Saturday, August 02, 2014
When we question the Bible, does it mean we are questioning God or that we are questioning ourselves? Many Christians assume that questioning the Bible entails questioning God, and thus is an expression of rebellion and sin. Consequently most apologetics focuses on "defending" the Bible from the "attack" of those on the outside critiquing it. The assumption is that those who question the Bible are attacking the Christian faith itself, and are thus outside of it. In other words the assumption is that Christians cannot question the Bible.
I'd like to propose that the opposite is in fact that case: that questioning the Bible is a necessary part of a healthy and faithful expression of our faith. The reason is that the focus of questioning the Bible is ultimately to question our interpretation and application and thus to question ourselves. The goal is to be faithful. We question so that we can follow better. We question so that we can avoid wrong and hurtful interpretations.
When I question the Bible I am personally not interested in questioning God. That's not our job. However it is our responsibility to question what we humans do in God's name, especially when we can see that we are justifying deeply hurtful things in the name of our religion. Part of that involves questioning our (at times messed up) image of God. Questioning therefore involves humility rather than arrogance because it means recognizing that our understanding of God and of what is good and right is always limited, always "through a glass darkly" as Paul says (and it says a lot that the guy who said that about his own knowledge of God was the same guy who wrote most of the New Testament!).
This kind of faithful questioning is what we see in the examples of the prophets who question the law in order to point the people to love, compassion, and restorative justice. We see it also in Jesus who likewise questions the religious authorities of his day in the interest of caring for those who were marginalized and scapegoated by their misuse of the law (and it is always a misuse when it does not lead us to love). The motivation of both Jesus and the prophets is not unfaithfulness to scripture, but a more faithful application of its core aim and purpose, which is to love.
When our focus is on defending the Bible, the tendency is to look for justifications of why the violence in God's name is good. So we say for example that it was good for the Israelites to kill all the Canaanites in a massive genocide that included little children because they were evil people who needed to be exterminated like bugs or removed like a cancer for the health of God's people. This is a common argument that you can find in many Bible studies, and the rather obvious similarities of its logic to that of the Third Reich seems to be lost on the these biblical commentators.
From the perspective of questioning the Bible in order to question ourselves as an act of faithfulness, I find that blindness quite alarming. We are justifying genocide in the name of God, echoing the logic of dehumanizing victims which we see repeated over and over again in the history of genocides, and everyone just nods their heads and whispers "amen."
We think we are defending God in justifying this, but is that really what God desires? Is that really what faithfulness looks like? Blindly following, even when we know it is a moral atrocity we are advocating? Shutting down our moral brain and conscience?
No, I question because I believe. The most deadly sin is the sin we cannot see because we wrap it up in religious language, like a wolf in sheep's clothing.
The key purpose of the Bible is to model for us how we should live. To read the Bible as a Christian is to read it normatively, so that it shapes our lives. Because of that, we must question when we read, because when we do we are questioning ourselves and how we can apply the teaching of scripture in a way that is good, in a way that points us to life and love.
Now, working through the troubling parts of the multivocal witness of scripture is a complex task. There are things we can struggle with in both the Old and New Testaments. Doing this is obviously too big a topic to cover in a single blog post. However the basic stance of questioning the Bible as a Christian obligation is the starting point for this. Questioning is absolutely imperative if we wish to read the Bible morally, if we wish to have the Bible shape how we see God and how we live. That's where we need to begin. Questioning is inseparable from faithfulness.