Before I became a Christian (now I am simply a believer in God), I heard a man teach at our college about South African apartheid, and how the Christians in South Africa, mainly Dutch Christians, used Genesis 9:20-9:27, to justify their ill treatment of the native blacks. According to them, the story of the curse on Ham was literally an explanation of why the people of Africa have dark skin. And that dark skin was a sign of their being cursed by God.
Of course, the Bible says no such thing. The curse was actually on the Canaanites, who, at the time of the writing of the Old Testament, were the enemies of the Hebrews. And the Bible mentions no curse at all on the other descendants of Ham who were the presumed forerunners of the African races.
Nevertheless, this is what Dutch believers were teaching each other during the darkest days of South Africa’s apartheid system. I made a vow to myself at that time (after hearing the speaker) – believing that if at some time I might have the opportunity to become a Christian, and I found that the Bible taught such “intolerable” things – that I would no longer accept the Bible as true.
It’s been many years since, and I have spent 15 years in the church, and now several years outside of the church again. I spent those years in the church reading the Bible, and I don’t at all regret the Bible exposure. Nor do I think that the Bible teaches intolerable things. It teaches some hard things – but not intolerable things. Some of the hardest things, such as the curse on the Canaanites which I have just mentioned, have to be seen in light of the times and purposes of the writing of the Bible itself.
This experience, this taking a vow to myself, gave me a belief. It was the belief that what was true had to “bear up under scrutiny.” Even the Bible itself had to submit itself to this test. If something didn’t bear up under scrutiny, or possibly, would not submit itself to be scrutinized at all – then it probably wasn’t true.
My experiences in the church would teach me other things. The idea of a “living God” came from the Bible and from the church, too. But if God was a living God, then why would he reside in only the Bible? Wouldn’t he be teaching us all the time – through our lives? And if that was the case, revelation was a continuous thing. God is always revealing himself. So I came closer to the idea that revelation is not complete but is going on all the time. God reveals himself anew to every generation. (The Bible was not given to replace life; it was given to support it and the learning process of each new generation, with the experiences and wisdom of the generations that came before.)
With each new generation come new revelations of God and his creation. Even new information on the creation such as we are learning from science today, affects our interpretation of the Bible. At one time I would have said these two realms, science and religion, are two separate spheres, but now I see overlap. Religion supposedly answers questions about our origins, but, learning that it has taken millions of years through long biological experimentation on a lonely planet, affects some of the “answers.”
I had always believed in evolution, except for a short time when I entertained the idea that God created the phyla. But if the phyla could evolve into so many different species, why not a tree of life that started from a single cell? What was the difference?
Sometimes Christians say things like, “Well, that was a million years ago, who cares about it now.” And to tell the truth, I’ve never been sure exactly why evolution matters. To me, it’s just the idea that it explains the facts. In short, evolution matters because it is true. And if it is true, we can’t carry on as if it wasn’t. No one lies their way into heaven. If it’s true, it’s true. (1)
I’ve been on blogs recently where people write about believers and seem not to understand them. They are at a loss of how to understand belief in God at all. But it is experiences like the experiences I’m explaining here that give life to belief. There are also books. (Christian people just talking and reflecting.) I was fortunate as a believer to be introduced early to a publisher called Inter-Varsity (or IVP). They are a Christian press, no doubt, but they cater to an educated crowd, namely university students who are feeling the conflict of cultures in their classrooms. Their books helped me not to take all the teachings that are taught in church too narrowly. They opened up new horizons for me. In some cases, like the book, In the Beginning, by Henri Blocher, they helped me understand the Bible better.
One belief which I derived from these books was a belief in the basic purposefulness of life. I’m not sure which author it was who wrote about it; perhaps it was Carl F. H. Henry (whom I later tired of because of his constant “alarmism”). It’s the idea that history is progressing toward a goal, a purpose. We may not understand it or even know what it is most of the time, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. How would you go about testing this idea? I don’t know. Could this notion be abused by the wrong people? For sure. All I know is that from time to time life doesn’t make much sense without it. We are tumbleweeds unless we believe that there is some goal or purpose to our lives. And, without it, the greatest events of our lives, the real history we see in the making (think, the civil rights movement, for instance), is only the arbitrary movement of a pendulum, back and forth, without cause or meaning.
I’ve been offended sometimes by Christian people. I don’t think Christian people are evil, or anything else extremely bad, but on occasion they do seem to be narrow or closed. Once on a Saturday morning men’s Bible study, someone came up with the idea that you don’t have to read books or commentaries, just read the Bible itself. And although I admit there is some truth to that idea (first read the Bible for yourself), I was in school at the time and also reading commentaries on the Bible. Was I to suppose that the writer of the commentary I was reading, who had spent most of his adult life studying the Bible, its history, its original languages, and teaching students about it, had nothing to say to me, and that I couldn’t derive any help from his writing at all? And what about reading other books? For whatever reason, the statement offended me. It still does today. I propose to myself on many occasions that Christians, and many other people as well, are just anti-intellectual in orientation, which hurts me a lot because of the books I read. Well, they’re probably not as anti-intellectual as I think they are, but I still think we have a long way to go. People should be allowed to read books and seek answers. It is the principle of open inquiry.
As I get older and I seem to struggle with God more and more, I’m beginning to see a little light here and there. Whereas, at one time, I thought I had most of the answers, now it comes down to a wrestling match between me and God. On the one hand, I can say that God is inscrutable – that God can not be held down to one point or one reason for anything that he does. On the other hand, I feel his power against me quite a bit. Like getting hit with javelins every time you try to talk with him. Is God just a bully that has to be stood up to? Maybe. And yet maybe too, he wishes for me to stand up to him. Does he want me to grovel at his feet all my life? Maybe he would not be offended if I questioned something he seems to have done. Maybe I should tell him on occasion exactly what I think. Maybe… so the journey never ends.
In any case, this post is supposed to be about my core beliefs. So, in short, here they are (for the moment):
1) Life is sacred and precious, and all life on this planet is related, a family;
2) Love is the greatest – family love, romantic love, neighborly love; love for living things is essential; love even rules over knowledge – for someone to be a true “expert,” they have to love their subject or be motivated by love somehow; Love is the one Christian doctrine that nobody seems to complain about;
3) If something is true, it must stand up to scrutiny – even religious truth claims should be able to do this;
4) God is a living God and is continuously revealing himself – each new generation learns God a little differently;
5) History is progressing to some kind of goal or purpose, even if we don’t always know exactly what it is;
6) People should be allowed the privilege of open inquiry – to read books and investigate for themselves what is true and what isn’t; and,
7) God is inscrutable, (but scrutinize him anyway, if you can – you just might learn something from it).
Though these may be my beliefs, they say precious little about “why” I believe. One reason I don’t seem to be able to live without God, are things like murder and injustice. Assuming there is no God, events like murder can just be seen as random and nothing out of the ordinary. I just do not want to tolerate a world where a murder victim is not consoled by God in the next life. For someone to be robbed of life has to have an answer somewhere – and that answer, as best I can tell, is God. Another reason for my believing in God relates to my #5 belief above. Given that history is leading somewhere, somewhere we might not even anticipate, we may need God to help us get there. As much as we know, we can never really know everything, so, like an agnostic principle, we need God to help us. Without that, we may never get there.
The truth is, there have been times when it has been hard for me to believe in God at all. With science seemingly pushing him back into a corner, it’s getting harder and harder to believe that he is present, here and now. Even harder is to believe that he is benevolent and that he is a person. At times like that, I try to see him as a principle – this agnostic principle, that we need him to guide us and lead us toward the goal, almost like Star Wars’ “the force.” Usually when I think of that, and our need for God to get us there, it brings me back to belief. And science has in some ways made God even bigger. At one time, the earth and sky must have felt pretty big to early peoples. But now, the universe is millions of times bigger, gazillions of times bigger. And the planet that people once thought was 6,000 years old, is now four and a half billion years old. I find it difficult to understand how that does not in some way glorify God.
The book that has got me thinking about all this, all over again, is the following –
The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life, by Austin Dacey. — Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, c2008.
It’s a good book for non-believers, especially. But I liked it. It places conscience at the center of our public life. And it says we should discuss our beliefs, which is what I’ve tried to do here.
(1) NOTE (3/6/09): I’ve found some articles that explain why evolution matters to us now. It matters because of how human behaviors influence the natural world in unexpected ways, like fish maturing earlier and at smaller sizes in adaptation to human fishing. Also, evolution matters, as I’ve suggested, for the reason of intellectual honesty. / You may have some trouble getting into the NY Times site. You may wish to log in first and then try searching the archives for, “Research Ties Human Acts to Harmful Rates of Species Evolution,” and, “Optimism in Evolution.” (www.nytimes.com/2008/08/13/opinion/13judson.html and www.nytimes.com/2009/01/13/science/13fish.html ).