Tuesday, August 26, 2014

My Journey, Part 3: Questions multiply

This is part 3 of my rebooted series on my journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home

By late 2011, my senior year of college, the misconceptions that had grown into my Christian faith had borne their fruit and undermined ways in which I was "walking with God" that, in retrospect, I can see that I was largely just doing to conform to peoples' Christian expectations of me. The passionate worship, fascination with the latest releases from "Christian" bands, casting around of "Christian" terms I only dimly understood like "eternal perspective" and "casting vision", and especially the ground-level evangelism I saw a lot of in Cru began to fall by the wayside. I had never managed to connect these things to my active faith, and I found that my heart wasn't in them. Rather than dismissing this uneasiness and saying that the Christian life doesn't depend on feelings, I decided to start paying attention to things I did as a Christian that felt forced or unnatural. A great deal of what I did and talked about in relation to my Christian faith was disconnected from what I actually believed, and consequently less real to me; this was the fundamental realization I'd had in my small group.

So I decided to get off the Christian bandwagon (wasn't Christianity all about getting off the bandwagon and being 'countercultural' anyway?) and see what was left. I considered this an undesirable and temporary compromise. I still wanted to conform to the expectations of my Christian circles; I simply refused to do so blindly. I remember having this anxious sense of expectation for the one realization or teaching that would make it all 'click' and help me to be a content, intellectually fulfilled, actively-walking evangelical like my friends. My own belief in the 'gospel' was not in question. I believed it was the ultimate truth by which I was supposed to live, and if it didn't seem to connect with the evangelical expressions of faith I saw as normative, that was because of a deficiency in my own understanding of it. Once I became aware of the chasm between my internal and external faith, I wanted to correct whatever problems in my internal faith were keeping it from making sense so that I could live it out properly.

There were deficiencies in my internal faith, beyond anything I had imagined. The process by which God pointed them out to me and brought me past them would be much, much longer and harder than I expected.

In early 2012, I started having big doubts about God's character based on parts of the Bible I was reading. (Actually, the first such doubt happened in the infancy of my blog over the bizarre, troubling incident recounted in 1 Kings 13, but I don't think it continued to bother me) Right before I started my big series on God's providence (and partly fueling my desire to know more about it), a study on John Calvin's Institutes I was partaking in gave me some pretty big questions. Specifically, as Calvin was defending his view of God's sovereignty even over evil, he brought up two passages which immediately began to trouble me and give me doubts about God's essential moral qualities.

God's goodness

First, 2 Samuel 16:5-13 and 19:16-23. These passages are set during and after King David's struggle for the kingdom against his insurrectionist son, Absalom. David is fleeing Jerusalem after Absalom has staged a bloodless coup, when suddenly a man from the house of Saul named Shimei comes out and begins cursing David, throwing stones at him, and claiming that the coup is God's revenge on David for usurping Saul's place on the throne. Abi'shai, one of David's guards, offers to take off his head. David's response to him is what helped ignite my next crisis of faith (emphasis added):
But the king said, "What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeru'iah? If he is cursing because the LORD has said to him, 'Curse David,' who then shall say, 'Why have you done so?'" And David said to Abi'shai and to all his servants, "Behold, my own son seeks my life; how much more now may this Benjaminite! Let him alone, and let him curse; for the LORD has bidden him.
David seems to think that the Lord has told Shimei to curse him. Perhaps he is feeling regretful for his role in the downfall of Saul and his house. The problem is that later, after David reclaims the throne, Shimei comes to David to apologize and, in 19:19-20, says that he sinned by cursing David. Once I had put these two together, I could not undraw the conclusion:

God had told Shimei to curse David.

Shimei's cursing of David was sin.

God told Shimei to sin.

The tapestry of my understanding of God's goodness began to unravel. If God tells anyone to sin, He puts them in an impossible situation. They must either obey Him by sinning, or sin by disobeying Him. God telling someone to sin is the same as Him causing that person to sin. And if God causes anyone to sin, then His "righteous" anger against sin and claims to moral perfection become absurd, meaningless, a transparent fiction. This was not strictly a logical contradiction in the Bible; it was a moral contradiction. The Bible's teaching didn't undermine itself, but the supposedly 'biblical' image I had of God as morally perfect and worthy of worship. A God who causes people to sin and then 'justly' has wrath on them for sinning is not worthy of worship.

God's truthfulness

The second passage is 1 Kings 22, especially verses 19-23. Ahab, the king of Israel, is trying to convince Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah (this is after the division of the kingdom) to go to war with him against Syria. Jehoshaphat, being considerably more morally upright than Ahab, asks him to "inquire first for the word of the Lord". (22:5) So Ahab gathers four hundred of his prophets together, who tell him to "Go up; for the Lord will give it into the hand of the king." (v. 6) Jehoshaphat is unsatisfied by these yes-men and asks if there is another prophet they can ask, so Ahab summons Micaiah, but reluctantly, "for he never prophesies good concerning me, but evil." (v. 8) When summoned, Micaiah promises, "As the LORD lives, what the LORD says to me, that I will speak." Immediately after this, though, he seem to lie (or at least speak with deliberate sarcasm), pretending to agree with the other prophets, but Ahab realizes he isn't being serious and tells him to speak the truth. (Hadn't he just promised to do exactly that?) So Micaiah prophesies Ahab's downfall at the battle (v. 17), and supports this with a vision of heaven (v. 19-23, emphasis added):
I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the LORD said, 'Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?' And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, 'I will entice him.' And the LORD said to him, 'By what means?' And he said, 'I will go forth, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.' And he said, 'You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go forth and do so.' Now therefore behold, the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the LORD has spoken evil concerning you.
The excuse that God is not technically lying because He tells an agent to do so for Him wouldn't even hold up in a human courtroom. This passage completely flew in the face of verses that assert that God never lies (Num 23:19, Pro 30:5, Tts 1:2), and again it casts God's essential moral righteousness and trustworthiness in doubt. I blogged about my confusion in the interlude of my series on providence, concluding that God does not arbitrarily reject or lie to people but does so in response to our own rejection of Him, with the (seemingly contrary) intention to call us back to Him. In many ways it foresaw later conclusions I would come to, and it's one of my favorite posts I've written.

That troublesome Calvin...

Simply bringing these verses to my attention caused me considerable confusion and doubt, but Calvin made it even worse by "fearlessly" owning up to them, explaining that such is God's sovereignty that He actively uses evil to accomplish His purposes, which are beyond all human questioning or understanding.
The Christian, then, being most fully persuaded, that all things come to pass by the dispensation of God, and that nothing happens fortuitously, will always direct his eye to him as the principal cause of events, at the same time paying due regard to inferior causes in their own place. (Institutes 1.17.6)
So when David was assailed by Shimei with stones and curses, had he immediately fixed his eyes on the man, he would have urged his people to retaliate the injury; but perceiving that he acts not without an impulse from the Lord, he rather calms them. “So let him curse,” says he, “because the Lord has said unto him, Curse David.” (Institutes 1.17.8)
From other passages, in which God is said to draw or bend Satan himself, and all the reprobate, to his will, a more difficult question arises. For the carnal mind can scarcely comprehend how, when acting by their means, he contracts no taint from their impurity, nay, how, in a common operation, he is exempt from all guilt, and can justly condemn his own ministers. Hence a distinction has been invented between doing and permitting because to many it seemed altogether inexplicable how Satan and all the wicked are so under the hand and authority of God, that he directs their malice to whatever end he pleases, and employs their iniquities to execute his Judgments. The modesty of those who are thus alarmed at the appearance of absurdity might perhaps be excused, did they not endeavour to vindicate the justice of God from every semblance of stigma by defending an untruth. It seems absurd that man should be blinded by the will and command of God, and yet be forthwith punished for his blindness. Hence, recourse is had to the evasion that this is done only by the permission, and not also by the will of God. He himself, however, openly declaring that he does this, repudiates the evasion. That men do nothing save at the secret instigation of God, and do not discuss and deliberate on any thing but what he has previously decreed with himself and brings to pass by his secret direction, is proved by numberless clear passages of Scripture. (Institutes 1.18.1)
Therefore, whatever men or Satan himself devise, God holds the helm, and makes all their efforts contribute to the execution of his Judgments. God wills that the perfidious Ahab should be deceived; the devil offers his agency for that purpose, and is sent with a definite command to be a lying spirit in the mouth of all the prophets (1 Kings 22:20). If the blinding and infatuation of Ahab is a Judgment from God, the fiction of bare permission is at an end; for it would be ridiculous for a judge only to permit, and not also to decree, what he wishes to be done at the very time that he commits the execution of it to his ministers. (Institutes 1.18.1)
Despite my doubts, I knew beyond all uncertainty that I could never believe in Calvin's God—yet He seemed to be inescapably depicted in 2 Samuel 16 and 1 Kings 22. Even as I found 'logical' explanations for God's behavior in these verses, they felt unsatisfactory, as if I was simply explaining the Bible's words away rather than taking them seriously. And more doubts were soon to follow, especially as I started a biblical theology course at my church that would take me through the entire Bible.

The meta-question

As I read Genesis more critically as part of the course, I kept asking things like: Where did the other people in Genesis 4 come from? What is with all the bizarre, morally troubling side stories? If God 'remembers' someone, does that mean He'd forgotten them before? How did people become nations? What is Genesis about? And the questions didn't stop with Genesis; I began writing them down as I read them, and soon I had almost 30 such questions about my Old Testament reading, all adding to the cloud of doubt surrounding me. Even as I was able to deal with some of these (like swatting a seemingly endless cloud of flies), a higher-order, "meta-question" began to loom huge on my horizon. My journal entries speak for themselves (the various versions of the meta-question have emphasis added):
One of my biggest doubts about my faith is how much twisting of words it is founded on. [James Davison] Hunter wrote [in To Change the World] that God embodies a perfect connection between word and world, so why the linguistic acrobatics necessary to interpret the Bible? Why must I struggle with the Bible to establish its own knowability and truthfulness? (2012-9-14)
If the Bible really is true and consistent, why do we have to spend so much time and effort showing it to be so? (2012-9-19)
Do we also have to believe in the basic attributes of God, besides His existence, by faith—over and against counter-evidence from the Bible? My doubts are generally about God's moral attributes—things that make Him a “nice person”. … Is there something wrong with wanting God to be always compassionate, truthful, and just to everyone? ... More concisely, my doubt comes down to this: why does the Bible so often not say what it means? I've lost sight of the 'big picture' of the Bible that we keep emphasizing. All I see are a collection of tangentially-related stories. I seem to have lost the ability to screen out the evidence I dislike. (2012-9-20)
A year previous, I'd realized the disconnect between my internal and external faith. Now I was realizing a deeper disconnect between what I'd been told the Bible said (and how it said it) and what it actually seemed to say. When my class did address these kinds of questions and doubts, I often found the proposed solutions unhelpful. The focus of the class was deliberately on the "big picture", the story the Bible told, and strange verses here and there weren't about to get in the way of that. But I couldn't just brush aside what I was reading if it seemed to go against this big picture. I wrote:
I refuse to accept that God is less morally perfect than I can imagine. … I think what I dislike is 'interpreting' a difficult verse merely by explaining the larger picture it's supposed to fit into, with minimal attention paid to what the verse itself actually means. (2012-9-21)
I began to be dissatisfied with what I saw as the overconnectedness of the class' hermeneutic. By viewing Scripture as a single story that was supposed to be connected to a single center (Jesus), I felt that it failed to do justice to many (especially Old Testament) passages, reducing them to be "pointers" to Jesus even if it didn't seem feasible that they could have originally meant this. I thought that they should say something of value in their own right, in the context in which they were originally written, and not make sense only in a context imposed on them by our hermeneutic. By reading the Old Testament through the "lens" of Christ, we seemed to lose sight of how the original audience would have read it.

For example, did ancient Hebrews really understand the "protoevangelium" in Genesis 3 as a promise to send Jesus to defeat sin and Satan and rescue the creation from a metaphysical curse? Or did the people of Judah, upon hearing Isaiah 53, immediately begin waiting patiently for a future Messiah to come and take away their sins via penal substitutionary atonement? I couldn't see the value of the whole idea of "typology"; it seemed like an idle game of word association and arbitrarily finding connections that weren't intrinsic to the text. Though I didn't know what dispensationalism was at the time, I was pretty strongly learning towards a dispensational hermeneutic (especially in the emphasized part), seeking to defend the meaning of the Old Testament in its own context against what I saw as unjustified impositions from the New Testament.
Even if the 'protoevangelium' could be construed to have parallels with Jesus for us now, the Hebrews would have had no inkling of it then. We should only focus on what it meant back then; any extra perspective we have now is just an 'easter egg'—as if God described the curse with a wink. Maybe it is a symbol, but that isn't the point—the text itself is, not its role as a symbol. … It's like two different ways of reading the Bible—top-down or bottom-up. (2012-10-16)
I sought a more unified way to read the Bible, one that would help me to tie together the biblical story instead of multiplying my questions. Fortunately, this was pretty much the point of the class I was taking at my church. It called us to read all of the Bible in light of the gospel; the saving work of Jesus was supposed  to be the unifying principle in which all of God's words found their purpose. I was convinced of the truth of this gospel, and I thought that a renewed and expanded understanding of it might be the key to resolving my profusion of doubts.

Unfortunately, it was around this time that the gospel I'd been hearing for years also stopped making sense to me.

1 comment:

  1. You've officially captivated my attention, a lot of things about faithful skepticism resonate with me.:) DO quickly post up the rest of your story before I die of curiosity like the proverbial cat! I would really like to know where your thoughts are currently living because I would like to pay them a visit & have tea with them.