Posts filed under ‘skepticism’
I just finished reading Rachel Held Evans, Evolving in Monkey Town, which does a remarkable job of delving into issues of doubt and faith with intellectual honestly. Evans grew up thoroughly immersed in the evangelical culture, but was compelled to honestly examine it with open eyes. I think that is extremely difficult to do for someone who grows up within evangelicalism’s “biblical worldview.” Evans seems to be representative of a number of younger evangelicals who are not comfortable accepting the culture wars and dogmatic beliefs and doctrines of early generations.
Evans writes pointedly about the problems that arise from a literalistic, inerrant reading of the bible, and tells candidly how her faith changed through this process of examination. The book uses the motif of evolution to describe what both Christianity has done over the years, and what has happened to the author’s own faith as well. Her home town was the location of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, thus the analogy to evolution. It describes how skeptics and Christians alike can experience these problems, and indeed Evans has the same questions herself.
This vision of Christian faith offers something of an acceptance of the tension between belief and unbelief, believer and unbeliever, rather than assuming a rigid and vast divide separates the two. Which in turn seems to offer the opportunity for greater dialog and understanding in discussing issues, rather than hostile debates and attempts to convince others to change their beliefs. Reading the book very refreshing in this way.
I think the book can help encourage Christians who are compelled to ask hard questions of their faith, as Evans describes what it was like to face the disapproval of other Christians. It is a tough path to walk alone. Even without sharing the same experience of faith as the author, an unbeliever could walk away from the book with a better understanding of who evangelicals are, and how their religion has come to the point it is at today.
Reading this post over, it sounds a lot like the technical paper I wrote the same day. I’ll try to revisit the subject soon to give a more personal take, time and emotional energy allowing.
For those interested, Evan’s blog provides a good taste of her writing. She recently responded to an Answer’s in Genesis review of her own work. She also has a couple of good posts on doubt -here- and -here-. Mark of christiandoubt.com reviews it here.
And I included some more thoughts on the book in a follow up post here.
I try to avoid the Answers in Genesis web site. But I recently saw a link to an article there, and confess, gave in to the temptation. I apologize in advance for any pain it may cause, should you choose to click through. The article is about unicorns.
As background, the King James Version of the bible uses the word “unicorn” in several places (blogger Sabio goes into that a bit here). The article starts out with an assertion that some anti-Christians will use the King James Bible’s references to unicorns to mock Christian beliefs as akin to belief in fairy tales. Fair enough, I haven’t heard that, but I’m sure it happens.
The article then goes on to provide some guesses as to what kind of creatures the biblical authors were referring to, under the assumption that they must have been referring to a real creature. But could it be possible they were referring to a creature that never existed, under the false assumption that a legend was real?
Answers in Genesis says categorically it is NOT acceptable to think the biblical authors referred to a mythical creature. The article ends on a typical Answers in Genesis low note, with polemics against those who would disagree with them, finally concluding, “To think of the biblical unicorn as a fantasy animal is to demean God’s Word, which is true in every detail.”
Such a simple equation; doubt the biblical authors, demean God. It is ultimately a call to submit to authority rather than to exercise critical thought, and it preempts honest study into origins and meanings of the bible. If only we could all hear God’s voice as clearly as Ken Ham does. Or on second thought, maybe not…
According to Wikipedia, cognitive dissonance is “an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously.” The more rigid a religion is in its creeds, the more cognitive dissonance can result from clashes with the real world. It is very hard for me to point to just one thing that created enough cognitive dissonance for me to start the questioning process. But perhaps the final straw came from a sermon on the book of Daniel, which for me called the doctrine of inerrancy into question.
The sermon itself was an exposition on the prophesies contained in the book of Daniel, the point being that if God was faithful to answer prophesies then, we ourselves should be able to trust him now. The pastor had waded through a lot of complex material in an attempt to explain what the the prophesies in Daniel were really about and how they had played out in history. While I admired his attempt to grapple with the material, as a history buff the solutions he presented seemed contrived, like they were trying to force the evidence to meet preconceived conclusions. Enough for me to venture onto the Internet in search for more information. A dangerous precedent!
In a nutshell, the book of Daniel is held up as including prophesies of the coming of the Messiah, along with predictions of various kings and kingdoms coming and going. According to this website, “the book itself claims to be the work of an exiled Jew in Babylon, during the period of about 586 to 536 BCE.” Since a number of the prophesies appear to deal with events which transpired around 165 BCE, an early dating of 586 BCE could indeed constitute fulfilled prophesies.
The general consensus of modern biblical scholars however places the writings to around the time period of 165 BCE. One reason for this, as fundamentalists are glad to point out, is that a later dating, after the events “foretold” already transpired, does not depend on a belief in supernaturally fulfilled prophesies . Unfortunately for the fundamentalists, there are other solid literary and historic clues which support this later dating.
Viewed as a later writing, the purposes of the book can be understood a different way:
Like his New Testament counterpart, the Revelation of John, Daniel was written to strengthen his people during a difficult time. Whereas John wrote to Christians under the persecution of Domitan, Daniel wrote to Jews under the persecution of Antiochus. By casting his history as a series of predictions, Daniel hoped to show that the present sufferings were indeed a part of God’s plan for his people.
It didn’t take much reading to realize this view of the book just made more sense to me. I was actually asked about a year later by this same pastor “what was in your heart that made you think this view of Daniel was true?” I replied that I did not think it was anything in my heart making me think that way, it is just where the evidence seemed to lead. I really think it is only a “heart issue” that causes someone to believe in the earlier dating of Daniel, because of a desire to maintain a certain view of the bible rather than more dispassionately considering what is really going on in the book. Of course this is all based on my own limited understanding of the textual issues and historical details at hand, but that is the best I can do. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.
For me faith pretty much fell apart at that point. I felt the advice I received to deal with those doubts and to try to hold on to faith all pointed to returning to a blind trust of the bible. Much of what I read seemed to exhort people to reject their own reason (as human, corrupt, and fallible) and accept the sweet and pure truth of God’s word the bible. Which to me still sounds like a clarion call to shut off your mind and just believe.
Maybe if I had been in a more progressive tradition I would have dealt with those doubts differently. Maybe if I had been surrounded by voices calling me to more flexible view of scripture I would have been able to see a different way. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t, and faith made more sense discarded than clung to at that point. On one hand it hurt and I responded with a lot of anger. On the other hand it has helped me to think for myself, to form my own opinions, and to read, read, read. And to be honest that has been a pretty good deal for me. I am grateful for a deconstructed faith.
But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. James 1:6
I was looking at a map for a project at work yesterday and the name of a small town caught my eye. I had once had a business appointment there at the office of a woman running her own business. I got to chat with her a bit during several visits; she was under a lot of stress, her little boy was dying of cancer. As I recall, he had been in remission after undergoing chemotherapy and then the cancer came back. So infinitely sad, my heart still aches to remember.
She was a Christian and held out hope for God’s healing. But it was more than that, she was confident God was going to heal her child. She had been sold on a certain theology in which it is necessary to have full confidence in prayer for the requests to be answered. In fact, she had staked a lot in taking her boy to a healing service by a visiting evangelist who preached that message. Some of you may recognize that theology. The evangelist was the one and only Benny Hinn. I had not heard of him or the theology at the time. It was something that didn’t sound right, but what can you say to a mother whose boy is dying of cancer?
I recently read about the problems perpetrated by men like Hinn in William Lobdell’s book, Losing My Religion. An article he wrote on Hinn made it into the book (a lot of the book is from previously published articles). He writes about how despite investigations of people of like Hinn, despite revelations of misdeeds, corruption, and fraud, people still flock to hear them and give them money, holding out hope for miracles. Truly sickening.
“Sitting cross-legged in front of a big-screen TV, the 11-year-old squints through Coke-bottle glasses at a Miracle Crusade video made more than two years ago in which he starred as a boy who miraculously recovered from blindness. “I liked it at first because I thought I was being healed,” says William in the living room of his aunt and uncle’s home. On the screen, Hinn bends down to William, his hands on the child’s face. “Look at these tears,” says Hinn, peering into the child’s eyes. “William, baby, can you see me?”
Before more than 15,000 people in a Las Vegas arena, William nods. In a small voice, the boy says: “As soon as God healed me, I could see better.” Hinn, an arm wrapped around William, tells the audience that God has told him to pay the child’s medical expenses and education. People weep. Today William is still legally blind and says his sight never improved, and that his onstage comments were wishful thinking.
The woman’s little boy passed away not much later. I still think of them from time to time. I hope her difficult life was not made harsher through the experience of that “healing” ministry. I hope that it did not rob her of any comfort she and her husband and their boy had in his last days. I hope they have made peace with their God, and somehow found comfort in the midst of their tragedy.
Sitting back in his chair, Hinn shakes his head over how tough his job has become. He says being a pastor in the healing ministry is a profession he would never choose for himself, but he is called to it by God. “It’s not been a pleasant life,” Hinn says. “[People] think we’re in it for the money. They think that God doesn’t really heal, so these guys are just fooling the world. I’d be a fool to be in this for the money. If I did not believe God healed, I’d quit tomorrow and go get a job.”
When I was an older teenager, a Christian friend told me about some miraculous way in which all the characters of the Hebrew alphabet could be combined three-dimensionally to form an image of a flame. This was said to be an evidence of the supernatural origin of the Hebrew script, imparted by God to his chosen people. This was someone I looked up to a lot, and I was coming to believe much of what he told me about God and the spiritual / spirit-filled world.
This Hebrew character thing didn’t convince me that Christianity was true, nor was it presented that way. But at the same time, because I was coming to believe a lot of things I had not believed previously, I was willing to believe this to be true as well. And I certainly did ascribe to it some sort of supernatural miraculous nature.
I find it strange now that I believed it at face value. To this day I have never seen this alleged image. The story I believed was based on hearsay from someone I trusted, not knowing where they obtained their information from. I don’t doubt this person believed what he said, but looking back I realize he was not a very discerning person in general, at least in certain areas. Who knows, maybe he just misheard something.
Another reason I find it strange is that something like that would enhance my perception of the validity of Christianity. While it didn’t make me become a Christian, it did add some weight to the whole package of supernatural beliefs. If God were to give letters to his people, wouldn’t it seem fitting that it would be in an amazing supernatural way which would not be discovered until later times? Well, actually yes, that would be amazing!
But call me a skeptic, I don’t have any reason to find that story to be true today. It is unsubstantiated information. And also it is very easy for me to believe an artist could manipulate Hebrew characters into the shape of a flame. Or something like that. Believing it was supernatural was naive at best. Not that it couldn’t be supernatural, but I think the evidence would need to be more compelling to believe it to be true. I’ll write it off as the foolishness of youth, but this kind of thinking had deeper implications as my belief set changed into Christian faith. The way I evaluate information has changed a lot since I was a teenager.
For an “alternate” perspective on the origin of the Hebrew alphabet, click HERE. It seems to likely have been derived from Phoenician script, though that doesn’t disprove the miracle flame image theory! Does anyone else out there remember any strange beliefs they once held?
Had a conversation with an old friend today who is very concerned for my soul. He believes in a lot of miracles which are for today, so we can see God at work. A lot of people get healed, prophesies are fulfilled, the power of God is known in amazing ways, often in Africa, but other places too. You really only deny them as miracles if you do not want to believe them in the first place, which is Satan’s plan, if you understand the spiritual realm it’s pretty undeniable. Think Todd Bentley kind of stuff. I would have listened with a lot more credulity and interest when I was in college, which may have been the last time I listened to this kind of talk at any great length. I quickly remembered why it had been so long, and why I had been happier with a more concrete kind of conservative theology.
I’m not new to this stuff, didn’t need to create new filters to process it through. But it still wore me out. And there is no satisfaction to be had in trying to poke holes in the stories. All that would accomplish is confirming in the other person’s eyes that you are hardened to the truth and deceived. I thanked him for his concern for my soul. I would have enjoyed catching up on things instead of talking about the benefits of supernatural beliefs and eternal separation from God, but that’s just me.