In the dim reaches of time (no, no dinosaurs, not that long ago) I was attending college, and right during registration for my second year, I heard the call of God to study biblical languages. The call is another story, but whether it was God or not, the idea of studying the languages fit with my personality and preconceptions.
The most important thing was to get “it” right, and “it” was whatever God had revealed. For me, this meant the Bible, and so what I needed was to go back to the original texts, a task I thought possible in those days. I also hoped to be independent, not looking to any human being to tell me what God had said, but rather to have discovered this for myself. I also thought this was an attainable goal.
More fool me.
In pursuit of this goal, I wanted to avoid the study of theology, because theology was separated from the Bible. Why study theologians when I could study the actual source? Why discuss theological ideas unless they were very directly rooted in the biblical text?
This attitude was based on my belief that God had provided a complete and final set of facts in the Bible, and that if I got these right, I would also be right with God. I had a certain amount of perfectionism in my make-up. I’d gone to a Christian school where papers were to be completed perfectly before a student went on. I’d memorized scripture there and then had to write it perfectly, including punctuation. That exercise complete, I had to record it, again perfectly.
I do not remember these things as chores. To me they seemed quite the proper way of going about one’s learning. Wrong wasn’t really an option. I was doubtless wrong many times, but I never believed I was wrong, so no problem!
Theologians, because they were arguing from theological premise to new conclusion, were certainly on the wrong track, because they would certainly never attain certainty. You needed to be absolutely right about God.
Certainty Evaporates in the Face of an Uncertain Text
I got pretty good with biblical languages, but I also had the bad taste to study textual criticism, and in that I discovered several things. First, I would never to absolutely certain of the biblical text. My textual criticism teacher made sure I understood that by having me create my own critical text based on the manuscript images available to me. Using a limited set of resources (this was before the internet and folks like CSNTM), I was unable to produce an absolutely certain text of half a dozen verses. Not even my determination was able to convince me that my goal of independently getting to the very root of scripture was attainable.
As I studied further into biblical criticism, I also found that even the idea of the original text was fraught with difficulties. Jeremiah comes in two versions. Daniel and Esther have additions. What would constitute the original text?
A Question of Goals
There are those who assume I left the church for a period of nearly 12 years because of these issues regarding the Bible. Many assume I went to a liberal seminary and was led astray. Neither of those things is true. I had plenty of teachers who tried to get me to get to know God, and most of my professors were quite conservative by any standard.
What happened to me was a failure to connect the data points I had about God with a knowledge of and experience of God. I knew a great deal about God. I knew God not at all. My worship life withered away in graduate school.
People told me what was going on. Lucille Knapp, who taught me Greek, would comment regularly about the literary beauty of passages. For graduation, she gave me a book of religious verse with a pointed suggestion that not everything was to be found in digging through the Greek. Alden Thompson, my advisor, regularly pointed to issues of devotion, of connecting to God and not just to stuff about God. In graduate school, my advisor Leona Running similarly pointed me to other things, while at the same time helping to satisfy my thirst for research about the data.
With the data in hand, I left the church. All churches.
In a post some months ago, Wanting to Be Right Theologically, I noted this pursuit of righteousness by correct theology. If we just get our beliefs right, we’ll be OK. But as important as our theology can be, this is just as much, or more of a burden than aiming work our way into favor with God. It doesn’t work.
Theology is important, but it’s importance is in the way it can help us relate to God, most importantly in realizing that letting God into our lives isn’t the end, but a new beginning.
Ramblings for the Coming Year
This is going to be my topic for a number of posts in the coming year.
I got started on making it a topic through working on the book by S. J. Hill, What’s God Really Like?: Unique Insights into His Fascinating Personality. As Stephen R. Crosby says in his endorsement of the book, “A robust theology of beauty is, and has been, conspicuously absent in much of western theology.”
Even when we get things technically right, when we realize that God’s grace is sufficient, we can end up with a dry faith, a boring faith, a rather sad faith. We can find ourselves saved by, and living by, the data. We can have a relationship with our theological beliefs, and not with the one we believe in.
I’m going to follow S. J. Hill’s book through, but I’m going to use many other books, primarily ones that I publish (I am a publisher, and this is what I do!), but also others. I can think off-hand of a range of books from my list, including most of our devotional category, that have helped to drive me in the direction of really enjoying God and seeing God as having a personality, and not just an entry in a theological dictionary. I’ll mention many of these books, but I’ll also be writing about my own experience and thinking and looking at the scriptures.
Join me in thinking about these things, and hopefully in experiencing a God of beauty.
I will be keeping books on a resource page here.