Sunday, March 09, 2008

What Motivates Us to Change Our Deeply Held Convictions?

One of the most difficult issues facing Christians in our post-modern era relates to the source(s) of authority and how we are to balance between competing values in coming to positions on controversial subjects.

Traditional evangelicals never tire of repeating, to the point of carping, the importance of the Bible (and time-tested consensus in the history of interpretation) in determining the “will of God.” Even self-avowed theological liberals typically mitigate (conservatives would say muddy) conclusions about biblical teaching by raising social, cultural, and historical reasons for contrary views. Few of them, Bishop Spong being a notable exception that proves the rule, actually come out “against” the Bible’s clear teaching per se. More often than not, they use the legerdemain of scholarship to “explain away” the uncomfortable seemingly plain biblical teachings.

Recently, however, I came across an unusually bald statement in favor of setting aside the “clear teaching” of scripture. Dr. Timothy Luke Johnson, R. W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Candler School of Theology and a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University, is straightforward about why he supports same-sex unions:

I think it is important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us.

Again, hear the words of Dr. Johnson:

Our situation vis-à-vis the authority of Scripture is not unlike that of abolitionists in nineteenth-century America. During the 1850s, arguments raged over the morality of slave-holding, and the exegesis of Scripture played a key role in those debates. The exegetical battles were one-sided: all abolitionists could point to was Galatians 3:28 and the Letter of Philemon, while slave owners had the rest of the Old and New Testaments, which gave every indication that slaveholding was a legitimate, indeed God-ordained social arrangement, one to which neither Moses nor Jesus nor Paul raised a fundamental objection. So how is it that now, in the early twenty-first century, the authority of the scriptural texts on slavery and the arguments made on their basis appear to all of us, without exception, as completely beside the point and deeply wrong?

The answer is that over time the human experience of slavery and its horror came home to the popular conscience-through personal testimony and direct personal contact, through fiction like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and, of course, through a great Civil War in which ghastly numbers of people gave their lives so that slaves could be seen not as property but as persons. As persons, they could be treated by the same law of love that governed relations among all Christians, and could therefore eventually also realize full civil rights within society. And once that experience of their full humanity and the evil of their bondage reached a stage of critical consciousness, this nation could neither turn back to the practice of slavery nor ever read the Bible in the same way again.

Many of us who stand for the full recognition of gay and lesbian persons within the Christian communion find ourselves in a position similar to that of the early abolitionists-and of the early advocates for women’s full and equal roles in church and society. We are fully aware of the weight of scriptural evidence pointing away from our position, yet place our trust in the power of the living God to reveal as powerfully through personal experience and testimony as through written texts. To justify this trust, we invoke the basic Pauline principle that the Spirit gives life but the letter kills (2 Corinthians 3:6). And if the letter of Scripture cannot find room for the activity of the living God in the transformation of human lives, then trust and obedience must be paid to the living God rather than to the words of Scripture.

OK, so now we have an "evangelical-friendly" scholar who has been a frequent contributor (and interviewee) in Chrisitanity Today explaining that we don't have to follow the Bible or nearly two millennia of Christian interpretation because we have another source of authority: experience. Wow! When pushed, he admits that this is not in accord with the “weight of scriptural evidence.” However, we "trust in the power of the living God to reveal as powerfully through personal experience and testimony as through the written texts."

What motivates a much lauded New Testament specialist, known for his critiques of the historical skepticism of the Jesus Seminar and for his defense of the historicity of biblical accounts, to reach such an unusual conclusion?

My long-held view is that “cognitive dissonance,” that very human desire to avoid the pain of disagreeing with those we love and the internal conflict it creates, often precipitates a crisis of faith when our experience does not agree with our political theory or theology. Dr. Bart Ehrman, another famous NT specialist, has moved from a Moody Bible Institute student to an agnostic professor at UNC and author of the recent book, God’s Problem. It it he tells of his struggle to resolve doubts about the existence of God after grapling with the ancient “problem of evil.” When cognitive dissonance comes face-to-face with existential angst, the results can be explosive and unpredictable.

For Dr. Johnson, the cause of his crisis of cognitive dissonance was more personal. He writes:

In my case, I trusted that God was at work in the life of one of my four daughters, who struggled against bigotry to claim her sexual identity as a lesbian. I trusted God was at work in the life she shares with her partner-a long-lasting and fruitful marriage dedicated to the care of others, and one that has borne fruit in a wonderful little girl who is among my and my wife’s dear grandchildren.

A prodigal son, reverses in the lives of daddy’s girl, a chronic and intractable spousal illness, and a host of other very personal crises often precipitate radical changes in long-held beliefs. I know of pastors who now reject a belief in hell, not because of the weight of biblical data or due to a convincing exegetical argument, but because of a rebellious child or a reluctant parent. As long as we walk around in these “earthen vessels,” we will continue to struggle with the intersection of immutable truth and our personal pain.

The wise ones tell us that pain should drive us to God afresh for grace to bear up under it. But, sometimes, the vice-like grip of pain seems to nurture in us an urge to opt out, to reconcile our view of God with our view of the world in ways that do violence to our trust in the Lord and in his revealed truth.

Cognitive dissonance as a driver of belief. What a concept! Imagine the “cognitive dissonance” of a sovereign and holy, yet loving, God dealing with you and me!