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.