The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Eating crow: I was a fundamentalist, too!

Posted by Ron George on August 21, 2011

Eating Crow, by Shaun Wightman

Time to eat some crow.

Some years back, I recall being intrigued by Bart Ehrman’s loss of faith. I’d just read his engrossing book, Misquoting Jesus, and I’d trolled the Internet for interviews and reviews of the book, which I thought would become a Big Controversy among Christians, especially evangelical fundamentalists. It didn’t, but Ehrman has become an expert often cited in the news media on matters of Christian origins as reflected in biblical and early church documents. I admire the guy, but my attention back then focused on his loss of faith. His Christian faith had once rested on the inerrancy of the Bible, but his faith collapsed when in-depth, scholarly study of the New Testament textual tradition led him to conclude that the documents were produced by human beings inclined to error and even rewriting sacred texts.

At the time, I may have been a little smug about Ehrman’s becoming a “happy agnostic,” as he told one interviewer, because I had recently recovered my faith and was engaged in reviving my sense of purpose and vocation in the church. I exchanged e-mail messages with Ehrman, and in one I expressed my hope that there was something recoverable about his lost faith, that people like me – liberal Protestants – had been living in the tension between faith and reason regarding the Bible for centuries. Just because the Bible wasn’t inerrant didn’t mean it didn’t convey God’s living and active word in the lives of faithful disciples of Jesus Christ – and just because one’s faith was shaken didn’t mean it had to die. It may lie dormant, but God is real and continuously, even relentlessly, calls us to let ourselves be loved by “the which than which there is no whicher” (with apologies to the late Alan Watts).

Now my faith has tanked and for similar reasons. Ehrman’s faith rested upon an inerrant Bible; mine was upon the church; take that away and poof, no faith.

Eating Crow, posted by Lorraina

Young Bart Ehrman mistook the idea of the Bible as the “word of God” – a metaphor, after all – as being literally true, word-for-word as each and every one appeared on the page, be it parchment or papyrus. It’s preposterous, of course, but when this or that tradition posits that it has a sacred book, then for some the book inevitably becomes an idol. Some Muslims have done it with the Qur’an, and some even maintain that Arabic is God’s own language. The Qur’an, though, was no less susceptible than Jewish and Christian scriptures to errant transmission, despite the best intentions of Muhammad’s early followers. Muhammad never wrote anything, and the sayings of the Qur’an weren’t collected until after his death. In fact, there were numerous written versions of Muhammad’s sayings at the time, but these were redacted, refined and standardized by Muhammad’s first successor, Caliph Abu Bakr.

Nowadays, many and perhaps most Muslims the world over believe this book was dictated word-for-word by an angel, and part of the proof for this belief is that Muhammad was illiterate: So, the argument goes, how could such beautiful Arabic come from such a man unless it had been given by God? Well, yes, the Qur’an is composed of beautiful Arabic, but it wasn’t compiled and edited by an illiterate camel driver. It may have originated with the camel driver, but it was compiled and redacted by a highly literate cadre of the caliph’s scribes. That doesn’t make it less inspired and spiritually significant for Muslims, but it does keep us in touch with what the document actually is – not something magically transmitted from heaven, but a book of inspired sayings transmitted by a culture permeated with the leadership of its founder. That should sound familiar to Jews and Christians, because that’s precisely what the Bible is, no more but no less. Bart Ehrman’s problem was that he believed the Bible was, in a sense, dictated by God, or at least mediated inerrantly through human authors. He was intellectually honest enough to jettison that view when it became clear that it simply wasn’t true.

Just as Ehrman mistook the metaphor of “God’s word” by taking it literally, I mistook the metaphor of the church as the body of Christ as something ontologically true, as being of the essence of the Incarnation itself. I believed the church was not just an organization but an organism imbued with divine power that made it special among religious congregations. God’s presence became actual in experience among Christians gathered for worship, prayer and ministry to the world in a way that was unique to Christianity, because ours was a gathering in Jesus’ name. Surely God became real in other ways in other religious traditions, but Christian gatherings were uniquely empowered by the presence of God as Trinity. Christianity wasn’t superior to other religious traditions, but it was appealing – at least to me – because of this special way of knowing God and knowing of God. It was a community of faith, hope and love, a precursor of the household of God on earth as it is in heaven. Sure, it was imperfect, but it was the Body of Christ – imperfect people becoming godly, progressing toward the vision of perfected humanity we saw in Jesus of Nazareth and felt among us as the Risen Lord, the Anointed One of God.

Eating Crow, by Edward Wolverton

That version still sounds awfully persuasive to me. It’s a powerful metaphor; at least, it once was a powerful metaphor, but that power has been drained off by convention, sentimentality and institutionalized claptrap. The organism – if that’s what the church ever was – has become an organization or perhaps has always been an organization, just another group with insiders and outsiders, membership and fund drives, programs and plants – and innumerable ways across the denominational spectrum of playing authoritarian power games. Maybe that’s what the church always has been, but I didn’t want to believe it. I wanted to believe something about the church that may never have been true, despite the beauty of the metaphor and its biblical expression – idealized to be sure – in Christian scripture. When I ceased to believe in the metaphor, I ceased to be a Christian. My faith had been misplaced, perhaps built upon the sand. Now it’s gone, and I don’t know where to begin looking to retrieve it. Somewhere within, I’m sure my Christian friends will tell me. Well, I’ve looked there – have been for more than two years – and found nothing, nothing at all; well, except for the stranger I’ve become to myself. (Hell of a thing to say for someone my age.)

Unlike Bart Ehrman, I’m not a happy agnostic. I deceived myself about all this for most of the past 45 years, and I’m not happy about that at all. I’m sad, embittered and angry with myself for being so mired in misjudgment, misperception and – boy, is this hard to say – a species of fundamentalist belief about the church.

Can’t say I like the taste of crow very much.

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5 Responses to “Eating crow: I was a fundamentalist, too!”

  1. Gerald Gnoza said

    But you are perfectly imperfectly perfect just as you are! As you were then, as you are now. Everything you went through you had to go through, and you may return again some day, if you wish. Your metaphor IS right on: Everything is metaphor. The rest is icing on the cake ; ).
    We are participants in this whole thing, the divine comes within and without, and manifests in time with a shadow, always (/never ; ).
    Pairs of opposites in the field of time, what a wonderful game, which we can play with joy and ease if only we remember who we are every once in a while. So I agree with the idea that we choose to believe, and so why not choose to believe in beauty, if we can embody that?

  2. Jim Abbott said

    Hi Ron,
    for some reason I’m no longer getting the notice that you have posted something, or perhaps you dropped me. No matter, I just visited your blog site and read this post. As the first writer said, painful to read because your pain shows through.
    I admire your honesty, and wish (a non-Christian) response that I could help. I pray that some peace touch you. Jim

  3. Patsy Durham said

    Oh, dear, another post that is painfully hard to read. So sorry, my friend. I continue to pray for you to see a light at the end of your dark tunnel. And, in an effort to lift your spirits, perhaps you’ve not been using a good crow recipe? There are some good hints at this website: http://www.crowbusters.com/recipes.htm

  4. Ralph Willis said

    Loved the post. Ron I am wondering if we “lose” our faith or set it aside? C.S. Lewis seemed to posit that belief was a choice. Would faith also fall under the same criteria? That of choice rather than a feeling of certanity? Thanks for the incite and especially the honesty.

  5. Ehrman worshipped the Bible and you worshipped the Church (by your own admission above). You were both left wanting. I would say of course you were. Idolotry is useless in the end. Only Christ Jesus is worthy of worship. This being True, there is hope for both you and Ehrman.

    There is an old (Chinese?) proverb that goes something like, “Only a fool looks at the finger as it points to the moon.”

    God Bless you,

    Chris

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