We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Bible: Picking & Choosing

If we affirm that the Bible is a human document through which the Holy Spirit speaks with particular clarity and if we reject the notion that it contains the literal words of God, we are left with an important task.  We must discern God's Word to us in the words of the Bible.  In the year of our Lord 2013 and by the grace of God, some parts of scripture speak to us with that particular clarity.  Others, however, we must carefully pack away for a future time when they might speak to another generation in a way they do not to ours.

Take, for example, the passage in James 1:2-8, which states, "[5] If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. [6] But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; [7, 8] for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord." (NRSV)

One can imagine how important this advice concerning doubt might have been to large segments of the early church, but it is advice that is much less helpful today.  In the Age of Science, doubt is necessarily a good thing.  We learn through doubt.  We discard worn out ideologies through doubt.  We keep "the powers-that-be" in bounds through our doubts.  Doubt is a useful tool in many different situations and circumstances.

In an age that encourages doubt, we can see the spiritual value of doubt.  It is a motivation for discovering a deeper faith.  It keeps us from turning even our most cherished beliefs and practices into idols, something religious people are especially prone to do.  Doubt keeps us humble because it reminds us that we are not God.  We do not have all the answers.  Doubt, indeed, is the very foundation of our faith.  Without it, faith as trust is not possible.  Those who are certain their beliefs are true by definition do not live in faith, for faith means trusting in spite of uncertainty—and doubt.

The advice the author of the Book of James gave his (or her?) readers in ancient times is not good advice for us.  We are called to use doubt as a tool in our search for wisdom.  We are called to ask in spite of and in the midst of our doubts.  For us our questions are the path on which we walk toward faith, and we simply do not accept the rigid boundaries imposed on us by the concept of "being double-minded."  We are of one mind in which doubt and faith are yin and yang, intertwined, and inter-dependent.  James' views on doubt were undoubtedly right once and undoubtedly will be right again.  They are just not right for us right now.

Or...in some circumstances...maybe they are right right now.  In the end, it depends on whether the Spirit speaks through James' advice with that "particular clarity" that is the province of the Spirit.  In the Age of Doubt, we do well to doubt  even our doubting from time to time—lest doubt itself become an idol.