In which I veer, uncharacteristically, into theology

I found this article by David Plotz in today's Slate fascinating. Over the course of a couple of years, he read the Bible in its entirety, and has written a book about the experience. He recommends that everyone else do so, as well, for various reasons.
Maybe it doesn't make sense for most of us to read the whole Bible. After all, there are so many difficult, repellent, confusing, and boring passages. Why not skip them and cherry-pick the best bits? After spending a year with the good book, I've become a full-on Bible thumper. Everyone should read it—all of it! In fact, the less you believe, the more you should read.
His upbringing and mine are obviously quite different. I was raised in a very conservative, evangelical church, where a premium was placed on knowing as much scripture as possible (ideally by heart). While I can't claim to have read the whole Bible, I have read a lot of it, and can still quote large passages from memory. While I am now an unapologetically liberal Episcopalian (one of numerous aspects of my life that would no doubt cause grave distress to those who knew me back in the day), my knowledge of the Bible comes thanks to my time in the fundamentalist camp (literally and figuratively). It was thus illuminating to read the following paragraph:
While reading the Bible, I often felt as if I had finally lifted a veil from my eyes. I learned that I hadn't known the true nature of God's conflict with Job, which is the ur-text of all subsequent discussions of obedience and faith. I realized I was ignorant of the story of Ruth. I was unaware of the radical theology of Ecclesiastes, the source of so many of our ideas about the good life. I didn't know who Jezebel was, or why we loathe her, or why she is the painted lady, or even that she was married to Ahab.
I grew up knowing most of the above, though my appreciation for Job and Ecclesiastes is a more recent reflection of my adult sensibilities. Regardless, considering how many of our literary and cultural allusions come from the Bible, from the perspective of cultural literacy alone, I concur that the Bible should be read. However, the following passage is what prompted this post:
You notice that I haven't said anything about belief. I began the Bible as a hopeful, but indifferent, agnostic. I wished for a God, but I didn't really care. I leave the Bible as a hopeless and angry agnostic. I'm brokenhearted about God.

After reading about the genocides, the plagues, the murders, the mass enslavements, the ruthless vengeance for minor sins (or none at all), and all that smiting—every bit of it directly performed, authorized, or approved by God—I can only conclude that the God of the Hebrew Bible, if He existed, was awful, cruel, and capricious. He gives us moments of beauty—such sublime beauty and grace!—but taken as a whole, He is no God I want to obey and no God I can love.

When I complain to religious friends about how much He dismays me, I usually get one of two responses. Christians say: Well, yes, but this is all setup for the New Testament. Reading only the Old Testament is like leaving halfway through the movie. I'm missing all the redemption. If I want to find the grace and forgiveness and wonder, I have to read and believe in the story of Jesus Christ, which explains and redeems all. But that doesn't work for me. I'm a Jew. I don't, and can't, believe that Christ died for my sins. And even if he did, I still don't think that would wash away God's crimes in the Old Testament.

It is risky, of course, to write publicly about something so very personal as one's faith. (Even if one has very few readers.) But here I go, anyway.

Obviously, Plotz (a self-described "lax Jew") and I are going to respond differently to the story of Jesus Christ. While I am still forming my own understanding of substitutionary atonement (see above re: evangelical upbringing), I accept and believe in the redemptive nature of Christ's life and ministry. (For the record, I am also essentially a universalist, and reject the doctrine of eternal condemnation for non-Christians.) Regardless, my beliefs about Christ stand in conflict with, rather than as explanation of or justification for, the actions of God as described in the Old Testament (or, as I prefer, the Hebrew scriptures) and lamented by Plotz. I have similar difficulty with some passages from the Christian scriptures, as well, particularly some of Paul's writing.

So, what then do I do? Reason will not abdicate its place in my worldview to a belief in a benevolent Judeo-Christian God just because I direct it to. And yet, believe I do. (For a fuller accounting of why I believe in God in the first place, you will have to buy me a cup of coffee and resign yourself to a lengthier conversation than even the most loyal blog-readers would be expected to tolerate.) How do I reconcile the various crimes ascribed to God? How do I explain Paul's horribly dated views on the role of women?

I don't. They cannot be reconciled. In my heart, I say to God "this cannot be justified, even by Your directive." And, perhaps foolishly, I await an explanation. In the meantime, I simply view the passages in question as a thorn in the side of my faith, and as an indication that I do not yet fully understand all that I one day hope to.

1 comment:

  1. I would suggest Mr. Plotz read the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) with a competent Chabad rabbi. The Jewish view is that the Bible is written in a shorthand that is easily misunderstood when read in isolation from the oral traditions (the Torah She'Baal Peh). And there is a lot of merit to that position. But. You are absolutely correct, the Bible, including the Christian extensions (Catholic and Protestant canons differ), has extremely problematic sections. Behavior that is prohibited in one place passes without the slightest hint of disapproval in another, and may even be praised and rewarded elsewhere. I wasn't able to reconcile the tension between Rationality and Scripture, so I left Christianity for Judaism, and then Judaism when I could not accept all of the oral traditions as divinely inspired. I am a theist, but a theist who sees the Bible not as a record of divinity reaching down to man, but man reaching up towards divinity. Perhaps Mr. Plotz' position 3 is where I live, if you remove the 'remotely' part.

    And I agree that Universal Reconciliation is the only way to fly. In my understanding, it is the best fit with an omnipotent and benevolent being, the best way to find an explanation that one can live with for why G-d created evil. If G-d isn't a universalist, he has some explaining to do.