In what do you believe?
I am part of a small group, all of whom would self-identify as Christian, or at least participate in a Christian community. We have recently been engaged in extended conversations about what it is we believe. You might think that these beliefs would be self-evident. You might also think these beliefs would be the same for all of us.
When many of us were growing up, that might have been the case. Being a Christian required a clearly defined set of core beliefs. Added to those might be an emphasis here and there on Mary, a requirement of speaking in tongues or the occasional challenge to handle snakes. That core set of beliefs, though, all of us thought was immutable. What we did not have was a historical perspective that would allow us to see how recent some of those beliefs were and are.
For those among us who believe in science, the folks holding to a flat Earth understanding of our planet would exemplify a similar disconnect. While the best scientific thought before and even after Pythagorus, was brought to bear on the study of the planet, it was limited. Even so, people put great stock in the “knowledge” it produced. To many, that the Earth was flat was Truth. And because it was Truth, they believed in it.
Thank goodness, for the advancement of human knowledge, science is not locked in by texts the way some religions are. When the written word is purported to have come from God’s “mouth” to the writers’ ears a lot is required if questions are not to be shut down.
Then there is the issue of the constraining power of institutions. I am confident most scientists are grateful for the peer review of the American Academy of Whatever Field of Science Their Work Is In. There are, however, original thinkers who might be thought of as mavericks discontent with the extent of current knowledge. These are visionary scientists who can imagine what others simply can’t conceive. Some of these are men and women willing to buck the systems within which many of their peers contentedly plod along. They are often the ones who further, by leaps and bounds, what we know about the world.
Persons in the realm of religious studies deal with thoughts, concepts, and knowledge in their field in similar ways. Some push theological envelops, and some don’t. Some take into account new knowledge from archaeology, and some don’t. Some engage in robust academic conversation about scripture, and some don’t. This becomes particularly problematic when what is thought, written, or taught is attributed directly to God.
Most thinkers who bother to engage with matters that pertain to Christian faith are working within a system designed to perpetuate itself – the Church. Because of that, it is hard to find theologians who will speak differently about the Bible or God. Yet they are there.
Evolving and developing thoughts about God, biblical scripture, and what it means to be a Christian exist. It is an uphill battle, though, for these thoughts and concepts to make their way into the pews of our churches. It takes innovative and creative minds to think them in the first place. It also takes determined and courageous (or foolhardy) pastors to disseminate them. And unless all that effort gets squashed, it also takes the “faithful” who are willing to explore, to be open, and to consider change. When what a person has believed his or her whole life was taught as absolute truth, these “faithful” may be the biggest road block of all.
To believe in something is to put our trust in it. To trust in science, for thinking people, is to trust in an ever changing and expanding body of knowledge. It might be hard, but would it be so bad to trust in the same way in a changing and expanding way of thinking about God and scripture?
For us Christians, our relationship with Christ is the given. Might not all the rest of it be open to an evolving understanding?
Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or firstname.lastname@example.org.