So it’s been a couple of weeks since I posted OBAC, and I wanted to give you a progress report.
First, I’ve come up with a shorter version for people who don’t know me and don’t have time to read 25 pages (note that if you do know me, you still have to read the original even if you don’t have time, heh heh). It’s only 5 pages, and it’s here. I liken it to a technical drawing rendered with a paint roller, but it’ll give you a general idea of what I’m thinking.
One of my hopes in writing the essay was that it would spark some interesting conversations and thought processes. I love writing something and giving it to multiple people and then getting feedback that comes from their differing perspectives. It generates so much interesting interaction. It also reminds me that nobody is completely independent; you’re always influenced by contributions from others. So with that in mind, I’ll give you the highlights of the conversations I’ve had so far.
My friend from my old job April, who gets the award for being the first person to read the essay other than the people who read the earlier draft, e-mailed me asking why I felt I needed to stay an inerrantist, and she explained the view she picked up in seminary, the idea that God uses fallible humans to accomplish his goals and that this fallibility extends to the Bible. The Bible is authoritative only in the things it intends to teach, and it generally doesn’t intend to teach history and science. This is something I’ve considered, and I haven’t ruled it out.
My TWeb friend Rob reminded me that the resurrection is the key issue in Christianity, along with the general reliability of the Gospels. The general authority of the Bible is secondary, even though I list it first in my “things to study.” I recognized later that the reason I’m more focused on inspiration is that that’s what I’m doubting. I’m not really doubting the resurrection. But it’s a good idea to shore up on the basics, so I decided to give it some study and picked up off my shelf William Lane Craig’s Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus. I’m 66 pages into it. Rob also reminded me that it’s not too good to sit around in doubt (he wasn’t exactly making that point, but that’s what I took from it). I agree, but then that’s why I wrote the essay.
My mom was concerned that I might be overintellectualizing. She and I probably have different definitions of that term, but I agree that it’s possible to do. Overintellectualizing happens when (1) you spend all your time thinking about something that’s meant to be lived and never get around to the living part, thus missing the point; (2) you give equal weight to every conceivable question about a thing and put off making decisions about it until you’ve answered them all; or (3) you think about a livable topic only on an abstract level and overlook the information that can come from experience, thus getting off track because you don’t have all the relevant data; and there are probably others. I’ll try not to do any of those.
As a side note, I don’t consider it overintellectualizing when you simply think more than necessary about something. Some people just like to think, and if they’re not neglecting other important parts of life, why should they restrict themselves? Of course, the question is what the important parts of life are, and the people who like to think will have a different answer from the people who don’t.
She was also concerned by the fact that I couldn’t assure her that I’d come out all right (as in with my Christianity intact). Well, that’s the nature of doubt! To be fair, I had only just told her about the essay, so she hadn’t read it yet.
The most significant conversation has been with my coworker Don. He subscribes to a combined John Calvin/Jonathan Edwards view that God authenticates himself through his Word and that the sign of being saved is that when you read his Word, you see and love God’s beauty and truth. So he asked me what kinds of experiences of God I’d had, because I give the impression in my essay that I haven’t had any. I don’t know if I’ve had any true, spontaneous experiences of God, but I have had some noteworthy experiences of worship, so as our conversation progressed I began remembering those and relating them.
And I realized that of the few spiritual things I’ve tried, the Edwards/John Piper variety is one I’d like to return to. It feels the deepest and most genuine, as opposed to the more charismatic things I tried to get into. Those may work perfectly well for other people, but they don’t make a good starting place for me. The main problem I have going the Piper route is that while I love the idea of the finding our joy in God, etc., I can only really appreciate it in the abstract. When I try to think about the details and figure out what it all means—what exactly is God’s glory, and how do I find my fulfillment in it?—I get lost and back away from it. But anyway, that’s the direction I’d like to take my spiritual life. Maybe later I’ll branch out into other areas.
Don recommended that I read the Bible and look for the sense of God’s truth and beauty as I read. I had had the same idea, so the next day I tried it. I mean, I’ve been listening to the whole Bible on CD, but it hasn’t really been for the same purpose. I somewhat randomly turned to 1 Chronicles 10-11. I could have read Paul, but that would have been too easy; it’s easy to get a sense of God’s glory when Paul talks about it so constantly. I wanted to see what I could come up with in some other section of the Bible. So I picked David.
What I found, ironically, was a difficulty (the inerrantist’s term for a contradiction) and something that sounded legendary. That doesn’t usually happen; I’m usually oblivious to those things. But this time I noticed. The difficulty was that in 1 Chron. 10:3-5 Saul kills himself by falling on his sword. In 2 Sam. 1:1-16 a man tells David that Saul asked him to kill him, so he did, and then David had the man killed for killing the king. So which was it? On the other hand, 1 Sam. 31:3-5 agrees with 1 Chronicles. So I guess the guy was lying to David, which turned out to be a dumb idea.
The legendary-sounding material was the description of David’s warriors. One of them, Jashobeam, killed 300 people with a spear, apparently all in the same battle. It takes a long time just to count to 300. It’s hard to believe anyone has the stamina to battle that many people at once and win. But maybe it means something else. Or maybe he really did and it was a miracle.
The interesting thing is that I didn’t care, even if both a contradiction and a legend were involved. For me it didn’t take away from the fact that God had set David up as king to be the shepherd of God’s people (11:2). I’m not sure it’s good to approach the Bible that way—falsehoods galore but still authoritative—but that’s the way I felt at the time. But apart from that, I didn’t get any overwhelming sense of God’s self-authentication. Maybe another time.
That day I also decided to try something that John Ortberg talked about in one of Doing Life Together lessons, which is a DVD and study guide series my small group is doing. It’s related somehow to the Purpose-Driven Life. Ortberg’s talk was about spending a day with Jesus, and he took the viewers through various parts of a day and how they might be carried out devotionally.
So I tried paying more attention to Jesus throughout my day, and right at the beginning I gained some insight into one of my questions. I’ve always had trouble knowing how to view God in light of the fact that he sends his children both blessings and hardships. I guess I have a hard time trusting people after they’ve hurt me. With God I’m always waiting for the next blow, even though my life generally goes smoothly. But I never really thought that way about my parents growing up, which was the source of my insight.
I was thinking about my terrific job and thanking God for that gift, and I realized that in a relationship there’s sort of a hierarchy of interactions. With my parents, I fundamentally thought of them as loving and only occasionally as disciplinary. So with God I can think of the side of him that wants to give good gifts to his children and build them up as the fundamental part of the relationship. Then the part of God that needs to be harsh to remove sin I can think of as something temporary that occurs on top of the more fundamental part. I think viewing it that way would free me to concentrate on understanding and experiencing the positive side of the relationship, which is something I’ve often shied away from because I knew it could be interrupted at any time by God’s anger and disapproval.
I managed to return to prayer and thoughts of Jesus the rest of the day, and I guess it made a difference. I certainly felt closer to him, since I was talking to him more often. I felt serene all day too, maybe a little more than normal, though I can’t say for sure.
John Ortberg says that if you can spend one day with Jesus, then you can spend every day with him. Well, it’s not as easy as that because it can be hard to get into a routine, etc., but technically it’s true. If two days are basically alike, then generally anything you do in one you can do in the other. In my case it became harder after the first day because (1) I forgot about it until later in the day and (2) I discovered I don’t have much to think about Jesus about. My thoughts toward him, when I don’t have time to dig into them and come up with something profound and specific, end up being just sort of a vague notion of Jesus with the vague sense of communing with him. That just won’t do. So I need to figure out how to integrate Jesus with everyday life, like Ortberg did some of in the video.
That Sunday I thought about one of the spiritual practices I recalled during my conversation with Don. For a while during college I would try to get a sense of the fact that God was real. He wasn’t just something we talked and sang about. In the spiritual realm and all around us there actually is an all-knowing, all-powerful, holy Supreme Being who is right now receiving the worship of countless angels and saints. I can’t really convey this sense in writing. It’s like learning to raise one eyebrow—you’ll just have to try it out in different ways until you get it. What often happened when I succeeded in thinking this way is that I quickly became overwhelmed. The reality of God seemed so intense that I had to back out of that frame of mind after only a second. Other times it wasn’t so intense and I could simply marvel at it.
That’s one of the things I wanted to return to, so I decided to try it again. The problem was that I’m not satisfied with thinking about God abstractly anymore, and a lot of spiritual concepts don’t make much sense to me right now when I think about the details. But since I can get excited about some of them at a more abstract level, I decided to make a strategy of it. During worship I would imagine the reality of whatever I could at whatever level of detail or abstraction I could get enthusiastic about. If the details weren’t making sense, I would back up and think about the more general concept.
And you know, it worked! And it really made a difference in the way I experienced the whole worship service. I felt like I was giving God a little more of his due, and I felt enlivened. But I noticed that it was much easier to enter this God-as-real mindset while singing than while, say, listening to Scripture being read. Still, it’s a step.
Since then not much has happened in terms of conversations and experiments (good, because this was getting long!), but I’ll keep you posted.
Wow — I have to tell you that, even if you don’t always feel it, you are loving God with all of your heart and mind by trying so hard to encounter him and be in a love relationship with his Word. My advice: don’t always look for a feeling. Sometimes we have to read and read and read some more, feeling nothing. One day, when we are reading, something will jump up and grab us, reminding us that God is interacting with us through the text. We are fooling ourselves if we think that we can ever see love and beauty every time we pick up the Bible. Sin has permeated our thoughts and hearts in such a way that we have to first, endeavor to study the word and second, wait for God to act. God will act when we least expect it. We can’t control it, no matter how much reading of the Word we do!
Anyway, I just want to encourage you that I am not sure if you are experiencing doubt. It sounds to me more like a dark night of the soul. Fortunately, dark nights are followed by exceptionally bright days. Keep on doing what you are doing now.
Hi April, thanks for your encouraging comments. I’ve thought about that too, not expecting emotional experiences all the time. I agree that we have to have patience with our spiritual practices. Evangelical spirituality seems to depend on emotional experiences in some ways, but you’re right, God does things unpredictably.
I’ve also thought about the dark night thing. I don’t know if I’d call this that. I think that’s more something people experience when they’re very devoted to God but just can’t seem to get through for a time. I do care about spiritual things, but I think I’m too apathetic to qualify for a dark night. Plus I have other doubts besides just spiritual ones. But it’s nice of you to say that. 🙂