How much do tradition, upbringing and emotion affect our understanding of faith and interpretation of Scripture?
By Peter van der Burgt
(From the April - June 2017 issue of VOX.)
Following the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States, Oxford Dictionaries chose “post-truth” as the Word of the Year 2016. Post-truth is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. The concept of post-truth has been around for about a decade, but is considered to have influenced global politics for much longer. Undoubtedly the internet and social media are major contributors to this. It has never been easier to express a biased opinion or report biased news on a website, in a blog or in a tweet.
Looking at the great variety of positions on a variety of issues found on Christian websites, it is abundantly clear that post-truth is equally influencing global Christian thinking. Christians must have voted for opposite sides in both the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election.
However, instead of exploring post-truth in Christian decision making and on Christian websites, in this article I would like to recount a series of personal encounters I have had over the years with aspects of the Christian faith.
I grew up in the Netherlands in a Roman Catholic tradition but stopped going to church when I went to university. After I finished my university education, I took up a temporary contract at a university in North Carolina (USA), were I encountered Christians and came to know God. Not knowing anything about Protestant or evangelical churches, I followed a few friends to an Assemblies of God church, which was mildly Pentecostal and very welcoming. I was confronted with two issues I had not encountered before: speaking in tongues and recent creationism.
I don’t remember exactly the first time that I heard speaking in tongues. It must have sounded unintelligible. A good friend helpfully provided a copy of a book entitled God’s Gift of Tongues, written by a theologian who had graduated summa cum laude from one of the seminaries in the USA. This book defended the dispensationalist perspective that tongues have ceased. Another good friend was occasionally speaking in tongues during worship and there seemed to be nothing unnatural about it.
There is an ongoing debate in Christian circles about the validity of speaking in tongues and about whether it is a second blessing that is distinct from becoming born again. When after some years I prayed and told God that I was willing to accept this gift, the answer from the Holy Spirit was immediate: “You have everything you need.” So this gift is not for me, but it may be of relevance to others. Due to circumstances, over the years I have attended charismatic and traditional churches more or less alternately. On the wider issue of charismatic gifts, I have a feeling that these are overemphasised in some churches and unjustifiably ignored in others - post-truth in action.
In the church I attended in North Carolina, a university lecturer in biology was giving Sunday School classes on recent creationism, which I did not attend. I have always been interested in science. One of the first science books I bought as a teenager was about prehistoric animals. It gave an overview of evolution and the history of life on earth, a story that I have always found to be magnificent. At university I wanted to study geophysics, but I continued in physics because I didn’t want to work in the oil industry.
For me recent creationism is simply unbelievable. The first chapters of Genesis are unjustifiably read as a scientific textbook, perhaps as a consequence of the scientific culture that is permeating modern society, and every bit of science that contradicts this is vigorously dismissed as being invalid. I keep on running into Christians who believe that the earth is only thousands of years old, and I continue to be baffled by this.
The situation we find ourselves in now is that huge amounts of money are spent annually by well-meaning Christians in the promotion of a picture of the universe and the planet we live on that is contrary to what the great majority of scientists – including many Christians – are finding. If Christians are proclaiming that God is the Creator of the universe but cannot take into account the findings of modern science, then that proclamation completely loses its credibility.
Over the years, I have been going to Christian churches of different traditions or denominations, and have encountered widely different viewpoints on other issues as well. Examples are: physical healing, the role of women in the church, and dispensationalism versus kingdom theology. I do not have space here to explore these further. On each of these issues I find it difficult to take a definitive standpoint. These issues are often being claimed to be peripheral to the main Christian tenets of faith (the existence of God and the atonement of Christ), but they are key issues nonetheless.
Often Christians, and in particular church leaders and preachers, justify their stance by referring to the “inerrancy of Scripture.” However, if churches of different traditions or denominations hold different viewpoints, then errancy in the understanding of Scripture must have crept in somewhere along the line. A key question in this regard is whether God’s works (explored through science) can be allowed to inform or enhance our understanding of God’s Word. Positions taken are often influenced by the particular faith tradition that the person happens to have grown up in, and the sources of information that the person has access to and deems to be reliable. These can contain post-truth elements.
I have a picture in my mind of Christendom (the worldwide community of Christians in a post-truth era) as a large flat plane with a lot of big open holes in it. Each hole has a large number of people sitting in it, each of whom considers the walls of his/her hole as the boundary between truth and error. Every so often a person in any one of the holes raises his/her head above the rim of the hole, and points a reproachful finger to the people in a neighbouring hole, loudly proclaiming that they have completely misunderstood a particular aspect of the Word of God.
I am still wandering around on this plane and haven’t yet found a hole in the ground in which I would feel comfortable. I will probably never find such a hole. I am not sure whether the issues raised in this article could ever be resolved, but after all these years as a Christian I still very much feel like a stranger in a strange land.
Peter van der Burgt lectures in physics at Maynooth University, is involved with Christians in Science Ireland, and regularly hikes on Saturdays with the Irish Christian Hillwalking Club.