The summer after my Freshman year of High School I traveled with some friends to a camp in North Carolina. We’d been talking about Jesus and some things were just not adding up for me. “Really? God loves me? You’re actually going to try and tell me there’s some invisible being up there that cares about me?” These ideas didn’t seem to add up to what I was going through at that time. I had just made all these new friends and my parents dropped the bomb that we were moving to South Florida. So there’s a God that holds the universe in order and He love and cares about us…..but he’s taking me from what I love and care about? Nice try Christians but that idea just doesn’t line up with my reality. And if fact that idea pisses me off.
The camp gave us time to go and “be with God.” and so I went to basically give this “God” my true thoughts on the matter. “God if you really love me, if you really care about me, why are you taking me from the things that I love and care about? God if you really love me, if you really care about me, I need you to come down here and show it.”
I was pushed to the ground. A wave of some kind of force was flowing through me. And I heard a voice.
“I love you.”
“I love you.”
“I love you.”
It was the most frightening moment of my life. I was terrified; but not because I felt threatened. I was afraid because I had never felt so much power and love in my life. I was crying and I looked up into the night sky and saw a perfect constellation of a heart.
It sounds bizarre and maybe even a little cheesy, but it’s the most certain moment of my life. To this day I still am overwhelmed simply thinking about that night.
For obvious reasons this would forever inform my understanding of God. The angry judgmental God that delights in torturing people for eternity? Well, I’ve always struggled to buy that idea. The God that made people just to predestine them to hell? Well, that’s not the love and power that I experienced. That actually seems short of what I understand the truth to be. That actually challenges that moment in my life that I am most certain of. Because I was not led by that moment to believe that the power and love I experienced was just mine. I was led to believe it was for the entire creation.
My whole life, even to this day, I’ve been told, “don’t just trust your experience” when discussing ideas of God. While some caution is of benefit the attitude often suggests that truth can only be found in the scriptures. It suggests that your experience of the divine is not as trustworthy as the experiences of The Bible authors. That they, somehow, were playing by different rules than you. I do not agree with this idea and I’d like to spend some time explaining why.
The last month or so I’ve been greatly exploring these ideas through two authors, Richard Rohr (a Franciscan Catholic Mystic), and Peter Enns, author of “The Sin of Certainty: Why God desires our trust rather than our ‘correct’ beliefs.” They have greatly helped me put better words and clarity to ideas and conversations I have been having for years. Especially when people try to teach me Biblical inerrancy/infallibility or “revelation is closed” or whatever Reformed intellectual approach I’m rustled by this week. Now in the past I defended the very views I disliked because often times I was led to understand “Well, The Bible says…” I never liked the things I defended or really even thought they were true but I defended them because how dare I go up against a Holy book! What I slowly realized is that I was only defending some people’s idea of that Holy book rather than the book itself. It’s a big difference. One I hope to explain.
Let me give you an example that I currently am still wrestling: Do I believe that homosexuality is a sin? Now years ago I made a great effort to write what I thought to be a gentle and loving approach to the topic based on the biblical verses I was able to dig up. My factor was: yes, The Bible CLEARLY says that it is sexually immoral and so I should stand against it. And this of course is the same conclusion that many Christians came to and why there is much division between the community of those with same-sex attraction and the church.
But not the whole church. In the toxic P.R. mess of how many Christians handled that situation, many Christians saw things a different way.
See it’s super easy to criticize a person with same-sex attraction….until you meet one. And you see the people they love and the people that love them. When you’re surprisingly shown their humanity and what the divine is doing through them. What the divine is doing IN them. And somewhere somebody is probably typing in all caps “GOD ONLY LIVES IN THOSE WHO BELIEVE IN THE DEATH AND RESSURECTION OF HIS SON!” And that’s my point.
We, as Western Christians, are hard wired to defend rather than observe. But often observation shows us something that transcends our defenses. And this is where doubt comes in. Much like my opening story. “Yeah pastor, you’re telling me these things but…that ain’t happening in my life.” When our faith is about “knowing the right things” oftentimes observation shoots giant missiles at it. We start to think things like, “well that doesn’t seem right.” But if our immediate response is to go “well The Bible says THIS so…” we may not be allowing the space for God to actually speak to us. We might be blocking what God is actually saying with our idea (interpretation) of what God has already said. Paul taught us that we would be able to see as Christ sees. This doesn’t limit itself to mean “then you will have a correct lock on scripture.”
So Devon are you saying The Bible isn’t authoritative? No, I’m not saying that at all, but you may be missing what The Bible actually is and what even the authors of the scriptures did when experiencing things that poked at their doubts. (Just read many of the points and thoughts about God listed out through the Psalms. Many are far from safe and pretty.)
Here’s a point that should be very obvious. In a crusade against experience one misses that without experience there is no Bible. The Bible is a story about a thousand years in the making that captures many experiences of the divine from many different authors. Often times challenging the previously held ideas about God. (Ever heard of the New Testament?) Look at the stories of Peter and Paul.
In Acts 10, Peter has a vision of sheet falling out of the sky with “unclean” animals all over it. “A voice” (although it doesn’t say whose it’s probably okay to assume God’s) speaks to Peter and says “Get up Peter. Kill and eat!” Peter (knowing the numerous dietary laws) tells the voice he’s never eaten anything “impure or unclean.” Peter, in other words, has followed the scriptures. The voice replies “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
Now Peter is super confused because he’s had an experience that has taught him to do something that goes against the scripture he was raised with. The experience doesn’t just challenge what Peter can now eat but who Peter can associate with. As a Jew, Peter couldn’t associate with Gentiles because they were “unclean” they ate unclean animals and to associate with them or even enter their homes would stain your purity. Peter scripturally would have been right to deny this voice and obey the commands yes? But rather than having a faith of knowing the right things, Peter has a faith that trusts. Paul’s conversion story is very similar. He goes through likened struggles and understands that this message of God is not just for the clean Jews but for the Gentiles (non-Jews) as well. In Peter’s story he meets with the unclean people and says “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection.” What an interesting story in the Bible.
Rohr writes in his book “Everything Belongs” that: “The last experience of God is frequently the greatest obstacle to the next experience of God. We make an absolute out of it and use it to strengthen our ego, to self-aggrandize and self-congratulate. Then of course, nothing more happens. That’s why Jesus repeats the admonition to conversion. We need to be converted again and again. We aren’t born again. We’re born again and again and again. Accepting and acting upon that principle takes a lot of letting go. If we aren’t willing to move out of our comfort zone, it wont happen. All great spirituality is about letting go.”
Now with that the critical reader can easily say “See Devon, you need to see beyond your experience as well. Maybe you got it wrong.” Which is a great argument that I’ll have you know I’ve wrestled with for many years. I’ve tested it, observed it, compared it, let it breathe and I still conclude the truth of the experience and what it taught me as I write this post. Perhaps one day I will again transcend my current beliefs. Perhaps I’ll one day decide I was so incredibly wrong to write this and maybe you’ll one day think you were so terribly wrong to criticize it. What that teaches me is this; I think God is indeed more concerned with our trust than our correct beliefs. Less about me getting it right and figuring him out and more about me trusting where He’s taking me.
What Rohr is getting at is that we often mistake our ideas of God for God himself. Sometimes our doubts are God’s way of leading us to a greater understanding. Doubt may be God trying to lead you out of a limiting idea of who He is. If you are always super defensive of your idea of God, you may actually miss out on truth.
So what do you do when God tells you something that challenges your current understanding of God? Because you can be reckless with that. What do you do when a voice tells you “When you die everyone will be space monkeys so eat bananas to receive salvation.”
If you are coming up with an idea that has NEVER been thought before in the entire history of the church you should be very careful. But often times when talking about God and Jesus you will find there is great history and tradition of understanding a multitude of things from heaven and hell, to marriage, to baptism, to Jesus himself, there is a long tradition of experience and understanding. For the Jews it was called midrash, but we Christians (Protestants and Catholics-but Catholics less so) often times get carried away with the current understandings.
Take it back to homosexuality. For many of the churches that affirm same-sex relationships they went BACK to the source. They actually studied the Bible to come to their conclusion. They studied the traditions of what the Bible meant when it mentions “homosexual acts” rather than immediately defend without observation, they gave it time and observed it and wondered “Do we have it right?” Upon studying they learned that the specific practice that Paul was likely discussing was the raping of young men as worship to Roman gods and not clearly a condemnation of two committed people in a relationship. They discovered that Jesus never talked about it. And that the concept of same-sex attraction today is not exactly the idea discussed in the Bible. What they discovered was room for openness. That maybe it isn’t so clear. What they discovered was how to hold the topic with tension. Not with immediate finality of it being good or bad/in or out (dualistic thinking) but rather the third option of mystery and tension.
“I’m not saying we should be naive about evil and sin; there is a place for appropriate judgements. But first we have to find the freedom to love. We must first be free to say yes before we say no. Then we can make calm and appropriate judgements about good and evil.”-Everything Belongs
This is what people have discovered about ideas of heaven and hell. (There are people of God in The Bible who do not believe in afterlife.) There are traditions that believe our current ideas of Hell are more informed by “Dante’s Inferno” than they are the scriptures. (The greek word for “hell” is gehenna which is translated as “The Valley of Hinnom” –it was a literal valley outside the walls of the holy city of Jerusalem where people burnt their trash.)
Those examples are not to tell you what you SHOULD think or even what I think about those matters. All this is to say the clarity and certainty that is often idolized and defended has more room for conversation almost ALL of the time. Rohr simplifies his point this way: “Scripture as validated by experience, and experience as validated by tradition, are good scales for one’s spiritual worldview.” Chances are if you’re mad at my ideas of spirituality you are actually angry at a long tradition of people who have thought and observed similar things. I’m not saying anything new here.
I was inspired to write this after reading a meditation of “foundational authority” this morning. Here’s what it said and I’ll wrap up with this:
“Since the Reformation in the sixteenth century, much Christian infighting and misunderstanding has occurred over the Catholic and Orthodox emphasis on Tradition (which usually got confused with small cultural traditions) versus the new Protestant emphasis on Scripture, even “Scripture alone!” (Which gradually developed into each group choosing among the Scriptures it would emphasize and the ones it would ignore.)
Both currents have now shown their weakness, their blind spots, and their biases. They lacked the dynamic third principle of God Experience: personal experience that is processed and held accountable by both Scripture and Tradition, and by solid spiritual direction and counseling.
John the Baptist let his personal God experience trump both Scripture (which he hardly ever quotes directly and his own Tradition (which is why this son of priestly class had to move his own ritual down to the riverside). Jesus and Paul also clearly use and respect their own Scriptures and Jewish tradition, yet courageously interpret them both in light of their personal experience of God. There is an essential message here from our central biblical figures.”
The Bible is the word of God. It’s a thousand years of interpretations and experiences of God told through the times and events and cultures of it’s authors. The Bible itself illustrates a powerful tradition of trusting God even when rubbing up against the current ideas of God while not abandoning them either. It rather illustrates a beautiful tradition of transcending and including. We each have a word of God to share. It’s a living word. It’s why I trust the scriptures and the New Testament, “wait, people actually walked and talked with God?” I get to look in on their experiences with God and how they interpreted them and make sense of all that is happening in my world by learning how the church of the past has made sense of it as well. This Word is playing itself out in us and through us. Because Christ is this Word and Christ is IN us.
“The Word became flesh and made it’s dwelling among us.”
May we see the Word that dwells among us. Inviting us to see the new thing God is bringing into being.
For more about how God uses our doubts to draw us into a deeper faith read the seventh chapter of “The Sin of Certainty” by Peter Enns.
For more on “I was only defending some people’s idea of that Holy book rather than the book itself.” I also suggest by Peter Enns “The Bible Tells Me So: Why defending The Scriptures has made us unable to read them.”
For my “gentle and loving” approach to Homosexuality from years ago click here: https://devonbailey.com/2012/01/03/homosexuality/
For more on how to understand and engage with experience of the divine read “The Naked Now” and “Everything Belongs” by Richard Rohr.
For more on “transcending and including” read “Falling Upward” by Richard Rohr.