Tuesday, November 13, 2012

No easy answers

I take it as a compliment when people ask me questions about theology and the Bible.  It conveys a great amount of trust on their part and I am happy to be able to aid them in their spiritual journey.  I am thankful for the influence I have been granted in people’s lives.  This truly is a gift from God.

Recently I get the sense that I have let some of you down.  In conversations I have been asked a dizzying amount of deep and personal questions about faith and politics and what God really cares about.  I see this as a good thing.  Honest questioning brings out the best in us. 
I also understand the desire for an answer.  I get the need to have a clear cut solution to the problems our society faces.  But I am sorry to say that for many of these questions there is no easy answer.  There is no one “chapter and verse” that spells it all out.  Our world is complex and thankfully so is our faith.  Over the next few weeks I hope to be able to bring clarity to some of these questions specifically but for today I want to talk about the idea of questions and answers more generally.

For many Christians, the Bible is the foundation of their belief and source of “the answers.”  This view is helpful if it is taken with a pinch of salt.  The Bible contains many truths that are essential for faith.  I am grateful for this book and I am committed to trying to understand it.  However the Bible does not contain all the answers.  The identity of your future spouse is probably not contained within nor is there anything resembling a free market manifesto.  All kidding aside, we need to be attentive to the agendas we bring to the text.

The Bible is a self-critical book.  It conveys ideas and then proceeds to criticize those same ideas later on.  In one passage it commands people to obey the Sabbath and in another it states that the Sabbath does not really matter.  Some foods are labeled unclean and later on those same foods are not.  Whole books of the Bible convey an elaborate sacrificial system and then God turns around and declares that he desires mercy and justice instead of sacrifices.  Women are told not to speak or teach or lead but there are a whole lot of women in the scriptures who speak and teach and lead.  Eunuchs, forbidden by God from worshiping in the Temple, are baptized in later pages.  The punishment for prostitution is death and yet there are a suspicious amount of prostitutes in the genealogy of Jesus.  This is a complicated book!

Because of its self critical nature a quick glance can get the Bible to say all manner of things but we do our text no justice by simply glancing at it.  We have to “work out our faith with fear and trembling” and wrestle with the pages that have been given to us.  Karl Barth is quoted as saying that we must do theology, “with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” We must hold close to the Scriptures but also keep our feet firmly planted in the soil.  It does us no good to form our answers in the clean halls of the classroom or sanctuary.  This is the easy road but it leaves us with little effect in the world around us.

  • It is easy to believe that your political party, even your whole country, is the Christian one when you have never dialogued with someone on the other side of the aisle or border.
  • It is easy to throw the book of Leviticus around when you have never met a person who struggles with same sex attraction.
  • It is easy to condemn to hell all those who have not “called on the name of the Lord” in the same way you have until you have met them and realize that some live and act more “Christianly” than members of your own church.
  • It is easy to believe that you have all the right answers when you live in a theological and philosophical echo chamber, it is much harder when you live outside of it with others.
Answers are always black and white when our head is in the sand but we have the responsibility to live in a world much more gray than we desire it to be.  I believe authentic faith involves more than having a list of pat answers or a crash course in evangelism.  It involves more than picketing for/against a cause or having our theological ducks in a row.  It comes from deeply wrestling with the fundamentals of faith with an eye toward how they relate to the world that God has called good. 

Let’s be honest, as an answer book or “blueprint for life” the Bible is pretty terrible.  It raises many questions and oftentimes leaves us uncomfortable.  We are encouraged when the Psalmist says that we are “knit in our mother’s womb” and yet repulsed when he gleefully sings of smashing babies’ heads against rocks.  We get excited when Paul speaks against the Law but are equally confused when he circumcises Timothy or shaves his own head during purity rites.  Slavery, now seen as evil, is supported and protected throughout the Bible.  This book begs to be questioned and wrestled with.  Why are we content to reduce it to a “Dear Abby” letter?  Maybe the answers it contains are so much bigger than the questions we ask.

Wrestling with the scriptures may lead us to conclusions that make us uncomfortable.  We may even be compelled to be around those who make us uncomfortable! I believe however that it is a much richer way to approach faith and practice.  The Bible rarely answers our questions in satisfactory ways.  We want simplicity and crave clarity but sometimes they elude us.  I find comfort in the fact that the result of true contact with the divine is not an inflated sense of moral superiority; you usually walk away with a limp. 

May we have the strength, integrity and humility to hobble toward the truth and seek answers that are deeper than the agendas we bring to the text.

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