How To Be a Biblical Scholar Without Losing Your Faith

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

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12 thoughts on “How To Be a Biblical Scholar Without Losing Your Faith

  1. I am very interested in this whole struggle and project and discussion, also for personal reasons. I think your perspective is valuable, and God as love, in a dynamic, Trinitarian, deification-through-love way is one of my favourite parts of Christianity. However, that said, lots of people experience loving relationships and remain atheists, or agnostics, or combine that with some other ritual religious membership, or whatever. I do think there’s a place for pointing to parts of the Christian tradition, including scriptural passages, that highlight the appropriateness of the revelatory power of love, but this doesn’t seem to me to be quite enough, and certainly doesn’t seem to overlap much if at all with the “personal relationship with Jesus” model of knowing God… which I still can’t understand.

  2. Hi Amy, thanks for leaving a comment. I would be interested in hearing more of what you mean. Can you tell me a little about your background? You write: “God as love, in a dynamic, Trinitarian, deification-through-love way is one of my favourite parts of Christianity.” But then you seem to suggest this is a deficient understanding of Christianity and you need something more. What is the more that you are referring to? Also I am not sure I understand your reference to “personal relationship with Jesus” model. Is that related to something I said in the post?

    As far as agnostics also having loving relationships–yes, even Jesus refers to this idea (“don’t even the Gentiles know how to love their brother?”). In other words we are all capable of love. We are all made in the image of God. The good news of Christianity is that Jesus reveals that God comes near to us. It is a wonderful thing to know the level at which God has reached out to us. Knowing that truth about God can bring joy. It can open one’s mind to the reality of a connection with God that one might not have been aware of before. And the good news is the possibility of being empowered by the Spirit to do more than what one might have been able to do in human strength. So, yes we have the ability to love as human beings. But Jesus says we should do more than love those who love us in return, but also to love our enemies–something that many would struggle to accomplish by human will alone.

    In regards to non-Christians, I also think of Jesus’s statement to his disciples: “Whoever is for us is not against us.” Or I think of Cornelius who was considered an admirable God-fearer before hearing of Christ. These suggest that there is nuance–it’s not so much about who is excluded, but about the benefit and joy of knowing what reality is. It would be a benefit for agnostics and atheists to be illuminated to the reality that this Being loves them profoundly. It is a missing out not to know this good thing in one’s lifetime.

    Anyway, I would be interested to hear more of your perspective.

  3. Hi Karen,

    Thanks for the reply! I have been looking forward to responding and have found a quiet time to unpack my earlier comments.

    To take a step back, what I am saying generally is that the post is how to be a biblical scholar without losing your faith. My ongoing question/struggle is how much my transformed understanding of faith actually lines up with most of my Christian peers, or the Christian community in North America, or across the world, or through all of time and space. Of course, that’s very hard to test – but if I get the sense that my personal Christian Faith 2.0 is less readily recognizable to folks, I am not sure what to do with that information, or whether it matters. That is, if we could have people explain their religious beliefs or commitments without buzzwords – translated into a meta level of description – it might seem we aren’t saying the same thing at all, sometimes, and it’s hard to see whether this is a question of priority, or simply an expression of the wonderful spectrum of Christian practice, or what. At the deepest level, I suppose, it’s a question of what God might think of this variety.

    To to address my above comments a little more specifically: first, the easier one, regarding the “personal relationship with Jesus model”. What I mean is that at root, many truly noble people are seeking and thirsting after spiritual truth, transcendence and communion – relationship with God, effectively. There is a narrative that draws our attention to the common experience of attempting to seek God in study, or in human relationships, or in nature, and being disappointed each time – we are then informed that only through a personal relationship with Jesus can we be satisfied and find meaning in these other semi-sacramental experiences. That said, I identify with your description of becoming alienated from the doctrinal hyperfocus, in part through academically-induced agnoticism about many of the questions and issues, and shifting to a relational model, in which the practices of mindfulness, generosity, presence, kindness, loyalty, and so on allow us to develop the mental habits of perceiving the divine spark within others and seeing relationships and communion as central. This makes good sense, and seems Trinitarian, but I’ve never been very clear on where the “personal relationship with Jesus” actually is. Jesus doesn’t seem to talk back to us. If I choose instead to understand it in a super subtle way, I at least don’t have to engage in cognitive dissonance, but I start to feel like I’ve departed from what other Christians mean – bringing me back to the questions in my last paragraph.

    And finally, this bridges to my final point – if at the end of the way, we are looking for thoughtful ways to remain Christians, bracketing the question of what that even means, have been disillusioned about doctrinal unity as the model to use, and are investing in community and relationships, it seems unclear whether that is different from many atheists and agnostics for whom community engagement, virtue, family, and friends are central to the meaning of their lives. Ultimately, my question is why bother paying the price for membership in the Christian community if the insight “relationships are the core of who we are, in the image of God” can be animated well outside of a self-consciously Christian life. I am not sure loving enemies cuts it as “the” distinguisher, either – other religious traditions, as well as neutral social sciences, encourage and enable profound compassion for others. At this point I personally have left a community that asked a very high price for membership for a community where the price for membership is very low – I am not expected to deny or minimize convictions about feminism or historical criticism, for example, and communion is much more inclusive. If I did not live in a city with access to this kind of church community, I’m not sure where that would leave me at all. And at the very bottom of the well, if our question is not only how to maintain faith, but whether God is even real, our ability to form bonds with other people certainly doesn’t seem to prove anything.

    All this to say, I do think the perspective you offer is valuable, as I had said in my first comment. I think it addresses very well the question “what do I do with all of this knowledge, now that I have realized knowledge is not equivalent to love-faith?”. That’s a necessary question, and I think you give some good answers. But if one’s questions cut deeper, into the more fundamental reasons for belief, or faith, in an expressly Christian way, more questions are raised along with it. So I guess I am curious about how you’ve approached those deeper questions – and to be sure, there are no quick & easy answers here.

  4. Hi Amy, thanks for sharing more.

    You write: “My ongoing question/struggle is how much my transformed understanding of faith actually lines up with most of my Christian peers [or Christians in general]”

    How do you see your faith as different from most Christians? And what causes you to identify as Christian? That is, do you see something distinctive about doing so?

    In terms of variety, I have found it intriguing studying reception history of the Bible across time, as well as Christian thought across time or even in various cultures today. There is quite a bit of variety in theology and praxis. Though most seem to affirm the Nicene creed.

    It sounds like one possible difference you see between your views and many other Christians is in the “relationship with Jesus” model (you write: “I’ve never been very clear on where the “personal relationship with Jesus” actually is. Jesus doesn’t seem to talk back to us. If I choose instead to understand it in a super subtle way, I at least don’t have to engage in cognitive dissonance, but I start to feel like I’ve departed from what other Christians mean”)

    The “relationship with Jesus” model is an interesting point of discussion. It is one of those things that is assumed without being unpacked as to what that means. As I am thinking about it in this moment and how that phrase has been used in my circles it conveys a sense that God’s Spirit is near and cares about our personal life. So that we can talk to God and expect God hears and responds in some way. So I think it implies actual presence and it implies communication. I think both of those things are true. I have experienced God’s presence and I have experienced God’s communication (not audible but spiritually). However, I think the “relationship with Jesus” model also gets commercialized into this genie in the bottle notion or Jesus as my “pal”. The reality is that God’s presence and communication does not ensure that we will always get what we pray for. Nor does it mean we can always predict God. God’s presence and communication are mysterious. As Jesus said, the Spirit is like the wind, it blows where it will and you don’t always know how or why.

    It sounds like your other primary issue you are pondering is whether or not there is truly anything distinctive about Christianity if other religions or even atheism does not preclude love and community. I can only speak for myself and why I continue to remain a Christian. My primary response is that I find biblical truths to resonate as true experientially. In other words, I don’t just believe Christianity is true because of words on a page, but because those words live up to what they profess. In this way, my post is not intended to say there is no such thing as truth or that doctrine has no relevance whatsoever. In fact, I do not see what I have written as so much a switching from doctrinal to relational. Rather I would say the doctrinal *points to* the relational and that the problem is when the doctrinal becomes the end rather than the means. The doctrinal is meant to illuminate us to this experiential reality so that we can enter the experience. More specifically, here are some thoughts.

    1. It is a myth that Israelite religion/Judaism/Christianity are completely and wholly unique from other religions. A common myth is perpetuated that People of the Book are good and everyone else is bad (to oversimplify). But, anyone who studies the ancient Near East and Israelite history quickly realizes that Israel was very similar to her neighbors not only in ethical practices but also religious practices. They are not exactly the same however. One major distinction was monotheism. Similarly, Christianity has much in common with other religions, but its one primary distinction is Jesus. In other words, I don’t think Christianity is to be understood as totally different. Christianity has important distinctives, but the fact that it shares similarities with what other people believe and do does not detract from what it has to offer. So the fact that non-Christians are capable of love too, for example, does not mean its all a wash.

    2. Jesus is what makes Christianity Christianity. I guess the bottom line for me is that I believe what Scripture says about Jesus is true. Christianity teaches that the one God became flesh. The incarnation says something about the character and reality of the Christian God. The Christian God humbled Godself to be near to us, as near as skin to skin. Not only that but the Christian God suffered for humanity’s sake and so empathizes with our pain in a unique way. Christianity teaches a particular view of redemption. God not only forgives (as God also does in Judaism and Islam for examples), but God resurrects. God regenerates. As Paul said if Jesus had only died then Christians are fools to be pitied. Jesus’ death while an example of humility and self-sacrifice means nothing without the resurrection. Without the resurrection there is no Christianity. And this is not just a resurrection of the body at the end of time (which other religions can also believe), but a resurrection that has current efficacy. Christianity claims that there are spiritual forces and that we are influenced and affected by these spiritual forces. The resurrection is the power of the Spirit to act in a person’s life and in the world.

    I have experienced the power of the Spirit in my life. So I know it is real. I also can discern spiritual influences (Ignatian spirituality is good for helping to discern spiritual things in daily life). If I only read about it in a book, in Scripture, but had not experienced it, then I would question whether or not it is true. The truth claims of the Bible should be tested. If it is true it will show itself to be true. There are different spiritual powers in the world. I believe the resurrection power of the Christian God effected through Jesus’ conquering of death to be the most powerful spiritual force. And the spiritual force that is derived from the one God.

    I also do not think this resurrection power only appears in the lives of Christians, but can show up wherever it wants. God’s power is active throughout the world. Also, there are many who profess to be Christians who have no idea what Christianity actually is. So, I tend to look less for those who wear the label Christian and look instead to where I see Christ. Where God is the fruit of the Spirit is. I tend to believe that some are true followers of God even if they don’t have the Scriptural vocabulary for it. And that Christ’s sacrifice was efficacious for all. In this sense, someone who has a contrite heart before God might be benefiting from Christ’s resurrection power even if they do not realize it or know to name it that. But how much more wonderful if someone actually knew the name of the one who is loving and helping her. And that this Person could be even more specifically called upon and known.

    3. I know I am a sinner. I do not have such confidence that I or others love enemies well. In fact, it seems pretty clear that most of us have trouble even loving those near to us. The divorce rate is just one example of how we cannot even hold together family. Every day I am mindful of my tendency toward selfishness on the most basic level things. I do think it takes God’s Spirit to help us human beings to love–especially with an extra-ordinary love. I think that power to love comes through the resurrection power–whether or not a particular person knows that is the source.

    Anyway, that is why I remain a Christian. I believe there is power and authority in the name of Jesus. And that God has and is accomplishing humanity’s redemption/regeneration through the work of Christ.

    What has kept you a Christian?

  5. Karen, Thanks again for your well written blog. I always enjoy it and it gives me food for thought. A line from Wordsworth came to me after reading this one, and I have been meaning to send it to you: “Our meddling intellect mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–We murder to dissect.”

  6. Good article. It’s a funny thing, faith. But of course there is a God. The simplicity of it is that it impossible for their not to be. The main questions really are whether God wants us to connect with him or not, and if so why is it so hard? Christianity answers these questions better than any other faith.

    I also like what you said in another article about the duel authorship of scripture. To really grasp that concept is very difficult for most because of our paradigms regarding scripture but to be truly honest and realistic we must understand that man put his hand to text and man is simply fallible and limited in knowlege, and will always be.

    This also helps us understand why scripture does not always appear to work, or may seem even be fallable on some levels. Man is trying to connect with God and God is trying to connect with man.

    I’ve certainly wrestled with atheism too, but regardless of whether there is error in scripture atheism fails miserably. It just does not work and there is actually less logic to it than belief in God.

    There are some hard things to grasp in scripture and it leaves you wondering whether you have interpreted right, or whether there is error or deception behind it.

    But we must get back to the initial questions… Is there a God and does he want to connect with us and why so hard? And in trying to answer these questions I personally think that overall the Bible we know is on target and the closest we will come in this lifetime to understanding and connecting with God.

    I once heard someone say that in trying to figure out what the true faith is it woukd boil down to the 3 monotheist ones and I agree, it would. I think Christianity makes the most sense (although I am not trinitarian).

    It comes right down to Christ, his personal work and message of God the Father (creator).

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