Monday, November 30, 2009

Three Questions

I have three questions that I've been turning over in my mind lately.

Three interlocking questions.

First, why do we think that we've got the proper and true understanding of the Holy Bible nailed down?

Think about this for a moment. Throughout the Bible, we repeatedly encounter people who had well-developed expectations about what God was going to do for them. These folks were more often than not the people of God, the Israelites. This was true in the Old Testament, and it's true in the New Testament.

Abraham went where God instructed him to go, but he didn't get to see the Promised Land as an inhabitant, but only as a traveler.

Isaac and Jacob followed in this pattern. They were nomadic, and Jacob (Israel) only settled down when he followed his sons to Egypt. They still did not take the Promised Land as their own.

Hundreds of years later, the children of Israel lived in slavery to the Pharoah of Egypt, crying out for a deliverer. Moses was sent by God to be that liberator. Even so, shortly after being freed from the yoke of Egypt, the Israelites demanded that Moses' own brother make them a golden calf that they could worship. What were their expectations?

This fickle people was forced to wander in the Sinai wilderness for forty years until the whole generation had died, because they failed to take God at his word. Instead, they waited for what they thought they'd receive. Their expectations were wrong.

This whole pattern is repeated almost endlessly by generation after generation of the Jewish people. God persists in coming to their rescue, even as they turn their backs on him again and again. Their expectations keep them from actually seeing what he's doing, and what he expects of them.

Even in the New Testament, those closest to Jesus once again have erroneous expectations of what he's about. The Zealots think he's going to declare himself King, and restore the Davidic throne. Even his own disciples expect him to do something that they can imagine. And he frustrates them again and again, first by dying on the cross at the hands of the Romans, and then by rising on the third day, after the disciples had just about given up.

So, here's the point. If those closest to Jesus had erroneous expectations of what he was about, why do we, in the twenty-first century, think we're immune from the same error? What gives us the seeming arrogance to think this?

Here's the second question. If we can admit that we might have ideas about what Jesus requires of us as Christians that are not what Jesus intended, what does that imply for our own expectations and behavior?

For instance, some Christians believe that we're on the eve of the Last Days. In their minds, events are rapidly converging on the Final Judgment and the Second Coming.

Of course, Christians have believed they were in the End Times for the last two thousand years. Read the letters of Peter and Paul. Do you get the feeling that these apostles had doubts about the immediacy of Jesus' return, that maybe the time between his resurrection and his return might be longer than they had originally thought? Do you think they were the only ones to think that sort of thing? Really?

If we as Christians can consider that perhaps we're not going to see the Second Coming in our lifetimes, then what does this do for our attitudes and behavior regarding things like care for the environment, for example?

I can remember being on the sky deck of the Sears Tower in Chicago one night years ago and hearing a friend, looking out over the city lights stretched out to the horizon, say, quietly, "It's all gonna burn." I suspect he was having an apocalyptic vision, straight out of the "Left Behind" books. I wonder if he still feels that way today. All I can say is that I haven't heard anything so frightening in years, for a variety of reasons. There was almost a glee in that quiet voice, looking forward to a cleansing fire. The feeling of glee, of course, only applies if you're on the winning side.

And here's the point of that second question. If we admit that we might be wrong on some things about Bible interpretation, if we can be a little less certain about our ideas of God and what he's going to do, how does that affect our long-term view of life on this planet?

My final question is this, and it should be obvious by now. If we give up certainty about everything we believe, what does this say about our faith? Is our faith in our own infallibility to discern God's will, or in God himself, to guide us and correct us when we believe or behave wrongly?

I can't believe that I've got God and all his world figured out. I can't believe that anyone else, anyone who is human and finite in this life, anyway, does either. The arrogance of that attitude stinks of pride to me. And pride, as I've said before, and as I affirm again, was the first sin, and remains so to this day.