Having elevated the Bible — or at least the nicer bits that they like — to the status of a magic book evangelicals have demoted God. Their “god” is trapped in a book and kept somewhat like a tame rat inside the cage of “biblical inerrancy.”
Since the evangelical/fundamentalists worship a book rather than God they can’t admit that the Bible has flaws and is just plain crazy in places. So they spend lifetimes working to make “sense” of something nonsensical, mean and stupid.
Why Bible idolatry is a particularly evangelical/fundamentalist blind spot is that, unlike earlier Christianity—at least in the more enlightened non-retributive threads of church history, evangelical/fundamentalist Protestants have forgotten and/or banished the idea that an oral tradition coexisted with the Bible within the life of the Church. They also have forgotten that some of the earliest Christians wrote that God is not to be defined or hedged in by Bible-derived “theology,” even by descriptions about him in the Bible. And evangelicals have subverted the teaching and life of Jesus because the idea that love trumps theology makes them nervous.
Love trumping theology is “why” I’ll be in my local Greek Orthodox church next Sunday with my grandchildren: Lucy age 4 and Jack age 2. Church is one of the places where my grandchildren can be lovingly swooped up.
“Swooping up” covers everything from being waved to by choir members, picked up and/or patted by a multitude of “little old ladies,” offered snacks during the service when we wander to the church hall where coffee hour is being set up and start munching early, and of course going to our eccentric Sunday school where a friendly chaos reigns that — thankfully — precludes most teaching.
This loving “swooping up” also changes brains by producing a sense of benign tribal belonging, in this case to a mostly benevolent tribe. It isn’t about correct belief, let alone if the Bible is “true” (whatever that means) but about the brain-changing effect of community and the humbling mystery of unconditional love experienced in the “ordinary” in a sacramental context.
This isn’t a theological concept to which you must assent. It’s as practical and measurable as doing dishes for 10 hours after the annual food festival fund raising event.
That’s where a “stranger” I’d seen around church but didn’t know became a friend as we worked together in 90-degree heat over a slop-filled sink. By the end of the evening, I’d told her more about myself and she’d told me more about herself than I would have thought possible, such as how embarrassed I was as a child victim of polio by having to wear an iron leg brace and how chagrined she was at having had 3 divorces. Somehow the context of working together for something bigger than either of us – sustaining our community – provided a free pass to sharing our inner selves. We did dishes and exchanged stories.
I’m not as nice as my fellow dishwasher probably thinks I am, but since I’m a pretty good listener she never knew that I started out our time together not very interested in our conversation and inwardly cursing myself for volunteering for the cleanup crew. But I acted the part and she bought the act. Then somewhere along the way, I stopped acting and became the part.
That’s been a pattern of Orthodox teaching: act right then get into the habit of actually being what you’re pretending to be. That is what the sacraments are: playacting at virtue until it is real to us and we “see” with inner eyes and perhaps encounter the divine.
There are never good reasons for major choices. In fact there are no “good reasons” for anything, including what churches we join or don’t. Life is short and we humans are only minimally evolved. So between too few years and too few brain cells we don’t have enough information to make any choice. A best guess is all any choice really is.
When it comes to buying household appliances I have reasonably good information. I can spend 10 minutes online and learn what washing machine to buy. But when it comes to the existence of God, what church to join, who to marry or where to live there’s never been a “good reason.” Life just happens. Grownups admit this. Only teens and theologians think they know anything.
Our universe is old and we are young. Given that our life span is more like a fruit flies’ than a planet’s we have to settle for best guess intuition not facts. But because other people ask us why we did thus or so we invent “reasons” in hindsight to “support” our guesses.
To believe something – rather than just stumbling into a malleable opinion — you’d have to have considered all the options. And that’s impossible. There’s always one more book to read. So what we actually mean by saying “I believe this or that” is “I think” or “I hope” or “ I’ve settled on this because my parents said so” or “I earn my living by being a pastor so I’m not about to question my creed” or “I have to believe this because my wife does” or “I need to hold on to something so I choose to believe this.”
What we never can honestly say is “I believe this because I know it is true. I know that because I’ve explored all other possibilities completely and lived every sort of life in every place and time, including the future and I’ve proven this is true. There are no other alternatives.”
Since we don’t like to admit that our mortality and primitive half-baked brains preclude fact-based certainties, we invent theologies both religious and secular that are closer to superstitions than facts. Then we assure ourselves and others that we have “good reasons” to believe this or that.
We say things like “I married the woman God led me to.” Anyone even minimally honest knows that what we really mean is: “Out of the tiny fraction of women I met I married Genie and things have worked out well so I like to dress this lucky break up by saying ‘God led me to Genie’ because that sounds better than saying, ‘I happened to meet her because she hadn’t yet listened to the Beatles’ album ‘Abby Road.’ I had the record and that’s how I lured her to my room, slept with her and 43 years later found myself with 3 children and 4 grandchildren and a life. But the fact is I never did get to sleep with all the other women in the world let alone buy them each a cup of coffee so I have no idea who else I could have been as happy with or even happier with.”
Which is a roundabout way to admit that I have no good reasons — other than grace — for why I’ve been going to my local Greek Orthodox church for the last 25 years or why I’ve been married to Genie for 42 years. That said here are some random hindsight self-justifying thoughts in no particular order of importance on what is less a “free will” choice about where I go to church than something to do with genetics, psychology and brain chemistry and where I happen to live and in what time.
Since the answer “I haven’t a clue” to the question “Why did you leave the evangelicals and join the Orthodox Church?” isn’t going to provide much satisfaction to readers I’ve come up with a few random reasons.
First, Mom and Dad conditioned me to feel guilty if I don’t go to church.
Second, these days I like church because I love taking my grandchildren and Orthodox liturgy is aesthetically pleasing: no guitars or histrionic preaching, lots of candles to light, incense to smell, things to kiss stuff to march around with in processions and no one cares if you arrive late.
Third, since I’m no longer a Protestant let alone an evangelical I’m working to get the ringing out of my ears caused by too many sermons and great liturgies reprogram my brain. This is something like moving from a Chicago winter to the Bahamas.
Fourth, I encounter God in the liturgy– or rather “encounter” the part of my brain that feels like its encountering God.
Fifth, anything religious that dresses up faith in the garb of mystery is a welcome break from the rationalistic absurd entirely circular Calvinistic “certainties” on which I was raised.
Sixth, in the Orthodox Church I’m free to pick and choose how I interpret our traditions since our worship is liturgy-based rather than theology-based. Theology is defined as prayer, not rules about belief because salvation is seen as a journey not a series of one time juridical events – in or out “salvation” experiences. Who you are, not what you believe is what’s important. In that sense you could be a “good Orthodox” and also an atheist– at least some of the time because doubt is not looked down on.
What the evangelical/fundamentalists (of the kind I used to be myself) rarely seem to admit is that by necessity fundamentalists also pick and choose what they believe. In that sense everyone is a liberal. Fundamentalists’ commitment to truth is as fluid as anyone’s. They just lie about it. Their claim of consistent belief in the Bible is two-faced. If fundamentalists didn’t pick and choose by omission if not by commission, they’d all be in jail— literally. Seen any adulterers stoned to death in a church lately? And if they all “believed in the Bible” there would be no denominational splits because the Holy Spirit” doesn’t lie (they say) and so all sincere Christians would be guided to the truth and agree on what the Bible “says.”
Above all the Bible-worshiping evangelicals have ignored the fact that – ACCORDING TO THEIR OWN THEOLOGY — there is a supreme lens through which to edit the meaner stupider bits of the Bible. Jesus is the lens.
If Jesus is God then Jesus has the right to contradict the very imperfect book in which he has the misfortune to have his biography trapped. Jesus transcends the book he’s trapped in. He does this because he is the perfect fulfillment of an imperfect human tradition. And the book in which his story is told is only enlightening when read retroactively through the eyes of Jesus. We need to read the Bible beginning from the gospel narrative not from the book of Genesis. If Jesus is Lord only reading the Bible backward starting with him makes sense.
Jesus does not “fit” any “biblical interpretation,” which makes the text less important than him. Jesus introduces the transforming possibility of nonviolence and forgiveness to our retributive primate way of being human that ensnares the rest of the Bible.
Until Jesus, the Bible is the story of retributive sacrifice to an angry “god” modeled on a pagan paradigm. Jesus ends sacrifice. Jesus is the opposite of a “substitutionary atonement.” He is the contradiction of human conceptions of justice projected on a “god” created by pagans and Jews in our own retributive image. This is where Jesus smashes “atonement theory.” Jesus’ death is an act of grace not the violent continuation sacrifice. Jesus’ death stops the sacrificial principle — the dark side of religion – forever.
If Jesus is the “Son of God” (as Bible thumpers claim but don’t seem to believe) then his “take” on the Bible and the “Law” must be our take. If we follow Jesus we have to copy him and therefore edit and reject the Law (i.e., portions of the Bible) as Jesus did. His teaching was essentially anti-Bible. In evangelical terminology Jesus was a “backsliding Jew.” He attacked the “Bible” of his day.
Jesus attacked the idea of salvation through correct belief. He attacked the idea that only Jews were “saved.” Jesus said that the Good Samaritan, today’s equivalent of a gay Hindu outsider crashing a Southern Baptist church supper, was the only one in his story doing God’s will thus “saved.” Jesus broke the biblical Sabbath laws. He thumbed his nose at the church of his day and the keepers of the Law. In another instance Jesus said that “The Law says… but rather I say…” and then repudiated the Law in in favor of the woman “taken in sin.” On the cross Jesus said “forgive them,” thus doing away with hell for evildoers.
Jesus died violently to confound violence. Thus Jesus is the ultimate paradox. He dies to end sacrifice and he repudiates parts of the very (yet to be organized and “completed”) book that will ultimately tell his own story. Jesus death didn’t result in some kind of retribution. It was the forgiveness expressed by God in the resurrected Jesus that collapsed all of his disciples’ Jewish theological ideas that dictated a retributive response on the part of God to sins. This is the Jesus “lens.”
Evagrius Ponticus summed up Jesus’ anti-Bible/Law anti-theology view exhorting us: “Do not define the Deity: for it is only of things which are made or are composite that there can be definitions.” A whole anti-theology train of thought came to be called apophatic theology, or the theology of not knowing, or negative theology. It speaks only about what may NOT be said about God. And given our fruit fly short lives, our limited brains and the need for humility this non-theology makes sense.
Don’t get me wrong: the Orthodox Church is full of nasty people from some of the Church Fathers to some evangelical converts today who are so sure they’ve found the “true church” and — like their evangelical counterparts — are today’s pharisees. They parade their certainties and exclude others.
But another thread also exists from the earliest times: a thread of hopeful uncertainty. And that humble “thread” is what I keep coming back to church for. And I experience this “thread” in the liturgy and community.
In that humble thread it’s impossible to separate Jesus from his followers. He chose to make himself known through those who follow him: the Church. There can be no objective, “historical Jesus,” only Jesus as the Church has experienced him.
The Jews of Jesus’ time rejected his message because they could not accept the “new” God Jesus proclaimed. If Jesus had said that God was retributive and that God would punish evildoers, then Jesus would have been saying the same things about God that many others had been saying. Jesus taught something else.
Jesus’ non-theology of love trumping retribution takes a mystical humble approach related to individual experiences of the divine through love shared and mercy given beyond ordinary perception. It teaches that the divine is ineffable, something that can be recognized only when it is felt, then remembered within the liturgical context of the ongoing witness of the people who follow Jesus. And therefore all descriptions of this sense will be false, because by definition the experience of God eludes description.
Apophatic descriptions of God acknowledge:
- That neither the existence of God nor nonexistence, as we understand these words in the material world, applies to God,
- That God is divinely simple and that one should never claim God is “one” or “three” or any “type” of being,
- That we can’t say that God is “wise,” because that implies knowledge of what wisdom is on a divine scale,
- That to say that God is “good” also limits God to what that word means in the context of human behavior.
Jesus’s life and teaching trump theological rules, let alone the Jewish/pagan juridical retributive sacrifice-based idea of God as an angry and disappointed judge. Hell doesn’t exist because Jesus the Son of God and the Creator himself said – even of his killers — “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”
The Christian communities that wrote the disparate texts we now call the “New Testament” did not preach a view of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. They preached Jesus. Jesus, his life, death and resurrection and ascension were the beginning, middle and end of all they thought and taught. These ideas preceded the text and these ideas trump the text today.
Some of the earliest Church Fathers — who themselves were partially responsible for the formation of the canon of the New Testament portion of what would (400 years later) become “The Bible” — believed that portions of “Old Testament” scriptures pointed to this apophatic anti-certainty anti-theology approach. God is said to reveal himself in a “still small voice.” And Jesus is revealed as a still small voice that exists independent of the “noise” of the Bronze Age retributive Jewish tribal angry God of mythology. Paul tries to liberate us from this Jewish/pagan angry God when he speaks of an “unknown God.” Tertullian said, “That which is infinite is known only to itself.” St. Cyril of Jerusalem says, “For we may not explain what God is but candidly confess that we have not exact knowledge concerning him.” Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, and Basil the Great spoke of God in apophatic terms.
This theological humility (a humility that recognizes our cognitive evolutionary limitations) might be called the humble thread that runs through Christianity parallel to the deadly we-know-it-all thread of theological hubris with its insane models of theology designed to “explain” God and/or justify his “anger” at sinners up to and including hell. And yes, this is very different from the idea of the “revelation of God’s character” through an “inspired” scripture, where God, as if writing a memoir dictated to scribes, “reveals” himself. And it stands in stark contrast to the major flaw of most theology that begins with abstract notions of God, filling out “divinity” with metaphysical terminology. For instance take the Westminster Confession where God is described with a series of adjectives and nouns rather than with reference to Jesus’ life-altering. In describing God there’s no mention of the final authoritative revelation of God in Jesus.
It is the harsher traditions that have provided us with the most splits. The more mystery-orientated Orthodox Church is less split than the more theologically inclined Western Church with its Reformation and all that followed. Nearly all evangelical groups have split at one time or another because one person decided he or she had a better, truer interpretation of some Bible passage regarding God’s revelation of himself through the Bible. And the result of these splits has been to replace the ancient Church with a series of personality cults built around pastors and others who are strong leaders.
So ironically those who point to the Bible as their sole base not only wind up worshiping the text rather than God but have retroactively joined the Jews who rejected Jesus’ message of love trumping the Law, and his “new” God. Protestants find themselves following the local interpreter of their text more in the role of groupies than worshipers of God — their version of “Pastor Bob” or whomever — who is said to be a “great Bible teacher.”
To reject the Bible in favor of following Jesus – who we mostly know about because of the Bible — is an ironic and extreme paradox. Then again paradox is the only way to describe all our conflicted ideas about the reality we’re trapped in beginning with our mortal brains that “illogically” long for immortality.
This quandary could be called the quantum theory of Bible study. To observe the experiment changes the result. To find Jesus is to edit “his” book. To find Jesus you have to transcend the text about Jesus.
Jesus never tells his followers that they should be more obedient to their Jewish tradition than they are. He’s always challenging them to move past their text’s received meaning and to look for a deeper more compassionate truth.
St. Maximos’s teaching about the Church and the Eucharist expresses the idea of accepting this “quantum” paradox. Maximos says that “lovers of God” are granted to see with inner eyes “the Word and God Himself,” in spite of — not because of — the Bible.
Maximos teaches that the soul is granted to “see the Word,” who leads it to the spiritual understanding that is “immaterial, simple, immutable, divine, free of all form and shape.” In other words the more you read about the Word the less you know the Word because the Word does not live in a book but is an actuality to be experienced. Truth is not to be found in writings about The Truth but only in The Truth within a living, not academic relationship. By canceling out the Jewish notion of God and removing retribution from the character of God, Jesus, for the first time in human history, opened up a new way, a new path.
Authentic spiritual apophatic experience is the exact opposite of intellectually organized theology of “fact” and “history.” And it is non-retributive. It admits the limits of certainty and therefore the limits of judging others as wrong or “not like us” and therefore not saved or not loved by God. And biblical “revelation”—just as is mother love— isn’t about books on the subject but is expressed in those moments of tenderness that transcend description and are seen with inner eyes.
In Jesus’ day, holiness codes of “correct belief” kept Jews from experiencing the full rich human community. They lived in separation from the “other” and the “unclean.” Likewise virtually every church today — including the more juridical and right wing and evangelical-influenced parts of the Orthodox Church — has some form of holiness code. It knows who is “wrong” so it “knows” how “right” it is. Likewise, it was paramount for the Jewish faith tradition that Jesus confounded to make clear distinctions between that which was holy and that which was profane. And Jesus courted disaster because of the way he showed extraordinary mercy to those who had been deemed “outside” the grace of God.
According to the humble apophatic tradition the goal of discipleship is not about making sure we behave so that God will accept us. It is rather about maintaining strong relationships with other people and through that action, through this “spiritual kiss,” as St. Maximos says, the soul comes to the Word of God, because it gathers to itself the words of salvation—in other words mercy and love. The declaration in the Liturgy “One is holy, one is Lord,” chanted by all the people, represents the gathering beyond understanding based on love rather than retribution.
According to Maximos, the distribution of the sacraments is participation in the divine life itself not about the divine life, “and in this way men and women also may be called gods by grace.” The call by the priest as he summons believers to partake of communion, “With fear of God, faith and love draw near,” indicates that salvation is a journey dependent not on “right thinking” but on love This form of worship is not to study about worship but to participate.
Judgment is not predicated on faith or lack of faith, on right doctrine or belief, the amount of holiness one has achieved or not. Jesus’ “judgment” is related to the way in which we relate to others.
Jesus said that those who judge others are in danger of judgment by God. Therefore if Jesus hates anything it is theology, as the word is usually understood. And to the extent that the experience of the Orthodox liturgy and the Orthodox community is about love and grace rather than false certainties I feel at home there– but then again I won’t live long enough to consider all the options, which is — perhaps — where faith enters in.