Why not let people believe what they want to believe?

Last week, the metaphors in my blog and the responses to it were flying thick. Alice ripping back the curtain to reveal the Wizard of Oz. Jawbones and tearing down temples. Ruthlessly and carelessly pruning a tree to the point of cutting it down. Radical surgery to remove a dangerously diseased limb. Students cheating on final essays.

And what was the object of all those graphic metaphors? … certain interpretations of the Bible.

The blog generated a fair bit of discussion. Not just written comments on social media, but also some personal conversations. One question that percolated up from that response was: “Why bother? Why does this animate you so much? Why not just let people believe what they want to believe (or not believe)? In the end, we’ll all find out who was right, right?”

Sure, but in the mean time, how many more people will give up their faith simply because they found it too hard to reconcile with the 21st century? In a previous blog, I summarized a recent on-line survey asking over 2000 respondents questions that zeroed in on why they gave up their faith (three quarters of respondents) or why they couldn’t embrace it in the first place (the remaining one quarter).

When asked “what do you consider to be the greatest obstacle to belief in the Christian God”, the top answer given was “Christian teachings that conflict with findings of modern science”. This was true for 42% of those who had rejected the faith, and for 39% of those who had never accepted the faith.

As for the other question … “if you left the Christian faith, what was your greatest reason for doing so? … by far the most popular reason was again “Christian teachings that conflict with findings of modern science”. This reason gained 54% of the votes, while any other reason given was held by 6% or fewer of the respondents.

I myself almost was one of those who gave it up, and for that very same reason.

I’d been raised with a very Fundamentalist theology, one which believed the traditional interpretations of the Genesis story, the Flood, the Nephilim, et cetera, as literally true. With a blind faith that met any scientific challenge with blind denial (hence the title of my last blog). Until the scientific evidence became too compelling to ignore, and I nearly gave it up. I’ve seen many others make that decision. Listened to many pod-casts featuring former believers, now turned atheists because they couldn’t reconcile faith with fact. Even two former pastors now hosting radio shows targeting the faith they once held.

But eventually I was able to adjust my interpretations of Genesis and found they could easily mesh with the 21st century. Simply by finding out how we got that Bronze Age text, and investigating what claims it does or does not make for itself. It never claims to be inerrant or infallible. Never claims to be a science text book. Never claims that God dictated Genesis while people wrote things down verbatim. Instead, when you look into its origins, you find out that humans were involved in every stage of the process … the writing, copying, editing, translating, and distributing. Sure it’s divinely inspired, but our fingerprints are all over it just the same. In many ways, it’s more like our diary or notebook than a divine transcript.

Some don’t like the idea of changing their ideas about the Bible in order to accommodate the findings of science.

Except, what if that theology doesn’t work?

My previous blog outlined just some of the facts which simply do not square with a Young Earth Theology. The geological record. Radioisotope dating of fossils and artefacts. The genetic codes. Cosmological evidence. There are many, many lines of evidence. These are all simply observable and irrefutable facts. Facts which exist either because that’s the way things happened, or because God made it look like that’s the way it happened. And if you hold to the latter explanation, then you turn God into a trickster. Someone who sets up an overwhelming deception to test our faith, rewarding believers (blind denialists?) with eternal life, and sentencing those who are unable to ignore those overwhelming facts to eternal damnation. Last week I compared this to a man using an invented/staged extramarital affair in order to test his wife’s faith in him. This week I’ll compare that to a man wooing a woman with the line “Marry me or I’ll kill you”. Some choice!?

It doesn’t need to be so all-or-nothing. It’s totally possible to worship God without worshiping the Bible. I recently found a popular rhyme which got me thinking about different ways to read the Bible:

            “Two men looked out from prison bars, one saw mud, the other stars”.

In my train of thought, that nugget of wisdom became:
            “Four men looked into a puddle:
            one saw mud, the other stars,
            the third saw his own reflection,
            and the fourth claimed that the mystic pool was alive and could speak and had magical powers that could bring riches and healing to anyone who would dip their fingers into it

My own rendition is admittedly much more clunky than the pithy original, but my point is that we can use the Bible in four different ways:
            (1) disregard it … dismiss it as good-for-nothing … out-dated and horribly flawed;
            (2) look into it to see ourselves, warts and all … our heart’s motives, thoughts, desires, limitations, weaknesses;
            (3) look through it and beyond it to the infinite and see God;
            (4) turn it into a shrine and worship it. I’ve often heard people refer to this as Bibliolatry.

That fourth approach gave us the Young Earth interpretation of Genesis, which in turn can no longer stand up to the facts all around us. Trying to make it do so only sets up a straw figure which utterly fails open-minded believers. Once it collapses, too many of the latter feel they need to reject faith altogether. Most of them are the university, college and high school students with whom I interact. They leave a sheltered life at home where their religious beliefs and world-view are forced on them, and step onto campuses where they’re confronted by a whole new world of knowledge, science, books, other world-views and religions for which they’re completely unprepared. And they’re flattened. Unnecessarily.

But it isn’t only for the sake of the believers already in the pews (some of whom are nervously looking for the exit signs) that these hard questions need to be asked. We need to also be thinking about the people outside the church doors: the agnostics, atheists, and staunch anti-theists. We need to confront this unworkable theology because it’s so counterproductive to evangelisation. Christ’s final command to us was “Go out and make disciples”, and yet by digging in we’re creating committed scoffers. Talk to an atheist and ask them what is the stereotype that they typically hold in their minds about Christians? How are Christians typically portrayed in movies? … as people who stubbornly insist that the world is 6000 years old and all humanity arose from two unique individuals, because Genesis says so … who mercilessly use Biblical texts to condemn other groups of people … who trumpet the Good News that most other people are going to a hell of eternal torment and suffering, because the Bible says so … who think the world is coming to an end next week or this coming September because the Bible talks about the Blood Moon(s). Westboro Baptist Church, faith healers and snake handlers.

Not all Christians think that way. Those are caricatures and stereotypes. And stereotypes are dangerous and destructive. They keep people away from investigating our faith as meaningful for them. It’s our fault that it’s come to this. For too long, too many of us in the Christian community have been silent and allowed certain others to be Christ’s ambassadors.

We need to portray another side of Christianity that is more relevant to today, and yet true to the Gospel. Even as far back as the 5th century, St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest theologians and Christian philosophers, wrote: “be on guard against giving interpretations of scripture that are farfetched or opposed to science, and so exposing the Word of God to the ridicule of unbelievers”. No one ridicules people for following the actual teachings given by Jesus … who strive to follow his command to love, serve and help … who build schools, orphanages and hospitals … who donate to relief efforts in his name at times of war, famine or natural destruction … who visit the sick and imprisoned.

We still may not be able to change their minds with that life-style evangelism. After getting a clear understanding of the gospel message, Christ’s calling and God’s will for us, and counting the cost, they still may conclude it’s not for them. That’s unfortunate, but it’s their choice and not my responsibility. It does become a huge problem for me, though, when they reject it for the wrong reason: because they’re told that to embrace faith you have to turn off your brain, or at least live in uncomfortable cognitive dissonance.

It’s fine if certain interpretations of the Bible feel more comfortable to some people, in part because of their upbringing. But what if that’s setting the stage for apostasy in their kids, and compromising evangelisation?

Why ham-string ourselves or saddle ourselves with a weight that slows us down? Why can’t we put less emphasis on our orthodoxy (right teaching) and work harder on our orthopraxy (right doing). Let’s let go of Bibliolatry, the Church-of-the-Inerrant-and-Infallible, and instead emphasize Christianity?


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