The fall of literalism in my life
Taking a cultural perspective to belief is a useful exercise. For me, it means that I am no longer bound to particulars. What matters now is the context in which experience arises.
Not too long ago, I would read the Bible as if it were God’s Word to me now, as if God were speaking to me through the text. In fact, that was the primary way I could know God and maintain the sense of relationship. I came to speak of and relate to God as one would a person, obviously through the creative use of imagination. This God-sense began at a youth concert, where I was so emotionally moved by the sermon that I experienced a shift in my focus. It was that ‘born again’ conversion experience that so many talk about. Thus began many years of my life as a devoted follower of Christ.
Fast-forward many years into the future, and I am listening to an interview with Emerging Church leader Brian McLaren discussing the metaphorical nature of hell. It was my first exposure to the idea of universal salvation. Suddenly, an entirely different paradigm came rushing in to shatter the foundation of my faith. If the message of the gospel as proclaimed within evangelical churches is that Christ saved me from hell, and hell is not real, what is left of the gospel? I felt disillusioned and immediately stopped attending church, whilst beginning to explore the alternative approaches to scripture. Over time, a lack of exposure to evangelical Christian church services and a range of books and podcasts would blast away any remaining hope that I had in a literal view of the Bible.
What then was I experiencing all these years, and what is it that holds so many people to continue in literal belief? Certainly, it was that sense of emotional connection to God, Jesus, and the concepts of salvation. Largely, it was the assurance of bliss in afterlife rather than eternal suffering. Brian McLaren’s attack on this aspect of afterlife was the key that unlocked the door of critical inquiry. When the Bible is believed to be God’s trusted Word, any form of questioning implies a lack of trust. If hell is only a metaphor, scripture itself cannot be taken literally seriously, and a faith based on literal truth crumbles.
You can’t blame anyone for taking a literal view. Literalism abounds in our culture, as we want simple and easy answers to complex problems. We leave little room for ambiguity, and this is reinforced daily through media. The problem with taking a western understanding of religious scripture is that it wasn’t written by western authors to western audiences! We place our judgment on the text without the dual understanding of the cultural complexities of the original culture and our culture. On one side, the non-believer takes an objective, scientific viewpoint, and labels the text as nonsense. On the other side, the believer pulls bits and pieces together to form a religious belief system that is unquestionably based on the absolute authority of divine authorship. Both polarities will never cease to be in conflict.
The main problem I can see with this way of seeing the issue is with the idea of trusting God – if we do believe in God, we need to equally believe that he/she/it would provide an authoritative text of belief. And then, what about our personal and corporate spiritual experiences which we see as authentic? I believe there was always some kind of cultural/naturalistic explanation for any of my experiences. At conversion, I was undergoing a very traumatic period in my teenage life. In the church, I experienced a kind of acceptance. At times I thought I heard the voice of God, but how can I differentiate that from my own inner voice? I experienced many ecstatic emotional experiences, primarily in meetings where the atmosphere was one of expectancy. I heard thousands of sermons, and each were constructed by morphing the worldview of the preacher with the scriptural subject being presented. This is how the prosperity gospel (health and wealth, name it and claim it) came into being, among other varied views. I can also imagine it as the source of denominational division.
Where does that leave God? Right now, I don’t know. I will go so far as to say that since I believe there is room for ambiguity and mystery, then there is also room for God, though not as I knew before. I would like to say that God is present, but I can’t say that with certainty. This is where I am, and that is fine.