I remember coming home from church one Sunday afternoon last spring, and for whatever reason I had been feeling somewhat down that morning. I was by myself, and as I pulled into the driveway it was like this wave of doubt just poured over me out of nowhere. Everything about my faith suddenly became so ridiculous sounding, unfounded, empty, and confusing. I remember in that moment asking God if this was all just one monstrous fabrication of the mind, a monument made of nothing more than the physical contents of my brain.
As always, I got no response from God, and the feeling soon passed after about an hour or so, returning my faith more or less to its usual state. That was the first taste I had ever experienced of seriously considering whether the faith that was so central to my life was completely wrong.
I had recently read Peter Enns’ book, The Bible Tells Me So… Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. As the subtitle implies, Enns’ main thesis is that our defense of scripture as “inerrant” or “infallible” has made us unable to read it for what it really is:
“The Bible is an ancient book and we shouldn’t be surprised to see it act like one. So seeing God portrayed as a violent, tribal warrior is not how God is but how he was understood to be by the ancient Israelites communing with God in their time and place. The biblical writers were storytellers. Writing about the past was never simply about understanding the past for its own sake, but about shaping, molding, and creating the past to speak to the present. “Getting the past right” wasn’t the driving issue. “Who are we now?” was. The Bible presents a variety of points of view about God and what it means to walk in his ways. This stands to reason, since the biblical writers lived at different times, in different places, and wrote for different reasons. In reading the Bible we are watching the spiritual journeys of people long ago.
"Jesus, like other Jews of the first century, read his Bible creatively, seeking deeper meaning that transcended or simply bypassed the boundaries of the words of scripture. Where Jesus ran afoul of the official interpreters of the Bible of his day was not in his creative handling of the Bible, but in drawing attention to his own authority and status in doing so. A crucified and resurrected messiah was a surprise ending to Israel’s story. To spread the word of this messiah, the earliest Christian writers both respected Israel’s story while also going beyond that story. They transformed it from a story of Israel centered on Torah to a story of humanity centered on Jesus.”
That is Enns’ 265-word version of the book, and I think well worth quoting here in its entirety. It’s a book I would highly recommend to any Christian seeking to be challenged in their faith and in their understanding of the Bible. I was actually excited after reading it, seeing how the contradictions and horrific parts of the Bible simply pointed to an imperfect understanding of God amidst an ancient spiritual journey, rather than pointing to a God who “works in mysterious (and seemingly evil) ways.” It helped me to chip away at the growing cognitive dissonance my worldview had been throwing at me. I allowed myself to let go of most of that fear and instead trust in a God that was bigger than the Bible and who was leading me toward a new understanding of himself.
However, the response of many Christians when presented with this sort of perspective on the Bible is often one of fear, and I completely understand that feeling. If the Bible isn’t the perfect Word of God, then how do we know which parts of it can be trusted and which can’t? Do we just start picking and choosing the parts we like and attribute those to God’s truth, while ascribing the ugly parts to ancient people’s primitive understanding of God? If we can’t trust the entire Bible, then how can we trust any of it? What will keep us from just living life according to what’s right in our own eyes?
Unfortunately, these questions of fear often push Christians back to where they were, ignoring the complex nature of scripture, preferring the stability and certainty of a divine, inerrant rulebook. But if your belief in a “perfect” Bible is based at all on a fear of not knowing what to believe otherwise, then I would argue that it’s maybe time to reevaluate the foundation of your belief.
Needless to say, this book sparked a transformation in my worldview, and the black and white lens through which I previously saw the world slowly began to disintegrate, giving way to the full visible spectrum of nuance and complexity, mystery and uncertainty. But I don’t think I quite realized how much Enns’ words had dislodged the core of my faith. There was a seed of doubt and instability that had been planted in my understanding of the Christian faith, one that had not been there before, and it eventually led to a much greater crisis of faith.
It was a few weeks after that Sunday afternoon in my driveway that I reached the point where the alternative theological views I had been piecing together for myself no longer had anything to stand on. I realized that, as wonderful as my Christian faith might have seemed, I had no reason to believe that any of it was true. It was a week last April where on Monday I was a Christian just like I’d always been, and by Friday my faith was lying in a trash heap on the floor. And for those of you who haven’t ever experienced something like that, all I can say is it is an extremely frightening feeling. I remember FaceTiming my younger brother for two hours that Friday afternoon, in tears, scared of where my life was going to take me from that moment on.
Do I keep going to church? Do I keep praying, even though I no longer believe prayer works? How do I tell all my friends and family? What will they say? What kind of a woman will I marry someday? How will I raise my kids? Is God going to smite me in some way? Am I suddenly going to have an uncontrollable urge to live in debauchery?
I was now forced to address a flurry of questions that I had never before had to even think of considering, obviously some of them rather silly, but nevertheless things that came to mind in the midst of such a radical and emotional shift in perspective.
The interesting thing, however, was that nothing really changed for me. A week passed and I still had all the same values and morals I’d always had, making me realize that those things were based far more in reason and my own personality than they were in my faith. In fact, the change that did occur was exclusively positive change. Those first few weeks without my faith were some of the most freeing moments of my life. My world expanded a hundredfold, now unbounded by theological and religious views, and my curiosity about life and the universe grew immensely. Taking that first step into a place where few people close to me had tread gave me a greater sense of confidence in myself and in my ability to think for myself.
In addition, people became no longer separated in my mind into “Christian” and “non-Christian” camps. I grew in my ability to understand why someone would hold a different perspective from me, seeing as I held a different perspective from myself only weeks earlier. There was no longer any black and white, Christian versus non-Christian worldview by which to judge the behavior and personality of others, and instead I could start seeing people for what they were: simply people, all of them searching just like myself. My gaze had shifted from the constant one-dimensional “up” to the multi-dimensional world all around me; from God to people. I didn’t know what it meant to love God or have a relationship with God, but I knew what it meant to love people and to have relationships with people.
All those testimonies I'd heard over the years of people finding new life in Christ was now my own testimony, the only difference being that I had somehow found new life outside of Christ, as weird and provocative as that might sound to a Christian. At that point, even in the uncertainty of everything else, I was still sure there had to be a god, that my existence could not be explained otherwise, but that there was no reason to believe that Jesus was anything more than just a man. To simply “have faith” that he performed miracles and rose from the dead was suddenly a nonsensical concept to me. Every religion uses faith as the basis for belief, and yet not every religion can be true at once, so how can faith be at all a legitimate basis for finding truth? Had I been raised a Muslim, I would be putting my faith in Islam; raised a Hindu, putting my faith in Hinduism. It was all relative, a matter of the circumstances in which I was born.
And yet, everything requires some level of faith in order to accept its truth. What I’ve come to realize though is that there’s a significant difference between an “everyday” kind of faith and a “religious” faith. I cannot be absolutely certain that the sun will rise tomorrow, and yet I have very good reason to have an extraordinary amount of faith that it will. That is an everyday kind of faith that believes because of the overwhelming evidence. The extraordinary evidence that would be required to have an everyday kind of faith in the resurrection of Jesus is almost unfathomable to me, and yet Christians around the globe have put their faith in the truth of this event for nearly 2000 years now. I think that is because religious faith says something different than an everyday kind of faith. Rather than belief because of sufficient evidence, religion teaches people to believe in spite of a lack of sufficient evidence, and often even in spite of evidence to the contrary.
That sort of religious faith is what I have become at odds with more than anything else, but during those first few weeks after coming to the realization of that fact, I resolved to continue engaging with people of faith, doing my best to be open and honest about my doubts, and to allow the uncertainty to simmer, seeing no reason why I had to immediately “choose” anything to believe. I learned to be at peace with saying “I don’t know,” having no answer to life’s biggest questions, and yet allowing my growing curiosity drive me to pursue those questions and challenge others to do the same.
Peter Enns’ book was not the only thing that led me to where I am now. A single book likely wouldn’t have undone my faith, but it certainly played an essential role in initially stirring up doubt for me. This year began with a desire to take my faith more seriously, to investigate and hone in on what it is I really believe, and it took me somewhere I never expected to go; somewhere I would’ve feared to go. Yet it turned into one of the most thrilling journeys of my life, forcing me to let go of the certainty I once clung to, and instead embrace my newfound freedom outside of religious belief.
As I now like to say, I am 99% certain that nothing is certain.
...Or am I?