Why Reason Must Stand Above Scripture
I was walking down the street with a homeless gay man. My college roommates and I had been letting him crash on our couch for a few weeks while he put his life together. We left my apartment and headed for the coffee shop down the street.
He walked with a limp.
It bothered me how slowly I had to walk in order for him to keep up with me. Finally I couldn’t take it any more. I was irritated.
“Sit down right here on the curb. I’m going to pray for you.”
I put my hand on his leg and commanded it to be healed in the name of Jesus.
“Get up. How does it feel?” I asked.
“It feels better!” he exclaimed. He started jumping up and down. He was immediately able to walk at regular speed, completely without a limp. He couldn’t believe what had just happened. For me, this was just normal Christianity.
We proceeded to walk to the coffee shop where we sipped our flavored coffees and inhaled the perfect aromas that wafted over to us from behind the counter. I counseled him that he needed to yield his life completely to God, give up homosexuality, and follow the Bible.
The Bible as Foundation
Through my 20s, my faith was grounded my personal experience that the power of the Bible is real. I saw miracles, received amazingly answered prayers, and had God reveal things to me that I couldn’t have known any other way.
Experientially, I knew the power of Christian faith was real.
If I encountered something in the Bible I disagreed with, I would yield my belief and conform to the Bible.
But I began to ask myself how did I know that it was true?
These Simple Questions Devastated My World
Couldn’t it be that lots of what we believe about God is wrong, but that God meets us where we are at anyway?
And couldn’t God meet other people in other religions where they were at too?
How did I know they were wrong just because I had seen miracles?
Those questions started to bother me. A lot.
I couldn’t seem to find any answers that satisfied me. If experience alone can’t prove the truth of the Bible, then there must be other good reasons for believing the Bible. But none of the reasons on offer seemed very compelling to me.
- You can look at fulfilled prophecy. But most of the prophecies in their original contexts seemed to be talking about something else.
- You can look at the historical accuracy of the Bible. But being historically accurate does not make something the Word of God. We have lots of history books which are historically accurate.
- You can look to the resurrection of Jesus. But I found that the evidence for the resurrection was not nearly as strong if I didn’t already have a reason for believing in it. And since belief in the Bible was the very question on the table, my previous reasons for believing were quickly evaporating.
I almost lost my faith.
How My Faith Was Saved
Then I encountered George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine. It reoriented my entire understanding of faith.
Drawing on the work of modern religious anthropologists like Clifford Geertz, Lindbeck observes that religions are social constructs which provide religious rules for the members of the community.
He compares doctrine to the grammatical rules of a language. Members of a religious community must be taught the “language” of the religion in order to function within the community.
He calls this a “cultural-linguistic” understanding of doctrine.
What struck me about Lindbeck’s proposal was that it was grounded in our best anthropological insights. In other words, it is very difficult to disagree with him without also completely ignoring a vast body of anthropological evidence. Religion may well be more than just a cultural-linguistic system, but it is certainly not less.
When I combined this insight with my experience of God, I came to see the Bible as a cultural-linguistic system that, regardless of whether it was true, it presented us with a covenant between God and humanity that God appears to honor.
Instead of functioning like a science or philosophy book, I began to see the Bible functioning more like the Constitution for the church. Whether it is “true” is much less important than whether we live by it.
But what if the Bible is wrong?
This new understanding of the Bible potentially placed every other religious community’s holy book on par with the Bible. After all, the Book of Mormon functions as the constitution for Mormons; the Qu’ran functions as the constitution for the Muslim community; and even Anton LeVey’s Satanic Bible functions as the constitution for a group of occultists. What sets the Bible apart?
As I thought about it, I had two realizations:
First, you don’t have to have all knowledge of every religious system in order to follow your own. You don’t have to know why another holy book is wrong, or even assume that it must be wrong, in order to follow your own holy book.
Second, a reasonable requirement of any holy book, whether theirs, mine, or someone else’s, was that it must not require its followers to do anything that is morally wrong. It can’t violate your conscience.
A Trial Case: Terrorism
The terrorists who flew the planes into the World Trade Center should have known better. It is self-evident.
They knew in their hearts that it was wrong.
If they had quieted themselves before God instead of submitting uncritically to their interpretation of their holy book and drowning out the voice of God, they would have had to acknowledge that what they were about to do was evil.
I will be the first to admit that placing conscience above scripture is far from being comprehensive or perfect. Our consciences are not always reliable guides. Just because our conscience isn’t warning us doesn’t mean that something is okay.
But the opposite is usually true: if your conscience is going off, it is a good bet that the thing in question is probably wrong.
So our conscience is the only internal guide we can have. If we don’t submit our scriptures to our consciences, what would prevent us from flying airplanes into buildings if we really believed our holy book said to do it?
The Man With a Limp
So finally I came to a place of peace with my faith. Regardless of whether the Bible is true, I came to believe that at the very least, God honors the covenant it offers. So long as it does not require me to do anything that is morally wrong, I can follow it with all my heart. I think it would be fair to challenge a Mormon, Muslim, or occultist to submit to this simple rule. Therefore I ought to be willing to submit to it also.
This whole ordeal had been the most difficult time I had ever gone through in my life until then, and I didn’t come through unchanged. Like Jacob, I had wrestled with God and came away with a own limp. Unlike my homeless friend, that limp didn’t get healed.
It was a limp that would set me up for another crisis of faith a few years later…