Friday, December 6, 2013

Professor Bart D. Ehrman's Lectures for the Teaching Company

In an effort to get back to the core of Christian faith, I have noted that the Bible is the primary source for the tenets of that faith.  In my last post, I shared some insight from a book that focuses on the history of the Bible, and among other things explains how it has changed over time.

That was an insightful book, but I've also studied a number of resources on the "historical Jesus" that are also useful to the current focus of this blog.  I'll write soon more about this term "historical Jesus."  And in coming posts, I'll be focusing on two resources by the same scholar and published in the same media.  They are two lecture series by Professor Bart Ehrmann for the Teaching Company.  In this post, I just want to give you some background before we jump into consideration of Dr. Ehrmann's lectures.  I think it is helpful to know something about both Dr. Ehrmann and the Teaching Company.

Dr. Ehrmann completed his undergraduate degree at Wheaton College and his graduate degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary.  He currently teaches at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Wheaton is a well-respected Evangelical college founded by an abolitionist and with a history of impressive academic outcomes.  It counts Rev. Billy Graham among its alumni.  Princeton Theological Seminary was founded under the auspices of Princeton University and is now the second-oldest seminary in the United States.  It is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). 

Though Dr. Ehrmann received his degrees from private, Christian schools, his teaching career has been spent at public institutions where it would be unconstitutional to support or promote any particular faith tradition.  His teaching and scholarship thus focus on the study of the Bible from a more objective, less personal, more scientific perspective.  Dr. Ehrmann is a prolific scholar, having written or edited several dozen books.  He has done a number of lectures for the Teaching Company, but I listened to just two: New Testament and Historical Jesus.

In his youth, Ehrmann was a fundamentalist Christian.  Prior to beginning his bachelor's degree at Wheaton, he studied for three years at the Moody Bible Institute, where he earned a three-year diploma.  During his graduate studies, he became more aware of problems with a literalist approach to the Bible, and no longer considered himself a fundamentalist.  He had not lost his faith entirely, at that time and considered himself a non-literalist Christian for over a dozen years thereafter.  Later on, however, he became an agnostic.

The Teaching Company is a business that is focused on providing audio and video materials for adult learners.  Its primary target audience seems to be adults of a range of educational achievements who have a lot of intellectual curiosity and want to learn.  The business's materials provide non-credit "courses" by notable scholars from a range of backgrounds.  The philosophy of the materials is learning just for the pure enjoyment of it. 

The lectures by Dr. Ehrmann that I listened to were provided via the business's "Great Courses" series.  The are available at the following link:

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Bible: A Biography by Karen Armstrong

A while back, way before I ever even knew what a blog was, I began to read books about the Bible.  I'm an avid reader, and usually stick to nonfiction.  I love God and the Bible, but have always felt I could learn more about both. 

In particular, I always felt ignorant about the Bible.  When I was younger, Southern Baptist churches were the ones I attended most because of my family and friends.  But I didn't attend regularly and when I did go, I always felt like I had missed some basic lessons and didn't know as much as everyone else who were memorizing Bible verses like crazy.  I've never been good at rote memorization, so that never worked for me anyhow. 

I'm also more of a big picture learner.  It is hard for me to make sense of something when all I have is information on the micro, not macro, level.  So a while back, I began to pick up books on the Bible which helped give me more of a big picture understanding of the Bible.  It was really helpful.  And I think that is a good place for us to start here, as I take a step back and ask us to consider what Christianity is.

One of the first books I read in this genre was a terrific book whose name and author I unfortunately did not take time to write down.  Urgh!  I've gotten much better about that sort of thing since then, but I vaguely recall that the book was named something like A Biography of the Bible.

I've done some internet research and am not quite sure which book it was that I read, but I think it might have been Karen Armstrong's 2007 book, The Bible: A Biography.  I found a blurb about it on the NPR website:  I encourage you to take a read.

Whether it was Ms. Armstrong's "biography" or some author's book, a couple things in particular struck me as I read this mystery book whose title and author I don't recall with precision.

First, the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament have not been the same static documents over time.  The excerpt from the link above states:

"The Jewish scriptures and the New Testament both began as oral proclamations and even after they were committed to writing, there often remained a bias towards the spoken word that is also present in other traditions. From the very beginning, people feared that a written scripture encouraged inflexibility and unrealistic, strident certainty. Religious knowledge cannot be imparted like other information, simply by scanning the sacred page. Documents became 'scripture' not, initially, because they were thought to be divinely inspired but because people started to treat them differently. This was certainly true of the early texts of the Bible, which became holy only when approached in a ritual context that set them apart from ordinary life and secular modes of thought." 

Later, the excerpt continues,

"From the very beginning, the Bible had no single message. When the editors fixed the canons of both the Jewish and Christian testaments, they included competing visions and placed them, without comment, side by side. From the first, biblical authors felt free to revise the texts they had inherited and give them entirely different meaning. Later exegetes held up the Bible as a template for the problems of their time. Sometimes they allowed it to shape their world-view but they also felt free to change it and make it speak to contemporary conditions. They were not usually interested in discovering the original meaning of a biblical passage. The Bible 'proved' that it was holy because people continually discovered fresh ways to interpret it and found that this difficult, ancient set of documents cast light on situations that their authors could never have imagined. Revelation was an ongoing process; it had not been confined to a distant theophany on Mount Sinai; exegetes continued to make the Word of God audible in each generation."

A second major point I took from the book is related to the first: judging the factual truth of the Bible is not something that has been of interest to our spiritual forbearers.  As the excerpt at the link above notes:

"When their sacred texts tell stories, people have generally believed them to be true, but until recently literal or historical accuracy has never been the point.  The truth of scripture cannot be assessed unless it is--ritually or ethically--put into practice." 

The excerpt goes on to state,

"It is, for example, crucial to note that an exclusively literal interpretation of the Bible is a recent development. Until the nineteenth century, very few people imagined that the first chapter of Genesis was a factual account of the origins of life. For centuries, Jews and Christians relished highly allegorical and inventive exegesis, insisting that a wholly literal reading of the Bible was neither possible nor desirable. They have rewritten biblical history, replaced Bible stories with new myths, and interpreted the first chapter of Genesis in surprisingly different ways." 

Aren't these points fascinating?  That blew my mind that the Bible was written and frequently rewritten as new understandings arose.  Wow.

We fight so much about literalism these days.  It impacts bitter theological arguments, as well as legal and political battles over school curriculum, foreign policy, and the rights of women, sexual minorities and others.  But maybe this focus on literalism misses the point. 

Maybe when we insist on literal interpretations we are copping out and looking for easy answers.  However, no one said being a person of faith--or a Christ follower in particular--was easy. 

I believe that Jesus came to earth in part to put into human language important teachings our Heavenly Father wanted us to learn.  Human language is an important tool to impart information and meaning.  But it is imperfect.  Whenever I read the Gospels in the New Testament, I am continually amazed--and frankly comforted--at how even Jesus's closest disciples who lived with, worked alongside and learned from him directly did not understand his words. 

This is not easy stuff.  I wish I had a magic wand to make it all crystal clear, but I don't.  I don't think anyone does.  However, I can appreciate wishing that literal interpretations make it all clear.  Based on my study--which I'll explain more in future posts--I don't think literalism makes everything clear and simple.  It leads to plenty of contradictions that then require lots of creativity to resolve.  More on that later.

But a second thought concerns me about this apparent modern focus on literalism.  Perhaps when we insist on literal interpretations of Scripture, we are not just being lazy and refusing to do the heavy lifting necessary to find the truth of God's Word.  Maybe we insist on literal interpretations--at least in part--to justify our own prejudices and hardened hearts.  After all, if we assert that God is on our side in verbally condemning, systematically oppressing, or outright physically harming people, that can seem to give legitimacy to actions that otherwise might seem clearly wrong and cruel, or even outright un-Christian. 

I don't like to think the worst of people, but the more I study, the more I worry that this type of justification is one reason for the insistence on Bible literalism.  This is frankly a scary thought to me.  I find it horrifying to think that people might distort the gift of Scripture to serve ungodly and even evil ends. 

But maybe if that is what is going on, it is not done consciously.  Perhaps no one goes around thinking, "I know that God loves all his children equally, but I'm going to come up with arguments based on literal interpretations of passages taken out of context to justify finger wagging and discriminatory policy."  I suspect that people who insist on literalism in ways that harm others do so earnestly believing that is God's will. 

In life, I find we mere mortals are often not fully aware of our own motivations in how we react to different situations.  As a result, I think it is important for us to focus on examining our own lives.  I think that was one reason at least for Jesus's teaching on the Mote and the Beam in Matthew 7:1-5 and Luke 6:37-42.  Terrific food for thought.

I also find the following passage from the above excerpt fascinating and relevant to today's debates:

"Some of the most important biblical authorities insisted that charity must be the guiding principle of exegesis: any interpretation that spread hatred or disdain was illegitimate. All the world faiths claim that compassion is not only the prime virtue and the test of true religiosity but that it actually introduces us to Nirvana, God or the Dao. But sadly the biography of the Bible represents the failures as well as the triumphs of the religious quest. The biblical authors and their interpreters have all too often succumbed to the violence, unkindness and exclusivity that is rife in their societies."

Monday, November 4, 2013

Source of Our Faith

I've written before that in my faith journey, I've spent time with different denominations and non-denominational churches.  My husband and I were Roman Catholic for a very long time, but have journeyed on for the last decade.  We've been a part of an Episcopal church for the past four plus years now. 

When we were thinking about putting down roots at the local Episcopal church, the pastor had a "what we believe" reception for those who were interested in possibly joining.  The pastor began by explaining the roots of Episcopal faith.  She noted that Evangelicals look solely to the Bible to inform their faith, and Roman Catholics rely on the Bible plus tradition.  She said that Episcopal tradition builds on that--the denomination's theology is based on the Bible, tradition and also reason.  She then noted that John Wesley added one more source; the Methodists rely on the Bible, tradition, reason and experience.

Over the years, I've thought often about those different sources that inform the faith of Christians.  The commonality to all Christians is, of course, the Bible.  But what is really interesting to me is that even those of us who study the Bible frequently and with much vigor rarely understand what the Bible is.  Many of us have no idea where it came from.  Some of us think it fell from the sky or someone found it laying around in the desert.

I've heard Christians cite verses as if they were a well-drafted legal code presented intact, in English for us to simply follow without the need to struggle over interpretations.  I wish it were that easy.  As I understand, in the Muslim tradition and in the LDS tradition, respectively, the Koran and Book of Mormon were essentially handed over in one piece to the followers of those religious traditions.  Not so for the Hebrew Bible or the Christian New Testament. 

Moreover, I've been to churches where both laypeople and pastors quote verses out of Scriptural context and without much, if any, cultural or historical context to inform the words.  I've also heard Christians focus on the precise wording of a particular translation, without recognizing that the meaning that translation seems to give in English is very different from other well-respected translations. 

These things all trouble me greatly.  To me, they signify a tragic disconnect as to the source of our faith.

When I began this blog, I wanted it to be ecumenical.  I wanted it to be a place where anyone, regardless of their brand of Christianity or their interpretation of Jesus's teachings, would be welcome.  (I also aspired that people who are agnostic, atheist or adherents of other religions might be interested to take a read as well.)  Because of this aim, I've tried to avoid theology.  My real interest in writing this blog is not to convert anyone to my denomination or my personal views on Scripture.  I'm not a pastor or a Bible scholar, that is not my place.  But in the reading and reflecting I've done over the years, I've come to realize that because the umbrella of Christianity is so vast, it is not possible to avoid theology entirely. 

I recently read an excellent book by journalist Jeff Chu who did a year long "pilgrimage" and study of different churches' approach to the topic of homosexuality.  In the book, Mr. Chu writes several times that there is so much variation in what we, who embrace the term "Christian," actually believe that it can be impossible to reconcile our differences.  He even goes so far as to characterize different Christians as embracing different religions.  I appreciate his point.  And it goes way beyond the issue of homosexuality, it goes to much broader, even more basic religious beliefs.  These end up manifesting themselves in different positions on hot button issues.  Moreover, these different positions then get carried over into the political landscape when people cite their Christian faith as justification for various political positions they advocate.

Because of this dynamic, I've come to the conclusion that before I go any farther in this blog, I need to back up a bit.  Before I can discuss the intersection of Christianity and the secular law, I need to go back to what Christianity is.  That may seem obvious to some, and thus unnecessary.  I think that was my initial view.  But I no longer feel that way. 

So, in coming posts, I will share and discuss some resources for understanding what the Bible is (and is not).  As that document is the common source that informs all Christians' faith, we need to spend some time considering what it is and even what it says.  I'm looking forward to this series and hope you do too.

Thursday, October 3, 2013


Democracy predates Christianity.  The Ancient Greeks developed a system of political self-determination in the 5th century BCE.  So, we have to be careful when mixing our faith as Christians with debates over legal policy.  Christ did not invent democracy and he did not champion it. 

Over the centuries, there have been absolute monarchs who professed to be devout Christians.  Christian lay people and clerics have earnestly supported dictatorial regimes in their countries--even in recent memory.  Thus, a democracy is not the only political system a Christ follower can endorse. 

Nonetheless, like most Americans, I personally do believe that democracy is the best way to ensure human rights and to avoid tyranny.  I've read and traveled enough that I really appreciate living in a country where average people can participate in determining our nation's laws--at least indirectly through elected representatives. 

But we should be careful to not try to make our political process into a religion.  Again, it did not emanate with Christ.  And democracy is not perfect.  It is messy.  Frankly, it can be unpleasant.  It requires listening to others despite our own passionate opinions, finding common ground, and negotiation to make decisions jointly for the good of our country and its inhabitants.  The political process is not a good context for absolutes and inflexibility. 

The basic thrust of democracy is that we have the responsibility to convince others to join our cause, but we cannot expect to get everything we champion every time.  Prior to becoming president, George W. Bush famously commented on the nature of democracy: "You don't get everything you want. A dictatorship would be a lot easier."  There is a lot of truth in that statement. 

In a democracy, to some extent everyone ends up disappointed with the end result because rarely does anyone get 100% of what they sought in the political process.  But the alternative is concentrating power in the hands of one or a few individuals who are unaccountable to those who are ruled.  As we see in the cases of North Korea, the PRC, Syria, among others, such concentration and lack of accountability leads (more so than in a democracy) to human rights abuses. 

As a result, regardless of our theology, I believe that as Americans, we need to be concerned about the health of our democracy and be ever vigilant to keep it strong.  We don't want it to degrade and become less democratic. 

And frankly I believe that as the oldest modern democracy, we in some sense have a responsibility to the world to demonstrate what representational government looks like and how it functions best.  I believe that in recent years, we have been failing at this.  In a sense, I think that this has come to a fever pitch this week with the shut-down of the federal government.

Before I get some amens and hear choruses of "let's throw the bums out," let me say that I don't think the politicians are completely to blame.  In a democracy, we are all accountable.  As voters (or people who were eligible to vote but did not), we must share responsibility for our current state of political dysfunction.  We elected the men and women who have gotten us into this mess. 

Politicians merely reflect the will of their constituents.  Indeed, they often put aside their own values for political expediency.  If a candidate wants to raise taxes or increase military funding, but those positions are unpopular in his/her district, the candidate is highly unlikely to embrace those positions and be elected.  To the extent we have politicians who are inflexible and unwilling to negotiate, they are reflecting the will of the majority of their constituents.  The problem is not just the politicians, the problem is us. 

This is not unlike other social problems plaguing our country.  We aren't suffering the ills of meth and greasy burgers SOLELY because of unscrupulous drug dealers and evil corporate marketing.  The dealers and corporate food sellers would not be doing what they are doing if there were not a huge demand for their products.  Until we quash our appetites for meth and cheap fast food, lives will continue to be ruined by drug addiction and health will be impaired by childhood obesity, respectively.

We need to stop being self-righteous about our problems in this country and recognize our own culpability.  It helps no one to believe our self perfect and without fault while the other guy is entirely to blame for every problem.  Playing the blame game may feel good for a while, but it is counterproductive and lazy.  It shifts responsibility away from ourselves and on to others.  One of the costs of democracy is that we are all responsible for how our nation is run.  In a dictatorship, we could legitimately whine about the unaccountable leaders with whom we disagree.  Not so in a democracy.

In that vein, I've been very disheartened by some of the rhetoric of average folks this week as Americans have debated and griped over the shut-down of the federal government.  I appreciate good faith attempts to discuss ideas and debate policy.  But a lot of what I've read and heard this week don't fit that description.

Here are a couple things that I have observed this week to be particularly destructive as we struggle with the current political impasse:

(1) Name calling and insults.  In a democracy, we have to use what we parents often describe to our kids as "big boy words" or "big girl words."  We have to take the effort to communicate concerns, fears, objections and other ideas to our compatriots--particularly those who disagree with us.  Just calling someone with a different perspective "dumb" or "crazy" or a "moron" is a cop out.  It is lazy and incredibly destructive.  It demeans the other person and makes it very unlikely they will want to have a serious discussion with you.  It also, in my experience, denotes a sense of superiority that is often coextensive with class and educational privilege.  In a democracy, at least in the political realm, we're supposed to be equals.  Democracy requires respecting people even if you disagree with them.

(2)  Dismissing others due to the mechanics of their communication.  Yikes.  I've seen a lot of this in electronic media this week.  When people don't know how to debate ideas or they're too lazy to do so, they sometimes gripe at each other's grammar, spelling and punctuation.  In my observation, this is related to the first item I described above.  However, political debate is neither the time nor the place for lessons on the mechanics of the English language.  In a democracy, we need to be open and try to consider the ideas of our compatriots, not attempting to dismiss them on the basis that we believe they did not master the curriculum of English 101. 

I've noticed that people who do this kind of nit-picking tend to be well-educated.  In my observation, even if they have a bleeding liberal heart, they are on some level elitist and do not really respect those who are less educated if they have a different perspective.  The most nauseating example I saw of this phenomenon this week was one person who took another to task for not properly using the subjunctive mood and the other person responded to that criticism in Latin.  Most people don't even know what the subjunctive mood is, and few people in the 21st century United States have studied Latin.  The whole thing was clearly about nothing more than stroking one's own ego as intellectual elites.  Go stroke your ego on your own time, not during a political debate.

Look, my mom was an English teacher, and as a lawyer/professor/parent, I am second to none in wanting people to write better and use proper grammar, spelling and punctuation.  But I also recognize that most Americans have not had the educational advantages that I have.  I have been very privileged in that sense.  That privilege does not mean that my political views should carry more weight than anyone else's.  People with less education have just as much right to participate in the political process as I.  I have no right to demean them for their lack of knowledge or mastery of the rules of the English language.  If they don't catch a typo, that doesn't mean my position is substantively better.

(3) Clinging only to labels.  So much of what currently passes for modern political debate is actually just the regurgitation of labels, the actual definitions of which we've often lost sight over time.  Using terms like "progressive," "conservative," "radical," "socialist," "Nazi," etc. can be a helpful short-hand to condense big ideas into more manageable speech.  But if we over-rely on such labels, they can be blinding.  We need to look past simplistic labels, which may not even be accurate, to listen and consider the actual beliefs and concerns of the other person.

(4) Only playing with those who are likeminded.  One of the most demoralizing things I've seen this week is when some person goes a bit off their normal topic to share their views on the government shut-down, but then some of their followers or readers on social media retaliate by disassociating with them.  They refuse to listen to someone on any topic if they disagree with them on hot button issues.  That is so sad.  Democracy can't function properly if I pack up my toys and move to another part of the playground if you don't agree with me 100%.

Like most folks, I am a busy person.  There are only so many hours in the day.  There are so many things competing for our attention.  I completely appreciate that we have to be judicious with our time, and prune away things that are not bearing fruit.  But if you have been reading someone's posts and had in the past found them to be a good use of your time, it breaks my heart that you would drop them because they espouse a different view point--even on a huge political event like the federal shut-down. 

We are both a democracy and a diverse society.  For those two aspects of our country to co-exist peacefully and productively, we must seek out different perspectives and try to understand people who have beliefs distinct from our own.  One of the most dangerous threats to our democracy is the modern tendency due to the wider availability of technology to associate only with those who are like-minded.  We need to resist that tendency.  We need to seek out and befriend people who have different opinions.  Often they aren't as different as we think. 

I have a dear relative who posts to social media political memes that frankly just horrify me though I love her very much.  (I'm quite certain she feels the same way about most of the things I share!)  But then she'll go and shock me by hitting the "like" button on something I share on a social justice topic.  It is always a good reminder to me to not assume that everyone in a particular party or embracing a particular label is in agreement on every issue.  Even within parties and labels, there are divergent views.

So what does all this have to do with the focus of this blog?  Glad you asked. 

Our habits with regard to our religious beliefs are often similar to our habits in the political context.  If someone shares information or ideas about our religion that are new and perhaps different from what we've known in the past, we often call them names, saddle them with labels instead of really considering their ideas, and/or we refuse to listen to what they have to say.  In short, just as we tend to be close-minded in the political context, we tend to do the same thing in our faith life.  I don't think that is healthy or productive, however.

As I've flagged before, it is arrogant folly for us to assume we fully understand God and his will.  Indeed, most Christians agree that Bible Study is an important part of our faith journey.  We need to constantly work to better understand his Word to grow closer to God and better live out his will for our lives. 

However, many of us are only willing to engage in such study to the extent it enables us to continue down a set path of understanding.  Any ideas that contradict our prior understanding are shunned. 

This has been the case throughout the history of Christianity.  Early Christian communities kicked out those who were deemed to espouse heretical teaching.  Later Christians went farther, torturing and killing those considered to be heretics.  Now days, we fancy that we're more enlightened and more tolerant than that.  However, we still tend to stick to our echo chambers.  We seek out only pastors and teachers who teach what is comfortable and with which we already agree.  But that is not really learning, that is mere reinforcement of previously held beliefs.  To truly learn, we must be open.  Learning is about accepting information and understanding from others.  It is not about building a stronger case to justify our previously entrenched perspective.

Indeed, it is important to remember that over the years, we Christians have not always gotten it right.  Galileo and Martin Luther were each considered heretics in their day, but most would agree today they were on the right side of history.  (I've even heard Martin Luther quoted and praised by Catholic priests in sermons!) 

In the 19th century, many devout and sincere Christians believed that the enslavement of African people was not only morally acceptable but was biblically sanctioned.  Such a belief is virtually unheard of today except perhaps as embraced by a few radical white supremacist groups. 

History can be an insightful reminder that our collective understanding of Christianity has not been static, but has changed over time.  What may seem unacceptable to some at one point in time may become the prevalent view later on.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Sharing Knowledge and Admitting Ignorance

I like to listen to the radio when I work in the kitchen.  Yesterday I had the radio on while I prepared dinner.  I heard an interview with author Leah Hager Cohen, who discussed her book I Don't Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn't).  The interview briefly discussed the concept of the book, which seems to fit nicely with the prior post.  The interview is available at the following link:

Ms. Cohen describes instances when people in secondary or supporting roles had knowledge or ideas that could have been helpful to those in positions of greater authority.  She illustrated the phenomenon that sometimes people in greater positions of authority don't want to hear what those below them have to say and may even send signals that the subordinate should hold his tongue.  Conversely, even without such signals from one's superior, people in subordinate roles may feel inhibited to vocalize too loudly their concerns.  (Indeed, in my professional experience and in my husband's, we've both known plenty of folks who have been fired just for voicing concerns to leaders who did not want their opinions.) 

However, Ms. Cohen describes how such phenomenon can be dangerous--even deadly in certain circumstances.  I think her point is that people in authority need to be open about the fact that they don't necessarily know everything, those below them in the organization's hierarchy might have helpful insights, and that is ok.  This makes sense to me.  Leaders don't have to have all the answers.  That is why they are not the only ones in the organization.  They have surrounded themselves with others who also have knowledge and skills, from which the organization will benefit.

Ms. Cohen encourages us to admit it when we don't know something.  It is liberating.  And the alternative is faking it, which can be counterproductive and a waste of resources to say the least.

She also made an interesting point that our current culture breeds this reluctance to admit it when we don't know something.  We are conditioned that knowing the right answer is critical.  She is particularly concerned about our current younger generation who've grown up in the context of the No Child Left Behind Act, which has raised the role of standardized tests.  She explains that emphasis puts "a premium on knowing the right answer, being able to fill in the correct oval on a test.  I worry that we may not be teaching enough the value of experimentation and failure and risk-taking and the process of inquiry."

As an educator, I echo Ms. Cohen's concerns.  I've been frustrated by students who seem to have no interest in exploration or experimentation, but instead just want to know the bottom line right answer to every problem.  In disciplines like law, there may not be such an answer because analysis and persuasion are important in driving outcomes.  And in disciplines like science and engineering, there may be one right answer, but it may not be known yet.  In technical disciplines, it takes a lot of trial and error before we discover truth.  We cannot insist on correct answers in all cases.  That won't allow us to progress.

I think that similar points are valid in our spiritual walk. 

Do I believe in an absolute truth in a spiritual sense?  You betcha. 

Do I think I know and understand that absolute truth?  I'm not so sure. 

I really hope that I've been able to glean at least some of God's truth.  But frankly, I don't kid myself that I have it all down.  Not anywhere near it.  I don't pretend to have all the answers.  But I continue to work at it.  I read and reflect and pray. 

And frankly sometimes I wonder if we humans are even capable of comprehending all of God's truth.  God is a spiritual being of infinite power and knowledge.  We are much less impressive.  In every way, we're much punier than God. 

It seems to me quite egotistical to think we could know and understand everything about God.  It reminds me of the Anne Lamott joke I shared recently. 

It also brings to mind the story of the fall of Adam and Eve.  The serpent promised Eve that if she ate of the forbidden fruit, she would be like God.  Maybe that is one interpretation of original sin, the attempt to be like God.  I'm not saying we shouldn't keep studying his Word and attempting to draw closer to God in understanding his teachings.  But maybe the Bible begins as it does because we are to remember our tendency to try to be like God and the catastrophic repercussions of that tendency. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Humility and Pride

I am new to social media and recently "liked" Anne Lamott, the Christian author.  She posted something recently that included what she described as an old joke.  I'd never heard it before, but it is quite apropos of the new direction of this blog.  The joke asks, "what is the difference between us and God?"  The answer and punch line: "God never thinks he's us." 


So often we Christians speak and write with such a confidence in our beliefs.  We know what we know.  We're certain.  We cannot be wrong. 

What's more, we're often quite loud about our rock solid beliefs because the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) told us to go out and make disciples of all nations.  Many of us seem to think that you "make disciples" by force and being loud.  However, that is not the example Jesus gave for us.  He fellowshipped with people who became his disciples.  He became their friend and taught when they were receptive.  He did not force them to believe what they were not willing to accept.  He drew followers to him with love, not angry words. 

People who are adamant about being loud about their rock solid beliefs often give the excuse that they are simply following the example of John the Baptist.  John had a lot of great attributes.  And he was an in-your-face sort of guy.  But the reality is that John was not Christ.  Thus, it is Jesus, not John, after whom we should try to model our behavior.

And when we are so sure our religious beliefs are absolutely correct, we forget that even Christ's followers, who were with him during his earthly ministry on a daily basis, didn't always understand what he was talking about.  Jesus constantly had to correct them because they literalized figurative language.  Even though he taught in parables with agrarian symbolism, with which they would have had familiarity, they didn't always grasp his spiritual meaning.  Christ's teachings are not simple and easy to understand.  If it was a struggle for those who were with Jesus during his earthly walk, how much more difficult it is for us two thousand years later. 

I encourage us all to remember that.  Whenever we feel absolutely certain we know what the Bible is saying on a particular topic.  Whenever we feel absolutely certain we know God's mind on a particular point.  That certainty should be a huge red flag, my friends.  It is a type of pride.  The Bible repeatedly warns against pride, and instead urges us to adopt a humble attitude.

I often think how egotistical it is for us mere mortals to be so confident that we know for sure God's will and his teachings in every instance.  He is the great I AM, who has been in existence longer than our puny brains can even fathom.  He is the creator of the universe.  The same universe that we're still struggling to understand.  Heck, I cannot even wrap my mind around my daughters' math homework sometimes.

Beyond the sin of pride, another thing that is dangerous about being so certain we already understand God's will and his teachings fully is that it closes us off to new learning.  Believe me, I know what I'm talking about.  I've been a college peer tutor, a middle school teacher, an elementary school teacher, a law professor and a homeschooling mom.  I've also taught in various church ministries.  So, I've seen this happen in many different contexts.  When we think we already know something, our minds tune out.  If we think we already understand a passage in the Bible, we may gloss over it when we read it again or when someone tries to teach us about that passage.  In more extreme cases, we may even argue with the person who tries to share new insight.  They cannot be right if we already have a monopoly on truth.

Being closed is not good, my friends.  There is at least one commonality of all the people described in the New Testament as having converted to follow Jesus: they had an open-mind and an open spirit.  I have a friend who is originally from a small village in Nigeria.  I have heard him pray in thanksgiving that his grandfather was open to the missionaries who came to his village decades ago.  He and his whole family are now devoted Christ-followers.  Their faith is the center of their lives.  And conversion is not a one time only thing.  The holy spirit is constantly working in our heart if we are open to being guided.  We are not a finished product.  The potter is still working with the clay.

I encourage you to consider that even when a passage may seem to clearly mean something, perhaps our initial understanding is not correct.  I know sometimes I've latched onto a passage of Scripture that appeals to me because in my modern perspective, it seems to be saying something that I really like.  But sometimes when I read more background or scholarly explanation of the wording, I eventually come to understand that the passage didn't really mean what I thought.  Often there is historical or cultural context I was missing that makes it more apparent that the author was really writing about a completely different topic.  That can be disappointing to learn the passage did not really say what I had thought.  But it would be foolish to cling to my apparently ego-driven pearl of wisdom instead of embracing what the passage actually was teaching.

Alternately, our initial understanding of a passage from the Bible might not be wrong, but often it is not as full or deep an understanding as we might eventually gain if we keep studying.  This can happen not only with Scripture but other texts as well.  This summer I taught Criminal Law, a course that I had taught many times in the past, but had not taught for almost two years.  During that break, my focus had been on other legal topics--primarily business law, as well as a few others.  So when I returned to Criminal Law this summer, I had a very different perspective.  As I re-read the same Criminal Law casebook for the umpteenth time, and discussed the materials with a new set of students, I had all kinds of epiphanies.  I noticed parts of the same old text that I'd glossed over to some extent in the past.  I realized certain connections with other topics I had been studying and teaching in the break period.  Coming back to Criminal Law after all this time, I am quite sure I got as much out of the material as the students, and frankly had more to share with my class than I had in the past.  The same thing typically happens each time I teach a course.  It is not unique to Criminal Law.  The more one studies a topic, the more one integrates other learnings.  One's understanding becomes fuller than after the first, fifth or even tenth read.  If we work at it, the same happens when we study the Bible.

I write these words as a reminder to myself and to you, dear reader.  The need to avoid pride and to adopt a humble attitude is so critical when we sit down to study Scripture.  This is not easy, obvious stuff.  It takes time and struggle.  I encourage you to not be afraid of the time commitment or the struggle.  Nothing worthwhile ever comes easy.

And we shouldn't be afraid or ashamed if we aren't sure.  Lack of certainty is looked down in our secular culture.  None of us what to appear ignorant or unprepared.  But before the Lord and in the company of our fellow Christ-followers, being unsure is nothing to be afraid or ashamed of.  Indeed, it is a sign of honesty and humility.  It is also a sign of a deep, seeking faith.  Keep seeking.  Be wary when anyone tells you a passage from Scripture is obvious or clear.  Do your own due diligence.  Dig deep over time to decide for yourself.  It is in that seeking that we come to understand God and his plan better.

Monday, September 9, 2013

"i repent" Post From "Our Exceeding Joy" Blog

I love blogs.  I love writing them.  And I love reading them.  I've got a list of a few I like on the right side of this page.  But it is certainly not an exhaustive list.  Time is limited.  I don't have time to read 100% of each blog that piques my interest.  I don't have time to read any on a regular basis.  From time to time, if I have a few minutes, I go to one of the blogs I've bookmarked to catch up.

This morning I had such a little break in my day and wandered over to "Our Exceeding Joy."  It is a blog by a woman named Sarah in Austin, Texas.  I went to college and met my husband in Austin.  I know first hand what a great town that is.  But what initially got my attention is that Sarah is an adoptive mom like me. 

I love the description of her blog.  She describes herself first and foremost as "an avid reader and writer."  She says her blog is an outlet where she writes "about the things that stir my soul" such as "Jesus, adoption, or human-trafficking."  What a woman! 

I read a lovely post that Sarah wrote earlier this summer on June 8th.  It was entitled "i repent."  Take a read of what she wrote.  I wanted to share it because it is beautiful and inspiring.  But I also thought it was very apropos of the new focus of my own blog.

In this post, Sarah explored her former hard-heartedness and judgmental tendencies towards people unlike her.  I particularly loved the following passages:

It never crossed my mind that I could be wrong.
Maybe this response is because I grew up in a culture where there was this prevalent fear of being invaded by the homosexuals and the abortionists. We talked a big game, but when it actually came to believing that God could love all these sinners, we battened down the hatches and only let in like-minded people.
Maybe it’s because I was taught that it was more important to be right than to love.
Or maybe it’s just a symptom of being a fallen, broken person.
Sarah really hits the nail on the head.  In our modern culture, it seems like everyone is yelling at everyone who disagrees with them.  We don't listen to others who are different.  We are not open to learning.  We think we're always right, like we have a monopoly on truth.  How arrogant.  Even the disciples were continually misunderstanding Jesus's teachings though they were with him 24/7 for several years.

And as Sarah points out so eloquently, we've tragically adopted the attitude that being right is more important than loving.  What a powerful statement.  As Christ followers, we can't fault nonbelievers from embracing and living that attitude.  But those of us who purport to have read and accepted the Gospels, we should know better.  Being right is NOT more important than loving God's people, whomever they might be.

Take a read of the whole blog post, which is available at the link below.  Meditate on it and keep it in your heart as you go through the day.  Beautiful sentiments.  Yeah, Sarah!