I am sometimes shaken by the words and actions of some of my Christian brothers and sisters.
Consider these few examples 1) Perhaps you will remember one of the infamous churches in Kansas which picketed U.S. Military bases after the declaration of “don’t ask, don’t tell” with signs declaring how much God hates “homosexuals”–except that they used a more derogatory term. (Corrected for accuracy-8/17/2020. ) In their smallness and anger they completely missed John 3:16. 2) I once had an older man in a congregation I served who constantly insulted and denied the dignity of people of color. I am ashamed to admit that a Moravian and a member of a church I served was a white supremacist but there it is. Needless to say, he was not a mental giant. When I told him that, at the very least, Jesus was a dark, dark man. He said, “You can’t fool me, I have seen pictures.” 3) The late Dr. Robert _________, Ph.D. was one of my favorite professors of the New Testament. It was he who first suggested to his classes–this back in the 1970’s that people did not choose their sexuality, and that homosexuals were better off in a committed relationship than in being forced into promiscuity by a church without understanding. Bob, an evangelical Methodist–who believed in the doctrine of “Biblical holiness,” was invited to preach at a small United Church in Canada that had Methodist roots. Bob forgot to take his English language translation of the Bible with him, so when he stood to preach, he used his Greek New Testament and made a free translation on the fly. He had not yet finished reading and translating when a man sitting on the front row got up and stormed out of the sanctuary. Later Bob learned that the man left because Bob had not read from the King James. The man had been heard to say that, “If the KJV was good enough for Jesus and Paul, it is good enough for me!” 4) I will advance a final example. When I was taking Clinical Pastoral Education at the University of Kentucky Medical Center, I viewed a film about snake-handlers in the Cumberland Mountains. I was shocked by their behavior. The snake-handling was bad enough but I could not believe it when the pastor started greeting all the young women in his congregation with “a holy kiss.” (Romans 16:16, etc.) That kiss was much more passionate than holy. I found myself finding it hard to believe that the congregation of snake-handlers were Christians just like me. Then I remembered Mark 16:16-18
16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.
Fortunately for me and unfortunately for the snake-handlers, this text dates much later than the remainder of Mark’s gospel. Scholars have long known that the original text of Mark was lost, or, perhaps, simply stopped at verse 16:8.
Admittedly these are extreme cases. Today, I don’t have to look quite so far to be embarrassed. I am embarrassed when my evangelical brothers and sisters deny scientific facts that are as plain as the noses on their faces—and the masks that are not. Somehow, evangelicals have bought into the idea that God allows the devil to lead us astray with rational thinking and scientific truth. Tragically, they think that the Bible and scientific truth are in conflict. They think that just believing a thing, and repeating it often enough makes it so.
That is a mistake. You can’t manufacture truth, and the Bible is not a scientific book. I am glad this is so because the truth of science is a moving target. If they have earned their way to graduation, high school graduates of today know more than the Ph.D.’s of the 18th and 19th centuries, and much, much more than the scientists of earlier centuries. Scientists know infinitely more.
I had at least two high-level physicists in congregations I served over the years. One still teaches at Wake Forest University. He very consciously choose the Moravian Church for him and his family. He particularly liked the hymn which declares:
May we all science and all truth, with eager minds explore,
Lead us alike in age and youth, Thy wisdom to explore.
The other was head of the anti-ballistic missile program at Kwajalein but is now deceased. His name was Mike. I will never forget Mike coming to me with a confession as he was about to join our church. “Worth,” he said, “I have tried, but I can’t make the Genesis stories of creation agree with my knowledge of science.”
I told him not to worry, and offered the following explanation.
“Mike, let’s suppose that you are writing a letter to another scientist. Could you assume a certain level of scientific knowledge and use your normal vocabulary?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Now let’s suppose that you are writing a letter to another scientist and his eight year old son. Could you assume the same level of scientific knowledge and use the same vocabulary?”
“No,” he said, “of course not. I would have to write to the level of the eight-year old son.”
“Well then,” I concluded, “there is your answer. The Bible was not written to scientists—and a scientifically savvy people, it was written to humankind in its childhood. God had to speak to humankind in such a way that human beings could understand the truths of the Bible when we were still children, in our thinking, knowing that when we had matured and learned more about our natural world, we could still appreciate those truths.”
I also pointed out to Mike that the creation story in Colossians says that God created “the visible and the invisible,” aka “the known and the unknown.”
That short. Conversation resulted in two long papers on faith and science. Mike wrote one, I wrote the other.
I recently told my son that I am embarrassed by some of the things that Christians do in the name of faith. I pointed out to him as I have pointed out to you that just believing a thing is so does not make it so. Only God can make a thing so.
He said, “Dad, you are different from the nuts. You are a reasonable, calculated person of faith.” I accepted the compliment, and I was very glad he could make it. However, I did offer a correction. “No,” I said, “we must be reasonable, ‘calculating’ people of faith. ‘Calculating,’ not ‘calculated,’ for we must constantly weigh the facts.”
The aforementioned Dr. Robert L_________ was my first professor of New Testament, and he made a lasting impression. When everyone in the seminary was talking about various theories of Biblical inspiration, Dr. Bob opined that the best course for beginners like us was simply “to trust Scripture, read it critically, and follow the truth about the text and in the text where it leads.” He said, “If we are afraid to test the truth of our faith, scientific or moral, it can’t be worth much.” Amen.
John Wesley the founder of Methodism laid down a rule for the early Methodist that Methodists still accept and follow. He said that the Christian had four sources of authority: 1) Scripture, 2) Tradition, 3) Reason and 4) Experience. Some people object and say, “No! Scripture only.” That cannot be for scripture itself advances the importance of tradition, reason and experience. Zinzendorf a leader of the Renewed Moravian Church had something to say about the Bible, too. He said, “It is a raggedy old book shot through and through with holes, but in it God speaks to humankind as nowhere else.” Zinzendorf also opined that all the essential doctrines of scripture could be written down on one eight inch by eight inch piece of paper.
Jesus was equally assertive. Jesus summed up all the law and the prophets—meaning all of the Scripture of his day, in the two great commandments. He said, “Love God with all the heart, mind, soul and strength; and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Matthew 22:34-40) And in Romans 13, St. Paul wrote:
8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
I pray for all Christians, and for all people. I pray that faith will always be reasonable and calculating, always testing and trying the truth of a thing, and the “spirits” that have advanced it to see if they are of God. I hope that I am not too big of embarrassment to those who look closely at me. I am a person of faith, but just as importantly, I am a seeker after truth. I like to think that I would follow that truth where it led—even if it led me away from faith. Only in taking this stand can I claim that my faith is legitimate, reasonable and calculating. Of course, I am not worried that I will have to sacrifice my faith. For I am a follower of him who said, said, “I am the truth.”