I have a confession to make: I love reading atheist blogs. I enjoy them because they challenge my faith and make me think about why
I believe what I believe. They expose the irrationalities of Christianity, and remind me that the reasons for my faith are experiential, not rational.
Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism has a pair of recent posts, Making Excuses for the Bible
and Instruction Manual or Chronicle?
, which offer a critique of "liberal Christians."
In Ebonmuse's classification system, there are only two types of Christians: "fundamentalists" and "liberals." Throughout this post I will put the two terms in quotation marks because most Christians self-identify as neither fundamentalists nor liberals.
The difference between the two camps, according to Ebonmuse, is this:
In the eyes of the fundamentalists, the Bible (or Qur'an or Book of Mormon or whatever other text) is God's word, dictated with infallible perfection to the minds of his followers. It's meant to be the deity's instruction manual, telling human beings everything we need to know about how to live.
For liberal believers, by contrast, the Bible is not a direct pipeline to God, but a chronicle of events put together by human beings doing their best to interpret history in the light of their beliefs. God did not speak directly to his followers and tell them what to write down - or, at best, he only did so rarely. Instead, God's followers tried to discern his will in the flow of events and infer what messages he meant to convey.
Ebonmuse notes that the criticisms of the Bible atheists use against "fundamentalists" -- e.g., immoral actions attributed to God -- don't apply to "liberals." If the Bible is understood as as "chronicle of events put together by human beings doing their best to interpret history in the light of their beliefs," there is a possibility that those human beings made some mistakes.
Still, Ebonmuse contends that there are some valid criticisms to be made against "liberal" Christianity.
First: Unless they believe that God spoke to one people exclusively - and most liberal believers don't - then they should acknowledge that their own view of scripture as a chronicle implies that other cultures will also have had contact with God, and other religious texts will reflect the same interpretive process. Why, then, would a believer define themselves exclusively in the symbols and language of one particular religion? Why call yourself a Christian if just as much genuine understanding of God can be found in the Qur'an or the Bhagavad Gita as in the Bible?
These are tough questions, and different believers may give different answers. There is a wide gap between all religions are equally valid
and all religions are false except mine
, and I suspect most people would find themselves somewhere in between. For myself, I will readily acknowledge that some truth can be found in other religions. I've written previously about how reading the Tao Te Ching has enhanced my faith
. However, my faith is still a Christian
faith. I have not converted to Taoism, and I wouldn't call myself a Taoist Christian. I still believe that Christianity is the fullest
expression of the reality of God.
Second: What are the liberal believer's criteria for deciding whether a given verse reflects God's message or human error? Since they don't credit all parts of scripture with equal truth, they must have some way to decide which verses to follow and which ones to disregard. In most cases this process is guided by the believer's own moral intuitions and by the moral progress society has subsequently made. Now that we know slavery, racism and sexism to be evils, modern liberal theists disregard the parts of their text that teach these things. Other verses which have better stood the test of time are assumed to be true lessons from God.
If this is true, it is surely an indictment of "liberal" Christianity. If our faith is grounded in nothing more than reading modern morals back into the Bible, then why do we need the ancient text? We might as well drop the pretense that the Bible means anything at all.
Indeed, Ebonmuse urges us to do exactly that:
However, once you've come this far, what do you need scripture for at all? Clearly, once a theist has reached this point, their own conscience is a superior and perfectly sufficient guide.
But here is the fundamental flaw of that line of reasoning: Christianity is not merely a system of ethics. If the Bible is a chronicle, it is not just a chronicle of one ancient mideastern people's grappling with their collective conscience.
The Bible does contain teachings about ethics -- I'm not denying that. But it also contains the story of God's interactions with God's people: First with a chosen people, the Jews; then through Jesus an invitation to everyone to participate in the unfolding story.
The stories of Jesus' birth, for instance, are not written as an example of good behavior that we should emulate. But what are they? Should we take them as a literal history of events of one miraculous evening long ago? Are they a romanticized tale to cover up Mary and Joseph's unexpected out-of-wedlock pregnancy? Or maybe an allegory using symbolic language to proclaim Jesus' messiahship?
I would suggest that for Christians to faithfully read the birth stories, we must not
merely accept the answer that seems right to us -- whether we are "fundamentalists" or "liberals" -- but to wrestle with what God is saying to us through these stories. We might be surprised at the direction God pulls us if we move beyond the original intent -- whatever it was -- and make Jesus' story a part of our own lives.
The final useful line of argument is one that works equally well against believers of all stripes. Namely, by what evidence do those believers conclude that their particular text reflects the will of God, in whole or in part? What makes them so certain that the text reflects any divine influence at all, rather than simply being the product of men, some of whom were benevolent and kind and some of whom were vindictive and cruel? Liberal believers acknowledge that the authors of scripture were wrong about many things. How do they know that those authors weren't also wrong about the existence of God?
Again, I can't speak for others. Personally, I believe God exists because of my own experience with the holy
. The Bible played no part in convincing me that God is real. If I didn't believe for other reasons, I don't think I would get much out of the Bible. So why do I believe this text reflects any divine influence at all? Simply this: Jesus' story does
resonate with my own story. Since that night God first became real to me, the Bible has shaped my life and transformed who I am.
Are there parts of the Bible that I believe didn't
come from God? Certainly. But there are parts, too, that have shaped me even when I didn't like what they said.
I've been very brief in this post -- perhaps too brief. Each of these sets of questions deserves a much more thorough answer than I've given here. If I have time, I'll try to look at each in more depth.
Labels: atheism, faith, scripture