Category Archives: Faith

Lent 2016 summary

So… this is my first scheduled post in awhile. At this point of time I should (hopefully) be on a flight out of the country for the Easter long weekend – a little ironic that I’ve elected to take a vacation over this period, given that I’m supposed to be concentrating more on God; but that’s just the way it is with limited vacation days and opportunities to get away, I suppose.

Hopefully this entire faith-related blog series makes up for it! Perhaps I’d started it subconsciously with this weekend in mind, haha…

Well, I’d hoped to reflect more on my faith these few weeks and I’ve certainly managed to do that – at the same time, I don’t think all that much progress was made. I’ve ended up re-examining old doubts; doubt that have been around since my unofficial (re-)confirmation a decade ago, and even before that, truth be told.

To recap, this Lent I wrote on:

So I’ve ended up writing on a whole bunch of doubts – I’m in no way discounting the religion, there are just many things I’ve not figured out yet. If anyone reading this has any thoughts, I certainly welcome any discourse on any of the above topics!

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Who is this Paul anyway?

Probably_Valentin_de_Boulogne_-_Saint_Paul_Writing_His_Epistles_-_Google_Art_Project

This is a follow-up to the post on biblical canon, I suppose. I’ve always wondered about the place of Paul’s epistles in the Bible – why exactly are they there? My (simplistic) line of reasoning in questioning this is that the Old Testament was accepted by Jesus, and most of the New Testament is supposed to be a historical record of the time of Jesus and writings by his apostles – where does Paul fit into this? Sure, he writes rather detailed theology, but what separates him from any other author who does this, such as C. S. Lewis?

Even putting aside disputes over their authorship, the main reason Paul is in the Bible is that he is regarded as an apostle like the original twelve, albeit appointed by Jesus only after his (Jesus’s) death. His miraculous conversion was recorded in the Acts of the Apostles – written by Luke, an associate – perhaps disciple – of Paul’s. Peter (bona fide apostle – arguably Jesus’s appointed lieutenant) apparently referred to Paul’s writings as scripture – this point might have convinced me if not for the fact that the New Testament canon did not exist then and Peter was clearly not referring to the Hebrew bible (Old Testament), which would have been a closed canon then. Did he have another intended meaning for the original Greek word? Did he, perhaps, simply mean that they were useful for instruction, just as many of today’s bible commentaries are?

I am making a number of assumptions here, but in the absence of actual knowledge, I find it difficult to simply accept the veracity of all these claims, and the scriptural status of his letters – and in so doing (effectively) offer up my life to be guided by those writings.

Biblical Canon

Torah_and_jad

(I feel fairly certain that I’ve written on this matter before, but can’t seem to find it anywhere, so guess I’ll just churn out a 2016 edition this week…)

This is pretty much a continuation of the post on Sola Scriptura, where I explained why I don’t think it’s a good idea to lead your life solely by one’s interpretation of the Bible. Here, I step closer to heresy by elaborating on one reason why I’m not entirely convinced that the Bible is God’s inerrant message to mankind – biblical canon.

For those not so familiar with the development of the Christian biblical canon, here’s my summarised version:

  • The Old Testament comprises a bunch of books accepted as scripture during Jesus’s day (also ratified by the Jews as the Hebrew Bible). The assertion made is that Jesus had accepted these books as true, so we should do likewise.
  • The New Testament comprises books that were generally accepted as canon by various churches (this wasn’t really universal until sometime around the 4th-5th century (e.g. the Book of Revelation only became universally accepted around 419 AD).

Proponents of Sola Scriptura seem to like to gloss over the centuries of uncertainty and lack of universal agreement on biblical canon (which, incidentally, continues till this day), and the common belief seems to be that the canon had been fixed by apostles like Paul, Peter and John. That seems to me to be completely ignoring what had happened in practice, as well as the need for men to come together and make decisions on which books to keep and which to leave out. There are others who argue that this is merely part of God’s plan, that the internally consistent canon we have today is proof of His hand at work – but to me, this just shows that internal consistency was likely a criteria that men used in their decision-making.

For me, the greatest exemplification of this inconsistency that holds true even today is that of the Catholic and Protestant Old Testament canons – the Catholic version includes additional books viewed as canonical that Protestants do not share. Apparently, the Greek version was in common usage during Jesus’s day would have included these books, and the Catholic theory is that’s the version Jesus would have referred to as ‘scripture’. There are various other differences in canons among different Christian traditions, but to me this specific one is a simple example of a jarring difference between two rather sizeable groups of Christians.

If God was truly behind the selection of books to be included in the biblical canon, would there not be greater uniformity in its present state? Even if he was, and the variant forms are corruptions of his intended message, that is to me even more worrying – should I just take for granted that the version I am holding is the correct intended form?

There are other reasons I have for wondering about the inerrancy of the Bible, but the uncertainty about biblical canon is probably my biggest bugbear. So my personal stance is that the Bible is a useful document for understanding God (for Christians, it would probably be the first point of reference). But as something to be accepted as gospel truth? I need a little more convincing, for that.

(Intermission) On Job

So I’ve missed a week updating the series, and rather than totally miss a post, I thought I’d just publish something I’d recently shared via Facebook.

Misery – The New Yorker

Currently reading the Book of Job and this article reflects many of my own thoughts triggered in the process. Even putting claims of textual problems aside, I find its core message to be rather difficult to understand, stomach and accept.

Sola Scriptura

Gutenberg_Bible,_Lenox_Copy,_New_York_Public_Library,_2009._Pic_01

One of my biggest stumbling blocks is that I have great doubt about attempting to know God and his will through studying the Bible. Sola scriptura, the doctrine that the Bible is the supreme authority for this purpose, is pretty common among Protestants, and I’ve often heard other Christians quoting scripture and pointing to it as the answer for everything, but that’s something that’s never really resonated with me before.

I’m currently worshipping with a denomination that abides instead by prima scriptura, which makes greater allowance for other paths of knowing God. Still, scripture is meant to be at the centre of it, and at this point I don’t think I’m quite comfortable with that.

One reason for this is really in the reliance on human interpretation for this to happen. Even if you believe that the Bible is inerrant and reflects the entirety of God’s revelation to the human race, it relies on human interpretation for this revelation to take place, whether through the teachings of others or one’s own study of the text.

Take for instance the chapter on covering the head during worship:

On Covering the Head in Worship

I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head.But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.

A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.

13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.

1 Corinthians 11:2-16

This is a passage that is pretty well-known as being applicable to only a specific cultural context (and really, I personally find it hard to argue against that), a perspective I think the majority of modern Christians share (though some still abide by the exhortation for women to wear hats). Is there really anything in the text that explicitly states this, though? Not really – there is some reliance on knowledge of the context (that this is a letter written by Paul to a specific group of early Christians) and parsing of the content of the text (pertaining to the proper attire during spiritual acts) for the reader to arrive at that conclusion.

Isn’t that the case for other portions of the Bible? Wouldn’t active interpretation be needed when reading through any portion of the Bible? And wouldn’t this interpretation be susceptible to human error? The usual retort to this is that the Holy Spirit is meant to be the guide for this, and that scripture is meant to affirm itself (so you can cross-check other parts of the Bible to get the correct interpretation), but the wide range of interpretations that exist today give me pause and I am in no way confident enough to conclude that my interpretation of the Bible is the correct one, even if I feel guided by the Holy Spirit.

(I’ve even read interpretations regarding the controversial subject of homosexuality, for instance, that suggest that since Jesus never specifically referred to homosexual behaviour and that the Bible only refers to it in the Old Testament and in Paul’s letters, the passages against such behaviour were culture/time-specific and may not apply today. I feel pretty open to that interpretation – I think it’s plausible – but know plenty of Christians who would reject such a view.)

At the end of the day, from a practical perspective, I suppose the scripture is perhaps as authoritative a source of information as one can get regarding the Christian faith, so it’s still beneficial to attempt to study it. But when so many conflicting attitudes and stances can be derived from it, many of them harmful (in my view), I feel it is somewhat foolhardy to live your life entirely (or even primarily) by one’s interpretation of it.

The Great Commission

Christians_distribution

Let’s begin with what is probably the number one reason I consider myself to be “not a very Good Christian”.

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Matthew 28:18-20

So this is supposed to be like one of the main directives of the faith, and for various reasons (which I’ll probably expand on in future posts) I’ve found myself unable to really act upon it. At the heart of it, I suppose it is simply that I have too many doubts, or unresolved questions, about things; I’m currently at a stage where I am willing to try to abide by the faith on my own, but when it comes to pushing it to others, especially those who are practising their own faiths already, it becomes so much more difficult.

Can a non-evangelising Christian be a true Christian? Am I just a pretender here? I don’t know, and I suspect others’ opinions on this will vary. Not that it really matters; there is probably only one being’s opinion that matters here, and I have always been very bad in hearing His voice.

Lent2016

So Lent‘s begun, and I guess in line with the whole ‘giving up something for Lent’ practice, I’ll be attempting to tailor the next few weekly blog posts to fit the (rather dormant) ‘Faith‘ category of this blog. It’s not really a sacrifice, so it’s not technically fasting, but I guess it’s a dedication of time of sorts to God and examining my thoughts and faith (or lack thereof).

I’m really not a very Good Christian, so I highly doubt I’ll have six in-depth posts at the end of this, but hopefully this exercise will allow me to really think through some of what’s been bugging me since I’d decided to (re-)identify as a Christian.

On prayer

Feeling a little theologically confused.

In today’s sermon, my pastor spoke about how people typically have an imperfect understanding of prayer as a tool to persuade God to change his mind and act according to your desire. The story he raised as an example, Abraham’s intercession for Sodom, was used to highlight how repeated supplication did not serve to change God’s mind (Sodom was destroyed anyway), but instead helped Abraham accept the eventual fate of the city.

In a way, I agree with this interpretation of prayer – I’ve never understood why an omnipotent, omniscient being would need to listen to your requests before acting upon them, since such a being would already be aware of those requests and already have decided his own course of action in that matter – it seems to me that prayer is infinitely more useful as a tool for self-development. At the same time, however, I’m pretty sure this is not the general Christian perspective of prayer – surely there are reasons people believe in the power of prayer? Also, if prayer does not serve to influence God’s action, what is the point of intercession? Doesn’t I’ll pray for you on this matter become a most meaningless promise?

The Shack

Mack once told me that he used to speak his mind more freely in his younger years, but he admitted that most of such talk was a survival mechanism to cover his hurts; he often ended up spewing his pain on everyone around him. He says that he had a way of pointing out people’s faults and humiliating them while maintaining his own sense of false power and control. Not too endearing.

(From The Shack – this description’s perhaps a little too painfully familiar.)

I’ve been curious about the book for the longest time, but only got down to reading it today. While the premise seemed interesting enough, the writing style was just too dreary for me to endure. I attempted to quickly flip to the conversations between God and the protagonist, but even that was pretty much filled with simplistic un-biblical theology.

Not that I’ve really got anything against un-biblical theology, just that it wasn’t anything particularly impressive – if I’d wanted personally-crafted versions of the Christian theology, I’ve got plenty already.

All in all, I pretty much agree with John’s review of the book. Though there were some good bits, it was overall (from what I read) dull and rather lacklustre – I don’t quite understand how it’s achieved its tremendous sales figures. Although I suppose anything that gets people thinking about their faith (whatever they decide) is probably a good thing. I guess.

The problem of omniscience

But God had proceeded quite differently. He had devised a rule and then found a way of persuading someone to break it, merely in order to invent Punishment. He knew that Adam and Eve would become bored with perfection and would, sooner or later, test His patience. He set a trap, perhaps because He, Almighty God, was also bored with everything going so smoothly: if Eve had not eaten the apple, nothing of any interest would have happened in the last few billion years.

When the law was broken, God – the Omnipotent Judge – even pretended to pursue them, as if he did not already know every possible hiding place. With the angels looking on, amused by the game (life must have been very dreary for them since Lucifer left Heaven), he began to walk about the garden. Mari thought what a wonderful scene in a suspense movie that episode from the Bible would make: God’s footsteps, the couple exchanging frightened glances, the feet suddenly stopping by their hiding place.

‘Where art thou?’ asked God.

‘I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself,’ Adam replied, without knowing that by making this statement, he had confessed himself guilty of a crime.

So, by means of a simple trick, pretending not to know where Adam was nor why he had run away, God got what he wanted. Even so, in order to leave no doubts amongst the audience of angels who were intently watching the episode, he decided to go further.

‘Who told thee that thou was naked?’ said God, knowing that this question could have only one possible response: because I ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

With that question, God demonstrated to his angels that he was a just god, and that his condemnation of the couple was based on solid evidence. From then on, it wasn’t a matter of whether it was the woman’s fault or of their asking for forgiveness: God needed an example, so that no other being, earthly or heavenly, would ever again dare to go against his decisions.

God expelled the couple, and their children paid for the crime too (as still happens with the children of criminals) and thus the judiciary system was invented: the law, the transgressions of the law (no matter how illogical or absurd), judgement (in which the more experienced triumphs over the ingenuous) and punishment.

Veronika Decides to Die, Paulo Coelho

Coelho probably meant for this line of thought (by a former lawyer in his novel) to be primarily a humorous one (or maybe not), but these few paragraphs managed to stir up within me some curiosity on the nature of God. Now I know that from a Christian perspective, the nature of God is beyond mortal men to comprehend (and why not? I can’t even get my head around the dual nature of light), but that doesn’t really stop me from trying to use my limited human intellect to approach it (and coming up with rather heretical ideas in the process).

Does God really know everything that’s going to happen? Doesn’t that mean we have no true free will to speak of? Why does he allow such awful things to happen? Why does he, in the Bible, repeatedly make offers to us knowing that we’ll simply fail to meet the required standards? In my mind, the simple answer might be this – the omniscience is selective in nature.

Knowing everything before it happens would probably be extremely boring. This is of course a rather human point of view, but it’s the only one I know. Besides, we’re supposed to be made in his image anyway, so it might not be that much of a stretch to presume a similar psyche. The solution would thus be to not utilise the ability until required to, like somebody who follows a TV series but occasionally searches the internet for spoiler information.

Or maybe God’s more like a certain someone I know who actually reads up quite a bit on the TV series she follows, and often seems to have a pretty good idea of what’s to come. I don’t know for sure – I only know that if I were an omnipotent being with all eternity to enjoy the progress of the human race (as long as they don’t nuke themselves to death anyway), I’d only look at the script when making press releases (aka prophecies), or perhaps when making wagers with fellow immortals.