The God of the Bible is a defeated war god. He wipes out humanity (save Noah & Co.) in a great flood. He plagues Egypt, killing the first born of man and beast. And he directs Joshua and his successors to conquer the Holy Land with various acts of genocide ensuing.
But after the Assyrians and later the Babylonians subdue Israel—the latter carting God’s chosen people into exile—we see the prophets preaching that God is a God of justice and love for the least of these.
The gospels bring the message of loving not just your neighbors, but also your enemies, to full fruition. But, of course, the Bible ends with a sword wielding Christ ready to vanquish God’s enemies.
The Book of Revelation calls the message of loving your enemies into question. But the tension between faith and doubt is where I’m coming from, and I’ve stopped thinking it’s a tension I can resolve.
Write this down
Maybe the most popular belief about the Bible is that God dictated it to human secretaries. But not all Christians believe that. Even in the middle ages, the Catholic Church understood different ways to interpret scripture in addition to the literal perspective. There are allegorical, moral, and mystical perspectives too.
I don’t even know if God is real, or if so, what God is. St. Thomas Aquinas is famous for his five proofs of God’s existence, which don’t actually prove it. But the common theme is that you can’t have an infinite regress—there must be a starting point. And that starting point is not a thing that exists, but rather existence itself—”I am” in biblical terms. Twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich later summarized this by saying that God is “the ground of all being”—not a being but Being itself.
That’s pretty abstract. Perhaps another way of thinking about it is to point out that we see only the narrowest slice of existence, and even that is mediated by our senses and interpreted by our brains. In other words, we don’t see reality directly. So, what is the full picture of reality seen directly, not mediated by anything? God, for lack of a better word.
An interesting conversation
How do you describe the ineffable? Indirectly, with stories and metaphor. If God is real then the Bible could be the result a human attempt to understand divine inspiration, but with some of the misunderstandings we’d expect from flawed people.
Was God really a war god, or did the ancient Israelites just want him to be? Did the message of love really emerge as an afterthought, or did they only start to listen after they’d been laid low? Is the Book of Revelation really a literal prophecy of impending violence, or is it a warning of what human beings are capable of?
The Bible is a collection of books—73 if you’re Catholic or 66 if you’re Protestant—written over several centuries. It represents many genres—stories, histories, poems, sermons, letters. The Bible is a conversation, but too often people get hung up on how to correctly interpret it rather than engaging the conversational dynamic.
If God is existence rather than a thing that exists—but we are things that exist—then it makes sense to say there’s a spark of the divine in us all—our souls, if you like. But our fragmented existence is alienation. Atonement is at-one-ment, the antidote to alienation.
The idea that a man could be God incarnate, however, is too much to wrap my head around. Which is one reason why I was an atheist for 20 years. But the notion that Christianity must either be literally true or literally false is too simplistic.
I previously wrote about C.S. Lewis’s trichotomy that Jesus must be a liar, a loony, or Lord. I don’t like these options, though. I want to believe that Jesus was only a great moral teacher. But I think he claimed to be more than that.
So maybe it’s like this: incarnation means that Jesus wasn’t alienated from God, that he somehow, unlike anyone before or since, gave his followers unfiltered access to the divine.
I realize that’s a vague statement. You could ask all kinds of questions, which I can’t answer. But I don’t see a conflict between being an agnostic—a guy who doesn’t know, someone who has as much doubt as faith—and being someone who engages what fragile faith is there.