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Regaining my Freedom to Think

May 9, 2016

Good storytelling requires something called “willing suspension of disbelief”. When it works, we are transported to places that are impossible.  Yet somehow we believe, if only for the time we are reading or watching the story.  We see ourselves on a broomstick throwing the Quaffle or chasing the Snitch.  We sit in the wagon watching the endless prairie roll under our wheels with Jack the bulldog trotting in the shadow beneath us.  We hear the call, “The beacons are lit, Gondor calls for our aide” and we ride with Rohan to the great battle outside the walls of the White City. We are taken outside of ourselves for a time.  We escape reality for someplace else.

Yet there are times when we participate in a willing suspension of disbelief in ways that aren’t so innocent. There are places and times when we suspend belief in order to fit in, so as to remain within the boundaries of our tribe.  I’ve been recovering from just such a suspension of disbelief for some time now.

As a young Christian, I was caught up into a conservative evangelical Jesus movement church that viewed the bible as the center of faith. Everything we needed was found in the bible.  Anything that didn’t line up with the bible, as the leaders of my group understood it, was wrong.  More and more of my freedom to think for myself was curtailed as I became a dedicated follower.  We were given lists of acceptable books that had been vetted by the leaders of the church.  Conservatives were good, Liberals were bad. The bible was to be defended at all costs; when JEDP theory[1] was mentioned in a college English class on the Bible, we were equipped to defend Moses as the only author of the Pentateuch, and anyone saying otherwise was a heretic.  Slowly, bits and pieces of myself got locked away in order to fit in with those around me.[2]

As the child of a physics professor and a biology major, I had been raised on evolution, astronomy, archaeology, geology, dinosaurs, anthropology, and the discoveries of ancient humans by the Leakeys in the Olduvai gorge in Tanzania.  To fit in with my new found faith, I had to engage in willing suspension of disbelief as I was taught that God created the earth in a literal six days, that the bible was dictated by God and perfect in every way.  To question its accuracy in these matters was to risk my soul.

As I had children, I became a homeschooler.  Homeschooling at that time was one of the bastions of extreme conservative literalistic thinking, especially in regard to the sciences. Most curricula taught six day creation, some adhered to a young earth theory.  As pieces of my mind were being locked up, my soul was being eaten away, although I didn’t realize it.

Ironically, it was being involved with homeschooling, and witnessing the outworking of these extremely rigid beliefs that was instrumental in beginning to free me from this suspension of disbelief. I think it began with my one and only home school convention, where I actually had to see and experience some of the most extreme examples of things like the full quiver movement[3] that started to wake me up.  Freedom started to arrive with the discovery of  a home school curriculum that didn’t deny the demonstrable ancient age of the earth or try to reconcile dinosaurs and humans.  It was controversial in my cultural microcosm, but phew, a small piece of my mind back.

The next big break was some years later on the first day of VLI[4].  Two points were made that day that changed my way of understanding the bible.  The first was the idea that “All meaning is context dependent”.  Also phrased as “the bible can only mean what it ever meant” or it can’t mean something now that it didn’t mean to its original intended audience.   So, when looking at passages about women, slaves, or homosexuals, we need to understand what was intended by the original author, what that culture believed and how they behaved, how they would have understood what the author was saying and why.  We need to ask does it even apply today? How is our culture different? Do we know something today that wasn’t known then (because SCIENCE!) ?

The second point was in demonstration of the first. The professor described the first chapters of Genesis, where we see the six day creation story, as a polemic against the creation stories of the cultures around Israel rather than a historical record of creation. He then went on and enumerated a number of bible stories that have parallels in other cultures. I knew about this, I had taken a course on this in college, but had suspended belief in what I was being taught.  Life changing freedom granted.  I no longer had to hang my brain up at the door when entering church. (It made for some interesting conversations when people would invite me to visit the Creation Museum in Cincinnati!)

It is a continuing journey.  One that has accelerated over the last several years. It’s not always easy.  Not having all the answers can feel unsettling at times.  That’s where my relationship with Jesus comes in.  Since I have a real relationship with a real, communicating, loving person, I’m not going it alone. I no longer have to suspend belief in the hard sciences, sociology, psychology or philosophy. I don’t have to try to figure out the right answer from a book that, frankly, doesn’t address every single issue or question in life.  The best part? When I read the bible, I find so much life and wisdom there, without having to treat it like it’s going to contain all the answers. It equips me to think more deeply about my questions, it challenges the way I see and understand things. But it isn’t a rule book by which I must live my life.  I feel like I’ve regained my integrity as a person, which enables me to live out of who I am, not who someone else tells me I should be. By being able to see the bible for what it is: a collection of writings, written by many different people, telling the story of God in the ways that they experienced him, in all its inspired messy glory, I can embrace belief in both the bible and science. I no longer have to suspend belief in either direction.

 

 

 

[1] A theory that attributed the authorship of the first 5 books of the bible to multiple authors, signified by the different letters used, rather than Moses; also known as Wellhausen Hypothesis or Documentary Hypothesis.

[2] I should note that no one forced this on me. I was, however, very much a people pleaser, desperate to be accepted by the crowd around me.  Keeping controversial thoughts to myself and ultimately suppressing them was a means of self preservation in a group to which I very much wanted to belong.

[3] This movement teaches that women’s purpose is to keep the home and have children, that they are under the authority of their father until married, then under the authority of their husband; think Duggar family.

[4] Vineyard Leadership Institute, a 2 year ministry training program for the Vineyard movement.  Since renamed Vineyard Institute. I am grateful for the training I received there, even though I am no longer affiliated with the Vineyard movement.

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One Comment
  1. I am nodding my head to all of this. I feel the more I get to know God, the wider my understanding of Him becomes, and the more I start to challenge “what I’ve always thought.” If our faith and our understanding of God and ourselves isn’t growing and changing and deepening then what we are doing? Complacency is a very dangerous place to be. But the growing and the challenging can be a very scary place to be. I remember when I first started reading things written by people who loved the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength but maybe had some different thoughts about what that might look like than what I had been taught. I remember being scared I was going to fall into sin by reading their words. Hah. Looking back that seems so silly. As you pointed out, God is with me! Our relationship is forever! What seems even more silly is the image I had of God for so long, the assurance I had that these old white men had everything about the Bible figured out. I feel like I’ve set God free in my life to BE GOD, to be the I AM, rather than this figurehead that the Western church has created.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

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