Learning to Think Unbiblically

I remain passionately in love with the Trinitarian God, while becoming more and more convinced that Christian thinking stunts human development. “Christian thinking” is not the best or clearest term, but I haven’t yet found a better one. In one sense, all my thinking is Christian thinking, in that I am soaked in the Christian tradition, and love that tradition. But what I am trying to describe here is a characteristic way in which many (by no means all) contemporary Christians think, which has also affected me more than I had imagined, and which I am trying to rid myself of.

If I had to use one phrase to try to describe that characteristic way of thinking, I think I would use “fear of the unbiblical” to encapsulate it. Maybe we should even have a new word for it to save a couple letters. (I propose “parabibliophobia“.) This mindset regards “error” as a dreadful condition to fall into (possibly involving the risk of one’s eternal soul), and believes that we can only avoid “error” by sticking to what we can establish by careful cross-referencing of topical allusions in Scripture.

I didn’t think that I was afflicted. Perhaps I discounted too much the influence of the phases of thought my family passed through during my childhood and adolescence. Perhaps I overestimated the impact of my twenty-year exposure to the radical views of George MacDonald. Whatever the case may be, in the last month I have found myself shedding layer after layer of Christian caution. No doubt, part of the reason that this process inspires me to write is it has given me the need to articulate for myself the reasons why I am still so deeply invested in Jesus. Am I clinging to the emotional vestiges of a faith that my mind is discarding? Or am I simply shedding associations with a particular form of Christianity that I haven’t believed in for twenty years?

I am starting to think about things like same-sex relationships with the question, “What would I think about this if the Bible had never been written?” In a way, it feels like a shame that I even have to frame those words, because I love the scriptural texts. I read the New Testament in Greek, and the Old Testament in Hebrew. They are miraculous records to me, beautiful and profound. Let’s not forget the absolute uniqueness of these texts in human literature, or how completely they have shaped what has come after.

It is a shame that the Bible has been used oppressively, but it has. I don’t think that there is anything fundamentally wrong with being “people of the book”, but I think there has turned out to be something very desperately wrong with limiting truth to what we can establish by means of that book. It teaches and enshrines irrationality. I do not say this because I believe that I am enlightened modern aware that science has discredited the Bible. If there is anything that vies with biblical fundamentalism for sheer closed-minded oppressiveness, it is quasi-scientific materialism. Believing that truth is to be limited to what we can establish by experimental observation also teaches us to be inhuman, to live with only a fraction of our being. Right now, though, I am more concerned with the Christian version of inhumanity, or parabibliophobia.

It is perhaps best for me to start a couple of my remaining points of sympathy with the way Christians view the Bible. I love the idea that God communicates with humanity–that he speaks. I see no problem with him speaking to us through the writings of other people. I see no problem with people being inspired to write what they felt was coming through them from beyond. I see no problem with especially treasuring the odyssey of the people of Israel in their grappling with the idea of one Living God and his claim on them, not to mention the life of Jesus and the letters of his early disciples.

Where is the problem, then? I suggested earlier that “Christian thinking” is distinctly characterized by fear, by a parsimonious, limiting, oppressive fear. It is the fear of being wrong, and of the consequences of being wrong before God. The Bible is, in part revered as a safe, external standard of truth that can keep us from ever having to be wrong. This depends of, of course, on our confidence that it is possible to establish with considerable certainty what “the Bible says” on pretty much everything. In many cases, this confidence seems significantly misplaced. But even if we grant the Protestant contention that God speaks by allowing the average Christian to interpret the Bible accurately, the problem remains: the search for “revealed truth” in every situation becomes a way of escaping from rational thought, with its accompanying danger of error. It is similar to the Christian (and I have been one of them) who is preoccupied with seeking God’s guidance for every trifling action of their day–not because they delight in sharing every moment of their day with God, but because they are terrified of doing something wrong.

Besides “fear of the unbiblical”, the other way that I would describe this characteristically Christian way of thinking is the “one right way” mindset. It is the belief that there is only “one right way” to think about everything, and only “one right way” to act in any set of circumstances. It seems to bow to the idea that God is the absolute standard of reality, and that Christian love is the absolute standard of morality, prescribing a correct way of thinking and acting at every moment. The “one right way” philosophy is incredibly attractive to me, even now. The possibility that there is an absolute freedom from uncertainty out there, perhaps attained by perfect “walking in the Spirit”, is seductive. I even think about it mathematically, as the existence of a unique solution to life that satisfies both the need for a constant, single motivation (love), and our unique set of initial conditions.

It is perhaps the experience of being oppressed by an authority figure whose “one right way” was not mine that gives me so much caution now. To me, the answer is not to say that absolute reality does not exist–it is to recognize that this reality is so complexly woven, so multidimensional, that no individual human being’s account of it should be used as authoritative. And any authority that is set up out of fear is inherently oppressive, including the authority of the Bible.

Christians reinforce this fear by appeal to the horror of the alternative: without the safe, objective standard, people will believe whatever pleases them, and, since human nature is desperately wicked, utter disaster will ensue. This is not necessarily to be lightly dismissed–human history gives us plenty of cause to distrust human nature. But to argue the possible advantages of believing what makes us happy will take a separate post.

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