Monday, April 11, 2011

My Big 'Party of One' Bible Study

I feel like my tenuous connections to the Christian body are being chewed away. I belong to a wonderful community of believers and I participate wholeheartedly but I feel like something is missing. I'm hungry to go deeper, to study more, to challenge every last tenet of this religion but I'm hard-pressed to find anyone in real life who shares this hunger for truth. I'm not saying they aren't out there, but they certainly aren't very visible.

The community I belong to is filled with an amazingly diverse group of believers, our pastor is spiritually healthy (encourages questions, doesn't provide simple answers, continues to seek and grow himself) and I have formed many meaningful friendships yet I have a big spiritual need that remains untouched. I'm starting to think that if you want to research basic Christian principles or study the Bible you should avoid the church.

I want to tear open the text and rip into it like my life depends on it (and I'm told it does); I want to know not only what was said but also who it was addressed to and what their beliefs were; I want to avoid taking for granted that words like hell, salvation, grace, belief and resurrection mean what we've been taught. Instead let's study the people, consider the context, and research the original Greek or Hebrew words being used. But man, most Christians really don't want to talk about these things. Not only that, I'm feeling judged and discouraged as I travel this path. I can't begin to tell you how heartbroken I am about this. I'm hurt and I'm lonely.

I've asked these questions as an outsider and although I rarely found someone willing to seriously ponder the questions with me I at least felt it was okay to ask. But when I started calling myself a Christian and continued to ask questions the responses started to shift. I've been told I need to pray about these things, should trust the authority of the church, am on a slippery slope, etc. I've been reprimanded and unfriended. To tell you the truth I feel very unloved and unwanted if not completely ignored and irrelevant.

I've harboured deep doubts about sustitutionary atonement, questioned the teaching that homosexuality is sinful and been appalled at the blatant but seemingly ignored misogyny presented in scripture. When I call myself a Christian what am I telling the world about who I am? I have no idea anymore. In the few years that I've been on this path and expressed these concerns I've never once had a Christian say to me, 'let's get together and really explore this issue'.

I'm certain there are a wide variety of reasons people are disinterested. Perhaps they were raised by loving Christians and these beliefs have served them well; they trust the Bible as God's message to mankind and have never seriously considered an alternative perspective. (I'm guessing these people are usually younger and probably in the minority.) There are also those among us who do have concerns and questions but they trust that God (as revealed in scripture) knows best so they repress any doubts they may have. Maybe some of us believe that to question the Bible is a foothold for Satan or displays a lack of faith. Undoubtedly there are a few who have wrestled with their own questions long and hard and have now made peace with their beliefs; they feel no need to engage in the discussion any further.

I also think there are a lot of misconceptions about people like myself: that we are just trying to warp the Bible's message so it confirms our own (liberal) beliefs, that we want to have our cake and eat it too, that we are trying to eradicate our guilt or can't cope with the truth, that we think traditionalists are ignorant or dumb, that we are argumentative, that we have issues with authority.

Some of the above criticisms contain seeds of truth but they are not, independently or collectively, the driving force behind my questions. Let me ask you something which might better clarify my position: can a person be a Christian if they don't affirm the inspiration and authority of scripture? If your answer is no then you can strike me off your list of Christian friends. I can only speak from the truth of my experience and that is of a God who is so awesome and complex that no book can ever claim exclusive knowledge of or access to His divine presence.

The Bible does not define my relationship with God but that doesn't mean I throw the baby out with the bathwater. We have at our fingertips a collection of the most remarkable stories of man's encounters with the Supernatural dating back several thousand years. Is that not profound enough to make you want to cry? It's truly breathtaking. Not only that but in the New Testament we find what I consider to be the most incredible story to ever grace mankind: the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. This Prince of Peace came into the world to share God's love and surrender to His will. He showed us what it means to be fully human and in the process reconciled to the Divine. He bridged heaven and earth. He conquered the grave. And because of the gospels I can read all about the things He said and did.

So yes, I have a deep appreciation for the Bible but I don't believe God dictated or compiled it. What we read are God experiences as seen through the filters of the experiencer and/or author. This doesn't make it any less special but it certainly highlights the need to study the historical context and personal background of each author. This means we can't take every statement at face value; it requires study. This is especially true of the letters that compose most of the New Testament. This is the canon from which we base our beliefs and values as Christians yet we only have access to half the conversations.

If there is a prominent or relevent teaching in scripture that opposes the clear voice of God that speaks to me through His Holy Spirit, if I am told I must deny my intuition and suppress my love to submit to the authority of the church, if the God being presented to me requires emotional and mental gymnastics to reconcile all the contradictory messages then I want to challenge those teachings honestly. Not in a dismissive, that can't be right because I don't feel good about it kind of way, but in a way that looks at many sides of the issue with an open mind and good research.

And who knows, maybe one of these days I'll find someone who shares my enthusiasm.


D'Ma said...

I feel much the same way, though I even question the more progressive/liberal views out there. It isn't because I don't think there is value in it. It's because I've been deep in fundamentalism and I now question everything. Because just accepting the authority of scripture and the church without questioning it brought me to my current doubt. So even the progressive/liberals throw their hands up at me because I don't fit into a particular mold. :)

Sandra said...

OMG, Michelle, I swear we are living parallel inner lives! Did you read my post today?!? If we didn't live as absolutely far apart as it is possible to be in North America (okay, I could live in South Mexico, I guess), I would meet up with you every week and we could study this stuff till our eyeballs fell out!

But, like you, I have no one IRL to talk to. I mean, I have exactly two people who tolerate my rantings and ravings just because they really like ME but there is no intellectual give-and-take. Maybe we should leave our kiddos to their fathers and meet up in ... I dunno... Chicago? .... and talk ourselves silly.

(laughing because otherwise I'd cry)

jss said...

I have been in exactly the same place as you are. Bible study groups were useless. I was the only one asking questions and it was clear to me that the people in these groups with me were uncomfortable with my probing. It seemed to me that they were there not necessarily to probe deeper and find real answers but rather to show up and have someone tell them the answers.

I have a suggestion for you. You will find what you are looking for - albeit over the rest of your lifetime - by delving into your own psyche. Learn how to decipher your dreams, read about mythology and other religions. Jungian psychology offers a wealth of interesting study. Carl Jung was very interested in the ways in which psychology and spirituality intersected. Read about mysticism, not just Christian but all kinds. I promise you will find amazing parallels across all cultures. And if you can and are willing find a therapist who accepts spirituality as part of the process.

I promise you will find amazing stuff within your own inner being.

Like a Child said...

Beautiful. I too have not found people i can talk to regarding my questions and doubt IRL. It is terribly isolating. I don't know how many bible studies and small groups i have attended over a lifetime where i just felt crazy in my thoughts, suffocating as i repressed the doubts. I rarely asked many questions...i would test out the waters with one question, but feeling self-conscious and insecure, i stopped myself from asking more.

I am finding peace in letting go of the labels and accepting myself as i am. Getting to this point has been terribly difficult and i still waver and have my moments of anxiety, as will be expanded upon in my next two posts ( already written). I have also found a few friends from mainline churches whom i can share my uncertainty, without feeling judged. We can't talk theology, but there is healing in having a christian friend that doesn't expect or pressure you to believe. And as the pressure lifts, i find myself drawing closer to christianity, ironically.

Steve Douglas said...

Just found your site, Michelle, and I love what I've seen! Just reminding you that here's yet another who shares your enthusiasm. :-)

Anonymous said...

I think that a new movement in Christianity is about to begin. People like you Michelle are all around the world. I myself am from Romania and I feel the same way you do about so many things related to Christianity. The world has changed, we (Christians) might want to start doing the same.

Steven said...

Michelle, love your post. Maybe we should start a house group called "questioning christianity?"


Anonymous said...

To blindly follow is to walk blindly.
Every one at some point questions the Bible but you're the first person I know who wants to know what I want to know. I too want to go back to the time the letters were written and try to "be" in that time, in that context. I have asked questions and been given the same answers, tut tuts and comments only to come away hungrier.
Looks like Steve now has a group of 3.

Jerry said...

I read your post with great intrest, I think that it is essential to our understanding of Cristianity for us to question and search, the Psalms are full of questions, challenges and accusations, it would be foolish to think a person could not feel the same way today.

Context is important and your desire to understand the scripture in its historical context is important. With that said, I would like to offer both encouragmet to pursue your desire to get inside the heads of the orginal writers and hears of the bible, but also (I am going to offer a little critisism) you may find that this amazing book was advanced for its time, when you say that the bible is mysoginistic you are judging it from your 21st century perspective not its 1500 BCE to 100 ACE perpectives. I am sure that 200 years from now people will look back at us and see how retrograde we were.

Point of view is important, I would encurage you to look at how women were treted in other cultures and then decide how poorly women were treated for the time period in question.

One last thought, we are a very individualistic society, this was not the case for early christianity, the early church fathers belived that the only way to do theology was in paryer and worship as the body of Christ, don't be so quick to dismiss others who think that all scripture is God breathed and use for teaching...

God bless you in your search.

Sherry said...

I think many of us, questioning, believer or otherwise find it hard to find people who wish to share really hard questions and ideas. I have found that in the Episcopal church, "the liberal ones" that is, where they are always pushing the envelope in a progressive manner.

I'd be willing, to work on a group blog where we discuss things. Perhaps we can all bring our various opinions to bear and learn from each other.

Michelle said...

D'Ma have you ever listened to John Shelby Spong? He's a retired Bishop and many liberals find him too liberal. He's a wonderful author and speaker though. Podcasts galore available on iTunes and a few good talks on YouTube.

Sandra, I am often amazed to find myself thinking something and then read a post in your archives that expresses how I feel!

JSS can you recommend a good book by Jung to get me started? I'm reading my first book by Merton right now...

LAC, I often wonder how many silent sufferers there are in the church... how many of us are wrestling with same doubts and big questions but are too insecure to speak up. The few times I have put myself out there I was certainly hanging alone!

Thanks Steve!

David, I agree wholeheartedly. And hey, I've been to Romania once!

Steven that is an excellent idea!!!

Sweetlybroken, I'm excited, let's do it!

Jerry I agree that the roles of women were being raised out of the ashes by the NT gospels/letters but unless you really STUDY from a historical perspective that is hard to recognize. Which is why I think this type of study is so important.

As for the OT I can't see any of that; apart from a few stories that we've been quick to emphasize it's full of suspicion and hatred toward women.

Sherry I'd love to check out an Episcopal church. I am very fond of retired Bishop John Shelby Spong's teachings and he got me curious about the Episcopal church. AND wow, you must be reading my mind because I had been considering throwing out an invite to some fellow bloggers about creating an online Bible study of sorts where we throw out a topic and everyone has a chance to post their thoughts on the subject. That would be very cool!

jss said...

Boundaries of the Soul by June Singer. I think it's best to start a foray into Jung by reading something written by someone other than Jung himself. He can ramble and confuse sometimes and she does a nice job explaining his concepts. I would also recommend books on mythology by Joseph Campbell. He is an excellent complement to Jungian ideas.

That being said The Undiscovered Self by Jung is short and a good read.

Michelle said...

Thanks so much JSS I'll pick up any of those I can get my hands on at the library. I'm a little familiar with Joseph Campbell's work; I've not read anything yet but did seen him in an interview and found him/his work so intriguing.

Brianmpei said...

Well, I'm definitely interested in "tearing open the text". And I would happily say, "let's get together and really explore this issue..." on any "issue" that you like.

I responded to a facebook post re: your question on authority and inspiration of the text. I didn't realize it was YOUR question! There were followers of Jesus before there was a text so I think you're pretty safe there. Jesus first, then everything else.

I understand the discouragement. The truth is that there are a lot of people who just don't do well with questions that go past a certain point. About anything. And there are some who only ever ask questions and never honestly seek any answers, their "security" comes only in the asking and the secretly fear finding. But there are some who still seek and who still find. Don't give up! Keep Jesus at the centre and let everything else just be the extras.

So, when are we getting together to dig into these issues...?

Michelle said...

Thanks Brian, I was totally confident that you'd be up for a discussion on all these issues but it seemed a little unfair to rely on you so much! However, now that you've offered...

kristieinbc said...

I found your blog through the Naked Pastor blog. I am so glad I did! Keep asking the questions. There are lots of us out there who have our own set of questions. People who only have answers make me very nervous.

Greg & Debbie said...

I love this post Michelle and I think that modern "christianity" is in the mess it is precisely because noone ask questions or understands the historical context of Biblical writings or the personalities and intentions of the writers. Keep on keeping on girl. I also would be interested in a "learning" group.

Michelle said...

Absolutely. The stronger Christians I know are ones who have wrestled with big questions. Imagine how strong and healthy the church would be if the majority of us were people who continued to seek and not just skim the surface?


Heretics unite! LOL.