A few years ago, back when I was a youth minister in need of retreat, I went on a Youth Ministers Retreat. It was a great idea which temporarily saved me from the inevitable burnout that comes from always giving and never taking.
At the retreat we often divided up into groups to discuss anything and everything that might come up. It was kind of like group therapy for people who wouldn't admit that they need therapy.
During one group meeting we were asked, toward the end of the meeting, to describe someone who had modeled the example of Christ to us, and in doing so, had inspired our ministry. Each person in the room described someone who had helped to form their experience of the faith. Most of us talked about people who had helped us during our tumultuous teenage years. I picked a man named Paul, and those of you who know him know why. Those of you who don't know him will never understand the impact that he had on my life, because I doubt I will ever be able to put it into words.
The retreat, as could be expected of a youth ministers retreat in the state of Kentucky, consisted entirely of people who identified themselves as evangelicals. As such, there was a certain set of assumptions that each person there could be expected to make. Those assumptions were apparently challenged by one person in the room, who, when asked the question, answered, "My person... well... he's a liberal, but..." and then went on to extol the spiritual virtues of the man and how he had modeled the example of Christ.
In that room this statement seemed exceedingly generous. An evangelical complimenting a liberal, and claiming that a liberal, at least in this one case, could model the example of Christ. It was unheard of. The response from the room was similarly generous, as each person agreed that, at least in this case, a liberal had done something beneficial to the cause of Christ.
The statement appeared to cut to the heart of a prejudice and then undermine that prejudice by presenting someone who had been colored by it with a more full description. But, as I am coming to claim the often misused title of liberal for myself, I am beginning to think that, rather than countering a prejudice, that statement, "Well... he's liberal, but..." actually reinforced the prejudice by providing the exception that confirms the rule.
After all, if you believed that, by and large, liberals could model the example of Christ, why would you have to mention that the person in question was a liberal? In what way is that relevant to their modeling the example of Christ? And, if you really believed that liberals could model the example of Christ, why would you have to, in saying "but" after declaring that the person in question is a liberal, make apologies for their liberalism before extolling their virtues?
The way in which the comment was phrased spoke to a couple of assumptions which were in the room. These assumptions were:
1. Liberals usually do not and probably cannot model the example of Christ.
2. There is an intimate connection between belief and faith, and, as such, those who disagree with us theologically must have some sort of problem with their faith.
The speaker, by providing us with a rare contradiction to these assumptions, actually helped to confirm their validity in the same way that someone who says "She hits pretty well, for a girl" confirms the assumption that girls, by and large, can't hit.
These two assumptions are related, and the ability to hold the first one depends on the second one. Christians have assumed an association between belief and faith from almost the beginning of their history. In 325 CE the Roman Emperor Constantine called together a council of all Christian bishops in the Roman Empire because he thought that Christianity could be a tool used to hold the Empire together. From this council, the Council of Nicea, we get the earliest formal Christian statement of belief, the Nicene Creed, which was designed to counter the influence of Gnosticism and to unite the Church under a single set of beliefs.
One of the effects of the Nicene Creed, and the mentality that led to it, was an emphasis in Christianity on orthodoxy (right belief) over and against orthopraxy (right practice, right conduct, or right action). Belief became the most important thing in Christianity, and it was most important for Christians to believe the right things. Faith became intimately associated with belief, and because of the centrality of belief in Christianity, a deviation in belief meant a failure of faith.
This mentality, however, blurs the distinction between faith and belief too much, and creates some serious problems in the lives of faithful believers in Christ. Last week I received a phone call from a friend of mine who was having a "crisis of faith." She said that she had been teaching the story of Jonah in a children's Sunday School class when a wicked thought entered her mind: "This could not have happened."
Having this thought creep in, and worse still, believing it after it popped up, meant to my friend that there must be some sort of serious problem with her faith. Why couldn't she accept the historical accuracy of a story from the inerrant Word of God, like her church teaches? That she wondered this demonstrates the extent to which she has been conditioned by her church to associate faith with belief. That a question of how the Bible should best be interpreted is rendered in her mind as a "crisis of faith" means that she has totally accepted her church's failure to distinguish between faith and belief.
Phrasing disputes over matters of belief as problems with one's faith is an excellent way for churches to make those who disagree with them on some points of doctrine go away frustrated without rocking the doctrinal boat. If my friend condemns herself as a heretic and walks away, or even better, repents of her shameful thought, then her church, and specifically her pastor, never has to deal with the challenge to the view of scripture presented in that congregation. If my friend assumes that the view of scripture which she no longer accepts is the way in which Christians must, by virtue of their faith, approach the holy scriptures, then her options are either to no longer claim the name of Christ or agree with her church.
But there is a third option which those who would monopolize the interpretation of the Bible do not allow. That option is to look at the scriptures both faithfully and critically, and remain faithfully within the body of Christ, claiming the name of Christian.
Neither my friend nor her church had considered that they were applying a modern standard to a decidedly premodern text when they assumed that stories such as the story of Jonah must represent literal historical events. The Modern West no longer has any use for mythology. Beginning in the appropriately titled Age of Reason we have assumed that reason (by which we usually mean a combination of logical and empiricism) is the only way to obtain truth. As such, we don't know what to do with or make of myths. Or, rather, we know just what to do with them: we discredit them and throw them away.
We make no distinction between "myth" and "lie," as evidenced by such programs as Mythbusters which contradict popular but false beliefs. We are forever "debunking the myths of" anything and everything about which one can hold a false belief. Because of this, when someone says that a story from the Bible is a myth, we think that they mean that the story is false. We think that, when they declare parts of the Bible to be primarily mythological in nature they are attempting to discredit the Bible and undermine its authority in the lives of Christians.
As such, to my friend, she had two options when dealing with the story of Jonah:
1. Accept it as an accurate representation of a historical event.
2. Reject it as an accurate representation of a historical event.
If it represents accurate history, it has value. If it does not, then serious problems are created. And, to her, it was pretty obvious that it could not represent accurate history. What, then, becomes of her faith?
I have not always identified myself as a liberal. In fact as a teenager I had a rather slow but radical conversion from a kind of practical atheism to a more fundamentalist brand of Christianity. Since then I have been undergoing just as slow and radical conversion from that brand of Christianity to a different one. How we are to interpret scripture has been at the heart of the transformation of my faith.
Myths are not lies. Myths are stories which communicate a very deep and meaningful truth. I have come to understand much of the Bible in this way. This does not mean that I do not accept the authority of scripture, nor does it mean that I think that parts of scripture are false. Stories are neither true nor false. Or, of they are true or false, their truth or falsehood depends not on whether or not they represent events which happened in history, but rather in whether or not the communicate something true.
Hamlet is both a work of fiction and a true story. It is a work of fiction because Shakespeare wrote it that way. His intention as an author was to create a story, a fictional story. But it is also a true story because it communicates a great many true things. This is why it has lasted these many years. This is why each new generation is drawn to it. Hamlet teaches us something important about ourselves.
Similarly, while much of the Bible may not represent literal historical events, it does contain true stories. These stories, these myths, are a great deal more true than the story of Hamlet, but their truth does not derive from the accuracy of their representation of history. Rather the truth of the Bible derives from God's ability to speak to us through the text, providing our lives with order and meaning. As we live out the principles we learn from the voice of God which we hear through the Biblical text we demonstrate in our own lives the truth of the Bible. We demonstrate in our own lives the power and authority of the Bible.
As we allow our encounter with the Biblical text to order our lives and provide us with meaning we demonstrate the value of the Biblical text. This value is not found in whether or not the text accurately represents historical events, as it was not the intention of the authors of the text to represent history. Our understanding of history did not come about until more than 2,000 years after the formulation of the earliest Biblical stories. How then can we apply that standard to a text which predates the standard? Would our view of history and historicity have had any value for the earliest interpreters of scripture?
Because of this understanding of scripture, and the way in which this understanding drives a wedge between me and the more conservative elements of the community of faith, I now, with some reservation, identify myself as a liberal. I say that I do this with some reservation not because I buy some of the vague criticisms leveled at liberals, but rather because I have some criticisms of my own.
Liberalism is a very vague term, and no one knows exactly what it means. This is a problem which liberals themselves contribute to. In the first part of the twentieth century to be a liberal was to be an optimist. To be theologically liberal was to deny original sin or human depravity, and to hold that human beings are basically good and getting better all the time. Liberalism was progressive in the sense that it saw history and humanity progressing toward a particular goal. The atrocities of the first and second World Wars made this position laughable.
Since then liberalism has been more about rejecting what it disagrees with than actually affirming anything. In politics this manifests itself in the willingness of the liberal caucus to criticize conservative policies and politics without proposing an alternative vision. In theology this manifests itself in the willingness of liberals to deny traditional Christian doctrines without affirming anything to take their place.
Liberalism is a broad, and broadly undefined phenomenon, and liberalism is often a negative phenomenon. Because of this conservatives can dominate the political and religious dialogue virtually unchallenged. It is incumbent upon liberals to cast a competing vision. As I now claim to be a liberal, it is incumbent upon me to cast a coherent vision. As you read the postings here you can judge for yourselves whether or not I am doing so.
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