Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 3 of 3
UPDATE: Chapter two has now been posted in two parts. It starts here.
THE THEORY IN ACTION
This thinking of mine started many years ago as a result of the most amazing Sunday School lesson I ever had. It happened in 1991, when I was in the young adult group at the First Evangelical Free Church in Tucson, Arizona. Richard Ruiz, the only Democrat on our elder board, had been pressed into last-minute service, and he started by saying, "Today we're going to talk about Adam and Eve, and how God's law is different from man's law." Simple enough. Like most Sunday school lessons, this sounded like it didn't even need to be taught. We already knew that man's law was bad and crushing, and God's law was good and worth following. We had our Bibles open to Genesis before he had even finished his introduction.
"Now, you know the story. God creates Adam, and then tells him about the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. What does God say?"
Someone raised a hand. "Don't eat the fruit."
"Right." And then Mr. Ruiz said, "Now what does that mean?"
We were quiet. Wasn't it obvious? Richard didn't think so.
"What if he licks the fruit? Has he eaten it then? What if he bites into it, but then spits out the pieces? What if he swallows, but regurgitates it? What if he squeezes it into a glass and just drinks the juice?"
Some people laughed, and so did Richard, but he said, "It sounds silly, but I'm serious. I just want you to notice that there's an obvious point at which God's law has been broken--when Adam chews and swallows an entire fruit--but there's also a wide range of activities that God did not specifically define. There's a big gray area where God trusted Adam to act within his conscience.
"So now Eve gets created. And Adam passes on God's law. What does he tell her?"
"Don't eat the fruit," someone said.
"No! Look at the verse. It's down in chapter 3, where Eve's telling the snake the way she heard the rule: 'You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.' When Adam passed the word along, the rule changed from 'Don't eat the fruit' to 'Don't touch the fruit.' Do you see what's happened?"
"It's the same thing," someone said. "If you're eating the fruit, you're touching it."
"No. The difference is that touching is a discrete action. You can tell by looking whether or not someone is breaking the law. It's extremely easy to judge, and there's no gray area involved. Did she brush her arm against it? She touched the fruit. Did she trip and bump her head on it? She touched the fruit. When Adam passed the law on to Eve, he made his job a lot easier, by defining the sin in a way that minimized the number of interpretations he had to work through.
"But in the process, he also did something else. He told a lie and he misrepresented God. Immediately after she talks to the serpent, Eve takes the fruit to Adam. They eat, and then the scripture says, 'immediately their eyes were opened,' and the Fall occured. If touching the fruit was a sin, the Fall would have happened before she even made it back to Adam. The sin was eating the fruit, and touching it never mattered.
"And I submit to you that that is what human beings do all the time when they're given God's law. They turn around and make it harsher in order to make it easier to understand and follow. So whenever we're faced with a rule, we have to be sure to go back and ask, 'Is this what God originally intended, or has mankind been tampering with it?' Otherwise we'll wind up wasting time on issues that don't matter."
He went on to make other points, which I assume were about legalism, a popular topic in my church. When you're an evangelical, you're always kind of close to fundamentalism, so we spent a lot of time making sure we hadn't gone too far, assuring ourselves that we were right where they were wrong. Was dancing okay? Were R-rated movies? No doubt Richard was going to do the usual thing: distinguish between the real issues (love your neighbor, don't have sex, etc.) and these non-issues that mere humans construct. But I honestly don't remember anything else about that lesson. My own mind started playing with the implications of how he’d framed the argument in the first place; his rereading of Genesis. Could Richard be right? Was it possible that God is always giving his commandments with gray areas built in, and we're always trying to eliminate them?
Then I thought, "That's ridiculous! We all know that God has definite rules and he wants us to follow them. What else is religion if it's not a moral guide?"
And then I thought about Jesus, and I felt something like scales fall from my eyes. I suddenly remembered all the times that Jesus was asked a simple moral question by the Pharisees ("Who is my neighbor?" "What should we do with this adulterous woman?", "Should we pay taxes or not?") and he didn't provide the simple answer they were looking for. Instead, his responses wound up questioning the questioners and asking them to judge for themselves ("Who do you say was the neighbor?"). Wow! I thought. Suddenly I could understand why he had mercy on prostitutes and traitors, but hated the Pharisees with such great passion. After all, the Pharisees had rules for everything, from whether to heal on the sabbath, how much to tithe, which offering to deliver when. If you were a Pharisee, you could go your whole life and know exactly how to act in every situation and know God's stance on everything and...
...And then I looked around the room at my fellow evangelical Christians and almost gasped. My god, I thought. I am in the church of the Pharisees!
Suddenly it all made sense. I had always been a little bothered by the fact that my church had a tendency to deliver divine pronouncements on modern moral issues (such as genetic engineering) by appealing to verses in the Bible that were clearly not intended to answer these questions. Now I knew why: the Bible was being pressed into service to provide a solution. Everything we did needed to have an answer. But maybe that wasn't God's agenda! Maybe God was more interested in the process of facing the problem. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like God might actually be interested in challenging us with moral questions, and it seemed like my church was determined to assassinate every question before it could cause problems and doubts.
And then, the biggest shock of all: I suddenly felt alive and excited, as if my heart had been waiting for this for years. I didn’t even have words to explain it at the time. But the way I see it now, it’s because that up till then, I’d been living as if the religious life was a morality play with a tightly fixed script, and my purpose was learning how to knock the rough edges off my own performance in order to fit the perfect part. But now, it was like I had suddenly left the stage, burst out of the studio and became part of an actual, real adventure, where I was free to be myself, free to fail, and success wasn’t even guaranteed. That’s excitement! That’s adventure! And that, I propose, is what life’s supposed to be.
But the main reason most evangelicals never read things this way is twofold: first, because they take Genesis literally, as if the Adam and Eve story could have been filmed, and human life really did begin in the Tigris-Euphrates valley (where presumably an angel with a flaming sword is still hanging out). But second, it’s because most evangelicals believe in something called absolute depravity. This teaches, as I heard it, that human beings are so very corrupt that we can’t even judge right and wrong without the Bible to help us. What seems good to us might actually be evil. Without the Bible, we could go in exactly the wrong way, in complete ignorance of our own tragic trajectory! (Fortunately, of course, we have the Bible. But how piteous for all those poor regular humans who don’t!)
As I examined this new perception I’d just gained, I went over it carefully, looking for a weakness, and I realized to my shock that absolute depravity is not actually taught in the Bible. Not only that, but it should have been obvious to me and to everyone else for years! After all, if people can’t judge right and wrong, why did Jesus say, “Which of these was a good neighbor?” and assume that he’d get the right answer? What had happened, I realized, was that I had brought my own belief in absolute depravity to my reading of scripture, so that when I read in Romans, “There is none righteous; not one,” I read it as if it was saying, “…and that’s why we can’t even know right from wrong without the Bible’s help. It’s a sin-nature thing.” And that’s clearly not the sense of the passage. Where had I gotten this bad idea?
Many of the bad ideas of evangelical Christianity—like the infallibility of scripture—are ideas like this: presuppositions that rule the Christian’s thinking as if each one is a top ten teaching, but that the Bible itself, on careful examination, doesn’t actually support. Others—like hell—are a little trickier to deal with, but I think I can show that they’re also capable of being handled less destructively while still holding a respectful view of the Bible. In any event, that’s the point of the first part of this book: to glean exactly which ideas are the bad ones, where they come from, and how they can be fixed. But since many of our beliefs are formed before we even get close to a Bible in the first place, my job in the next chapter is to describe something that very few authors have attempted: what kinds of kids devout people are; where Bible-thumpers come from.
Click here to see the Next Chapter's 2-part excerpt