Sunday, September 01, 2013

Why It’s Good to Rethink Our Faith

Note: After, hearing feedback from the UCC Church, I revised my message for this topic, rather than focusing exclusively on sacred texts (last post). What do you think about rethinking ones’ faith?

Abridged version of my message to UCC Church of the Manger in Bethlehem, PA, August 2013:

I want to take you on a journey of rethinking faith. I’ll share how I had to do that, why I believe it’s good to do, and encourage you to do the same. You see, I thought I had arrived at the station. The movement I was a part of (evangelicalism) had figured most everything out. But I still had nagging doubts. Are we really right about the doctrine of hell? The gay issue? How we practice the institution of church? How we proof-text everything in the Bible? Is the Return of Christ really at hand? I saw contradictions in the Bible. Doesn’t anyone else see them? The pat answers I heard didn’t work for me.

I also saw the fruit of the status quo: Fundamentalist mindsets, wooden literalism about the Bible, wild proclamations about the end times, legalistic churches, spiritual abuse in certain conservative churches, gays and lesbians treated like broken toys that need to be fixed, and gender inequality, to name a few. So I began a journey into the world of forbidden questions. Why should we rethink our faith? I discovered three reasons:

1 – We may have unwarranted assumptions

Like the three blind men who touched different parts of an elephant and thus each defined it differently because of the assumptions they held, we can assume one thing is true when it isn’t. Only when we have a “paradigm shift” and see the whole picture, do we get closer to the truth.

Example: I had a genuine spiritual experience connecting to Christ but then assumed the tradition I joined had historically and culturally accurate interpretations of the Bible, salvation, the end times, etc. One example is the view of original sin and the atonement. It wasn’t until I discovered the Eastern Orthodox view of sin and salvation that I realized my tradition—evangelicalism—had an interpretation based on Augustine’s theology and there was a whole history and tradition of Christianity that had an alternate view that makes more sense and is more consistent with the teaching of the NT. Eastern Christians, who trace their traditions back well before Augustine, have very different notions of how to view the Bible, original sin, atonement, and salvation than traditional Protestant, Reformation, and Catholic views.

Lesson: We need to come to the Bible—the source of much of our theology—with a clean slate, without assumptions, and with a broad knowledge of history, culture, and original language. Most of us don’t, reading it with a lens of assumptions we learn from our tradition that may or may not be accurate.

2 – We or our teachers may not have all the facts

One day while learning the Somali language in the 1980s in East Africa, I approached three different people with the customary greeting, “How’s your soul?” They all three burst into laughter. Turns out, I mispronounced one word. Rather than asking how their soul was, I had said “How’s your diesel fuel?” When we don’t have all the facts, we inevitably mispronounce, misread, misinterpret, and/or mistranslate the Bible and history.

Example: See the earlier post on this topic to see a list of facts I learned about the Bible that are essential to deciding how we should view and use it.

Lesson: These facts lead one to conclude that the Bible is not a uniform, universally applicable Rulebook or Instruction Manual. When we take the Bible on its own terms, in historical context, in light of how it was compiled, copied, and translated, we learn it never claims to have as much authority most people give it. It is still reliable, because much of it is verifiable history and full of timeless wisdom. But it is not infallible. We should take the Bible seriously, but not always literally. Not everything has equal weight. Discernment is needed. This fits Paul’s teaching: The new Way is to be led by the Spirit and not by the written code. Scriptural principles and grand themes and conclusions supersede instructions regarding specific first-century issues. Jesus and Paul sum up the Scriptures: Love is the only Law. In fact, we are released from the Law, as Paul concludes, and from a law-based approach to God. Hence, we should refrain from using the OT or NT like a book of timeless axioms.
3 – Rethinking our faith can lead to walking closer to the original Path of Christ

Finally, as we rethink our faith, we often discover we actually get closer to what Jesus, Paul, and others meant in their original context. We become more solidly grounded on the original Path of Christ.

Example: Did Christ really teach there is such a thing as eternal damnation? Revisiting that question has led many to conclude the answer is “No.” There are serious mistranslation issues with the terms “hell” and “eternal punishment.” Many early church fathers and leaders throughout history believed and taught the “universal reconciliation” of all humankind—that all eventually would be reconciled to God through Christ—without circumventing God’s judgment on sin and evil. (Within evangelicalism, I was totally blind to this fact and the facts cited about the Bible).

Lesson: Learn what historical figures and movements have taught about controversial doctrines. You’ll discover that some were harsher than we thought and others were more progressive. For example, when researching the history of Bethlehem, PA [the town where I gave this message], I discovered Peter Bohler, a Moravian leader and founder of Bethlehem and Nazareth, PA in the 1740s. Universalist tendencies were not unknown among Moravians and Böhler himself believed in the universal reconciliation of all people. Böhler believed that the grace of Christ was so compelling that it would eventually win all hearts!

Conclusion: Why rethink our faith? We never know what we will learn. We just might discover a whole new and encouraging way to look at the world.


Anonymous said...

The bible is very clear about hell. I've read the Greek and Hebrew and it is clearly taught in both the Old and New Testament.

Michael Camp said...

Anon, The Hebrew "Sheol" and Greek "Hades" refer to the place of the dead for both the righteous and unrighteous. Many have shown the Greek of "eternal punishment" is best translated "punishment of the age to come", not a time duration indication but of a certain age of history. See the research cited in my book. It really isn't clear that the Bible teaches hell. The evidence is strong that it doesn't.