The so-called conclusion having finally arrived, the reader may well be curious about my future, both blog-wise and otherwise. Regarding the latter, I will be spending the next three months at a place called L'Abri (the Canadian one) where I'll be reading books and participating in community living. Among other things, I'm hoping to gain a better understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Christ, and whether that is something I can or want to pursue. I'm also hoping that adopting a somewhat simpler lifestyle (read: limited internet access) will help me develop a little self-discipline, and maybe even work on some spiritual disciplines.
A happy side effect of having limited internet access is that, despite living in a community on a beautiful west coast island and presumably learning many interesting things, I cannot reasonably be expected to keep a travel blog. This is a great relief.
So I'm not likely to post anything for the next three months or so. After that, I'm not sure. I expect I'll get the itch again at some point.
In the mean time, for those who are feeling nostalgic, I have hastily compiled a list of 20 (natch) of my favorite posts from the archives:
The Prodigal Returns - A parable expressing the angst that birthed this blog
Laura, I Love You - My first attempt to stop pining for God
Dufflepud Theology - I like this one mainly for its title
A Prayer - A pretty big shift in my worldview
Fog - Whence "twenty feet"
Moving Beyond the Bible - Why I don't see scripture as the last Word
What I'm Trying to Say is This - A (vain?) attempt to talk about beauty
Greater Things Than These - Thoughts on the Sheep & the Goats
It's Been a While - How I pray, when I pray
An Extravagant Hope - My best shot at eschatology
His Love Endures Forever - A study of my least-favorite Bible story
Fruit in Keeping With Repentance - My favorite Hellfire preacher
A Hole of a Different Shape - Why God is not all we need
I Choose Love - Why I don't believe in Hell
Hell and Justice - Why I don't think we deserve Hell
Come Be My Light - Reflections on Mother Teresa's biography
Prophecy and Innerancy - Why inerrancy misses the point
And of course,
In Conclusion: The Bible, Belief, and Discipleship
This post is the third in a trilogy. I recommend reading parts one and two first.
As I said previously, I've come to understand Christianity as a way of life - the act of dying to yourself daily, taking up your cross, and following Jesus. The question, then, is whether it is possible for a person in my position to be a Christian. Can I truly be a disciple of Christ without accepting the Bible as my ultimate authority, the infallible word of God? Can Jesus be my Rabbi if I'm not certain exactly what he said?
There is, of course, a great inherent difficulty in trying to be a disciple of someone who lived two thousand years ago. We can't go directly to him for instruction and guidance, so we necessarily become disciples of Christ, as understood through the Bible. Or rather, Christ, as understood through the Bible, as understood through friends, parents, pastors, mentors, books, and culture.
This obstacle is insurmountable, but not fatal. We cannot reach back to Jesus himself, but we can get closer than we currently are. We cannot know the truth, but we can unmask delusions. We can do the best we can. We can take up our crosses and follow, even if we're not certain just what it is we're following.
I think there is inherent value in a life of discipleship, apart from the value of following Jesus specifically. Discipline is both a means and an end. But you can't be a disciple of your own values or morals or your own personal concept of God. To be a disciple you must have something outside of yourself to which you're totally dedicated and submissive. I, having no ultimate external authority, am unqualified.
I accept this as a necessary consequence of my choice. I can't have it both ways. I can pursue goodness, seek truth, develop self-control, love others, and even try to emulate Christ without an absolute authority. (It is, of course, possible to learn from someone without being fully devoted to them.) But I cannot call myself a disciple.
A couple years ago I read The Cost of Discipleship, and was struck by the assertion that "only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes." I know that faith without works is dead; could it be that works without faith are no better? Is faith somehow necessary for obedience? What kind of faith? Faith in what? What is it about Christ's call that makes obedience without faith impossible?
Recently I've realized that Bonhoeffer is not identifying some special feature of Christian discipleship, but merely stating a plain fact about the nature of obedience. True obedience is an act of faith; it is not possible to obey anyone except insofar as you trust them. The disciple may not want to follow, but he follows. He may not see why he should go this way, but he follows. He may be certain that this is entirely the wrong path, that he is headed for disaster, that another way would be safer, smoother, faster, but he follows. If I follow Christ only when it seems wise to me to do so, I am not really following him at all.
And so obedience requires an object. I cannot say, "I obey Christ" unless I can point to something and say, "and this is what I mean by 'Christ'." It is not necessary (nor is it possible) to know that the Word you follow is genuine – the very voice of God. But you must act as if it is. To follow, you must be willing to leave not only home, family, and fields, but society, morality, and reason. You must be willing to sacrifice anything and anyone.
The thought terrifies me. Who could ever make such a choice? What if the Christ I followed told me not to resist an evil person, or to sell everything I have? What if he told me that God orders genocides, or abandons his creations to eternal torment? Who could accept such teachings?
We’ve forgotten how dangerous obedience is. We remember that Isaac was spared, and forget that he was very nearly murdered. And how many others, when under the knife of another man's faith, have been so lucky? Divine voices, it seems, seldom recant.
I've said before that I want to pursue love first and foremost, and that I am a Christian only to the extent that Christianity spurs me toward this goal. I am a Christian second, and so not a Christian at all.
The idea of surrendering myself entire, of dying not only to my appetites but to my hopes and ambitions, my beliefs and principles, even to my conscience, has a strange and persistent appeal.
If a Voice called me, could I resist? Would I not take up my fire and my knife and follow him?
Aside from my approach to the Bible (see the previous post) the most significant point where I've departed from the doctrine of my Evangelical upbringing is that I don't believe in hell. It's not that I ever stopped believing in hell so much as that I came to realize that, despite my best efforts, belief in hell is impossible for me. I'm not saying that a place of eternal torment does not exist (what do I know about such things?). It's just that I don't know how I could live my life as a believer in hell. It would change everything, and it would probably drive me to despair. So what else can I do? I reject belief in hell.
On the other hand, there are a lot of big Christian doctrines that I just don't feel too strongly about. Is Jesus God? I don't know. I tend to think of him that way, but it doesn't mean a whole lot to me. (Although I firmly believe that Jesus was God’s Messiah - the one chosen to speak for God and do his work.) I like the idea of the trinity, because of what it suggests about the significance of community, but I have no real interest in any doctrine that tries to explain the relationship between Jesus and God. And the objective, historical reality of the virgin birth doesn't really interest me.
So in some cases I disagree with the central doctrines of conservative Christianity, but most have simply lost importance for me. The essential change is not in the content of my beliefs, but in my understanding of the nature of belief itself.
The way I read the Bible, true faith is inseparable from works. When Jesus asks us to believe, he is speaking about lifestyle, not doctrine - the sort of faith which spurred the heroes of Hebrews 11 to action. Our beliefs are manifest in the way we live our lives. To the extent that our intellectual beliefs about Christ do not govern our lives we are, in fact, unbelievers.
I'm not saying that we who don’t practice what we preach are frauds or unredeemed. I do not preach a spiritual elitism, and I am as weak and inconstant in my faith as anyone. I affirm the sufficiency of God's love and grace, independent of our belief. But I think we need to call our unbelief what it is.
Peter Rollins, one of my favorite Christian writers at the moment, was asked if he denies the resurrection, and admitted that he does:
I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.
However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.
This is what faith in Jesus means to me. I am a believer in Christ inasmuch as I am actively striving to imitate him and put his teachings into practice. I have a habit of thinking that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. But my opinion on this matter just doesn't seem all that significant to me anymore. What matters to me is that I live (or am beginning to live, or desire to live) as if dead and ruined things can be brought back to life, as if God has called me to participate in the resurrection of all creation.
So what do I believe in? What are the ideas that shape my view of the world and the way I live my life?
I believe that there is a God, and that she love us.
I believe that I was created to love and be loved, and that this is true of all other people, and even all of creation.
I believe that Jesus exemplified God's love in his life and death.
I believe that there is gratuitous and unjustifiable evil in this world.
And I believe in the ultimate redemption and reconciliation of all things.
Some of these beliefs come naturally to me. I believe them because, for whatever reason, I cannot do otherwise. Some of them are the result of long and careful consideration. And some have been adopted out of necessity, in order to save me from despair.
I am interested in why I believe what I believe, whether these beliefs can be justified, and what amendments I ought to make to them, but mostly I want to work on living them out.
This will not be an apologetic. I don't believe in apologetics. I feel the temptation to justify, even to proselytize, but any such effort would be a distortion and a betrayal. I came to this point through years of struggle and confusion, and I can't (and when I think about it, I wouldn't want to) bring the reader to comprehension or appreciation or agreement with a few well-chosen words.
In any case, I don't believe that everyone ought to see things as I do. My worldview changed because I was no longer capable of believing as I had, and I was compelled to find something I could believe.
The essential change in my life over the last five years is that I no longer see the Bible as infallible. What I mean is that I don't believe everything the Bible says is completely true - theologically or otherwise. I don't believe, for example, the part about the Egyptian plagues. I don't believe that's how it happened, and I particularly don't believe what it says about God.
Inevitably, then, people want to know which parts of the Bible I do believe in. By what means do I determine what to believe or disbelieve? Do I just ignore the parts I don't like?
I don't have really satisfying, concrete answers for these questions. I do have some hermeneutical principles (I'm certainly interested in understanding what the Bible really means to say) but they don't tell me which parts of the Bible are True and which aren't. Honestly, I have a hard time really thinking about the Bible (or anything else) in terms of some absolute, objective standard of truth.
I would say that the Bible is God-breathed (a beautiful, mysterious term), and I would certainly say that it is useful, but I reject the doctrine of inerrancy because, for one thing, I don't think the authors of the Bible thought in terms of inerrancy. Of course they believed that God's word was true, but "true" meant different things to them than it does to us. I've said more about this in other places, so I won’t delve too deeply here.
This is the best explanation I can give: The Bible is the fulcrum of my faith - not the foundation, not the containing walls, but the point around which I orient myself, and in relation to which I take my bearings. I don't always agree with the Bible, in fact it sometimes angers, frustrates and disgusts me. But I am never done with the Bible. I can disagree with it, even rebel against it, but I cannot dismiss it. To put it succinctly, the Bible is the voice that I cannot ignore.
Having such a voice is valuable to me in many ways:
It gives me a sense of belonging, reminding me of the ancient and enduring tradition that I inhabit.
It reminds me that I am the spiritual progeny of thieves, murderers, genocidal conquerors, and all other kinds of sinners, that I am no better than they, and that God loves me nevertheless.
It reminds me that I am not the final authority on any matter, that different people have wildly different perspectives on God and morality, and that my own views are no more likely to be right.
It reminds me that there is great evil in this world, and that I must stand against it, no matter what.
It reminds me also that God is in the business of redemption, that the sick can be healed, the broken restored, the dead raised to life, and the wretched made agents of grace.
And it reminds me that God and creation alike are complex and mysterious, and that the pursuit of knowledge, like any meaningful pursuit, will never come to an end.
I do not accept whatever the Bible says without question, but I respect it, and I commit myself to it, and I wrestle with it. I don’t ignore the parts that bother me. If anything, I tend to concentrate on them. I live in this tension: recognizing that I am a small, frail creature in the midst of something deep and ancient and holy, and yet still maintaining my autonomy.
There is a question of where my disagreement with the Bible is leading. In the future I may be called to submit to Scripture on even the most difficult points. But I feel that at this point it would be a betrayal of my convictions, and even (if I may make such a grand claim) a betrayal of God’s calling to me, if I were to give up the struggle.
Again, this isn't a sales pitch. I don't think everyone ought to approach the Bible this way. Some are called to struggle; others to sacrifice. I do worry about people who are wholly unperturbed by verses like Psalm 136:10, but I think it is possible to engage the Bible honestly, having predetermined, ultimately, to submit. The essential point for me is that the Bible is a very complex and difficult book. It was not written to provide comfort and certainty. If we can agree on this one thing - that the Bible is to be wrestled with, that it blesses us, but also wounds us - then we are not so far apart.
Today, as one incorrigible follower has already noted, is the one-year anniversary of my last post here, which was itself merely an apology for my long absence and a promise to return with a thrilling conclusion soon.
"Soon" being long past, I am obliged to apologize again, and again promise that my return/final departure is imminent. I will even say that it's closer than it has ever been before.
Summer is winding down, a stint at camp is approaching, and I expect to have little free time or internet access in the fall. And so this, at long last, is it. Make or break. Do or die. Sydney or the bush.
My plan is to post on each of the next three weekends, which will bring me about to the limit of my modest window of opportunity. This will require a good deal of time and effort, and some compromise to my unreasonable editorial standards, but I feel confident I can distill something publishable from my interminable drafts in that time.
And if not, it's time to be done with the whole damn thing anyway.
Next week: The Bible