Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Making of a Christadelphian, Part 2

This post is really part three, to be technical: the first part was really an overview of the Christadelphians. Part 1 of my own story summarizes how I came to be baptized at age 11. In a nutshell, I always believed in God (apart from a one-day flirtation with atheism at age 5 or 6), and was always some sort of Christian (a half-baked Catholic who did not often attend church, but when I did it was Baptist). I believed the Bible was God's word. When we discovered the Christadelphians, their emphasis on Bible study--and the fact that their beliefs seemed well-supported by scripture--made joining them the obvious choice. We joined them because they encouraged us to question and doubt what they taught, and because they agreed that even believing the Bible or believing in God's very existence was conditional on evidence.

Not that I spent much energy questioning the Bible or God's existence. I already believed those things. When I did, it was focused mainly on evidence supporting the Bible; if the Bible is divine, then God's existence follows automatically. So I read about archaeology proving that the Bible was historically accurate, like the discovery of Sargon's Fortress (Dûr-Sharrûkin) that proved King Sargon of Isaiah 20:1 was a real historical figure after all. And I read about prophecy, especially the prophecy that Israel would be reestablished, as Christadelphians had been saying at least since Elpis Israel was first published in 1848--exactly 100 years before it happened. And I savored Undesigned Scriptural Coincidences, which listed dozens of examples of internal consistency in the Bible. All of this was mostly recreational reading for me, though, since I already believed.

What really consumed me was general Bible study. I read the Bible daily with my family, following the daily reading planner used by most Christadelphians. It took us through the Old Testament once, and the New Testament twice, every year. Christadelphians are certainly Bible readers. All of them have read the Bible through several times. The ones who "do the readings" faithfully will read it dozens of times before they die. They can remember any story you care to mention, and can quote swaths of it from memory. Christadelphian kids by age eleven have read the Bible, or had it read to them, a half-dozen times already. Becoming one at that age meant I was already behind the 8-ball.

Catching up meant doing those readings, paying attention in Sunday School, and reading on my own. I read lots of books, mostly written by Christadelphians. Elpis Israel was the first book ever written by a Christadelphian, and still considered a classic about our main beliefs. Christendom Astray (PDF) was another early work that contrasted our beliefs with those of most other Christian denominations. The list is long, so I won't give it here. Many of our books are available online, if you'd like to peruse them.

As I mentioned in previous posts, we are heavily biased against studying theology. A look at the contents of Christendom Astray will tell you why. We believe differently than most other denominations, and we generally assume that their flawed beliefs are the result of flawed theology. How would it help us to study flawed theology?

Nor did we create an alternative theology of our own. Well, anyone who thinks about the Bible is doing theology, whether they want to or not, but we refused to try and systematize it. That smells too much like dogma to us. We don't like dogma, and for that matter we don't like hierarchy. We believe that anyone can "understand the Bible for himself," as our lectures and pamphlets say, and we don't believe in interfering with someone else's conscience. If your conscience leads you to different beliefs than ours, we may not let you join our churches, and we may confidently tell you you're wrong, but we don't claim authority over your conscience.

But we do have a theology whether or not we systematize it. We teach it by example instead. Reading Christadelphian books and magazines gives plenty of worked examples of Bible study. So do our weekly Bible classes and evening lectures. We all learn how it's done by imitation.

The first thing I learned was to "read the plain sense." If the Bible is a book for all times and cultures, meant to be understood by ordinary people without fancy degrees, then its message must be relatively plain. So if the Bible seems to be saying something clearly, then it is.

The second thing I learned was to "read the Bible in context." If a verse says, "Oh, Lucifer, look how you've fallen from heaven!" we don't leap to the conclusion that "Someone named Lucifer was up in heaven, and he fell down!" We read the verses before and after it (it's in Isaiah 14), and we notice that the first four verses say, basically, "When you return from captivity in Babylon, you will sing this taunt against the king of Babylon." It's clear from context that the bit about "Lucifer" is part of the taunting song, so it's clear that it's the king of Babylon who is called "Lucifer" (for whatever reason), and his "fall from heaven" refers to the fall of Babylon's power.

When we talk about "context," we also talk about historical context. We try to inform ourselves about the history, customs, and geography of Bible times. Many of us subscribe to Biblical Archaeology Review. We're somewhat uneven in how deeply we go into it, but we try.

The third thing I learned was to "compare scripture with scripture." This is where it gets interesting. We know that you can find verses that contradict each other ("...when taken out of context!" we hasten to add). We know that some passages are more obscure than others. But we assume that IF the Bible is God's word, THEN it must ultimately have a consistent message. The points and counterpoints must fit together, like brushstrokes, to paint a picture. Our job is to collect the verses, back up, and look at it until the picture comes clear.

By the way, didn't I just contradict myself? I said at the top of this post we demand evidence before we believe. Aren't Bible contradictions evidence against the Bible (and therefore God)? And didn't I just say we assume them away? And doesn't that mean we reinterpret the Bible to paper over contradictions? Which we then claim somehow proves God?

If we're not careful, then yes. If we really want to, we can explain almost anything away. There's a whole blog out there devoted to the ways we fool ourselves.

On the other hand, apparent contradictions are a fact of life in general. If I tell a story twice, details will probably differ. Some overly-literal people will ask me which time I was lying. (No, really, that's happened to me. I've come to the conclusion that the wisest course is just to avoid people like that once they've outed themselves.)

This is standard stuff for historians (as I understand it; I'm not one). When we read copies of copies, of translations of translations, of stories that may be preceded by long oral traditions, how do we sift fact from fiction, or truth from error? There are ways, but it's not easy.

It's also standard stuff for ethicists (as I understand it; I'm not one). Isn't it a contradiction for "pro-lifers" to be pro-death-penalty? Yes, if you oppose all killing (including the unborn). No, if you believe that certain crimes forfeit the right to life. Isn't it a contradiction for a pacifist to eat meat? Yes, if you oppose any violence against any creature. No, if you distinguish humans from animals. Isn't it a contradiction to say, "Thou shalt not kill," and then command people to go to war? Yes, it certainly sounds like it. But no, if you read it as, "Thou shalt not murder," and you believe warfare isn't murder.

So there's no way around "comparing scripture with scripture," and it's a delicate business to resolve seeming contradictions while remaining open to the possibility that there are genuine contradictions there. I think closing our eyes to this possibility is a common way to lapse into fundamentalism.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Making of a Christadelphian, Part 1

My previous post was just over a year ago. On rereading it, I'm still pleased with it as a fair and balanced description of the Christadelphian community overall. From there I originally planned to branch off in two directions: first, to go into more detail about Christadelphian beliefs; and second, to go into more personal detail about my growth in the community. I'd like to tackle the second first.

This isn't my "personal testimony," if you've seen that sort of thing before. It's also not meant to be autobiographical, except to the extent I can't help it since it's about, well, me. The point of this post is to sketch how one person came to join "a lay, patriarchal, millenarian, unitarian, evangelical, apolitical, community of Bible students," what that person found when he got there, and where it led him.

I do intend to be painfully honest about my shortcomings, including doubts or weak spots in my faith. It's not because I want other people to doubt along with me. It's because I'm not trying to convince anyone that I'm a hero of faith; I want to be honest about my doubts as well as my beliefs. You're free to take comfort that you're not the only doubter, or set me straight, or decide that I'm an inadequate Christian, as the case may be.

Childhood: A (not-very-good) Catholic

My Dad's side of the family is Polish, so naturally I became a Catholic by default. I was christened, and a well-to-do relative (whom I've never met, unless he was there for my christening) was named my godfather. After that I have no memory of ever attending church--when I was about 7, I went to a Catholic funeral with my Dad, and when he genuflected I rushed to grab his arm and help him back up, because I thought he had tripped.

Needless to say, I was never confirmed or given first communion. My parents sent me to catechism class for about a year when I was 5 or 6, though I don't know exactly why, and we didn't go to church that year either. There the nuns taught me to cross myself, say the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary, and to give things up for Lent. We were working on the Act of Contrition when my parents moved, and my religious education came to an end.

Although I never saw the inside of a Catholic church--as far as I can remember, apart from weddings and funerals--I did go to church with my cousin sometimes. We regularly had that conversation (I'm a Catholic. Well, I'm a Baptist.) but neither of us knew what the difference was. My cousin went because his mother made him, and I went because I was sleeping over.

Around the same age, sleeping over my cousin's house, I announced that I didn't believe in God. I'm uncertain what prompted it, but I believe it was watching a rerun of the premier episode of "All in the Family," in which Michael and Gloria said, "We just don't see any evidence of God." Naturally, my cousin tattled at Sunday School the next morning. The teacher turned her full attention to me and asked me why, so I repeated what I'd said the night before. She said, "Oh yes, there is a God, and he loves you very much!" I answered, "Oh, OK," and from then on I believed in God.

Also around the same age, I had my first brush with death: my Aunt Gertie died, shortly after attending a big family dinner at my great grandfather's house. I didn't know her; my memory of her was an old lady walking around the yard with a big, heavy cane. But when my Mom got off the phone and announced that she had died, it sparked the usual conversations about what that meant, leading to the realization that it was going to happen to me, and triggering my first bout with depression (though I was too young to articulate what was going on, and I don't think anyone knew). Funnily, my parents had a music box of a dancing bride and groom that played "Theme from the Godfather," which Mom wound up every night to put me to sleep. For years afterward, hearing that waltz would depress me.

That age also marked my first and last attempts at Bible reading for some years. I had the usual book of Bible stories for kids, which I read to myself. It led off with Adam and Eve bringing death on themselves and everyone else by eating the apple that God for some reason stuck in their garden, after a conversation with a snake that God for some reason put there. The story made me mad at Adam and Eve, and a little mad at God, but mostly it triggered more depression. I avoided reading the Bible for the next four or five years.

Later Childhood: A Convert to the Christadelphians

When I was about 10, my parents took a fresh interest in religion. My mom signed up for catechism classes. For some reason they didn't sign up my sister or I, but they did get us the books, so I started to read them. I also started reading the Living Bible, and my sister started reading the NIV. I read the gospels over and over again, and also started (hesitantly!) reading from Genesis. I got all the way through Kings that year. I still found Genesis 3 to be painful, and to that I added Genesis 11, which in the "Living Bible" gives the distinct impression that God sabotaged human progress because he was afraid they might someday pose a serious challenge to him.

I was ahead of my years in that I read the material easily and learned it quickly. I was also way, way behind, for lack of any meaningful religious education. I was quickly learning at age 10 what children normally learned a few years younger. I was also reading my Mom's adult catechism. A lot of the material has slipped away in the years since then, but at the time I was catching up quickly on the theory, such as the sacraments. Memorizing prayers wasn't much fun, so I didn't learn much liturgy.

At the same time as we attempted to re-join the Catholic church, we were shopping around a bit. I read Watchtower publications that my great grandfather bought from passing JW's just to be polite. I read the weird, new-agey Science of Mind magazine, which my grandmother received for some reason. I read books on Eastern religions, and books by Wiersbe. There wasn't much structure to my reading, and I ended up with a smattering of everything rather than any real depth in anything.

In the midst of all this, we ran across the Christadelphian booth at the New England Fair. It was strategically located near the Vitamix demonstration, which is a story in its own right. The Christadelphians appealed to us almost instantly, because their core values were about the same as the ones we'd developed by this point. Within a year of meeting them, I began taking regular Bible classes with them, and was baptized in early 1982, aged 11. My parents were baptized a month or two later.

My Core Values and Beliefs

At the time I was baptized, the following were my core values and beliefs. As you'll see, they're in logical order, but not quite in order of importance.

There is a God

As I said above, I just believed this ever since a baptist Sunday School teacher assured me of it when I was 5 or 6. I didn't subject this belief to rigorous reexamination, and wasn't equipped to if I wanted to at the age of 10. I was bright, but not that bright. But the usual apologetics were good enough for me--mainly, the argument that the Bible is His word, and therefore he must of course exist. Which brings me to:

The Bible is God's Word

It sounds like I just set up a circular argument, but the argument that the Bible is God's word doesn't have to assume there's a God in the first place. Again, the usual arguments were good enough for me. The Bible is full of uncanny fulfilled prophecies--notably the reemergence of Israel, which Christadelphians had been confidently predicting for almost exactly 100 years before it happened. It's a self-consistent document, meaning that what contradictions there are either (a) can be explained away fairly easily, or (b) just aren't that important. It was ahead of its time, with clever advice like avoiding pork or shellfish, and practicing good hygiene. Etc., etc. The conclusion is that the Bible is a "supernatural" book, which implies a "supernatural" author. Therefore God.

The Original Meaning of the Bible is the Correct One

In other words, whatever people in Jesus' day understood the New Testament to mean, that's what it means. Whatever the people in Moses' day understood the Torah to mean, that's what it means. This seemed self-evidently correct to me, and it naturally led me away from Catholicism. There's no question that biblical interpretation evolved over the history of the Church. For example, any good scholar--including Catholic scholars--will admit that the first century believers didn't have any conception of the Trinity as it came to be formulated over the next three centuries. This isn't a problem for Catholics, because nothing says their understanding of scripture can't evolve. It was a deal-breaker for me, however, because I was only interested in understanding scripture the way the first disciples understood it. Rejecting post-apostolic beliefs effectively ruled out a post-apostolic church.

We can Understand the Bible for Ourselves

That is, we can figure out how the first believers understood the New Testament, and how early Israelites understood the Torah, without the need for theologians or priests to interpret it for us. This is the other belief that led me away from Catholicism, since the Church reserves to herself the prerogative of interpreting Scripture.

Truth is the Most Important Thing

A common refrain among Christadelphians is (or was, at the time), "If you can prove this Bible wrong, I'll throw it away." Variants included, "If you can disprove God's existence, I'll stop believing in Him," and, "If you can prove my beliefs wrong, I'll trade them in for whatever's right." The key idea here is that, in principle at least, our goal is to pursue whatever is true regardless of the cost.

This last value actually takes priority even over God's existence (again, in principle at least). I believe in God, and that the Bible is his word, but I'm willing to let go of both beliefs if they turn out not to be True. You might ask what would ever convince me they weren't true, and that would be a good question, but the fact remains that I'm open to the possibility that I'm wrong about God's existence, and I'm willing in principle to give up my religion if that turns out to be the case.