Earlier this week, a classmate of mine (Emily) wrote a post acknowledging her difficulty maintaining faith during her studies in seminary. Although the specific things I’m wrestling with are different, I found myself relating to her sentiment. Like I’ve shared before, being a seminarian is to abandon naiveté and that process is incredibly uncomfortable.
Reading scholars like Jon D. Levenson, John J. Collins, and even tidbits of Michael D. Coogan has left me feeling as though anything I once believed to be true isn’t really true. Of course this feeling I have isn’t true in its entirety, but I’m finding extreme difficulty (and even exhaustion) in trying to maintain the implicit beliefs I’ve either acquired from someone else or created in my own head. While I love learning new ways of viewing Scripture, letting go of the countless assumptions I have isn’t the easiest.
This sense of unease is especially present in my Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) class. We’re reading through many of the gritty parts of the early days of Judaism (or as tradition holds as “the early days”) and being asked to focus in on moments that do not jive at all with our idea of “God is love,” or at least how we commonly understand that idea. For instance, in Joshua 7 a man named Achan sinned by coveting and then taking gold that he wasn’t supposed to. After discovering his gold stash (no, not a golden mustache), they brought him and his entire family to the Valley of Achor:
“Joshua said, ‘Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord is bringing trouble on you today.’ And all Israel stoned him to death; they burned them with fire, cast stones on them, and raised over him a great heap of stones that remains to this day. Then the Lord turned from his burning anger.” (7:25-26)
We’ve covered many passages like this, but this one particularly troubles me because God becomes angry against the people He chose, which, if we understand God as all-knowing, makes you wonder why He chose Israel in the first place, and doesn’t calm down until after an entire family has been, essentially, lynched. “All [of] Israel” had gathered to cast stones and set their own people on fire – if we take this passage to be literally true. And this is precisely the spot that, like my classmate, shakes my faith: who am I to decide which parts of Scripture are literally true and which parts are metaphorically true (not that Emily is asking this question; but rather that we’re both having our faith shaken)? A tougher question would be, am I supposed to assume that it is either metaphorically or literally true in the first place?
Prominent teaching within evangelical Christianity today carries a heavy emphasis on Scripture being true – whether that means metaphorically or literally is another matter (depends on the church you attend, I suppose). What this teaching guards against is the process of “picking and choosing” – dicing up Scripture in ways that fit (as is assumed) particular pre-conceived notions regarding the Bible, God, and/or Jesus. What this anti-picking-and-choosing doctrine causes one to ignore, though, is the process of how the Bible came to be. It certainly didn’t just fall from the sky.
Burning the bridge to naiveté is to echo Pilate’s question to Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). It oftentimes feels like the background to everything I read, write, or study in class. Having the constant practice of questioning everything leaves one feeling estranged – adrift at sea or wandering a desert. Having some theological home is necessary and yet I feel as though I don’t have one.
No, I don’t mean a community of believers, although that is currently lacking as well. But I do mean that my own systematic theology or set of beliefs that I developed over the last six or seven years has all but evaporated in the eight weeks of seminary. To a certain extent I love it because I’m finally in a community that is critically engaging Scripture. But there’s still an element I find unsettling. I couldn’t pinpoint the reason until last night during class.
After reading another blog by Peter Enns, we were asked to share our likes and dislikes. Our professor, Dr. Roger Nam, wrote some of these up on the board. Once everyone shared their thoughts, I felt a small amount of tension in the atmosphere – tension not with each other, but with the realization that many of our previously held beliefs were dissolving in front of us. Roger acknowledged this tension by saying this material is difficult to wrestle with. He also referenced a time early in his walk with God when he was reading through the Gospel of John.
Thinking back on the hours he spent reading through the entire Gospel, he said that the overall experience was transformative for his faith. Drawing our attention back to the board that encapsulated our sentiment he said that this is why we’re here at seminary – not to be persuaded to believe a particular set of beliefs, but to develop a more robust set of beliefs for ourselves. In essence, we’re building new bridges to enhance our faith and the faith of those whom we lead.
As Emily said in her post, there’s a very earthy taste to faith, God, and Scripture at the moment. And I think it’s earthy because in eight short weeks one bridge was destroyed while ground was broken to build another. Blood, sweat, and tears are covering my face as I try to picture the blueprints for the new bridge. Yet this sort of bridge, discomfortingly enough, isn’t built on belief statements and dogmas; it’s built on a stronger understanding of faith. Building that is going to take a long time and a lot of work.
Knowing that much, while slightly disheartening, is actually relieving. Yeah it sucks that I have to work on it, but it’s nice to know that I don’t have to finish it overnight. I’m allowed to be comfortable, at least for a while, in the desert.
And honestly, I won’t have what I need until I rest awhile in the desert.