Saturday, December 17, 2011

David Marshall: "Is Jesus a Fundamentalist?"

For my write-up today on Chapter 6 of David Marshall’s Jesus and the Religions of Man (which is entitled “Is Jesus a Fundamentalist?”), I’ll use something that Marshall says on page 134:

“…the Bible picks what the modern world correctly perceives as the most difficult path: to submit to an unseen ‘Higher Power’ and allow him to remake me in his image rather than simply manufacturing a god to look like myself. To stick with one love for life, and close my eyes to the rest, yet to encourage a healthy passion within that union and look at the body with gratitude. To confront other believers when I have to, never merely tolerating or indulging a brother’s or sister’s weakness, yet also avoiding a judgmental or self-righteous spirit. To neither side-step my authority, nor to run from it. To act as a check on government, yet also submit to it, and keep my eye on another kingdom. To allow myself neither the respectability and good will that comes with saying all religions are equally true, nor the gratification of holding all other religions as equally false, nor of exploiting eternal truths as a means to realizing political truth or commercial gain. To forgive from the heart ‘up to seventy times seven,’ yet not sublimate anger into bitterness or gossip, or act like a wall flower, but honestly confront the person who has wronged you—-in love. To lose all fears in the fear of God. In each area of life, to ‘die to self’ without ‘acting like a martyr,’ and enjoy the resurrected life he brings even in this world. The Bible…shows a balance and a wisdom that sets it apart from human religions, including modern scientific ideologies, even as it incorporates insights that are perennial to humankind.”

I have a variety of reactions to this passage, both positive and negative.

Marshall’s statement that we should allow God to make us in his image rather than making him in our image is something that I have heard in a variety of conservative Christian settings. I was in a Bible study group a while back, and, when someone expressed problems he had with hell and the apparent gender discrimination in the writings of Paul (or deutero-Paul, which for the group members was Paul), we were told that we had to accept the Bible as it was. The group leader quoted Christian musician Rich Mullins, who had a song called “Creed”, which contained the line “I didn’t make it, but it is making me.”

I can understand embracing the Bible as it is, if the teaching of the Bible is indeed as Marshall presents: balanced and reasonable. Whether that balance and reason are due to divine inspiration or could have arisen through human means, I do not know. Perhaps it’s through a combination of the two. I can envision human beings arriving at the principle that we should forgive and yet confront in love, or that we should try to make the world a better place and yet refrain from becoming despotic. These are principles that work, for resentment, a failure to confront wrong, apathy, and despotism can have disastrous consequences for individuals and for communities, and I would not be surprised if human beings noticed that and recorded principles for themselves and for posterity. Even if the biblical authors were unique in this, they could have arrived at those principles on their own. Whether they were unique, that is tough to say. Marshall acknowledges that there are insights that are “perennial to humankind”, and the Bible shares those with other cultures. Biblical authors, in some areas, may have carried those insights further than others did, as well as arrived at new and revolutionary thoughts. It does happen.

Does that prove, however, that the entire package of evangelical Christianity is divinely-inspired, and that we have to accept all of it to avoid going to hell? The Bible also has teachings that can strike evangelicals as unfair, which is why there are conservative Christian apologists who have tried to explain them away (i.e., God punishing children for the sins of their parents). While Marshall does well to highlight a balance in certain biblical teachings that are conducive to a healthy outlook and lifestyle, there are also doctrines in the Bible that can also put people in a tail-spin. I think of the doctrine of hell, for instance. If I had to go back to believing that I or people around me were going to hell—-just because we struggled to believe in certain doctrines and to produce spiritual fruit that supposedly is a sign that we are truly saved—-then I would lose my mind.

I also don’t think that the only choice before me is to accept the entire Bible, or to make a God in my own image. I plead guilty that my approach nowadays is rather “pick-and-choose”. But that does not mean that I envision God as like me. Of course, my image of God (and all theists have one, even fundamentalists who claim that they are getting theirs from the Bible) is more loving and compassionate and patient than I am. My God does not hate those whom I hate. But my God also does not ditch me when I struggle with hate or other sins, as one can interpret certain passages in the Bible as saying (i.e., God won’t forgive me if I don’t forgive others; don’t hinder your own prayers; if you regard iniquity in your heart, God will not listen, etc.). In a sense, I overlap with evangelicals, many of whom also believe in a God of unconditional love. The difference between them and me is that they believe this God is in the Bible, whereas I have more difficulty finding that, and I feel that they often downplay, explain away, or even ignore the hard passages.

I’ll use Marshall as an example, even though I give him credit for often wrestling with tough issues. On page 116, Marshall talks about II Samuel 7, in which David wants to build God a house, but God instead declares that he will build David a house. Marshall speaks beautifully about this passage, and I have heard wonderful sermons about it from other preachers, such as Tim Keller. In a sense, it is a revolutionary passage, for many kings in the ancient Near East were expected to build a house for a god. And Marshall sees in II Samuel 7 the principle that “The essence of Christian love is not that we love God, but that he loves us.” But Marshall and many preachers do not address v 15, where God affirms that he will not take away his love from David, as God did for Saul. That disturbs me. How can I trust that God is unconditionally loving, when he removed his love from Saul? I realize that a huge part of the issue is that God did not affirm Saul’s right to be king, but the way that II Samuel 7:15 is phrased has long bothered me. But God did seem to show love to Saul at some points, even after God rejected him: David playing the harp soothed Saul, David followed God’s principles in not killing Saul, etc.

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