Made in my own image

No, you read that right. It’s not an accidental misquote of the first chapter of Genesis. Instead, I’m questioning my questions.

I’ve long struggled with what to make of the Bible, especially the Old Testament. My problem with these texts falls into two main categories.

On the one hand, there’s the way in which they run up against my understanding of contemporary science, including the classic faith-versus-science and creation-versus-evolution debates. I’ve blogged and posted frequently on that general theme many times in the past (don’t worry, that won’t come up for discussion here). But that’s only half the problem.

The other half has to do with how they run up against my sense of ethics and morality.

The conquest of Canaan is a big part of that. For those of you who don’t know what I mean by that, it’s a catch-all phrase for the invasion of Canaan by the brand new nation of Israel that had just been liberated from 400 years of captivity in Egypt. And it includes a series of episodes in which the nation is ordered, apparently by God, to go in and slaughter the indigenous/resident people, sometimes specifically including the women and children, and even the animals.

There’s also the many passages which convey a rather negative view of women, or slaves, or people with various disease conditions.

Or the way it doesn’t speak out against things that in today’s society would be outrageous. Chapter 19 of the book of Judges is a particularly disturbing example of that.

In these and many other cases, the fundamental problem is that I find myself saying:

My God wouldn’t indiscriminately wipe out a whole city simply because it …”.

My God is big enough to overlook …

I can’t worship a God who would ….

My God wouldn’t care if that person was a …..

The God that I see in the Old Testament is nothing like the God that I see reflected in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ

I know I’m not alone: I’ve heard many other people spout lines like that.

But recently I’ve begun to recognize the danger in what I might be doing. Putting God into a box. Constraining him to fit my model. Defining him by my standards and criteria.

The lump of clay has indeed risen up against the potter (Isaiah 29:16 and 45:9).

Do I have the right to say what God would or wouldn’t do? Can or cannot be?

How do I deal with this?

Do I take the view that the Bible tells it the way it is … accurately relates historical events, captures the exact attributes of God, and unabashedly gives us some seemingly bizarre ritual laws … and I’m just not able or not permitted to question it? (Do I hear Colonel Nathan Jessup rant, in the voice of Jack Nicholson: “You can’t handle the truth!!“)

Or can I dismiss it by pointing out that the Bible was written by people (all of them men, and all from a very narrow slice of the social, racial, historical pie), that they just told things the way they saw it, and, most importantly, that their view just doesn’t connect well with the 21st century, Western, post-modern way of thinking?

Or is the truth somewhere in the middle? Where do I draw the line?

Some would say that when in doubt, err on the side of the Bible. Who am I to buck against centuries of theological tradition? Maybe I should just accept it. “God’s ways are higher than my ways“.

And yet, sometimes it just doesn’t feel right!?

What do I do?

Maybe go to the source. As another desperate believer cried out: “Lord, I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)

 

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3 thoughts on “Made in my own image

  1. I am no longer a Christian, so perhaps you won’t find my comments useful. But, when I was, I also struggled with this. I heard many people say “well, God’s ways are not our ways, we can’t possibly hope to understand, so just stop worrying about it.” However, this was very dissatisfying because we are supposed to model ourselves after god and worship and follow him, and how can I do that if I don’t know which manifestations of his character I’m supposed to follow? How can I do that if things that he’s done strike me as morally reprehensible?

    One option, of course, is to stop looking at the Bible as an absolutely infallible account. Perhaps the Israelites were never commanded by god to commit genocide, but instead believed that they had been (it certainly wouldn’t be the first time in history that people have claimed that god commanded them to kill, conquer, abuse, steal, or destroy.) Perhaps the bible is an imperfect record written by imperfect people.

    BUT I’m not sure that’s not really the only option either. If we want to take the route of claiming “the bible is true, but we just can’t understand god’s ways” then we must still find a way to emulate him while remaining moral. Let’s assume god’s character is unknowable to human beings and different facets of him can easily be misunderstood and misused for selfish human gain. For example, the genocide passages have been many times misused and misunderstood as an excuse for the subjugation of other peoples. Most people now agree that is wrong, but yet those biblical passages could definitely support those beliefs (and still do). The important thing is, if God’s ways are so unknowable that they seem contradictory to us, then we simply cannot rely solely on the bible for morality. The bible can be a useful guide, but it is simply not possible for a human being to fully understand the reasoning and depth of the nature of god that is written there, and it is dangerous to assume that we can. It is still our responsibility to apply our own moral reasoning and discretion to our lives rather than assuming that the bible can provide us with all the answers.

    So what do we do? Well, rather than “erring on the side of the bible” (which is fairly impossible since the bible has so many sides) I would suggest that we err on the side of doing no harm. In other words, with each passage of the bible, we repeat this mantra: “I am human and fallible. I cannot be sure that my understanding of god’s meaning in this passage is flawless. If I take my interpretation of this passage to heart and emulate it, am I likely to cause harm through my possible misunderstanding of the scripture and the nature of god being revealed here?” In the case of “love your neighbor as yourself” I would say that it is highly unlikely that you would cause harm by misunderstanding how this passage applies to your life. In the case of the genocide passages, I would say it is highly LIKELY that you could cause harm by misunderstanding how the passage applies to your life. Thus, one must model oneself after the passages that, as a fallible human being, you think you are least likely to mess up.

    This can apply to less severe things than genocide as well. “Wives submit to your husbands.” Do you think that you, as a fallible human being, can be certain of how that passage should apply in your life without possibly causing harm? Consider how it has been used in the past by many, many abusers in order to control their wives and make them feel trapped, or how it has caused many women to assume that they must stay in abusive relationships. Clearly, a misunderstanding or misapplication of this passage could cause great harm. On the other hand, the command for husbands and wives to love each other seems unlikely to cause such harm under most circumstances. So thus, it is wiser to focus on emulating those parts of the bible that are unlikely to cause harm and to leave those parts of the bible that are likely to cause harm if misused alone. They may be good and true if discerned properly, but can we, as fallible human beings, be certain that our discernment is correct?

    Anyway, it’s just a couple of different ways of thinking about faith in the bible that I have practiced over the years before I ditched it entirely. However, I still have plenty of respect for religious folks, and I still enjoy engaging in discussion of the morality and ethics of it so I thought I’d share. All the best! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am also no longer a Christian, so I do not know if I will be helpful either. Honestly I think it is really cool that you are so open about your doubts. I thought questioning was sinful when I was a Christian when really I think questioning makes one more spiritual (and dare I say, closer to God).

    Anyway, I do not think you are putting God in a box. I also really hate the whole clay and potter thing. It causes people to believe questions are bad. Questions are not bad. Asking questions is why I am a much happier person these days. I do not have much to say besides that. Best of luck on your journey! 🙂

    Like

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