to see Christians feel like they’re forced to have to make an either/or choice between science and their faith. I think the only real choice that needs to be made is between a narrow fundamentalist version of Christianity and one that approaches faith and life with a sense of awe and wonder and curiosity, having faith that God is there behind it all. Okay, that’s it for science.
Let’s move to the third…
Suffering: This problem is nothing new. You know, why do people suffer? But it’s been a question uttered for thousands of years. And this is especially a problem if you believe in one God rather than many. See, back in the day, a long time ago, you know, people believed in many gods, and if you believe in many gods who have their hands on your life, you can chalk up suffering to one of them and then maybe appeal to another one to help you out. But if you have only one God, there’s no one to push the blame on. And this is what’s given rise to the problem of evil as it’s called, right?
You’ve heard this before, if God is all-powerful and if God is all-loving, then why is there so much horrible suffering in the world? It seems that either God is not all-powerful or not all-loving, or perhaps neither. Perhaps there’s no God, right? That’s the problem of evil. Now, that’s a big problem. I think we’ve all struggled with it, but just don’t get your hopes up here. We’re not going to solve the problem of evil, although many have tried.
Now, the problem of evil actually may be one reason why ancient Judaism, this is in the centuries before the time of Jesus, they took on at least in some circles, a dualistic feel. Right? You have God and then you have the rise of a devil-like figure on whom all evil could be blamed. That’s the dualism, right? And this figure went by various names, like Mastema or Belial. And that got taken up in the New Testament. That’s why we see, you know, this devil figure in the New Testament that you don’t really see in the Old Testament at all. And don’t forget the New Testament was written by Jews, right? So, they were influenced by these developments in their time. And of course, you know, this just pushes the question back one step, right? Like, you might ask why God created or allowed this evil figure to exist at all, but let’s not go there. The point is that this is an old problem that people have tried to solve or at least address in some way.
And now, not to get off track, but I can’t resist saying this: If you’re interested, my good buddy, Tom Oord, has written–he’s a theologian, philosopher–he’s written a few books on how he addresses this issue. And we also had him on our podcasts, by the way, a while back, this is back in Episode 111 where we discuss this very issue. And his approach, which he calls Open and Relational Theology, is really intriguing and I’m trying to wrap my head around it.
But again, my only point is that horrible suffering is the constant thorn in the side of any monotheistic religion. And I struggle with the idea intellectually, but I know many who responded to my survey, it was not an intellectual issue, they have actually lived it. And some of the stories people told me, you know, privately, they emailed me, instead of just putting it on the blog, some of these stories were just simply inhuman. I don’t know how people can put one foot in front of the other.
So, this is a real obstacle to belief for many people, and for good reason. And, once again, it’s made worse by being told that this isn’t a problem at all. And in fact, it just can be easily solved with just a little bit of faith, what’s wrong with you? You know, namely, by believing that suffering is all part of the plan of God and it’s just this plan is hidden behind a thick wall of mystery. And frankly, that’s exactly the kind of answer that leaves many people wanting to dump their faith at the curbside, not because they have weak faith, but because you know, if things like plundering and pillaging or child trafficking, or kidnapping, torture, and murder are all part of God’s divine plan, then this so-called God is no God at all.
I’m still working through this, but the problem is made worse by shallow solutions. And, you know, thankfully, there are very skilled people who are really thinking through this in very fresh ways. And, you know, maybe one day we’ll do a podcast on different approaches to the problem of evil. The problem with the problem of evil, is that when you try to really get into it, it gets sort of, you’re in the thick of things. You’re dealing with some, I think big and complicated issues and you have to keep a lot of balls juggling at the same time. But of course, that makes some sense to me because we’re dealing with God and mystery, so you’re gonna have to juggle some balls there. Anyway, okay, so much for suffering.
Now, let’s get to the fourth, which is the…
Exclusivity of Christianity: Now, as you know, travel broadens, as they say, and the more cultures interact with each other, the harder it is to feel that your little corner of the world has all the answers. And I think the Judahites learned something of this 2500 years ago when they were forced to live among the Babylonians during the exile. And then a few hundred years ago, ships were built that could sail around the globe, which brought people together in trade and the exchange of ideas as never before. And, of course, you know the drill–radio, television, cars, trains, planes, and of course, the internet have made it much harder to remain isolated. We have to interact with a world that believes differently than we do. In a world that has become so small where Christians can no longer pretend that Christendom still exists the question will certainly pop up whether Christianity is really the only true religion. You know, who of us hasn’t asked that question, maybe quietly for fear of repercussions.
For me, the question really came to a head early on in graduate school, I was in my late 20s. And even in my first semester, I was with people, my classmates, professors, and just students I saw walking around campus who came from all over the world and representing many different religions or none at all.
And I got to know many people different than me and that brought me to a crisis point. Can I really expect this mass of humanity to see the world and God as I do, or at all? You know, putting the shoe on the other foot, how likely is it that I would leave my tradition and become Jewish or Muslim? Am I who I am largely because of when and where I was born, as were these others? So, what does God really think about them? Is God against them because of when and where they were born? How can my way of looking at the world take into account other ways of looking at the world?
I found that this is a very tough thing to try to communicate to those who haven’t had the same sort of a spiritual crisis. And personally, I don’t think having these questions is a reason to stop being Christian, it may need some rethinking about what being a Christian means and what you think God is like. But that’s not the death blow to Christianity, it never has been. This is actually a very old issue. Like most issues we deal with, there’s some sort of a historical echo of what we’re dealing with today. And here, too, it is a shame when Christian communities shun or shame those who struggle with, let’s call it Christianity in the world.
And that brings us to the last topic in the survey, and that is…
How Christians treat other Christians: I have to say, I was a bit surprised to see how many people named this as a reason for not staying Christian. But the more I thought about it, the more it began to make perfect sense. As 1 John 4 reminds us, no one has ever seen God. Rather, we see God in the love we have for each other. That’s the profound statement there in 1 John 4, and emotional and spiritual abuse on the part of the church or church leader can be traumatic for how one looks at God.
I’m not saying that churches should have no conflict, they invariably do. When people get together under a divine banner, you’re going to have disagreements and conflict. And when that happens, hopefully, things can be worked out without animosity, where all parties concerned truly love others as they love themselves, as they’re all together thinking through how to resolve an issue. But I’m talking about when things get nasty, passive-aggressive, hostile, can I get an amen here? Right? Where people are, are shamed, ostracized, gaslighted, and just generally abused. When Christians feel crushed by such so-called “people of God,” the consequences are huge.
See, the Christian faith at that moment, at least that version of the Christian faith is exposed as something that just doesn’t work. And if something doesn’t work, you know, if this is how you’re treated by people on the inside, if this just doesn’t work, intellectual arguments for staying in the faith, they just lose their appeal over time, like why bother?
Not to digress, but this was, I think, Paul’s big point in the book of Romans, and especially at the end of Romans and also in Philippians. If the body of Christ doesn’t get along, it exposes the Christian faith as a sham. It’s not if you can’t prove intellectually that Jesus was raised or he was born of a virgin or who wrote what book when, it’s not that. If you don’t love each other, the Christian faith is exposed as a sham. A faith that eats its own not only drives people out, but also sends up a red flare to the rest of humanity, that Christianity is just another exclusive members-only club and that Jesus is really not much more than just a lingering relic of antiquity, rather than a powerful and present, defining loving spiritual reality. Jesus becomes more a means of gaining power, a tool for gaining power, rather than relinquishing it. And frankly, who needs that?
Some readers relate stories to me that are all too familiar, being caught in the sharp-cutting machinery of church and institutional politics. The dark underbelly of Christian organizations can sometimes look more like an episode of House of Cards than the Sermon on the Mount.
Under the banner of, you know, defending the Gospel, things like backroom politicking, gossip, maligning the character of your enemies (people in your church), lying, taking vengeance on others, and even destroying people’s livelihoods are excused as regrettable, yet necessary, tactics in their holy war, to root out any threats. And such casualties, unfortunate as they are, are nevertheless deemed necessary when truth is compromised and, you know, “the gospel” is at stake. But it seems for some, “the gospel” is always at stake. All questions are a threat, but love one another? 1 John 4 which is so central to the Gospel? That point is forgotten pretty quickly.
Now, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. All organizations, Christian or not, have lines that define who they are. Having boundaries is not the problem. The problem comes when Christians in positions of authority and power, or those seeking to gain power, when they become tyrannical, just strangers to reason and they mow down the opposition all in the service of God and the Kingdom of God. I’ve heard with my own ears, such, what I call really sub-Christian behavior. I see this defended as literally “just doing business, nothing personal.” Anyone with even a distant connection to Western culture will recognize these words from the Godfather movies. See “just business, nothing personal,” that’s what said to someone who’s about to get a bullet to the back of the head.
The difference between this fifth issue and the other four is obvious, this one is completely in our control. We can’t make Bible difficulties or modern science or pain and suffering or contact with other religions go away. But we can stop being mean and ugly anytime we want to, if we want to.
I said I was at first puzzled by this fifth issue, but now I see it as maybe the most important one. It’s this issue that keeps Christians from uttering very legitimate questions like the four topics we just looked at. Wondering about God’s violence in the Bible or science or suffering or how Christianity relates to other religions are inevitable, profound, and necessary questions for each generation to ask. And they’re hard enough on their own without being told by the very people who are supposed to reflect God back to you, that you’re making God angry for even thinking such things, let alone voicing them. Okay, I feel like I’m ranting. Now, enough of that.
Those are the five issues that came up in my survey. And as I said, I resonate with all of them. In my own mind, I’ve made peace with the first two, divine violence and science. Not an easy breezy peace, but a peace nonetheless. But I’m really still pondering the others. So, given all that, let’s move to the next part of this podcast.
Why stay Christian then, given all these problems?
Well, first, I do want to make it super-duper clear that I’m not the answer man. I’m not trying to fix these five issues and give the final answer. I’d like to put out there really just some thoughts. I have seven thoughts specifically about how I have sort of reimagined thinking about God and faith and God in general. And how that affects how I might look at some of these things, and many other issues too. I’m not telling you here what to think. I’m not giving a grand solution. I’m more just painting a landscape with very broad strokes, it’s a landscape upon which I work out my own story of faith, again, given these and other very real challenges.
So first, just a quick word about science, the challenges of science, have really exposed the problems, not of Christian faith, but of a certain kind of Christian faith, one where all the big questions have been answered for us, directly or indirectly, in Bible verses someplace. I think the challenges of science have shaken that kind of faith and are pushing us all the way from it and actually toward different ways of thinking about the nature of God, a God who is always beyond our thoughts anyway.
You know, when our kids were younger, we used to cut down our Christmas tree and we’d bring it to the guy and he put it into this tree shaker. You know, a high-speed, vibrating stand that’d shake out all the dead needles. And as the tree guy told me, “to get rid of any varmints that might be living in there,” so thank you very much.
Now, if the tree stayed in the shaker the entire season, it wouldn’t be of use to anyone. But shaking is needed to get the tree to be what it can become, a symbol of joy and peace, celebration, family togetherness, etc. The modern scientific world has shaken at least some of our thinking about God, and maybe that needed to happen.
Again, not to get into all the examples, because I talk about this in other places, but things like the evolutionary nature of all the cosmos, the size and age of the universe, the fact that space and time are a fabric that bend around massive objects, not to mention all the weirdness of quantum physics–well, our conceptions of God such as, you know, God being up there looking down, among other things, they just don’t make much sense anymore. We can’t think about the Creator in ways that make no sense in light of what we know about the creation, those two things should not be separated.
See, our theology tree has been shaken and maybe these discoveries can actually lead to seeing God differently, where we can look at the creation with fresh eyes, not as a threat, but with fresh eyes and see what is this creation telling us about the Creator? Like Psalm 19 says, right? The heavens declare the glory of God. Well, I think this is still true. It’s just that what we know of the heavens has changed considerably and what they reveal, I think, to me, loud and clear is mystery. So, mystery is a big word for me, as I process the nature of faith and science has helped me get there.
The second bit of my little landscape that I’m painting here is my opinion that the Christian faith is not fundamentally rational. This ties to the first point, obviously, by which I mean, it cannot be captured fully by our rational faculties. In fact, more often than not the Christian faith confounds our thinking. A God who can be comfortably captured in our minds, with little else for us to find out apart from an occasional adjustment, in my opinion, is no God at all. Expecting faith in God to make sense is often more of the problem than the solution.
Of course, this is just my opinion, and I can hear the pushback, you know. I’m not for one minute saying that reason doesn’t matter. You know, I hate when people say that. I’m reasoning as I write this, I reason about God, faith, and the Bible for a living, I only mean that the life of the mind has its place as, hear me, an aspect of the life of faith. Reason is a dimension of our humanity, not the whole of our humanity, not the gatekeeper for whether faith is true or not. Thinking we can grasp God with our minds without ever thinking those ideas will need to be adjusted? I think that’s the cause of religious strife and wars, holding on to our ideas with complete certainty and conviction and never budge.
To put it another way, I believe that faith in the Creator is necessarily transrational, not antirational, not irrational, but transrational. And it’s a faith that must be willing and even eager to embrace true mystery. Not just a tough problem you need time to figure out, but actual mystery that you can’t get at. God can be known, but God also is hidden from our knowing. It’s both. Welcome to the paradox of faith. I try to remember that as I work through my own intellectual challenges, and they’re there. I need not figure it all out. Sometimes I just need to sit and just let it be and remember that I’m a human being.
Okay, a third point of this landscape from which I look at Christian faith follows on the second point, I think Christianity is actually set up for mystery, for a big degree of not knowing, for not being intellectually clear or certain. Think about it, the two pillars of the Christian faith express mystery: Christ’s incarnation and resurrection. Now of course, there is more to the Christian faith than the beginning and end of the Jesus story, but these two pillars are central to making Christianity what it is and both dodge our powers of thought and speech.
Incarnation, right? God becomes one of us. Oh, okay!
Nothing to see here! Keep walking.
God becomes one of us. What does that mean, really? What words are we to use to express it, let alone comprehend it? And I know ancient Christian creeds have focused on this question and applying philosophical language to try to tease things out to try to make things clearer, but, again I’m only speaking for myself here, but frankly, they don’t really clear it up for me. The language of the creeds doesn’t, “Oh, now I get it.”
Resurrection? The grand reversal of death, which is the only true inevitability of all who have ever lived? That’s not mystery.
I think both are utterly beyond what is knowable by any standard we use to know most other things like observation, testing, concrete experiences. These mysteries can be known, but they have to be known differently, more by living into them, even I would say by experiencing them. That’s why Paul says, you know, we experience Christ’s resurrection in our lives, we experience Christ’s suffering and death in our lives, that’s how these things are known. And that often, I’d say more often than not, transcends our understanding.
Now, I don’t mind saying that intellectually these two pillars confound me. Intellectually, I struggle with them. But I also find it strangely comforting that walking the path of Christian faith means that I am being confronted moment by moment with what is counterintuitive and beyond my comprehension. And I can say this now, at my age, I might not have said it twenty years ago, but in sort of an unexpected, very pleasing way, God becomes more real to me, not less, because of all this. And I think maybe it’s just the permission to let go of needing to have it all figured out. So, mystery is a big deal.
Okay, the fourth point is about adjusting my expectations about what the Bible can deliver. You know, folks, all of these struggles that we’re talking about, at the end of the day, you have to deal with the Bible. That’s the Christian faith, you can’t just throw it out and make believe it’s not there. And the reason many people struggle is because of how they’ve been taught to think about the Bible and what these verses do and sort of like an owner’s manual and that kind of thing. I say that a lot. But I mean it, you know, the Bible is almost the first thing that has to be reimagined and reframed for people of faith if they’re going to be able to struggle honestly with some of these questions.
So, for me, a big thing was adjusting my expectations about just what the Bible is and what the Bible can actually tell us, what the Bible can deliver. And this has been huge for me, since you know, I do Bible for living, and in seminary and graduate school I focused on this. And not everybody has the chance to do that, but I did. And I just can’t get away from thinking about how foundational it is to have, as it’s often called, a doctrine of Scripture that can handle reality. And for me, as I said, this was the first step which really began in graduate school, to make room for me to be able to have some flexibility to think about a number of challenges, including the issues we’ve looked at here. I’ve learned to accept this paradox that the Bible, this holy book of the Church, more often than not, doesn’t act very much like a holy book should, or at least how we are told it should act. Rather, it seems to act more like a book would that was written 2000 – 3000 years ago. And because I work with the Bible a lot, I’ve come to expect and embrace that the Bible does reflect the ancient settings in which its various books were written. And therefore, I don’t think of it as a script or rulebook that can simply be dropped into our lives in our times with, without first a lot of thought and wisdom.
The Bible is much more than a collection of verses written with us in mind. In fact, I don’t think the Bible is a collection of verses with us in mind. It’s an ancient foreign book that is nevertheless worthy of our deepest thinking. It must be thought through. It must be pondered, tried out, assessed, and even interrogated and argued with. And all of that is an expression of faith, not evidence to the contrary.
The fifth point is more personal. And this has to do with me learning to trust my God moments. I’ve had a few God moments in my life. I don’t even want to count them because they definitely fit on one hand, not many.
I’d like to have more and maybe I have but I’m just not paying attention. But whatever, I’ve just come to trust these experiences, these God moments, and whatever yours are, are yours; whatever mine are, are mine.
Now, they don’t work at all as intellectual arguments for God if you want to try to convince others. But in a way, that’s, that’s exactly the point. Intellectual arguments aren’t enough and wanting them to be enough, sooner or later leads to disappointment. God speaks to us, I believe, through our whole humanity, which includes our experiences, our intuitions, our feelings, our emotions. And it’s, this isn’t just something filtered through our powers of analysis. And ironically, I’ve come to that point by exercising my powers of analysis through graduate school and for the past thirty years.
God moments can’t be proven to anyone else, but that doesn’t make them trivial. They are proof of another kind, an experiential kind, which I think is where true communion with God takes place. And by the way, if you want to read about one of my God moments, you’ll have to read chapter eight in the Sin of Certainty, I’ll just tell you it involves a BBQ in Arizona and Lance Armstrong.
Okay, six, and this relates to the suffering problem we looked at. As a left-brain oriented person, I once upon a time, would look down on people who said things like, “Hell, if I didn’t have my faith, I couldn’t make it through this,” or “If God isn’t real, I don’t, I don’t know if I can hold it together.” These sorts of statements always struck me as for the weak-minded, those who needed a crutch of some sort. If Christianity is true, it’s got to be true for its own reasons, its own intellectual reasons other than I need it to be true. Well, I’m older now and I have left some of my stupidity behind me. And I see now, as many others have, that those who cry out to God are not leaning on a crutch, but are in sync with God’s presence in ways that don’t happen as deeply in times of comfort.
People experiencing God’s absence and longing for God’s presence, those people, they may be perched at the very place where true communion with God begins. Why? Well, because they are in the unique position of surrendering fully from self to God. In suffering, the ego has exhausted its resources, which allows us to sense God’s presence once that ego gets out of the way. Yeah, to sense God’s presence, which was always there to begin with, we just didn’t see it because we were too busy controlling it.
You know, suffering is a huge topic. And we’re, you know, just doing a touch and go here. So, just remember that I don’t say any of this lightly, suffering is a big deal, but I’m just I’m trying to channel something of the role of suffering, at least as we read it in some of Paul’s letters, especially where suffering as something that uniquely unites us mystically to Christ, like, for example, Romans 6.
Anyway, I try to remember this when I’m struggling with something, you know, whatever I’m struggling with that, you know, when my stability is ripped away, I am perhaps being prepared for seeing God in a bigger and better way.
Okay, seventh and finally, the words journey and pilgrimage have become powerful words for me in describing the life of faith, and I’m hoping you’re seeing a lot of these threads sort of connecting here. But this is about mystery too in a sense about not knowing. But those words journey and pilgrimage, they’ve become powerful words for me in describing my faith, because they normalize the unevenness of faith, thinking of the life of faith as a journey or a pilgrimage, well, I’ve come to expect periods of unsettledness, of uncertainty and fear to remind me that, who I am, where I am, what I think, and what I understand do not define reality. They don’t even define me.
So, facing and then truly being present with my experiences, they help me remember that my experiences at any moment are not the entire journey. There’s still a trail in front, and that includes those periods when God is quite distant. You know, in other words, I’m human and I have come to believe that God understands that, isn’t put off by it, and is present with me.
Periods of struggling and doubt are such common experiences of faith including in the Bible like the Psalms, that there must be something to be learned from such periods. I feel it’s part of the mystery of faith that things normally do not line up entirely. And so, when they don’t, again, this sounds so simple, but I see people struggling with this all the time, when things don’t line up, it’s not a signal that the journey is at an end. But it’s just a way of saying you’re on the journey. As I reflect on my own experiences, and those of many others far wiser than I, God seems willing to be present with us and help that process along.
Well, I think that’s a good place to end with this journey or pilgrimage metaphor. Our lives of faith do indeed have triumphs and pitfalls along the way. What else would we expect for heaven’s sake? Along that up and down, two steps forward one step back journey, I know I’ve learned a lot about myself, my world and God, a God who’s both revealed and hidden. And I think the point of faith is to lean into our experiences as people in whom God is dwelling. No matter how unsettling those experiences may be, no matter how threatening they may be, no matter how often we were told that true Christians would never even entertain such questions. Instead, I think this is how faith works, at least that’s how I see it.
Okay, folks, thanks again for spending some time with me and come back next week for a new episode. See ya.
Stephanie: Well, that’s it for this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Before you go, we want to give a huge shout-out to our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you would like to help support the podcast, you can leave us a review or just tell others about our show. You can also head over to patreon.com/thebiblefornormapeople, where for as little as $3 a month, you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.
Dave: Our show was produced by Stephanie Speight; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared and the entire Bible for Normal People team—thanks for listening.
Pete: The nature of God and the nature of Bible for a long time.
[Mutters] Nature of Bible. I have to say that again.
Pete: See, in a world that’s become so small and it really has where Christians can…
Again, because I whistled.
[End of recorded material]