Over the course of my thesis research over the last year or so, I have come across a lot of different reasons for doubting the existence of God. One major stumbling block for those who reject Christianity is those parts of the Bible which seem to justify actions that we consider to be culturally backward, confusing, and irrelevant or, even worse, immoral. And I think that most Christians, if they’re honest, will agree that there are parts of the Bible that they find baffling, frustrating, or, possibly, just plain offensive.
A friend and I were in Alberta for a speaking engagement this past weekend and one of the biblical figures we focused on in one session was Moses. Most people are fairly familiar with Moses and the cluster of stories in his life which are prominent components of our biblical imagination (scenes like the burning bush, the parting of the Red Sea, the receiving of the Ten Commandments, etc). One feature of Moses’ journey that is, perhaps, less well-known is the way in which he boldly interceded to God on behalf of his people when God seemed ready to wipe them out for their idolatry. Moses repeatedly calls on God to remember what he promised, to consider what the other nations would think, to turn away from his anger and show mercy (Ex. 32:9-14; 33:12-17).
Surprisingly, God relents. Moses’ courage and boldness appear to earn him God’s favour in a manner somewhat analogous to how Job’s blunt expressions of confusion and outrage at his misfortune led God to ultimately declare that he, and not his friends with their neat and tidy religious formulas explaining human suffering, had spoken rightly of God (Job 42:7-10). In both cases, confusion, ambiguity, and outrage were presented to God honestly and unapologetically. In both cases, it seems that God was less interested in human beings pretending that God’s actions and intentions were perfectly obvious, transparent, and morally praiseworthy from a human perspective than he was in an honest acknowledgment of the pain and offense that walking with him can and does cause.
I’ve been reading Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God over the last week or so. Here’s what he has to say about what to think when we come across a passage in Scripture that we find outrageous:
To stay away from Christianity because part of the Bible’s teaching is offensive to you assumes that if there is a God he wouldn’t have any views that upset you…. Now, what happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will? If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you? … Only if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle (as in a real friendship or marriage!) will you know that you have gotten hold of a real God and not a figment of your imagination.
In other words, one skeptical assumption worth challenging is that if God exists and chooses to reveal himself to human beings, he is obliged to do so in a way that will simply confirm and validate our (profoundly historically and culturally conditioned) conceptions of what is good, admirable, and admissible.
On one level, I don’t find this much easier to accept than an atheist or an agnostic. I don’t find the idea that my moral conceptions might not represent the last (or at least the best thus far!) word on the question of what God is like to be a particularly comforting or comfortable one. But if I take seriously the fact that human beings are finite and fallen creatures, whose only access to reality is profoundly shaped (in positive and negative ways) by a whole host of historical, cultural, and psychological factors, then it makes sense to say that my vantage point might not be the plumbline which these matters are adjudicated.
In one of my philosophy classes in university, a professor told the story of a friend of his who was a committed Christian and a celibate homosexual. When my professor asked his friend if he agreed with the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality, his friend said that he did not. This, my professor found truly baffling. How could he possibly choose to commit to a religious tradition when he was in such obvious disagreement with it on a matter as important as his sexual identity? His friend said that Christianity made sense of enough important elements of his experience, and that God had proven faithful enough over the years that he had learned to trust and yield to him when it came to matters that he disagreed with. His confusion and disagreement with God were preserved within the context of faith, and with the understanding that it is at least possible that human conceptions of what is right and wrong might require modification.
My professor obviously found this pretty difficult to stomach. What, after all, could be more important than being true to one’s own beliefs (or, more importantly, their sexual identity!)? If anything is sacred in our post-Christian Western culture it is the individual’s freedom to decide what is true and meaningful for themselves. Yet I got the sense that he had a deep respect for his friend, as well. His friend’s position was not inconsistent or absurd. It simply took seriously the fact that human beings don’t see the whole picture and exhibited a conviction that faith does not require us to sacrifice our honesty—before God or before each other.
I find that facing the implications of the inherent limitation of the human condition—even when it comes to our moral intuitions—it is somewhat liberating in a strange sort of way. I don’t have to pretend that I love everything in the Bible, nor do I have to pretend that God’s way of acting in the world makes obvious sense and demands nothing but my reflexive and unthinking praise. Whatever else may be going on in the stories of how Moses and Job related to God, it seems that one important lesson is that God is not put off by human doubt, anger—even offense—in response to their understanding of how he is working in the world.