“Simple Trusting Faith” — Is It Enough?
Those of you who teach, or have taught, know that there are certain advantages in having a class move out at the end of the semester or the year so that everyone is new when you start over. Imagine having half the class stay on while the other half is brand new, so that when the new ones ask certain questions the old ones are saying, “We’ve heard that already!” I remind you this morning that a church audience is always made up of those who’ve been around for quite a while and those who are new and eager to hear things discussed which are old hat to others. This occurs to me because I’ve been asked to talk about something I’ve touched on in many different ways through the years, but never in the presence of those who asked me to do it this morning. I’ve tried to find something novel here and there, even for those of you who know my views very well.
Several years ago a friend of mine was touring Palestine with a group of people who felt very fortunate to have a recognized Bible scholar from the Yale Divinity School as their guide. One morning in Jerusalem they set out to tour the city, and as they came near the place identified for tourists as the location of the Last Supper, they crowded in behind a group of Southern Baptists who were traveling with their local pastor. They could hear his lecture. “Now, folks, here we are standing in the Upper Room where our Lord broke bread with his disciples. This is the very chamber in which they sat. Judas was here, thinking about betraying him, and John was leaning on his shoulder. We can feel his holy presence in this sacred spot.” The listening faces were awed and deeply respectful.
As that group moved on, and my friend’s group moved into the room, their professor-guide spoke quietly to them. He said, “Well, folks, the fact is that the location of places like this is pure guesswork.” He explained the city’s turbulent history, and how impossible it would be to identify with any hope of certainty the room where the Last Supper was held. And just then, one woman looked at my friend and said, “I wish I were in the other group!” I understand her feelings. She wanted the thrill of being positive that she stood on holy ground, and she did not want to be bothered by anything so dull as logic. She wanted life to be simple, the way the preacher was making it, and not complex the way the professor was making it. That kind of emphasis on what is called “simple, trusting faith” is a hallmark of what is called “fundamentalism,” and it begins with a certain attitude toward the Bible itself.
Here is a book written over hundreds of years, in languages different from our own, and repeatedly translated; a book which reflects everywhere the thought forms of a vanished time; a book filled with so many textual problems that journals of theology print hundreds of articles every year trying to clear them up; a book in general so complex and challenging that some of the keenest minds in the country make it their lifelong study — and of this book the fundamentalist preacher says, over and over that it is “simple and easy to understand” and that all one has to do is read it to discover that his interpretations of it are correct
If there is one myth we need to bury, it is the myth that the Bible is simple. If it really were, then we would all read it the way we read the newspaper — without special commentaries by our side to help us, without experts paid to interpret for us what we have just read, and without seminaries all over the country to train people how to understand it and how to teach others. If the Bible really were as simple as the fundamentalist says it is when she wishes to make a point, there would be no need for commentaries, yet even fundamentalists print them by the score. If your thoughts ever turn to such matters, you may have wondered why we have 40 or 50 different commentaries for every one of the 66 books of the Bible. The reason is that some churches do not trust commentaries written by those who do not belong to their denomination, so they create their own to be sure their people do not read interpretations that are contrary to the traditions of their church. If the Bible were truly a simple book it would be absurd for great seminaries like those at Yale and Harvard and Princeton and Candler and Perkins and Union to exist and to employ scholars like Keck and McKenzie and Stendhal and Cox and Gilke and Brown, who will devote their extraordinary minds and their whole lives to intensive study so they can train others to read the Bible skilfully. These are not second-rate people who chose theology because they lacked the acumen to become doctors or attorneys or scientists or professors of history. They are first-rate minds who became convinced that the critical study of Biblical texts is as challenging as any other profession, and that they may be able to help people who are often harmed by reading without skill. There is a reason why we have nothing comparable to a seminary to teach us how to read the daily newspaper or the Reader’s Digest. These pieces of writing really are simple. The Bible is not.
Several families represented here this morning have children who will spend, or have already spent, priceless years of their youth in specialized studies before their peers accept them as fully qualified to practice or to teach — let us say — medicine. Ask us if all those strenuous years are really necessary, and we respond with a vigorous “Yes!” because how well trained these people are may profoundly affect our physical well-being. We may dearly love the kindly old rural GP who makes us feel good, but we want the most intensively trained doctor we can find when we need highly technical surgery or radiation or medications that are out on the cutting edge of pharmaceutical research. A truly serious — repeat, serious — student of Jewish and Christian literature prepares in a way that invites comparison with the disciplines of law or medicine, but while those professions enforce certain standards, religion often does not, and for that reason it is constantly victimized by people whose preparation is suspect and whose chief claim to being heard is their skill at persuasion.
It must appear that there is some truth in what I am saying, so why does fundamentalism keep insisting that the Bible is simple? The answer is that funda-mentalism preaches a simple theology, and anyone who studies in a seminary worth the name, or reads with open mind the great critical commentaries, quickly discovers that a simple theology is not consistent with what is actually present in the Bible. Fundamentalism has handled this dilemma in some interesting ways. When it discovered early in this century that it would be useful if its ministers could claim seminary degrees, it had to make a decision. If it sent prospective minister off to the great established schools they often wound up reading their way right out of fundamentalism and being lost to the very church that sent them off for training. The obvious but costly answer was for fundamentalists to establish their own seminaries and see to it that nothing was taught there except what was in harmony with their religious doctrine. So they did this, and for the most part it has worked as they hoped, but faculties are not always easy to keep in line and recent religious history is filled with stories of seminary professors being threatened by preachers of the sponsoring denomination who say the professors are “unsound” and “liberal” and should be fired. “Unsound” for teaching students that one way the Bible teaches is through myth and that they do not have to believe in a literal Adam, whose name in Hebrew is a pun on the word for dust, or in the story of Jonah as literal history. When the professors, trained in neutral seminaries, respond that such things are common knowledge to bible scholars and translators, preachers put pressure on them to follow the party line or leave. I can’t imagine any of you choosing for bedtime reading the battles that have been fought in Missouri Synod Lutheran and Southern Baptist churches in recent years over control of their seminaries, but I do this as part of the way I live, and if you should suddenly decide to catch up, I can give you a list of books and articles!
Fundamentalism has made a strange kind of accomodation with scholarship during my lifetime. For the most part, it has held scholarship in contempt. Sermons are often full of gibes at professors whose heads are too large for their bodies, and who have been in the ivory tower so long that bats have invaded their brains. Universities have been mocked as temples of atheism in which malevolent teachers set out deliberately to rob students of their simple, trusting faith. But there is a fascinating strategy of exceptions: fundamentalism only mocks that scholarship which is not in agreement with it. If it happens to find a professor teaching in any kind of college who agrees with some fundamentalist item of faith, it showers him with praise and parades him with great joy as proof that scholarship supports fundamentalism. If a biology prof at South-Central Okahoma Tech raises a question about evolution, a headline in a fundamentalist journal may read: PROFESSOR UPHOLDS BIBLE VIEW OF CREATION. On careful examination — and on more than one occasion I have made them — it may turn out that the professor did not go quite that far, that he only questioned some part of the complex theory of evolution, but those who wish to hear that have no inclination to write or call him and check for accuracy. One of the most critical things a teacher can ever tell a student is that all of us tend to believe what we want to believe, and that a critical, questioning intellect is the only safeguad we have against that tendency.
I have spoken of simplicity as a hallmark of fundamentalist religion so I need to say that simplicity is not always bad. It is only bad when it pretends to represent adequately a field of study which is not simple at all. Since we are thinking right now of approaches to the Bible, let me give you an example. I was taught, as a young fundamentalist minister, to pack my sermons with Biblical prooftexts of our church, without much if any regard for context. This is a No-No in the interpretation of any kind of literature, but it can be used effectively with a non-critical audience.
One well-known TV evangelist is called “The Walking Bible” because he fires off such an amazing number of Scriptural bullets while he preaches. He does it, as I used to do it, because he knows how well it goes over with most of his listeners, who suppose that if one quotes all those verses from memory the speaker’s understanding of those verses must be unassailable.
It is, of course, false logic. There are people who can rattle off the capital cities for every state in the union and perhaps add the population figures? What does it prove? That they understand the spirit of Democracy better than the rest of us? That they have more valid opinions on certain complex issues in American politics? Or only that they have facile memories? My grandson Tanner can rattle off twice as many state capitals as most of us in this room, but he has nothing to say about what the people in those states are like, where they came from and why, how they differ from others, how their climate may affect attitude and behavior — all the things that take time and experience to learn, but which really matter.
I had a teacher once, whom I now see as rather more cynical than I would wish, who walked into a fundamentalist seminary class on opening day and began to recite for us the names of all the judges of Israel. When he finished, he ran through the genealogy of Christ as given in Matthew. Hezron, Aminidab, Jehoshaphat, Manasseh: names, names, and more names — strange-sounding, exotic names! We were all young and raw, and we were absolutely dazzled. What a genius! This man savored our idolatry for a moment, then he smiled broadly and said, “Now boys, that stuff really isn’t worth a wooden nickel, but if you go into a church and show off that memory feat in your first sermon, they’ll think you know everything worth knowing about the Bible, and from then on, whatever you say will be Gospel!”
We were taught, in that place, to learn by heart several hundred prooftexts: carefully selected verses which seemed to support what our denomination taught. And believe me, we used them with great skill. Make no mistake about it, dear Congregationalist friends, a fundamentalist armed with a bag of verses and secure in the knowledge that you won’t know whether they are being used IN or OUT of context, can beat any poorly-prepared liberal Christian into a speechless pulp. I know — because I used to do it! And since we instinctively admire the strong and powerful, the poor battered liberal sometimes picks herself up off the ground and says, “Gosh, it must be nice to have a religion that makes one so positive about everything,” and begins to harbor a secret yearning for the joys of certainty.
A liberal Christian — Congregationalist, Presbyterian, United Methodist, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalian — who is well trained in the basis for her faith is never likely to turn to fundamentalism, but a liberal Christian with no foundation is sometimes swept away during an emotional crisis. There is a terrifying illness, a child with a tragic drug problem, a sudden financial disaster — and suddenly nothing in the world is as appealing as a religion that has all the answers and a Bible verse that seems to support them. Young people are especially vulnerable, which is why children who grew up in homes like yours sometimes convert with great zeal to churches that offer quick and easy answers to very complex problems.
Somehow, when Paul urges Timothy to study to win God’s favor, one has the feeling that the Christian faith demands reason as well as emotion, the head as well as the heart. Simple trusting faith sometimes, when love calls us forward and we cannot know more. But most of the time a diligent search for the knowledge that frees us from fear and superstition. I say it over and over, because it is one of the greatest challenges the young Rabbi from Galilee ever spoke: “Know the truth….and the truth will make you free.”
May we grow together, gracious God, in both love and knowledge
until we balance our lives as you would wish. Amen.