It’s all about the facts… or is it?

November 4, 2006

In my last two posts, we’ve been talking a lot about the “facts of the faith” in the comments.

I’m really aware of the impact that the facts of the faith have on our spirituality.  (By the “facts of the faith”, I mean how we view the historical tradition of Biblical times and whether or not we see the Scripture as the source for historical accuracy or whether or not we have a lens of suspicion and criticism when reading the text, for example do we believe in a “virgin birth”, do we believe that Jesus proclaimed himself to be “divine,” etc.)

We’ve been discussing some of these issues in my Bible class recently, and I’ve made some of those positions pretty well known on here, so I won’t repeat them.  I think it is fair to say that within my class a range of positions is held on the subject.

On a personal note, I have found myself doing in class what I have been doing here– arguing in favor of reenvisioning the “facts of the faith” as held by historical tradition because reason tells us that they are not accurate.

Before anyone gets their knickers in a knot- I am not suggesting that that the faith is wrong.  What I have been arguing is that the authority of the faith is misplaced.  What I have been saying is that the authority of the faith has to come not only from Scripture, but also from the revelation of the Spirit as it has formed our tradition through time, as most of what we believe was not formed in Biblical times (the divinity of Jesus, the doctrine of the Trinity, etc.).

This is a difficult shift for even progressive Christians to make, because it is not something we hear from the pulpit even in the most progressive churches (I should know!).  One of my professors even commented that she wasn’t suggesting that we go out and preach “this stuff,” but only know it as a backdrop to our own faith so that we would be better equipped as priests.

My response was “why not?”  Which lead to a series of events in and out of class which I won’t go into, but which left me perplexed.

It is an issue I have been struggling with for some time.

The issue is this for me:  As I see it, the church has knowingly allowed a distortion of historical facts to be perpetuated from pulpits in the the last 15-20 years as new historical discoveries have given us a tremendous amount of new information about the time from the destruction of the first Temple to the death of Jesus.

Allowing this to continue has given people the ability in the church to continue to use Scripture as the basis for oppression:  the church allows people to believe that the text is inerrant, that it is a historical document that needs no interpretation, that can be read at face value without understanding the political and cultural context behind the text, and as a result we have had some of the following church-lead oppression in this country:

  1. Church resistance to the end of slavery and minority racial equality, including now immigration and so-called “border protection”
  2. Church resistance to woman’s rights
  3. Church resistance to equality for GLBT people
  4. Church resistance to scientific advance, including the teaching of evolution in schools, the allowing of the sick to get sicker by preventing stem cell research and other medical advances
  5. Church resistance to reasonable population control techniques which would end suffering in the world, including birth control and an anti-abortion plan which focuses on reducing poverty and increasing eduction instead of restricting choices

And the list continues.  All of these have found, in some way, Biblical bases for their reasoning.

And the church has allowed it.

What is most interesting to me is that we know now that a very central theme of the Bible– in the Old Testament and the New– is social justice.  We know that because of our relatively newfound understanding of the sociopolitical context in which these precious books were written.  And we know this yet continue to allow our parishioners to believe that the Bible contains messages of judgment (which it does), of exclusion (which it does) and of suffering (which it does).  Yet we know that the context of these less friendly themes is not one which was used in order to create injustice, but in order to create justice.  And the church, as an institution, has allowed the ignorance of the masses– the ignorance of the institution– to distort the message of our Holy Scripture in order to create injustice.

End of soapbox.  Back to personal story.

I spent some time reflecting on this, because I had been getting really angry that I wasn’t getting through to people.  I have been disappointed that seminary has been narrowing my views rather than expanding them.  I came into seminary appreciating the diversity of viewpoints that God has put into this world, and as seminary has reinforced my own personal theology I have found myself getting more and more angry that the church has allowed the injustice of the world to continue, and even disappointed with some of my classmates that they are selectively hearing only what they want to hear (part of this has to do with the stark difference of the church in Texas relative to the church in Los Angeles).

But I came to a realization today.  I remembered something I used to tell my small groups back at All Saints Pasadena.  At All Saints, one of the wonderful things that happened was that we would have people coming into the church who had long since left it.  They would begin to ask questions.  They would go places that most other people in the church are afraid to go.  It is truly a wonderful place.

In some of my small groups, people would say things like, “Jesus was a wonderful guy, but I just can’t get behind the idea of this resurrection.”  I loved it when that came up.  My response was always to say something like, “I would always rather talk to somebody about what they are going to do with the message of Jesus tomorrow in their lives than whether or not they believe that message is a literal truth of yesterday.”  It’s my own little version of Verna Dozier’s “Tell me not what you believe, but what difference it makes that you believe.”

(As an aside, my own story is that I came into the church highly suspicious of the resurrection.  I did not believe that it was a historical event, but because the church embraced me where I was on my journey and allowed me to grow where I was with Jesus at that point, I have walked down a long road and come to a different understanding now.  If the church had required me to be in a different place when I entered, I would have simply turned around and left.  We must make room for all in the church because we don’t know what God is going to do with them as they grow in faith.)

If we believe that we have grace, does it matter?  What difference does it make what we believe about the facts of the faith?  As long as we don’t take that belief out and use it for oppression tomorrow, I don’t think it does.  I think the imperative is to go out and bring heaven to earth, as Ed Bacon says often.  We have to trust that we are loved enough to be entrusted with the keys to the kingdom of God, and it is with our hands that that kingdom is made as Christians.  Each day, each minute– each decision we make is the key to that kingdom.  We trust that God is working through us in order to bring that about.

Is it really brought about through “traditional moral values”?  I don’t think so.  I don’t think moral purity is God’s primary concern.  “Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  That sums it up.  It’s all about the relationships.  That’s why in my own theology I can believe what I will about the facts and it doesn’t matter.  I trust that the community– the relational community through which the Holy Spirit is always present– has and will discerned the will of God.  That’s just how God works.  It doesn’t work because of a book that gives us the answers.  God doesn’t make it that easy.  At least he doesn’t for me.  I wish he did.  If I could have just opened a book when I was struggling to figure out why all of this was bothering me and it would have just said, “it’s all about diversity and the community, and I (God) value every body and everyone’s experience while also pushing them to do more” it would have been a hell of a lot easier then it has been for me yesterday and today.

But that’s just not how it works for me.  I can’t tell you how it works for you, or more importantly how it should work for you.  But I’m highly suspicious of any answer that comes up with something that is very easy and doesn’t challenge you to love your neighbor more than you would like to.  -And- that includes your GLBT neighbors.  And for me that includes my neighbors who believe in the facts as presented by the Bible.



8 Responses to “It’s all about the facts… or is it?”

  1. FrMichael Says:

    The Catholic Church defines faith as “personal adherence of the whole man to God who reveals Himself. It involves an assent of the intellect and will to the self-revelation God has made through His deeds and words.” I’m not sure where there is any place for that in your theology, since you don’t seem to acknowledge many “facts of the faith.”

    To say I don’t agree that the church has been involved in a 15-20 year deception would be an understatement. As best as my limited circumstances go, I try to keep up with the latest speculative theology in the Catholic world, at least in English. What are these “historical discoveries” of which you speak? I know of lots of speculations, but none rising to the level of historical or theological fact– and I was a secular historian long before I went to seminary. The historical-critical method is not “historical” in the sense of modern history. It produces a lot of hypothesis based on minimal evidence, the exact opposite of good modern histories, which take a wealth of information to draw limited but well-documented conclusions.

    I also don’t understand your point about people investigating All Saints. At least, I don’t understand it as a positive. All types of churches deal with people who accept Christ and His message in part but not in full. These people are lovingly encouraged to move from the ambiguous and ultimately untenable position to one of living faith as Our Lord did Himself during His public ministry. There is nothing unique about this to TEC, to the RCC, or to any other church. What seems to be unique in your account is that remaining in that place of ambiguity is seen as a positive as long as the straddlers do good works.

    Would you rejoice in an Episcopalian of that sort who never did come to believe in the Resurrection of the Christ (as held by the great Tradition, not the “in the minds of the disciples” BS) but was the driving force behind a neighborhood food kitchen? I would rejoice in his good works but grieve over his lost soul and pray heartily for his redemption.

  2. Jeff Says:

    Absolutely I would rejoice in it.

    That person is doing more to bring about the kingdom of God than the person who believes wholeheartedly in the resurrection but sits idly on the couch and does nothing.

    To believe in the resurrection in order to get to heaven is the most selfish act I can think of. To work to bring heaven to earth is the most selfless act I can think of. That is how Jesus lived, and that is how we are called to live.

  3. FrMichael Says:

    “To believe in the resurrection in order to get to heaven is the most selfish act I can think of.”

    Uh, no. The need to believe in the Resurrection derives from it being the truth and man is obliged to know and follow the truth. Entry into eternal life is one of the gifts that come from knowing through faith that Jesus has risen from the grave.

  4. Jeff Says:

    Fr. Michael-

    That’s not really a response in opposition to my statement. Your response confirms my statement; that in your theology belief in the resurrection essentially provides a reward to the self.

    My theology– that the resurrection is new life for the entire world, not just the self– is not self-centered. We are called to live in community. To care for each other, to be with each other, just as God is in community- the Holy Spirit, Christ Jesus, and the Creator, Three in One.

    I do not believe in any doctrine which is so focused on inordinate self-love as to say that I need to believe in it simply so that I can receive a gift which solely results in my own personal benefit.


  5. FrMichael Says:

    Hmmm, yet another comment bites the dust. I don’t think my extremely slow internet connection gets along with the comments feature.

    Let me try my point again.

    We have an obligation to believe in the Resurrection because it is the truth. One of the benefits of believing the truth is that one has access to the unmerited gift of eternal life. But even if there was no eternal life and our soul as well as our body ceased at natural death, we would still have the duty to know the truth.

    Believing in the Resurrection is no more “selfish” than believing 2+2=4 is selfish because it means that one will get a higher score on a math exam.

  6. Jeff Says:

    I guess I just don’t limit God in that way.
    God knows us well enough to understand why some people believe and why some people don’t.
    God gave us free will and through Jesus understands this broken world better than we ever will. He understands the social, cultural, and individual brokenness that keeps some people from being able to believe.
    I can’t believe that any compassionate God would ever hold those things against any of us in order to condemn us to eternal punishment.
    I love my children dearly, and no matter what they do wrong– no matter how bad– there is nothing I can think of that they could do that I think would warrant eternal punishment.
    If God loves us more than I love my children I cannot imagine a lack of compassion, mercy, and grace enough to overcome any brokenness in this world which prevents us from seeing the “truth”, as you put it.
    Whether we do or we don’t see it your way, the God I believe in would much rather see us fixing the brokenness of the world than changing something that resides only in our heads. I don’t believe either changes the outcome of what happens after we die, because God loves us all the same.
    But to work for the reign of God is to work in the here and now for the betterment of the community. God exists in community in the Trinity. Jesus was focused on love of God AND love of neighbor– community. Social justice. Bettering the world.
    So then, should we be.

  7. wesingalove Says:

    Jeff – I think you are a fantastic theologian and really know what it means to be a real Christian in the real world. I’m so glad there are people like you!

  8. Jeff Says:

    Thanks! It’s nice to hear comments like that!!


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