Thursday, May 31, 2012


The mistake we make again and again is declaring an end to history. We think, My entire life has built to this moment, to my current understanding, and there is no future. I will never again be surprised, pleasantly or not. I will never again learn.

One of my lazy pleasures is re-reading books I first tackled when I was a child. Naturally, I now catch things that I didn't notice, or wasn't ready to grasp, until now. But it's almost brain-wrenching to think that I might come back in my sixties or seventies and spot bits that whooshed right over my head back when I was a clueless forty-two year old. Nevertheless, I'm sure I will, and doubtless more so with the Bible than with any other book.

This spring, I've found myself in more discussions with people who think that our consensus, authorized, "safe" account of what the Bible teaches cannot, must not, will never change in the slightest, than I ever would've seen coming. In the course of those discussions I've pointed out that for centuries, both the curse of Ham, and Ezra's command that the Israelites divorce their foreign wives, were cited as proof that God had instituted white supremacy. That was taught in seminaries and preached from respectable pulpits by giants of the faith. Then, when the time came, when our slowly accumulating understanding of the world flowed into the proper shape, God moved, and a tipping point was reached. Today we understand that the Bible never taught white supremacy or nonwhite inferiority. Its text didn't change in the slightest, but our understanding of it improved.

Another example, and one I hadn't considered until I read about it earlier this week: for endless stretches of time, it was unquestioned truth inside Christian teaching that the Jews as a people were rejected by God because of their collective guilt from Christ's unjust execution. People clung to this teaching despite Christ's pretty unambiguous words on the subject, and some still do to this day. For the most part, though, we've understood our error and moved on from it.

This is on my mind today because two recent graduates, of whom I'm inordinately fond, have recently been struggling a lot with their faith. One is struggling publicly, and the other quite privately. What I want so desperately to convey to them is that history hasn't ended, learning hasn't run its course, and it's not time to close the book on their faith. The Church has had to return to an unchanged Book and accept that we had outgrown our flawed understandings, just as surely as I revisit books I loved in my childhood years and measure my own growth against ink on a page that was the same before, during and after my encounter with it. In my teens and twenties, I had a long fallow period when I never cracked my Bible, and had a lot of cynical things to say about its teachings and reliability. After that ran its course, and my understanding had germinated and gestated to the precise degree of readiness, it got its second wind, and doctrines I found naïve and childish reasserted themselves as powerful and moving truths. They hadn't changed, but I had continued to grow.

I'm fairly confident that these kinds of discoveries lie ahead for these students, so I'm not too worried, so long as they don't develop an ego-attachment to their incomplete understandings. I'm pretty sure they're inquisitive and curious enough that that's a small risk. It's something that figures prominently in my prayers.

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