Monday, April 07, 2008
Synopsis of my faith
A little while ago, someone asked some probing questions in a comment. I promised that I'd answer them when I had time to do the job justice. Unfortunately I didn't take a local copy of the questions, and I'm about as far from a network as I can get (mid-Atlantic) but I suspect if I just give a general synopsis of my beliefs, I'll touch on most of the issues raised. The issue I clearly remember was that of heaven/hell, so I'll make so I cover that, at least.
I don't promise to give a no-nonsense, no-detours tour of my faith - quite the opposite, in fact. However, my hope is that the diversions might give more of a sense of what God means to me than my actual direct words on the matter can express.
I recently preached on Low Sunday (the Sunday after Easter) when the lectionary Gospel reading was that of Doubting Thomas. This naturally invited a sermon on faith, and so I gave one. In particular, I considered the idea that Thomas might not so much have doubted the resurrection, as not felt part of it - that only through experiencing Jesus in a direct way (touching the wounds) would he be fully living his faith.
I readily admit the idea isn't an original one of mine - a friend of mine, a parish priest, mentioned it to me about three years ago, and it stuck in my mind. (Many things he says have that habit - ironically I haven't actually heard him preach, but he has a way with words which I'm sure translates spectacularly to the pulpit.)
Back to my own faith. For me, faith isn't a list of beliefs I consider correct or incorrect. It's not a way of proving anything. In fact, I'm strongly agnostic in that I don't believe the existence (or, importantly, the non-existence) of God can be proved, empirically. Certainly if such a proof were already available either way, all rational thinkers would agree on the result.
Nor, however, do I place faith in the "belief without evidence" category of superstition, with astrology and avoiding walking under ladders. (I'm aware I'm now attracting the ire of the many people who have firmly held beliefs in astrology, and the mockery of those atheists who don't see that their own firm belief in the non-existence of God is also a form of faith.)
My faith is one based on personal evidence. I can't prove God's existence to anyone else, but God has proved it to me in ways which (usually) halt my doubts. That's not to say I don't have times of complete doubt, of course. More on that later, perhaps. The important thing is that it's possible to believe something for good reason and still not be able to prove it empirically. My own reason may be faulty, and my evidence may indeed be wrong - but to assume those things is to take just as much of a leap of faith as to assume they're right. In some ways the only way not to hold a view based on faith is to hold no opinion at all on the matter.
Being based on both reason and personal experience, my view of scripture is different from that of some other Christians. The comments on other posts (in particular "Coming out of the belief closet") suggest that I don't know my Bible as well as my readers. That may well be true, but I would suggest in return not only that I may be perfectly aware of some of the passages to which they're referring, but also that there are plenty of liberal Christians out in the world who have a better knowledge of the Bible than I do, and quite possibly better than that of those readers criticizing me. If it were purely a matter of "those who study scripture thoroughly are always morally conservative and those who just skim are always morally liberal" then I would indeed be concerned - but I think it's fair to say there's a broad range of scholarly opinion.
It doesn't come down to just how well you know what the Bible says, it's also a matter of what you understand the purpose and nature of scripture to be in the first place. I believe that:
The writing in the Bible was inspired by God
Inspiration is often confused during human expression, and in particular the biases of both the time and the writer are important
Taking each phrase of the Bible as literal truth is problematic in terms of consistency and understanding
The Bible is not the only way God's will is communicated
Many of the liberal values of today - including those which are broadly accepted across the conservative/liberal spectrum - cannot be directly drawn from the Bible. Where is Christ's decree to ban slavery, or to give equal rights to women? (These may exist in non-canonical pieces of scripture, of course, which begs another question.) The overall teachings of unconditional love are present, and Jesus certainly acted unexpectedly in the company of those whom he would be expected to revile (the Samaritan woman and Zacchius spring to mind) but surely if we were to receive all our wisdom from scripture, we should expect more direction.
Instead, I believe in using scripture as one way of understanding God's nature, will and purpose. It should inform other sources, and they should inform it. I believe God gave us reasoning minds and an innate sense of justice for a purpose, rather than to always defer to a canon of text which cannot possibly speak God's complete message for every situation.
This is not to dismiss scripture either, however. When the Bible (particularly the New Testament) appears to go against my own experience, prayers and thoughts, I don't just assume it's wrong. I wrestle with it. Very often I don't end up with a clear answer, which is fine by me. I do not hope to ever understand God completely. I merely pray that I will do so increasingly, and that through that improved understanding (and in the power of the Spirit) I may more usefully serve God and carry out God's will on earth.
One of the areas I wrestle with is that of salvation, and in particular what the alternative is. Wesley famously has four "all" doctrines:
All need to be saved
All can be saved
All can know they are saved
All can know they are saved to the utmost
(I've sometimes heard this referred to as three doctrines, with the last two being combined. I would look it up in the my copy of the catechism, but it's several thousand miles away at the moment.)
If all need to be saved, that means there must be a consequence to not being saved. The Bible states several times that this consequence is fiery hell. I find that hard or even impossible to understand in the light of my experience of a God who loves unconditionally. I love my sons imperfectly, but it still hurts for me to punish them however trivially and temporarily (and before anyone calls social services, I'm talking about taking away toys or being sent to their bedrooms). How can a God who loves us so much ever bear to sentence any soul to eternal torture without there even being a positive end result? Our use of punishment for children is to attempt to teach them right and wrong, compassion, obedience etc for the use in the rest of their lives. If they weren't going to learn anything from the punishment, it wouldn't be worth doing at all. With hell, there's (at least Biblically) no "next life after that" that the tormented souls are preparing for.
Moreover, can any non-eternal sin really deserve an eternal punishment? Even if "justice" really is about punishment rather than rehabilitation, about two wrongs effectively making a right, I find it hard to see how eternal torture can really be a suitable punishment for in return for, say, the life of someone who always tries to do good, but happens not to be a Christian.
Then there's the matter of how our salvation is achieved in the first place. How could Christ's tortured death on the cross actually help? Penal substitution has never sounded particularly fair to me. There are numerous options when it comes to theories of atonement, of course, and I have tried to preach on the matter just once, laying out some of those options as best I understand them. Needless to say, it was a sermon without a conclusive answer.
If you've persevered this far (you can see now why I wanted to wait until I had a good chunk of time) you may be wondering whether I'm actually a Christian at all. Indeed, some more fundamentalist readers may have decided I'm certainly not, and that I'm headed for a fiery end, whatever else I have to say in this post. Well, having outlined some of the problems, here are a few of my more positive thoughts.
I do believe we all need saving, although I wouldn't like to claim I understood what from. Annihilation of souls, perhaps? That's actually quite an attractive answer in some ways, although it does leave the question of how to deal with all the Biblical references to hell. In some ways that doesn't matter to me. If I'm told that something really bad is coming in one direction, I don't need to know the details of it in order to realise that going in the other direction is a good move.
I do believe that Christ is the route to salvation. No doubt my use of the definite article has come as a relief to some. Yes, I belief that Christ's work of salvation is somehow, miraculously, the only way we can really get ourselves "right" with God. That doesn't mean I'm as much in the "Christians have it right, all other religions are wrong" camp as you might think though. More on that later. I really don't know how atonement works. It's clearly about mercy, which is a problem in itself. To my mind, if God is just then God can't be merciful. Justice is about people getting what they deserve and mercy is about people not getting what they deserve. There's more to them than that, of course, but that's why I see the two as being in tension. I don't know how God resolves that tension, but that's okay too. I certainly have faith that God is good and if that means God doesn't always demand or execute justice, that's fine by me. Or, perhaps a more likely solution is that the human concept of "justice" is very flawed. (That's intellectually unappealing though: it means that whenever we say that God is a God of Justice, we don't even know what we're claiming. We might as well say that God is a God of Well-Shrimpified Higlingness.)
Understanding of other faiths
I've never been easy with the idea of "my faith is better than yours" - at least not when it's applied to serious religions which have stood the test of time. In particular it smacks of complacency given my original basis of faith. I should extend the courtesy of allowing people to have evidence which they can't use to convince me, given that I'm asking others to extend the same courtesy towards me.
It would seem crazy to believe that when I feel the will of God it's genuine, but when any Muslim feels the same it must be self-delusion. This is not to give equal weight to all understandings of the will of God, of course - I'm not for one minute claiming that suicide bombers have God's blessing on their actions, for example. But likewise I don't claim that every Christian insight into God is genuine. (To take it one step further, I'm not saying that I personally always interpret correctly. I'd be quite amazed if I got things right even a majority of the time.)
That said, I don't see anything in the Bible which states that Jesus must be taken as the means of salvation during our lives. Suppose each of us stands before God, and Jesus offers us the option of using his death to wipe our slates clean. Frankly, the simplest way of understanding my viewpoint on this is to read The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis, and the section where after the battle one of Tash's followers approaches Aslan expecting death - but instead finds redemption and a greater meaning to the life they've already lived.
I'm not going to try to summarise this post. My belief system is complicated (as is that of most people, I believe) and I certainly haven't exhaustively described it above. To try to boil it down even further would be to invite misinterpretation.
I'm well aware that my beliefs don't correlate well with those of many other people. I don't ask for agreement, although I do request a certain amount of respect for differing beliefs. I don't think much is to be gained by simply belittling someone's deeply held (and seriously cogitated) views. Discussion is healthy, but unfortunately I don't believe a blog like this is a good medium for debate. By all means engage me personally if we ever meet, but it's too easy for electronic media to heat disagreements well beyond any productive temperature.
Finally, whatever your own beliefs, I pray for the blessing of God on you. Apart from anything else, you deserve something for reading all of this! Peace be with you.