e.e.cummings, perhaps more than any other poet, has shaped much of the way I consciously approach learning. Possibly my favourite lines in all of the poetry ever written are the last two lines of his you shall above all things be glad and young:
I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance
That one little couplet has played a more significant role in framing my approach to learning than virtually all the years of my formal schooling combined. For one thing, cummings made me realise that answers are dangerous. Generally, people with answers have stopped thinking. And that is not meant unsympathetically: why on earth would you continue to search for something you believed you had found? Like when people say about your missing keys: “They are always in the last place you look”. Of course they are! Why would you look anywhere else once you have located them? Anyway, the point is that when people believe they have solved a problem, they leave it alone. They seldom probe for anything more they may have missed. People tend towards simplicity: we want a model, a theorem, a law that explains why things work the way they do. And once we think we have found one that works, we relentlessly try to fit the world into the models we have devised. We ignore complexity. Instead of discarding our models when the anomalies we find challenge their validity, we discard the anomalies as exceptions to the rule or find ways to explain them away that allow us to remain safely ensconced in the comforting constraints of our paradigms. I am learning to stop pretending.
Cumming’s statement is eerily appropriate to modern Christianity. We are so fixated on learning what laws not to break and on how not to break them that we miss the beauty that Jesus demonstrates in a life devoted to love and peace. We are so busy arrogantly preaching to the world how they ought to (or more accurately, ought not to) behave so as not to die that we have lost the humility necessary to learn how to live. We have such an unshakeable conviction that we have found all the answers in the Bible that we have stopped looking for God in Jesus. What is most tragic of all is that, when we begin to suspect that our models are inadequate, when we become aware of their restrictions, we look away. We are afraid to ask the niggling questions we have because we have come to associate doubt with a lack of faith. But when you stop asking questions, you stop learning, you stop growing.
The greatest threat to faith is not doubt, it is certainty. Once we assume that we have a theory that makes sense of an infinite universe and the infinite Being believed to have designed it, we stop thinking. Truthfully, we are infinitesimally tiny creatures, with a severely limited capacity to comprehend the vastness of the universe, thanks to the restrictions imposed by the limited ranges of the sensory input we receive, and the unavoidable impact of our experiences, educations, languages, expectations and fears on our interpretations of even that limited sensory data : anybody who arrives at the point where hen is convinced that hen understands God really should have alarm bells ringing somewhere in the backs of hens heads. Somehow we don’t…
That said, navigating one’s way through the unchartered seas of this journey is a tricky thing. Any navigator will tell you that you need at least some fixed point by which to chart your course. So I understand the sentiment when critics of my theology tend to level this challenge at me: If I don’t regard the Bible as inerrant, on what do I base my faith? How do I know I can trust in Jesus? In other words, where is your fixed point? I have sympathy for the line of argument, because it was an idea central to my own thinking for a very long time. And I get the need for some sort of fixed point.
But the argument for Biblical inerrancy, to be frank, makes no sense. If I need the Bible to be inerrant in order for me to give legitimacy to my choice to make Jesus that fixed point, I think I am on shaky ground. In effect, what I am saying, is that Jesus makes no sense if the Bible cannot be shown to portray an infallible picture of God. That is simply not true. An equivalent sporting analogy would be to argue that I need Lionel Messi to score every time he takes a shot in order for me to consider him a great footballer. A thing does not have to be flawless to be of value, even to be of unequivocal value. While the gospels are the primary means by which I shape a theology of Jesus, I do not need the Bible to be flawless for that aim to be achieved. Jesus makes sense, with or without the Bible as inerrant. And part of what makes Jesus make sense – even without the Bible – is that violence doesn’t.
This may seem odd to some, but I love the Scriptures. I think they reveal a very beautiful picture of God. I am certain that God does speak through them. Unfortunately, I do not believe that only God speaks through them. People do too. So in the case of the Bible, I cannot regard it as the inerrant revelation of God if I want to use it as a navigational tool. It points in too many directions at once. There are too many contradictions in terms of the way the various writers depict God.
Consider the way God is revealed in some of the older passages:
“and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.” (Deuteronomy 7:2)
“Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” (1 Samuel 15:3)
“If you do not carefully follow all the words of this law, which are written in this book, and do not revere this glorious and awesome name—the Lord your God— the Lord will send fearful plagues on you and your descendants, harsh and prolonged disasters, and severe and lingering illnesses. He will bring on you all the diseases of Egypt that you dreaded, and they will cling to you. The Lord will also bring on you every kind of sickness and disaster not recorded in this Book of the Law, until you are destroyed. You who were as numerous as the stars in the sky will be left but few in number, because you did not obey the Lord your God. Just as it pleased the Lord to make you prosper and increase in number, so it will please him to ruin and destroy you.” (Deuteronomy 28: 58-63, my emphasis)
And before anyone goes off on me about quoting out of context, I am not. If you read much of Deuteronomy, you will see that the gist of it is this: if you don’t listen to me, I will treat you like my enemies and will do unspeakably vicious things to you; but don’t worry: I actually love you, so if you do everything I say I will give you all sorts of wonderful things too (but only – I must remind you – if I can see a clear distinction between you and the filthy heathen peoples nearby, in terms of your willingness to accept my term and conditions). God’s instructions are very clear here: ruthless genocide. No one must be spared. In fact, in the narrative from which the Samuel passage comes, God actively punishes Samuel for not enforcing absolute annihilation. And these are common decrees issued by God in these early books. God not only commands the slaughter of entire nations, especially of the ones that displease Him (I use the masculine deliberately), but even expresses delight in their suffering. God confesses to taking pleasure in their destruction. What I find staggering is that so many Christians are not profoundly disturbed by that, but instead find ways to justify it.
But then an interesting thing starts to happen. The prophets start to introduce the idea that maybe God is not a bloodthirsty megalomaniac:
Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live? (Ezekiel 18:23)
For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live! (Ezekiel 18:32)
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.(Hosea 6:6)
To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.(Proverbs 21:3)
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8)
People are starting to wrestle with their understandings of God, and changing the way they portray him. So that when Jesus arrives on the scene, and claims to be the perfect revelation of God, we see a God who utterly renounces violence, who is committed to reconciliation, who demonstrates love not only for the obedient, but is gracious to the just and the unjust alike:
“And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Mark 12:33)
“But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. “ (Luke 6: 35-36)
No amount of philosophical gymnastics can get one to a point where these pictures of God are reconcilable. God cannot logically both take pleasure and not take pleasure in the suffering and destruction of unbelievers. God cannot be absolutely dedicated to both retributive justice and unconditional mercy and grace. The Bible cannot, therefore, be a cohesive document that, in its entirety, contains an inerrant and infallible revelation of God. I do believe that it contains that revelation, but not that it contains only that revelation. Rather, there is a progression in people’s understanding of God that culminates in the Jesus that sums up God’s commands as loving everyone and who proclaims that those who are the peace-makers are the real children of God.
Like all of you, I am drifting through space, a tiny and seemingly insignificant speck on a miniscule blue and green planet on the unfashionable end of a just one of trillions of galaxies. And I am – from my limited vantage point – attempting to come to terms with the colossal Being responsible for all of this. Like many of you, I understand that the only conceivable way for me to even dimly comprehend the majesty of God is if God chooses to reveal Henself, to give me some sort of reference point I can make sense of. My logic cannot suffice.
The only revelation I trust is Jesus. The Bible – any text, for that matter – contains too much of me for me to trust it. Jesus contains too much of God for me not to trust him. In the Bible I see a litany of voices teaching me how not to dance; voices that assure me that if I don’t dance just right, if I miss a twirl, or misjudge a leap, the Divine Choreographer will not only exile me from the production, but will relish the opportunity to mangle me so that I never dance again. But there are other voices there too, who point me to another, greater revelation: Jesus, who joins me in the dance, who says: “I know this is hard, I know there are days when you don’t know that you want to dance at all. I know the pain of those days when the other dancers jeer at you and deliberately try to sabotage you. But as hard as it gets, I am dancing beside you”. In this revelation that is Jesus, I come to understand that in God I do not have a dance instructor who shouts criticism from the wings; I have, in Jesus, an instructor who doesn’t merely tell me how beautiful – and how exquisitely difficult – the dance is, he shows me. And as I lose myself in his dance, as it dawns on me that I do not – cannot – dance alone, I find myself. I find the confidence to make the dance an expression of myself, as it was always intended to be, and suddenly the dance doesn’t seem quite so scary anymore.