Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Jenga

I've been reflecting on how I've experienced this faith crisis of mine. In some ways, it's reminded me of a game of Jenga, where each player takes turns pulling a block from a tower of blocks until the whole tower collapses. There are many different blocks to choose from, but the end result of the game never changes. Crash!

My questioning started over the concept of hell (block 1). My initial questioning left me with a willingness to reexamine all sorts of issues I would have feared studying before. Researching the evidence for an old earth and evolution led me to reevaluate the Genesis account of creation as well as many other stories in Genesis. It became apparant that many of these stories contradicted clear scientific evidence(creation, Noah's Ark ). (Several blocks here.) I then revisited the literalist/inerrantist view of scripture I had tried to maintain. The contradictions in scripture and the prophesies which weren't, suddenly became very obvious. Why had I never noticed? (More blocks pulled.)

Without the ability to view scripture as divine writing on the wall, I was left trying to discern what to make of it. If there's no literal Adam and Eve with their original sin, why do we need a savior? And why did Christ have to die, really? There's more than one interpretation offered in the Bible, not just the penal substitutionary theory of atonement, as I was taught. What do we really know about Christ and how much can we trust what scripture says? What about the Old Testament stories of genocide that leave most of us squeamish? What about the treatment of women in the Bible, do they reflect the culture of the time or could they really reflect how God views women? How much weight should I give Biblical teachings on divorce and homosexuality? What if hell is a concept borrowed from surrounding cultures? Can there be anything to it? If not, what's left of Christianity without a hell to save people from? (More and more blocks pulled). What Christ centered narrative can be constructed that has integrity? How many blocks are left standing?

One thing that seems to still be standing is my need/desire for the metaphysical. It may be a personality trait, I don't know. One thing I have observed, however, is that the more I detach from my religious practices, the more I find time to be alone in nature, the more I immerse myself in music, the more I seek out moments of meditation, introspection, and peace as well as moments of wonder and thanksgiving. I continue to make meaning and to connect with others. Feeling less fettered by the binds of doctrines and practices that entangle my mind has not led me to hedonistic pursuits and a nihilistic outlook. I am still left open to the idea that God exists and allows us to transcend the material, but I don't think He/She/It looks much like what I've imagined most of my life.

Like A Child sent me a link to a post which resonated with me because the man who wrote about his doubts is a Christian who is from my denomination (church of Christ). He has degrees in both theology and archeology and has undergone quite a transformation in his beliefs. He writes a bit about this Jenga effect I discussed:

The problem, of course, with dismissing biblical creation and the flood is that Jesus mentions both of them (Mark 10:6 and Matt. 24:38-39). Christians are reluctant to let go of creation and the flood, because doing so places Jesus in the awkward position of repeating mythological stories that are not historical. An even greater problem for some with conceding that much of the Bible is not historical is that the result is not an exclusively "Christian" God. While some aspects of biblical historicity may be discounted and a distinctively Christian understanding of God retained, the honest scholar must concede that, followed to its logical end, the resulting view of God is more like a cosmic God -- a prime mover that better resembles a deistic God of the early universe -- than it is the personal, pocket God of modern evangelical Christianity.

And it is this contemplation of the theological chessboard seven moves from now that terrifies most Christian scholars into an immobilizing silence -- within both the academy and the church -- and stops them from taking the next step or even speaking aloud of its consideration. I am here to tell you, it's OK. Some may call you a heretic, but coming out of the skeptical closet will free you to understand faith in a whole new way.

11 comments:

  1. Some Christians claim, "The Bible is all I need," but this notion is not taught in the Bible itself. In fact, the Bible teaches the contrary idea (2 Peter 1:20–21, 3:15–16). The "Bible alone" theory was not believed by anyone in the early Church.

    It is new, having arisen only in the 1500s during the Protestant Reformation. The theory is a "tradition of men" that nullifies the Word of God, distorts the true role of the Bible, and undermines the authority of the Church Jesus established (Mark 7:1–8).

    Although popular with many "Bible Christian" churches, the "Bible alone" theory simply does not work in practice. Historical experience disproves it. Each year we see additional splintering among "Bible-believing" religions.

    Today there are tens of thousands of competing denominations, each insisting its interpretation of the Bible is the correct one. The resulting divisions have caused untold confusion among millions of sincere but misled Christians.

    Just open up the Yellow Pages of your telephone book and see how many different denominations are listed, each claiming to go by the "Bible alone," but no two of them agreeing on exactly what the Bible means.

    We know this for sure: The Holy Spirit cannot be the author of this confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). God cannot lead people to contradictory beliefs because his truth is one. The conclusion? The "Bible alone" theory must be false.

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  2. Hi,

    I understand this game of Jenga you describe. I myself have wandered through the falling towers. I also know what you mean by still feeling this pull toward the metaphysical. I don't think I could ever believe that there is no God, as experiences in my life lead me to believe otherwise. Now, I am aware that there are people who will tell me that my experience is totally bunk. I have yet to decide on that. One thing I have wondered about is- how much does it matter whether every word from the Bible is "inspired of God"? Maybe, in an effort to explain the universe, people did in fact write it- But for the sake of argument, perhaps it's possible that God still uses it. Maybe we can take the good stuff (morality, love, etc.) and leave the rest (dashing babies on the rocks.)
    I don't know if you've ever read "The Jesus Dynasty" by James Tabor. He is a religion professor at UNC (the same school as Bart Ehrmann). He is an archaeological researcher, also with a church of Christ background. It may be worth a look as it seems he has also gone through this game of Jenga.

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  3. I admire the clarity with which you write. The series of events you describe is very similar to my own, just different specifics. The jenga analogy works well. For me though, it was as though someone tried pulling out a bunch of jenga pieces all at once, so it seemed more like a house of cards collapsing. Maybe dominoes falling... :^)

    I have long thought that the apologetics for the existence of God used by most apologists lead to a deist God at best. At least the strongest parts of their arguments do, and the rest are just stepping stones built off deism. Maybe people conflate the two sets of arguments because they trust the apologist by that point? So what Cargill writes makes sense.

    The quote of you provided helps me understand, I think, where Christians like Cargill are coming from when they engage modern scholarship across the board, but are still able to carve a Christian identity out for themselves. I haven't read the post you linked to yet, but in the paragraph you provided, it sounds like Cargill is describing his own faith when he says, "...the resulting view of God is more like a cosmic God -- a prime mover that better resembles a deistic God of the early universe -- than it is the personal, pocket God of modern evangelical Christianity." Maybe the case for deism is stronger than the case/apologetics for Christianity, more foundational, but less falisfiable too?

    I can't make that work personally, moving from conservative evangelicalism. Maybe if I wasn't surrounded by conservative evangelicals, or if I was separated in time from it by more than 2 years, maybe it would make more sense. But that's the beauty in leaving evangelicalism, not being constrained to certain "essential" beliefs in listening to other's stories.

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  4. Abandoning the idea of Hell was the first step in my Jenga game too!

    What's funny about the whole thing is that I abandoned the idea of Hell, not only because I found it incompatible with what I imagined God to be like, and had been told what He was like, but also because I the more I searched Scripture, the more obvious it became that the concept of a Hell of eternal conscious torment didn't exist in the Old Testament and only had a couple of verse in the New Testament that could be used in its defense....many of those from Revelation, a book full of apocalyptic, figurative language and images.

    So...my trust in Scripture ultimately led me to undermine my trust in Scripture....because once I could see the ideas evolving in the different texts and authors, I could see that most developments in theology could be traced through humans experiences with their world and culture.

    Ultimately, that has undermined my ability to read the Bible as "divinely inspired"...at least in the sense that others use the term.

    As far as the metaphysical goes....I can't help but still search for a way that this all fits together somehow. Why sentience? Why intelligence? Why transcendent emotions?

    Trying to find evolutionary motivations for those things leaves me cold, though I know that some people have motivations that they put forth as explanations. I just find them lacking right now.

    Anyway.....Maybe if we play the "game of Jenga" right we'll wind up with a tower twice as big with wide, open spaces instead of a big pile of crashed-down blocks! ;-)

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  5. I really like this analogy for faith. Many of us build our tower with inerrancy as one of the lowest blocks, so when you pull it out, it destabilizes the whole structure. Maybe for some, it is "looser" already than others. Mine was stubbornly stuck in (thanks to a very extreme fundamentalist childhood exposure to Christianity), so it is not surprising my tower is teetering on total destruction! My husband was brought up in a PCUSA and thus, pulling out inerrancy didn't do much for him.

    This all said, you would think that God, if real, could transcend all these childhood biases.

    Here's a copy of the response I gave to Cargill in that post you linked. He didn't really get at the heart of my question, but he did try to answer it. Cargill states: "But my studies of science and the Bible -- made possible by my doubt -- have changed the way I understand the world, the Bible, and God. I no longer accept a six-day creation (24-hour or otherwise). I do not accept a worldwide flood. I do not accept Adam and Eve, talking snakes and donkeys, people turning into pillars of salt....." Though I favor Cargill's interpretation, this type of rationality leads me to doubt the Gospels as well, thereby removing the foundation of my faith. Cargill states, "In the end, what you believe is simply not as important as what you do for others." Yet, the question is why you have this sense of compassion and love for humankind. Is it due to Christian faith, or a evolutionary need, or a sense of ethics...what? Again, "loving others" is not sufficient for me to hold on to Christianity, nor will it make me comfortable in the church. Thus, while I like this post, I do think we need to focus on the essentials as well. What is truth, and what is conjecture? Again, I intend no criticism, I am just earnestly seeking a way to still hold on to Christianity. Some doubt is healthy, but the level of my doubt is destructive.

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  6. Michael Gormley,
    Thanks for stopping by! In my denomination, we were always taught to avoid the "traditions of men" and really believed we didn't hold any of our own. You make a good point that this sola scriptura approach to the Bible is a tradition as well!

    As far as the Holy Spirit not being the author of confusion, I only wish that the truth was easier to discern and that there was less confusion in the world.


    Anonymous,
    I had to ask my husband if he posted what you wrote, as you sounded alot like him. I've never heard of James Tabor, but I'll definitely check him out. Thanks for the recommendation.

    atimetorend,
    Thanks for the compliment. I wish I could write much faster though!

    I think I was too fearful of being able to handle a house of cards crashing down, so I determined that I would have a "controlled" faith crisis. Otherwise, my experience might have been more similar to yours.

    terri,
    Thanks for stopping by! We'll just have to keep playing the game and see what we end up with. It's interesting that some play and construct a tall tower while others end up with a pile of blocks. At least we're trying.

    Like A Child,
    You know, I've often wondered if my particular background has left me more vulnerable for a total collapse as well. Building faith around inerrancy is misguided at best and disasterous at worst.

    I went back and read your response to Cargill and his response. I don't know that there really can be a satisfying response to why he or anyone holds onto Christianity. Everytime I push someone on this, the response is ultimately a personal preference or related to personal experience.

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  7. "Everytime I push someone on this, the response is ultimately a personal preference or related to personal experience." This frustrates me to no avail. You would think that these people would be the few that could sympathize with our struggles. I often wonder if a female theologian would have a different response.

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  8. I liked Cargill’s chessboard analogy. I, too, have often wondered if many Christians are terrified of taking a step, because they see an inevitable result 7 moves later. How often have I heard “Once you don’t believe ______ really happened--then you can’t believe anything is historical in the Bible.” So they refuse to let go of some event that clearly is incorrect; instead relying upon hopelessly contrived resolutions or…worse…”someday we may find something that might allow this to be true.”

    But since we are talking about Jenga…Jenga it is!

    When I first started playing with my children, the first two pieces I pulled were the very bottom. So the whole pile was resting on that one center stick. They would complain, “That makes the whole thing unstable!” “Exactly,” I would reply with an evil grin.

    Of course, they started doing the same thing, recognizing the strategy. Needless to say, we never get a very tall Jenga tower. Similar to Like a Child, one of my bottom sticks was inerrancy. Once pulled (the other was methodology), it was only a short matter of time before the whole tower crashed.

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  9. "Everytime I push someone on this, the response is ultimately a personal preference or related to personal experience." This frustrates me to no avail. You would think that these people would be the few that could sympathize with our struggles. I often wonder if a female theologian would have a different response.

    I can relate to what you're writing here.

    I am frequently frustrated at the dearth of people who are trying to show a way forward after they are done deconstructing everything. I get frustrated by myself too for not finding the best way forward yet.

    Losing inerrancy has devastated me and my "spiritual journey" in many ways....because all of a sudden everything that I had thought was sure and reliable and an answer in my life became the exact opposite to me.

    Suddenly, when I read Scripture, all I could see were the things that didn't add up, or the thematic contradictions, or the very human theological developments.

    It was like the world had turned itself upside down. That which used to give me comfort was suddenly making me crazy with agony.

    It's like reading a love letter from someone who has betrayed you in the worst, possible way. It doesn't evoke feelings of love in you, at all....just anger.

    However, there are times when I realize that most of what I feel is/was directly tied to what I was told about Scripture and how it was so perfect, and without error, and told one continuous story....yada, yada, yada.
    And the people who told me that had been told the same thing by those who taught them...and so on, and so on.

    If I ever find a good answer.....I promise to share it! ;-)

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  10. I "lost" Jenga too. As with others of you, my bottom block wasn't faith in God: that belief was a conclusion resting on other (false) foundations. My personal tendency is toward atheism (how I grew up), but having no reason for it, I do the "what if God did exist" thought experiment sometimes. What if God exists: but doesn't like people like me being inclined to smug, self-righteous, judgmental, know-it-all lives when the foundational block is [inerrancy, etc.] instead of God? Of course, that begs a multitude of other questions; but either way, I am extremely thankful for my own "crisis."

    I'm also perplexed that so many(?) non-religious people seem to believe in (some sort of) "God"--what's up with that?

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  11. Dave, thanks for stopping by. You're in company here in the online world! As for your question, I think it's easier to refute specific religious systems than it is God. There's still much to be explained yet, such as the initial beginning of the universe or of life, that keep people open to the idea of a God. I, myself, am sort of like that. It's hard to call me a Christian in the formal sense, but there are still certain areas that I don't think a strictly materialist, naturalist philosophy handles adequately.

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