I mentioned in another post it was possible, but ever since I’ve been wondering exactly how? How are we to dive into texts written by scholars who may not share the same faith that we do and would therefore feel no reluctance to unravel the biblical text? And in that process of unraveling things, how do we press on in believing in Jesus when the very things we believe about Him are brought under critical light?
This process of finding a balance between faith and scholarship has become much more important in recent weeks. At George Fox Seminary, one professor is set to retire at the end of the year and we’ve been hearing from potential replacements every now and then. I can share no further details beyond that, but I can say that one thing I’ve come to realize is that in order for a seminary professor to have an impact on the students they teach – students, mind you, who are being trained for church leadership, ministry, and academia – they must have a strong balance between walking with Jesus and teaching leaders how to critically engage the biblical text and their surrounding cultures.
It means for me, the seminarian, I’m in the process of developing said balance. It’s one I began a long time ago at the U of O, but one I know is not quite finished, yet. Nearly every class I encounter a new perspective, a new challenge that stirs my thoughts and rattles the cages of my neatly-formed beliefs. If I was just now beginning that process of developing a balance, I am not sure how I would react. I might start doubting everything I was ever taught about Jesus and maybe even walk away from seminary. I am not saying that this is what you will go through if you are now beginning that process as you enter seminary; I’m saying this is what I might have done had I not begun that process long ago. So why am I not walking away?
Finding the balance I think is different in exact details for everyone, but ultimately boils down to being comfortable in engaging new ideas. Allowing those ideas to rattle the cages and shake up one’s beliefs will not only test the durability of those beliefs, but perhaps replace the beliefs that don’t hold up. Such a process is sometimes exhausting, but sometimes instant. Sometimes someone in class says that one thing and all of a sudden the light bulb goes on and a theological alteration (perhaps only a subtle one) takes place.
Long ago, I read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. At the time, I was wrestling with a supposed controversial doctrine and felt a lot of pressure to simply believe in it. Yet, I wasn’t convinced. The new idea was rattling the cages and the old idea, the one I was pressured to hold onto, wasn’t holding up. When I read this passage, I felt at home in allowing the new idea to replace the old:
“God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you, you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all. But, fortunately, it works the other way round. Anyone who is honestly trying to be a Christian will soon find his intelligence being sharpened: one of the reasons why it needs no special education to be a Christian is that Christianity is an education itself.”
In your journey with God, where have you found comfort and solace in processing new ideas? Where is your balance point between faith and academics? Or are you like me, still developing one?
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (HarperCollins, 2003), 78
@Jeremy: This is why some institutions avoid the pedagogy promoted at GFES: because they know it may create a crisis! That said, I think GFES and similar institutions are doing the right thing when they teach their students to navigate the waters of the academy and the Church, to both read Scripture piously and engage the Bible critically. In our world where information can reach most people quite quickly it is dangerous to hope that people who may be shaken by critical scholarship will happen to avoid it altogether. We need leaders who allow their own faith to be tested in order to strengthen them for service in the information age.
Personally, I don’t know that I’ve found the balance yet. Some days I find myself thinking very critically, deconstructing everything in view. Other days I find myself trying to just live into the narrative, the themes, the principles, learning to “practice” the text without weighing myself down about whether or not this or that story is historically verifiable or not. This back and forth swaying is the only way I’ve found balance. It often drives me to prayer and maybe this is more important than knowledge. Maybe the Bible’s great weakness can be its great strength: it doesn’t give all knowledge, but it does push us to cry to God, which is prayer, which is worship.
Ironically, in cities like San Francisco the buildings are built to shake and move if and when the “big” earthquake hits (as well as the small ones). Solid, sturdy brick buildings with little give may survive many things: fire, rain, snow, flood, but not the shaking of the earth. Meanwhile, buildings in San Francisco may have a lot of give, a lot of “compromise” if you will, but unless the apocalypse occurs they will survive the “big” one. This is how I try to model my faith: I may not be as rock hard and solid as many fundamentalists and apologists types, but I hope that if and when the big one hits I’ve become a structure with enough compromise that I may shake, sway, and experience a scare, but when it’s done I’ll be standing. We need that sort of faith.
From one layman’s point of view, I think that my experiential faith helps a lot as I wrestle with issues like whether or not there was an historical Adam and Eve, and if not, how do I work that into the theology that I had been tought most of my life (and am still being taught from the pulpit)?
@Paul: I’d agree that the experiential aspect of our faith has helped me as well. For you, what does this means? Charismatic? Mystical? Wesley’s “heart strangely warmed”? Paul’s “the Spirit (of God) testifies together with our spirit?” A combination of these?
@Brian: Probably some combination of Wesley’s “heart strangely warmed” and Paul’s “the Spirit (of God) testifies together with our spirit” (assuming that I have some fuzzy understanding of what those terms mean). I’ve never tried to articulate it.
@Jeremy: I’ve had similar experiences to Brian. I’ve learned that scholarship can be an act of worship. I’ve also learned that faith and doubt aren’t necessarily opposites, nor are faith and scholarship. A book that might be helpful is Christopher Morse’s Dogmatics of Disbelief.
@Paul: I hear you. I’d use that language as well, though with a bit of the charismatic thrown in over the years.
@Kate: I hadn’t heard of that book. Thanks for mentioning it!
The trick is to get to a point in your intellectual development where you have the confidence to push back against the academic mainstream in defense of your Christian faith. This is something that I think the likes of Bauckham, Evans, and Hurtado all have in common (I am certainly not talking about the kind of foolhardy reaction against the academic mainstream that we see among young earth advocates). If you allow the academic mainstream to always dictate your beliefs then, I believe, you may not have much of a faith before too long.
@Brian: “I find myself living into the narrative…” I absolutely love this idea and I have often found it in Scripture itself. Take, for example, the Creation Story. Set aside all the creationism vs. evolution debates and simply read it as a story in response to creation stories circulating at the time in the Ancient Near East, it seems early Israel was developing their own narrative – one with a peaceful, loving, controller-of-the-chaos God. Flash forward to Jesus’ ministerial debut in Luke 4 where he reads from Isaiah 61; he’s reminding his hearers of Israel’s narrative. So I, too, find myself focusing more and more on the narrative of God – even as I deconstruct that narrative.
And I love that “shake and move” aspect. What comes to mind, although slightly bizarre, is what Zach Galifianakis’ character says to Robert Downey Jr.’s character in the movie Due Date in the wake of a car accident, “Doctors said [I didn’t get hurt] because I didn’t tense up. Shouldn’t tense up.” Perhaps it feels like our theologies are being “hurt” because we’re tensing up – not allowing any flexibility?
@Paul: As I said to Brian, the creation story – after reading Peter Enns’ Evolution of Adam, by the way – has become more important in my own theology only after studying the particular context of the ANE; that Israel wasn’t putting together a factual history “how it happened exactly,” but rather building a narrative to establish themselves as a unified people with a God worthy of worship.
@Kate: I have never thought of it as an act of worship, but I really like that insight. Makes doing my homework just a little easier 🙂
@Resident: I agree; there is an element of “pushing back” against the academic mainstream in developing one’s own faith. However, in my experience, the “pushing back” has been mostly against the Christian mainstream. Sure, there are academic strands I’ve disagreed with, but I have always felt my own faith was attacked more by what the Christian community has told me to believe rather than scholars poking holes through my beliefs (not that they’re targeting my own beliefs, but rather the effects of their work).
You are right, though; having that confidence to push back is crucial.
I found a big problem for me was the idea I had developed about the bible from childhood.
Once I had learned it is a Divine and human work, I wasn’t so vulnerable to attacks on my faith by demonstrating there may be contradictions in the text. Before, I was.
One thing that needs pointing out a lot, our faith isn’t predicated on the bible, it’s predicated on Jesus of Nazareth being alive and there’s a lot more reason to believe He is than the alternative scenarios offered up.
I like the way Ben Witherington puts it, Christianity is too improbable to be made up.
@Jeremy: In the spirit of speaking about Gen. 1, you may enjoy these two articles I read this week:
– Jack Levison: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jack-levison/bill-nye-ken-ham-debate_b_4718702.html?utm_hp_ref=tw
– Tim Gombis: http://timgombis.com/2014/02/07/taking-genesis-1-seriously/
@Patrick: I have found a huge part of finding the balance is acknowledging Scripture’s humanity. And you are exactly right; it isn’t based upon the Bible, but upon Jesus having been raised. Having that focus with the acknowledgment of Scripture’s humanity, wading through scholarship becomes much more peaceful. Not easier, necessarily, but certainly more peaceful.
@Brian: Thanks for the articles! I missed the Ham v. Nye debate, so it’ll be nice to be filled in. Although, I’ve heard I didn’t miss a whole lot?
Well, I’m still developing balance point, however the ideal for me has been recently expressed in this blog post: http://onbehalfofall.org/reading-scripture-in-tradition-why-sola-scriptura-doesnt-work/ especially in the second part of it:
‘Absent from this description [of the type of person fit for the proper study and understanding of scripture — K.M.] is the kind of Ph. D. they have acquired, the university that granted it, or a mastery of the finer points of Ancient Near Eastern history. While all of these things are great in their own right, they neither guarantee nor even suggest that a person with that sort of experience is equipped to understand the scriptures as part of holy tradition. Without rejecting scholarship, we must be careful to balance scholarship with the necessary holiness, piety, and mystical union with Christ—which can only take place in his Body, the apostolic and catholic Church—of the interpreter.’
@Kamil: I love that quote! I think for me, though, is that I haven’t done much of the studying of the “finer points of Ancient Near Eastern history” or the texts and whatnot. My journey through all of this began from the standpoint of faith and now I’m being forced to rework much of my understanding regarding the text.
And thank you for that blog post! I’ve bookmarked it to read when I have a little extra time. I love the title, though! “Sola Scriptura” is a doctrine I’ve been questioning for a long time and haven’t found many sufficient answers as of yet. So I really look forward to that post, thank you!
@Jeremy: I didn’t watch the debate. I wouldn’t touch that with a ten foot pole. Talk about a staged example of a false dichotomy (Scripture v. Science? bleh!). But I did enjoy those two pieces because in the midst of a pseudo-controversy both Jack and Tim get to the heart of the matter regarding our interpretation of Genesis 1.
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