In a recent post, I discussed how biblical scholarship led me to wrestle with atheistic thoughts. One would think that a biblical scholar would be closer to God, spending so much time in sacred Scripture. Yet stories of abandoned faith are not uncommon in the academy. The last six years have been a long and hard but important period of my life. This post describes how my faith has survived.
Some years ago, I was walking down the street on an ordinary day when suddenly a thought inserted itself out of the blue: What if there is no God? Given that I was not pondering the subject at the time, the intruding thought felt strangely self-animating. But rather than disturbing me, I felt relieved. My body began to relax and an exhilarating sense of freedom washed over me. I was surprised by my reaction. Why would I, a devout Christian, dedicated to studying the Scriptures feel relief at the thought of no God? As I pondered my response, I realized God felt suffocating to me. If there was no God I would not need to worry about getting all the answers right. I would not have to worry about getting the answers wrong. It was like someone telling me I didn’t have to take that nerve wracking exam. I could go through life with kindness toward others the best I knew how and not worry if there was a deity ready to pull the lever if I didn’t check the right box.
This incident came at a time when I was increasingly discouraged and disillusioned about finding answers to significant theological questions. Research had stripped away long held beliefs and provoked numerous questions. My presuppositions about the Bible were being seriously challenged. Like many other students whose faith is disrupted by biblical scholarship, I came from a tradition that puts considerable emphasis on correct doctrine. Pinning down answers is of utmost importance. Apologetic books abound and parishioners are warned not to read material that might “deceive” (i.e. contradict) the approved doctrines. At the root lies considerable fear of getting the answers wrong and facing a punishing God.
As I traveled from my “intellectual small town” into an endless galaxy of knowledge, I was daunted by how little I could ever hope to comprehend about specific doctrinal issues. Instead of helping me to define the facts more clearly, my studies made me realize how elusive answers can be. Knowing more resulted in knowing less as reality became bigger and bigger. This provoked cynicism and anxiety. How could I please God if I didn’t know the answers? How could I even know God at all? My faith had been built on certitude. What if I got it wrong? For a moment atheism offered freedom from the crisis.
But atheistic relief was short-lived. I needed God—and not because unbelief meant facing the randomness of life or giving up a psychological crutch. I had enough real experiences to know I could not be fully human without God. The best expression of who I am comes in union with the divine. Cynicism was destroying me, exacerbating my proclivities toward pride, selfishness, and desolate thoughts. In contrast, when I sought God, it stirred in me a spirit of humility, kindness, and hope. I could see the experiential difference of God in my life. But I didn’t know how to face God without possessing “right” answers. What if some of the changes in my beliefs resulting from my studies ended up being the wrong ones? How would God respond?
The solution to my dilemma came in a surprising and paradoxical way. Biblical scholarship was the very thing that brought down the barrier to true faith: it exposed the limitations of knowledge. Before I embarked on my scholarly pursuits I had no idea about the galaxy. I thought reality was only my small town. Truth seemed simple. Faith was a matter of holding to absolute propositions and there was nothing to seriously challenge those definitives. It required glimpsing the galaxy to shatter the illusion of my omniscience. Letting go of that illusion of security was unnerving. But such certitude was more about control than faith. Faith is not characterized by absolute answers. In fact, I discovered I could still believe in God apart from figuring everything out precisely because of the impossibility of any human being to do so.
Scripture itself testifies to the limits of our knowledge. Paul said: “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end . . . For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (I Corinthians 13:9-12). Paul, a writer of Scripture, acknowledged he only prophesied in part. The assertion of absolute certitude is a failure to accept and submit to God’s decision not to reveal “in full” at this time.
The suffering man Job admitted he did not understand why certain things happen as they do, and this was met with greater approval from God than his friends who relied too confidently on traditional doctrine. Jesus said to the Pharisees: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (John 9:41). Similarly, in a parable, he said: “That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating” (Luke 12:47-48). Of those who killed him, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (23:34). Lack of knowledge is not the worst sin (or one at all). Over confidence is a greater offense because it is rooted in pride—the antithesis of faith. It assumes God can be fully predicted and contained.
Faith is trust in a Person—an experiential reality, not primarily a conceptual one. This is why I could not find God in my books. I thought the pursuit of scholarship would enhance my relationship with God. But the more I studied, hoping to find God in texts and concepts, the less I felt connected to God. The pursuit of conceptual knowledge only exposed how little I knew and thus God became less and less familiar not more so. I gained a greater appreciation for the mystery of God (a good thing), but also thought I might lose any sense of God’s existence at all. The only thing that has saved me from atheism is the experience of God.
Experience of God is not found in ideas but relationship. In the Old Testament when God is the direct object of “know” (as in “know God” or “knowledge of God”) the meaning refers to ways of being, namely the ways of God (e.g. justice, goodness)—acts that are by definition social and experiential. This is reiterated in the New Testament: “[E]veryone who loves . . . knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (I John 4:7-8). In fact, our relationships with each other are the primary way we can experience God: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (v. 12). Or as Jean Valjean eloquently states in Les Miserable, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
Jesus said Scripture can be summed up in love God and love others (Mark 12:30-31). Paul said the only thing that counts for anything is faith expressing itself through love (Galatians 5:6). This is the only answer that I need. I realize that might make some uneasy. People have used “love” to rationalize all kinds of things. Some confuse sex with love. Others confuse legalism with love. Love requires me to press into the presence of God to discern how to best self-sacrificially give to another. But I am no longer worried about knowing “in part” and, therefore, making a mistake. I no longer fear a God who will punish my uncertainty or lack of knowledge. Nor do I need absolute certainty in theological concepts to believe in God. The atheist makes the same mistake as the fundamentalist in demanding so. I trust God because I trust love.
In recent days, I have asked my self: does this mean my years of biblical scholarship have been a waste of time? Is there any point to all this pursuit of conceptual knowledge? My journey is bringing me increasingly to a childlike faith, a simple trust where all the details of scholarship can seem irrelevant. Here are a few thoughts in response:
- Biblical scholarship can helpfully shatter the destructive illusion of absolute certitude. There are many God-fearing folk out there with a simple faith. These may not benefit from all the details of scholarship. But others don’t have this simple faith that says “I don’t know but I trust God anyway.” They possess a prideful certitude that asserts answers to everything. This pride breeds divisiveness, fear, and judgment. Those who are overly confident in dogma need help knowing the extent of God’s love (it is okay not to know the answers), and they need help seeing beyond the small town backyard to the reality of a complex galaxy in hopes that this will cultivate humility and thus true faith.
- Those who go into biblical scholarship should clarify why they are doing so. If you are a historian and love studying the text for general facts, a faith conflict is not likely to occur. In this case, biblical scholarship is a matter of interesting information rather than spirituality. However, many students pursue this path, in part, for personal reasons. They want to understand God better and, perhaps, help others to know God. If the latter is the goal, disillusionment can settle in. You will not find God in concepts or books. You will find God in the fruit of the Spirit lived out experientially in relationship with other people.
- Consider carefully your career and who you would want to work for. Do you want to simply teach concepts or do you want to help people connect with God? The academy is not always friendly to pragmatic application, including Christian institutions. Do you want to teach material that will affect people’s lives in a practical way or be profitable for hands-on ministry? Or would you be satisfied teaching interesting information because you like the subject matter and teaching? These are factors to consider in pursuit of biblical scholarship.
- If you want to go into biblical scholarship for the sake of the Church and help others know God, be strategic about what you study and how you use your knowledge. Ask yourself if a particular study project really matters; not everything is beneficial. If Scripture points to the Person of Jesus and Scripture can be summed up in love, then all our scholarship and teaching should somehow advance love on the experiential level. I plan to engage scholarship for the following:
- Help people think through how and why they interpret the Bible the way they do and the experiential impact of those interpretations. What people believe the Bible says has significant ramifications for real relationships and communities. Interpretation affects how people think and behave—for better or for worse.
- Gently and respectfully encourage those who need it to see the galaxy in order to cultivate a deeper, humbler faith. I emphasize gently and respectfully because many thinkers who criticize are just as arrogant and patronizing in their certitude as those they criticize.
- Shape the imagination. Scripture tells us true stories about God and humanity that can shape how we perceive and move in the world. The scriptural imagination can be a source of inspiration to act with courage and love.
- Introduce our shared fellowship with the community of saints described in Scripture who are a cloud of witnesses sharing their experiences of God with us.
To sum up this long post, I have wrestled significantly with what faith means or even if I could continue to believe in God. Paradoxically it was brushing up against the edges of atheism that allowed me see faith more clearly. It was in the elusiveness of answers that I found the only answer I needed.