Recently I had a pleasant but confronting conversation with a person who had some family connection in her childhood with both Catholicism and Mormon faith and who claimed to believe in the Bible. This person knew lines from Scripture and she had an awareness of things specifically pertaining to sayings of both Jesus and Paul. She was informed but she chooses not to believe in the central claims of creedal/orthodox Christianity.
The conversation was meaningful and helpful for each as we discussed several specific issues.
It was particularly helpful for me as I continue to discern how non-believers think about Jesus and Christians and Christianity. And I hope the conversation was helpful for her as she continues to think about how her own framework for thinking about the issue of God/Theism will develop.
What was curious to me about the conversation, though – that I find curious about many conversations with people who have some history with Christianity – including persons who affirm Christian identity is this:
This mature woman had no idea I could cite to the chapter in the Bible (if not the verse) directly about the generic claims she sort of remembered. When I re-framed the larger context of some of the general statements she was “quoting” (mis-quoting really, but she was not stupid and had a sense of things) she was surprised when I opened up my Bible program on my computer to read the context of the passages she was mis-interpreting.
When I opened up my Bible program she said something like, “Wow. That’s cool. I mean . . . I guess I should have known the Bible can be on your computer . . . but, that makes sense. I hadn’t thought of that. It’s a book – it can be put on a computer. Cool.”
I have been using an integrative, complex bible software program on my computer for almost 20 years! I started reading the New Testament in its original language over 20 years ago! And I have had ability to read the Bible in English, Biblical Greek and Biblical Hebrew – and I have had (at other times in my life better) ability to read the Bible in German, French –and the Aramaic portions, in Aramaic! And I engage the Bible in some way – in significant ways most days – every-single-day-of-my-life. This person clearly is not *that* connected to the Bible – as the Bible has been on the ipad and mobile devices like the old Palm Pilots for – well, decades!
The gal with whom I was having this conversation had an operating premise – or so it seemed to me – that while I perhaps knew more about the Bible to cite it better than she . . . I sensed that she felt she had an equal and competent understanding of the Bible in order to know what or how Christians believe based on what the Bible says.
Her statements conveyed to me that she believed my knowledge and history with the Bible was not significantly enough more attuned and engaged and researched and deliberate that it should have any effect on shaping her understanding of the meaning of the Bible for Christians.
In the conversation, her tone (while gracious) and the context for engagement (while conversational) operated as if to suggest to me an attitude of, “That’s cool, Marty – what you know about the Bible is cool. But, of course, I know the Bible too. So, while I like you, I know the Bible too so I can have my own positions on what the Bible means.”
What is so odd to me about this conversation – and what it frames for issues of faith – stems from the radical, individualized, singular and arrogant sense of “private” and “personal” belief that has been enculturated within what I see as particularly and uniquely American- Protestant- Christianity (and not Catholicism nor Orthodox Christianity – in my limited experiences.)
I do not claim to *know* all that faith entails.
I am fully aware (all too fully aware) of the diverse interpretive options that emerge in a full-contextual (academically critical) reading of the Bible (in its various textual emendations/languages/nuance). And, I am fully aware of how faith traditions and denominations and creedal formations and faith communities have interpreted various issues over the centuries of Christendom. So, I am not claiming I know it all – nor am I claiming that belief and discernment of the Bible is simple and therefore someone needs me to understand it!
But . . . I do believe American-Protestant-Christians have extended the claims of important zealous Protestant-Martin-Luther in sola scriptura – to become something more like (and I don't know Latin) Solus ipse (“only onself”) or a kind of Biblical solipsism. American Protestant Christians do not believe, it seems to me that it is the Bible alone that is needed - but, they now believe "my" "sole" view of the Bible is all that is needed.
American-Protestant-Christian claims to belief, I think, are not carefully bounded by what Scripture says or how experts nuance and discern the complexity of scripture.
American-Protestant-Christians are concerned with how they (as autonomous, privatized individuals) *want* to read the Bible within their often radically uninformed, “personal” “belief” “system.” (I think of many persons who say things now like, “I am a spiritual Christian, but not a religious Christian.” Or, “I am Christian, but I don’t attend any Church, I read the Bible for myself.” Or, another conversation I had with a person who claimed to be a devout Christian who articulated some non-Biblical idea of, and I quote, “Vibrations” that shape our lives.)
I will grant that anyone can believe anything they want.
I am not opposed to this in the slightest. I have frequent contact with and important friendships with humanists, Unitarian universalists, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikh and others. I value the people I know who don’t believe – and who don’t believe as I do!
I am not afraid of people not believing.
I am not afraid of people that do not believe as I do.
I am afraid though – and find it utterly incomprehensible – how people claim to believe what the Bible means when they do not know what the Bible actually says (let alone understand the nuances of its historical, social, literary, grammatical contexts!)
When people have complex illness, they trust informed, educated health professionals – nurses and doctors to care for them.
When people are in complex forms of travel – be that automobiles or airlines – they trust engineers to safely construct the machinery and pilots, aviation control and conductors to safely guide the patterns of travel.
We don’t do our own orthodontia.
We don’t perform our own surgeries
We don’t build our own computers from the chip up!
We don’t disassemble and reassemble the entirety of our mobile devices when they fail.
We don’t construct our own refrigerators, air-conditioners, microwaves and the like!
We trust – in fact – that persons with years of experience and attentive expertise in these matters will think through these things correctly for us and create or perform tasks that inform our lives!
We trust others in so many things that are complex.
Why then, I wonder, do people who hardly read the Bible – who only occasionally hear its words in the context of a sermon – think that *they* know as much about the Bible as the persons (Theologians and Bible Scholars) who have spent their life attending to the Bible's nuance and complexity – discerning its beauty and integrity?
The bible is complex – in numerous ways.
I do not claim to *know* all there is to know about the Bible, God, Faith, and the like – but I certainly do not understand why American Protestant Christians, by in large, do not trust that I know at least some things significantly more than they know based on hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours of extended engagement and expertise.
This is a curious thing to me.