Why is the adjustment of beliefs based on experience often misunderstood or even maligned? In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Pete Enns explores how our formational experiences are not the enemy of faith and that making adjustments to our beliefs based on experience is a normal part of the spiritual journey. Join Pete as he explores the following questions:
- How do our experiences impact our view of God?
- Why do we need to wrestle with our faith?
- Are evangelicalism and fundamentalism the same thing?
- Why is adjusting your faith based on your experiences maligned?
- What is lunar spirituality according to Barbara Brown Taylor?
- What is apophatic theology?
- What is the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the Episcopal three-legged stool, and Rohr’s tricycle and what ties those three schemes together?
- When something happens to change what we thought we knew about God – what happens next? What do we do?
- According to Enns, why has mystery become a big word for him as he thinks about God?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Pete Enns you can share.
- “Experiences that challenge our view of God can come at any time without warning. Those challenging experiences that just happen upon us, they perform a vital role in the life of faith, they expose a faith that’s on autopilot.” @peteenns
- “Fewer and fewer people of faith are willing to suppress that voice telling them that something isn’t right, that their faith doesn’t match up with their day-to-day experiences. And wrestling with faith, rather than just defending it tooth and nail, has become the new normal.” @peteenns
- “We’ve been taught that the essence of faith is to hang on to our ideas for dear life. We should expect our experiences to challenge and rock our beliefs over the course of our lives. We’ve been taught to see our experiences as dangers, rather than a summons to grow.” @peteenns
- “Struggling with faith has become an expression of my faith. This wrestling is how I now do faith because my life experiences, which I believe God knows all about, have guided me to this point. Wrestling is absolutely necessary for a faith that wants to grow.” @peteenns
- “My understanding of God has changed over time because I’ve experienced life over time. It hasn’t been watered down, it’s actually blossomed into something bigger and better, to something so clearly beyond me that it refuses to identify completely with my thinking.” @peteenns
- “Our deepest challenges to faith, the ones that threaten to undo everything – I believe they are part of the mystery of faith, precisely because they lead us to question what we believe. Heaven help us if we stopped questioning what we believe.” @peteenns
- “Rather than feeling fear and shame over the fact that our faith is evolving, maybe we can see that the God of the infinite universe nevertheless embraces us, our humanity, and understands our human predicament and is working with it.” @peteenns
Mentioned in This Episode
- Website: thebiblefornormalpeople.com
- Book: The Bible Tells Me So
- Book: The Sin of Certainty
- Book: Learning to Walk in the Dark
- Book: How the Bible Actually Works
- Support: patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Pete: Hello, everyone. Welcome to this episode of the podcast. And before we begin, just a reminder, just a reminder that Season 5 is winding down in a couple of weeks. Can you believe it? Another season in the books and don’t forget, folks, that we do take a break through January. Don’t panic, don’t send us an email, this happens every year, it’s going to be okay. But Season 6 is worth the wait. We’re coming back in with a lot of exciting guests. So, can’t wait for that to start.
But as for today- a quick caveat actually, as for today, I have the windows open here and you might hear some outside noises like birds or dogs barking. But I’m doing that because I refuse to give up on summer. It’s October 21st, as I’m recording this and it’s just such a beautiful day here in suburban Philadelphia. It’s like the last gasp of summer. And I just want to say thank you summer, you haven’t been horrible. And I just want to honor that and just leave the windows open, and we can deal with the sounds. Maybe you’ll listen to this over the wintertime, and you’ll lament the loss of summer. And the winter, <sigh>, I’m not a winter person. Anyway, if I get on that track, we’ll be here all day. Let’s begin with the topic.
Pete: Fewer and fewer people of faith are willing to suppress that voice telling them that something isn’t right, that their faith doesn’t match up with their day-to-day experiences. And wrestling with faith, rather than just defending it tooth and nail, but wrestling with it – really wrestling with faith – has become the new normal. Heaven help us if we stop questioning what we believe.
Pete: Alright, our topic today is actually not a very daring point. You know, it’s really not, in fact, it sounds a bit obvious the more you say it. And yet it’s an idea that many struggle with and here it is, here’s the basic idea: Our experiences change how we think of God. And they do that by challenging our ideas about God. And as a result, what happens, well, we wind up wrestling with God and adjusting our understanding of who God is and what God is like. And making those adjustments, you know, based on our experiences, is a normal part of the life of faith. I mean, just ask yourself, whether you believe today the same way you did five or ten or more years ago. Probably not. How come? Because life happened, stuff happened, that’s just the way it is.
Now, these experiences that challenge our view of God, you know, they can come at any time without warning. They can come from anywhere, we can’t script them. And they can be about anything, even the most little and insignificant kinds of things. And those challenging experiences that just happen upon us, they perform a vital role in the life of faith. What they do, at least this is what I found to be true, they expose a faith that’s on autopilot. A faith that has sat too long in one spot and has become, let’s say, overgrown with weeds and vines. Our every day, unscripted experiences, if we pay attention to them, if we let them enter into our consciousness, they have a way of forcing us to wrestle with our faith ready or not. And we do need to wrestle.
Let me relay one experience to you to illustrate what I’m trying to say here. My graduate school classmates and professors came from many walks of life, various countries, and numerous religious backgrounds. You know, few of them remotely understood who I was and where I was coming from. And during that time, you know, I sort of had, again, tell me if this is something that you can relate to. I had like a default view of God, of what God was like. And this default view of God is one who drew thick lines between people like myself and everyone else. Right? It’s what I believed and what they didn’t believe. So, that was sort of the thick line between us. And I have to say, I didn’t hold that view of God so much consciously, like it was on my mind all the time, but it was quietly sitting in the background of my life. And you know, I also remember people in my community telling me before I began my studies how great it was that I was heading off to get a PhD, but just, you know, I heard this – just make sure you don’t let them change you and your beliefs.
You know, I was in the right about God and the others were not. There are two types of people, right? Well, the thing is, spoiler alert, I was changed and not just by what I was studying, as I got to know, you know, my professors, my colleagues, that default view of God, that line drawing God that, you know, I’m on the right side of things and they are not, that just became harder and harder to maintain. And as I lived and studied side by side with them for five years, you know, that line drawing just seemed like it didn’t explain very much, it just seemed very out of place to me. You know, were they really God’s enemies, in need of a good dose of white suburban Calvinist evangelicalism? Is that something I could even expect of them? Is their adopting my ways any more likely than my adopting their ways? You know, they were born under certain circumstances and had life experiences that shaped them into what they were, just as I had. So, you know, am I on the right side of the universe simply because I was born where I was and had the influences I had? Had I been born elsewhere what I be? Plus, these people were often much nicer and generally less neurotic and combative than many Christians I had known.
So, I had to ask myself the big question, what does God think of them? Does God have less compassion on them than I do? Are they really bound for eternal torment when they died, just because of who they are and where they’ve been and under what circumstances they were born? And you know, I know the Bible verses, right?
“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”
“There is salvation in no one else,” (Jesus), “for there is no other name under heaven, given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
Right? I get that. I really do. But still, all I’m saying is that at that moment, the Bible verses seemed out of sync with what I was seeing right in front of me. My graduate school years were my first real experience of living alongside people way outside of my familiar boundaries. And I have to say, one thing that has stuck with me these last, I guess, it’s 32 years or so is that God’s presence was with me, during that time of change. I firmly believe that God was leading me, if I can use the metaphor, God was leading me and now for the first time my mind was cracked open just to consider in real time facing actual people, not people at a safe distance like in a book or something, right? But being open to consider that my view of what God was up to in the universe might be inadequate and in need of adjustment to account for what was happening, really happening, in my heart, in my mind, and in my gut. Maybe, just maybe, my view of God was actually limiting God, which can be hard to hear if you think you’re right. But you know, alas, maybe I don’t know everything.
So, over the years, I have come to see faith not as a settled, comprehensive thing, where every i is dotted, and every t crossed in this, you know, complex belief structure where everything has to hang together. But I see faith more as a movement toward God and a movement toward the expectation that I will need to wrestle with my beliefs. And such a faith is paradoxical, I think. It’s unsettling and uncomfortable. And it is, but at the same time, it’s freeing. And, you know, I have no problem admitting that I’m very much in a process of learning to live into that freedom, freedom from fear, freedom from worrying about being wrong, a freedom from being judgmental, or being judged, a freedom from the need to be right, freedom from just general crankiness because you’re worried all the time, right? And just to accept my full humanity and be open to exploring with curiosity the mystery of God and of creation. That’s what I’ve come to live into. At least that’s the plan. That’s what I’m working towards.
And, you know, my path is my path. And my story isn’t dramatic or even really that unusual, and I certainly don’t think that I’ve reached some profound insight that I now graciously offer to the waiting world.
My story is more or less the same story I see played out all around me by, you know, family, friends, coworkers, church members, and many people I’ve never met, but I feel I sort of know at least virtually, right? Here’s the pattern that I’ve experienced and that I see around me. People believe X about God because they’ve been taught to. But then something happens, some experience crosses their path, and now they have trouble believing in X. Perhaps L or Z are more true. And that process is often marked by fear and uneasiness and it’s made even worse because they get scolded by the religious community. They feel very alone.
But as I see it, fewer and fewer people of faith are willing to suppress that voice telling them that something isn’t right, that their faith doesn’t match up with their day-to-day experiences. And wrestling with faith, rather than just defending it tooth and nail, but wrestling with it, really wrestling with faith, has become the new normal.
Now, by new, I don’t really mean new. Stick with me here, folks. I mean, it’s new to many of us, whose faith happens to be played out in the Western world or in cultures affected by, let’s say, the hyper-rationalistic Western ways of thinking about everything. And specifically, in the Western context, I am talking about evangelical and fundamentalist traditions of the last, let’s say, 100-200 years. And again, I say this every time I mention that, but I’m not being negative by saying evangelical and fundamentalist, I’m just trying to be descriptive. And this is the context that many of you who listen to this podcast, that’s the context you live in, or have lived in, or are trying to find ways to live in, whatever. So, I’m mentioning them specifically – evangelicalism and fundamentalism.
Now, here’s the thing. These two movements are not the same. Historically, and you know, many of you know this evangelicalism that we know today, it really arose in the middle of the 20th century as a reaction to fundamentalism, right? Because fundamentalism has, you know, a highly literalistic view of the Bible, a general rejection of science that is seen to conflict with the Bible. And, you know, just a general isolation from anything deemed worldly, which could be many, many, many things. It’s very separationist. Evangelicalism tried to forge a different path of not being so separationist. However, nowadays, at least in popular culture, you know, you people watch the news and read stuff online just like I do. It’s really hard to distinguish the two, right? They’re typically collapsed together simply under the title “evangelicalism.” There are a lot of people out there called evangelicals who are not evangelical. They’re Christian nationalists or they’re fundamentalist or something. They’re not evangelical. However, that’s the term we’re stuck with, right? And it is a historical faux pas, to call all these people evangelical. And I know a lot of evangelicals who are trying very hard to sort of maintain the distinction between the two. I think it’s an uphill battle, but anyway. My point is, I just want to be fair. There are differences between the two. Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism are not the same thing, so don’t get me wrong.
But that being said, as distinct as these groups may be in certain important respects, they share a core feature. Both, now this is one of the punch lines here folks, both are deeply intellectual movements. Now, some of you might be rolling your eyes at this moment, hearing me say that and, you know, if you’ve left these movements, for example or maybe you’re on the outside looking in with bewilderment that how can you call these people intellectual, right? This claim may sound odd, right? I know many exvangelicals and others that have left the movements in part because they got weary of the intellectual echo chamber, and all that may be true. But evangelicalism and fundamentalism are nonetheless intellectual movements because their core values are doctrines, ideas, beliefs about God, about the nature and ultimate fate of humanity and biblical inerrancy among other things.
These doctrines are ideas, they’re thoughts, they’re products of generations of battles against other ideas and these are deemed now essential to faith, absolutely binding for all who want to claim the Christian faith as their own. And because these doctrines, these ideas, right, these thoughts are so vital, so central, well, that’s why there is an extensive and well-rehearsed apologetics industry to protect the intellectual credibility of these ideas.
Okay now, why am I saying all this? Well, coming back to the main topic here, when the thoughts of God that we amass, when those thoughts are the only things that count in our understanding of who God is, it leaves little room for valuing our experiences. You know, supposedly, our experiences are fleeting and subjective, whereas our thinking is analytical and objective. In fact, and I wonder how many of you have heard this, our experiences are untrustworthy, and they are to be held in deeeep suspicion, because they are subjective at best and at worst born of sin and rebellion, the fertile ground for Satan to sow seeds of unbelief. The only thing that can truly be trusted is the ideas that the Church teaches and the Bible supposedly provides us with God’s ideas in black and white, we just need to read it.
Now, one problem, least as I see it, is that Christians have very different ideas about what those ideas of God should be. But that’s actually a whole other topic, I don’t want to get into that. More to the point here, the fact remains that our experiences, well, we have experiences that actually do collide with our beliefs, especially rigid beliefs. This is common among Christians I know, at least, it happens all the time. “I’m seeing this, I’m feeling this, I’m experiencing this, but the Bible says this. What do I do?” Right? The collisions happen and when they do happen, when they do collide, when our experiences and our belief systems collide, simply being told ignore your experiences, and just listen to sound church doctrine, that sounds like really hollow, even naive advice, and after a time, it just eventually runs out of steam.
The reality is that when experience and our current ideas of God butt heads something, sooner or later, gives. What gives? Well, some choose to marginalize or explain away their troubling experiences. And they do that because it allows them to maintain their beliefs as they are, with maybe just minimal modifications. So, you know, crisis averted. Others, like me, believe that our experiences cannot be sidelined so easily without causing a complete break, a deep break inside of us between our souls and our existence. And so, we look for ways to fold somehow our experiences into our faith, to have a conversation between our tradition and our existence.
I’m talking about adjusting what we believe because of our experiences and that is often misunderstood, even maligned as believing whatever you want to just to feel more comfortable, you know? Tickling itchy ears, or, you know, a cafeteria style faith, and I actually get that, I understand. And I’m against this sort of narcissistic belief as much as anyone, and it’s definitely out there. But what I’m talking about, folding our experiences into our faith, that’s not remotely narcissistic. It’s actually a sweaty, tiring, unnerving and disorienting struggle with ourselves, our communities of faith, maybe our employers, our families, and with God. No one who has ever walked this path has jolly memories, they have scars. You know, leaving a religious system that had once provided so many certain and comforting answers to life’s problems, that’s hard to do. It’s like leaving a walled city that’s fully stocked and just venturing out empty handed into a barren wilderness. Not only is it uncomfortable, but you might not survive. Not to mention, you make enemies quickly of those who were once closest to you: friends, families, coworkers, whoever. I think those who minimize and mock the struggle as weak-kneed, have simply never experienced it, but it’s real and It’s all around us.
I remember the day it all unraveled for me and I was in my 40s. And until recently, I had been a professor in a Calvinist seminary, I won’t go into the details, it’s just not important here. If you’re interested, I talk about this a bit in The Bible Tells Me So and also The Sin of Certainty. But anyway, as a faculty member, every year I, along with everyone else in the faculty, had to sign a pledge that we still believed, without reservation, what that tradition’s doctrinal statement said was absolutely true. And that statement was written in the mid 17th Century, it’s called the Westminster Confession of Faith and it’s about 100 pages long, it’s about 33 chapters. So, it’s not a pamphlet.
It’s not, you know, “Ten Things We Believe” on church websites or something like that. It’s hefty. And it’s proof texts and all sorts of things. It’s a considerable document. And this thorough, detailed document, that was our theological boundary. We were allowed some minor disagreements, but not the space to even gently revisit, let alone interrogate any of these doctrines. It was basically permanent truth. It was all or nothing. So long story made short, again, there are a lot of details that are interesting to probably ten of you out there, but I won’t get into any of that. But long story made short, I eventually decided to resign from what had become a very toxic environment for me. And at first, I was so relieved, like I had been broken out of a medieval dungeon or something like that, you know, freedom at last. But it came at a cost, and I will say, an unforeseen cost.
And this is the important part… after about eight months, after I left, right? About eight months after I left, and I’m still searching for the words to describe the experience, but I suddenly felt like a fog had just descended on me. And I felt weightless, you know? That out of body feeling. Like I had been pushed off a high building and like waiting for my stomach to catch up to the rest of me before I hit the ground. Everything was just darkness and emptiness inside. Never experienced that before. And I remember vividly, still, even today, and I always will, that precise moment when my soul left my body. I was standing in the middle of my bedroom. It was an April morning; I remember that, right? An April morning and the sunlight was just- it was a nice day, it was streaming onto the wood floor. I’m standing there looking out the window. And I uttered something to myself that I never thought I’d say and couldn’t believe I said it when I did. I simply said, “I don’t think I believe anything anymore.”
And it was hard for me to admit that to myself, after all, I had all these degrees and had been teaching future pastors for years the fine points about God, the Bible, and faith. This was my jam, my area of expertise. But those words just squished out of me like they wanted to, like they needed to. And I wasn’t proud of it, but that voice finally had it say. And before I knew it, those words had just escaped my lips. They were out there existing and I couldn’t pull them back, there they were.
And as that was happening, another voice spoke up inside of me, a very clear voice, not a voice-voice. You know what I mean? Just it’s just this inner sense that I had, this inner intuition, which we all call a voice, a clear voice, a good voice that spoke both comfort and also a certain dread and terror. And that voice said, “Well, Pete, you wanted to be free from being told what to believe. And now you got it. So, what do you believe?”
Now, I didn’t realize it at the time. But I later came to understand that this was my moment of authenticity, my moment of honesty. That unexpected, unscripted, random moment standing there staring out the window, well, that was going to set me on a spiritual course for the rest of my life. Faith was now a wrestling match, not signing on the dotted line. This moment was a God moment. Not, as some might think, an act of rebellion or weak faith. It took, in fact, tremendous faith to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
And I came to see that this this death, which is what it was, was actually a beginning, even though it didn’t feel anything like that at the time. You know, I felt as if, I got this Marvel comic thing in my head, I felt as if some Hulkish fist had just
[Hulk voice] smash,
[Normal voice resumes, light laughter] smashed down the reset button, wiping clean any lingering fantasy that my ideas of God were permanent. Who do I think I was? My goodness gracious. And you know, I wasn’t backsliding. Boy, do I hate that term anyway. It’s so, it doesn’t mean anything anyway. I wasn’t backsliding. It’s worse than that, I was snapped back to square one. I was starting from scratch and it scared me half to death. I didn’t know what to do. Because now, no one was doing the heavy lifting for me and only asking me to sign on the dotted line once a year. From here on out, what I believed, if anything, would be up to me entirely. After many years of a highly scripted faith, I would now need to exercise atrophied muscles that I had forgotten I had to venture out and find a faith of my own, or none at all. That choice was before me and it was mine alone to make.
And soon, and for many months thereafter, all the questions that I had been tucking away in my subconscious began to break through, like, well it’s almost Halloween, like ghouls from a crypt. Questions about whether God exists, whether God is in any way personal, whether the Bible is really God’s Word or merely human words, whether Christianity is exclusively true, what really happens after you die, is prayer waste of time, and on and on and on and on. But you get the drill. I was revisiting basic questions of meaning that I hadn’t asked for decades. Maybe it was about time I circled back. It was time for my understanding of God to catch up with who I had become. Now hear me, I didn’t say it was time for God to catch up, but my thinking about God to catch up.
So, struggling with faith has become an expression of my faith as odd as that may sound to some. The difference between my before and after bedroom experience isn’t that I’ve now found a new and better vacuum-sealed faith with bigger and brighter answers, so that now I can finally get on with the business of believing the right things. Rather, this wrestling is how I now do faith, not to be risqué or rebellious, but because my life experiences, which I believe God knows all about, have guided me to this point. Ignoring them is what landed me in quite a spiritual and emotional mess and I intend never to repeat that mistake.
I’ve made peace with what Barbara Brown Taylor, you know, in that beautiful book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, it’s one of my favorite spiritual books ever. But I’ve come to make peace with what she calls lunar spirituality, right? Just like the phases of the moon, my life of faith is at times full and bright; other times empty and dark, with a lot of waning and waxing in between.
So no, this is no cool and hipster rejection of faith to get a lot of likes on social media. It is a wrestling that is real, it is disorienting, it’s unsettling, it’s frightening, and it’s unavoidable. And as it turns out, wrestling is also absolutely necessary for a faith that wants to grow. Our experiences are calling us out of where we are to encounter the boundless creator of the infinite cosmos, I would put it that way. And this God of the infinite cosmos is, by definition, out ahead of us. The God of our own image needs to be corrected now and then and our experiences are what prompt that process.
Now, to anticipate a point, I’m not saying that our thoughts about God are all bad all the time and we just need to press reset whenever something isn’t working for us. I actually believe that all of our thoughts of God, mine included absolutely, all of our thoughts of God are incomplete and misguided in some true sense. But God nevertheless can and does meet us wherever we are. And I actually think that’s the heart of the Incarnation – God with us where we are, who we are. So, I believe that God speaks to the most ardent, uncompromising, fundamentalist and the most wacky, whatever happens, everything goes progressive Christian.
Our beliefs about God as you move through the stages of our lives are adequate and sufficient for the moment. But at some point, because we’re human and we’re growing and maturing all the time, the beliefs that once served us so well, well, they eventually come up short, because something happens. Maybe like me meeting different kinds of people in graduate school, something happens that will awaken us to the reality that our current beliefs, our thoughts of God, will only take us so far. There is more to say than what we currently think.
Let me put this another way, the problem is not necessarily the beliefs themselves as much as believing those beliefs to be permanent and then ignoring the signals that life gives us to be open to change, so that we can be open to God. One reason this process of deconstruction as it’s often called, by the way, I’m not crazy about the term, it’s fine. Um, if you’re interested, I have like a five-part series on deconstruction, that’s on Instagram and also on my Facebook page. So, if you’re interested, you know, watch that. It’s very short. So anyway, but back to the point, one reason this process of deconstruction can be so painful is because we’ve been taught that the essence of faith is to hang on to our ideas for dear life. Few of us are taught that we should expect our experiences to challenge and rock our beliefs over the course of our lives, sometimes slowly, sometimes in a big moment. We’ve been taught to see our experiences as dangers, rather than a summons to grow.
A core lesson I’ve learned in my wrestling with faith, and again, this is not new. None of this is new, right? That’s sort of the point here. But a core lesson that I’ve learned in my wrestling with faith is that our language about God is metaphorical. It’s an approximation of the mystery of mysteries that will always elude our comprehension. Our thoughts of God are adequate, but they’re also to be held with the expectation that they will and must change over time. I mean, how many of us think about God the same way today as we did 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago? Very few of us, I would guess. As I experienced in graduate school, what I thought I knew about God as a line drawer, though making sense for a time, turned out to be exposed as really not knowing God. That’s the conclusion I came to. As far as I can see, admitting that our knowing is always mingled with not knowing is what it means to believe.
Now, if you’re curious, the technical term for what I’m describing here is apophatic theology and the idea is very old in Christianity. Now, I’m happy to say that I’m still exploring what I think exactly, but working it out has become part of the life of faith, not having it worked out quickly. By contrast, trying to jam my unruly experiences into a belief system that tells me I have to hold those experiences at bay, that’s just soul sucking for me. And I simply cannot, and I will say, I will not believe that this is what the God of the universe is about, you know? “Don’t question, don’t think, don’t explore. Just defend, just fall in line.” Rather than centering my life of faith on the thoughts in my head. I’ve learned to honor my experiences as a vital component of my faith, not the whole thing, but a vital component of it.
Now, another problem with any intellectualized system of beliefs about God is they minimize the way in which people do, in fact, experience God, which is through their whole being – not just conceptually, not just analytically. And remember, I’m saying that as a very left-brained German with a PhD. I don’t dismiss the power of the brain of analytical thought. I like logic and analysis and facts, but I’m also very much aware, from my own experience, that our intellectual faculties are not where the spiritual life primarily happens. And our minds are part of it, but not all of it.
I’m sure a lot of you are probably aware of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, sounds more like a dance move, and in a way, theologically speaking, it sort of is, but it’s the brainchild of John Wesley.
He’s the 18th-Century founder of the Methodist movement. And the Quadrilateral is, I mean one way of putting it, it’s a way of explaining how we arrive at our beliefs about God. And quadrilateral, there are four things that sort of work together and they’re scripture, our tradition that we’re a part of, our reasoning ability, and our life experiences. So, scripture, tradition, reason, experience. And these four things, they’re always influencing each other, or better, they interpenetrate each other. None exists in isolation from the others, and none can just survive on its own.
For example, if we’re trying to understand whether, say, let’s just pick a totally hypothetical scenario, if we’re trying to understand whether one can be gay and a Christian, what are you going to do? Well, one is certainly going to engage scripture, that’s part of the church’s tradition, the church at large, you don’t ignore the Bible, you’re always dealing with it somehow. But how one engages scripture is informed by, well, the particular Christian tradition that we might be a part of. It’s also influenced by our ability to reason through things and discern. And it’s also influenced by our experiences as human beings. The life of faith involves not just reading the Bible and like getting objective truth from it, but rather, it involves our whole being, our traditions, our reasoning and our experiences. That’s why people who differ can actually enlighten each other. We bring different things to the table, different angles from which to look at something very complicated.
Or maybe you’ve heard of the Episcopal three-legged stool, which is attributed to Richard Hooker. He’s a 16th-century Anglican theologian. Here we have three, not four. We have scripture, tradition and reason and they work together to help put our faith into words. Now, this three-legged stool leaves off experience as a potential fourth thing, you know, but that’s fine experience isn’t ignored. It’s actually basic to all three because, like the quadrilateral, reading scripture, employing reason, and accessing our tradition are all, technically speaking, human experiences. So, we don’t really need experience as an extra category. Okay, for what that’s worth. And I wouldn’t blame you if you felt like this was just way too much information right now, and ignore it if it doesn’t help, but here’s the bottom line with either the four or the three, right? Knowing God is not an objective intellectual quest for the proper ideas, and the rest of our humanity, right? The traditions, the experiences, and the reasoning, where that just sort of makes occasional cameo appearances. It’s not merely what the Bible says, nor what our church doctrines tell us, and it’s not simply about how we feel at a given moment. Being human means all three, or all four depending on what you’re thinking about, all three or all four are inextricably tied together all the time at the same moment. To put it much more simply, our God talk is invariably tied to the various facets of our humanity.
Richard Rohr has his own way of putting it and listeners to this podcast might remember this from our first interview with him, this is way back in 2017. But for him, how we talk about God is like a tricycle. And it’s got three wheels, duh, it’s a tricycle. And those three wheels are experience, Scripture, and tradition. Reason isn’t mentioned because it’s included under experience. But the real breakthrough of this analogy, for me at least, and I’ve seen many people’s eyes just light up and the light bulbs are going off, but the real breakthrough here is that experience in this tricycle is the front wheel. It’s the wheel that guides the back wheels, which are scripture and tradition. Now again, maybe some eyes might be rolling there, but just give this a second. By placing experience at the front, Rohr is not downplaying Scripture. He’s simply acknowledging that reading scripture is not neutral. It can’t be divorced from who we are as people. I mean, you can’t divorce it, and this is why Christians have been disagreeing with each other about a good many things since, I don’t know, the days of Paul. And this tricycle, it needs all three wheels. You don’t have a tricycle without scripture. You don’t have a tricycle without your tradition. Those three wheels are needed, but our experience is primary for what direction our God talk takes.
Now, let me just illustrate this with an example. Not from my own life, but something you may remember back in 2013, there was a story in the news that involved a Republican Senator Rob Portman who was a Methodist and from the state of Ohio, and he very openly reversed his position on gay marriage two days after his son came out to him. And in his press release, this is what he said, I think this is so well put and there a couple moments here that I want to focus on. He says, “I have come to believe,” even just that, “I have come to believe,” not, “I believe,” “I have come to believe that if two people are prepared to make a lifetime commitment to love and care for each other in good times and in bad, the government shouldn’t deny them the opportunity to get married. That isn’t how I’ve always felt as a Congressman, and more recently, as a Senator, I opposed marriage for same sex couples. But then, something happened that led me to think through my position in a much deeper way.”
See, I like that, “something happened,” that pretty much summarizes the point of the whole podcast, something happened that made Senator Portman change his mind and that’s the way it works. An unexpected experience has an immediate and profound impact on what we thought we knew for sure about God only a few minutes earlier. And to be really clear, it’s not just Portman’s view of human sexuality that changed. His understanding of God changed. He came to believe, not just that same sex marriage was fine, he came to believe that God is okay with something he wasn’t okay about just a few minutes earlier.
Whether we’re talking about a quadrilateral, a stool, or a tricycle, whatever, what ties these three schemes together is the formative role of human experience for how we think of God and what faith in this God means. And I hope no one will think this to be a fad. John Wesley is 18th-century. Richard Hooker lived in the 16th-century.
And you know, here, just a side thought here, maybe it’s just a coincidence, but I don’t think so. Richard Hooker, that was the time and also John Wesley as well, but that was a time when the church was wrestling seriously with the challenging discoveries of science, namely, you know, Copernicus and Galileo and all that kind of stuff, and how they up ended the ancient view of the cosmos, putting the Earth at the, not at the center, but off on the side and the sun is the center. And the experience, maybe this is what happened, the experience of an altered cosmos led to a rethinking of what we think of God.
Maybe that’s sort of behind Richard Hooker and John Wesley, I don’t know that for a fact, I’m just sort of riffing here. But the truth is, experiences have brought people to wrestle with their faith for some time going back to the biblical period itself. And here again, I just want to point you to my last book, sounds like a commercial and it’s really not, because I hate this, but How the Bible Actually Works came out a couple years ago, I really go into a lot of detail about how, within the Bible itself, biblical writers have different impressions of God, different understandings of God, depending on where they are, when they are, what’s happening, their experiences. This is really not new. Our experiences do affect our beliefs, and I have to say, I’m not sure why that’s controversial. I’m also not sure how that fact got buried so deep underground.
All right. So, there we have it, things happen. Right? Something happens. What we thought we knew about God is confronted by an everyday experience that challenges, upsets, or refuses to align with those thoughts. So, what happens next? What do we do?
Well, as I see it, we basically have three options. The first is we can just stay the course and keep the faith right as it is or maybe modify it a little bit and we will do that by doing something to our experience. We’ll ignore it. We’ll explain it away. We’ll modify it. We’ll minimize it or something. But stay the course, keep faith exactly as it is with maybe a couple minor changes.
The second option is just to give up and step away from the life of faith altogether. Listen, if this faith doesn’t align with what I experienced, to heck with the faith, I can’t deny what I’m seeing. So, you know, just step away from faith altogether.
The third is that we can receive our experiences with gentleness and with curiosity and see them as gifts, to see them as experiences of God and allow them to speak to us about how our understanding of God might need to be adjusted. I’ve come to rest in this third option, to accept the challenge of what my experiences are telling me and to see the wrestling that results as, I said this before, but as an expression of faith in a mysterious God who is both knowable and at the same time veiled. And this path of faith, again, is not easy. But it reminds me of something that I think I need constant reminding of, that the God I speak of in my faltering manner remains truly beyond my words and thoughts always out in front of me, which is where God rightly belongs, out in front of me, rather than being captive to the limits of my mind.
Alright, so in closing here, I can point to a number of experiences that have pointed me to a bigger God. And science is, for me, it’s a big one, as I’m sure it is, for many of you. And you know evolution, I’ve written a bit about that and I’m beginning to try to understand very basic things of quantum physics, that’s a whole thing to itself, and among other sciences, but especially cosmology, right? This- ugh. The incalculable size of the universe has had a hold on me since I was very, very young. And you know, think about this, you know, the universe and all that, think of the cosmos this way. In the Bible, both Psalm 19 And Romans 1, just to give two examples, both of them, connect our knowledge of God to our knowledge of the created world. You know, how you see the world is, you know, how you’ll see God through that.
So, Psalm 19, a very famous Psalm, begins, “The heavens are declaring the glory of God; and the firmament,” that’s the dome overhead, “proclaims His handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.” And Paul, he writes in Romans 1:20: “Ever since the creation of the world his (God’s) eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”
See, the heavens or creation, they show us God. The thing is that our Heavens are very different from the heavens and the creation in the days of the psalmist and the days of Paul. We do not experience them the same way they did. We talk in terms of light years and distances and things that boggle the imagination, they’re not just beautiful, they’re incomprehensible. And if we want to connect God and creation, as the Psalmist did and as Paul did, we need language to speak of God that can account for these things. Which is why mystery has become a big word for me as I think about God.
Another big issue is just grappling with the Bible, you know? It’s- I do this for a living, right? This is my thing. But grappling with the Bible as a historical document written at times in history so different from ours… it’s not a magic book dropped out of heaven, but it’s dripping with, not just humanity but ancient humanity. See? How do we connect today with a God of yesterday? That is an ever-present question for me that affects how I think about God. Actually, what it does, is it reminds me that I have to think about God, I don’t have the luxury of getting off the hook.
Another issue for me, and again, I just mentioned these because maybe these are yours too. But just you know, living life and trying to pay attention. Especially, you know, as a husband, a parent, and now a grandparent, my understanding of God has changed over time because I’ve experienced life over time. My understanding of God has not been watered down, which I know some people probably think but I would disagree. My understanding of God has not been watered down. It’s actually blossomed into something bigger and better, to something so clearly beyond me that it refuses to identify completely with my thinking.
So, let me be bold here, I hope, I really do hope – I have an agenda here. I hope we can all come to embrace that our challenging experiences are not the enemy of faith and nor should they be like clipped and trimmed to fit our existing ideas of God. I think those experiences are actually calling us to expand our notions of God beyond where we are at the moment, because again, God is always out ahead of us. And I believe that our deepest challenges to faith, the ones that threaten to undo everything, those big things and those little things as experiences, well I believe they are part of the mystery of faith, precisely because they lead us to question what we believe. Heaven help us if we stopped questioning what we believe. That’s not respecting God, I think that’s disrespecting God. And rather than feeling fear and shame over an evolving faith, let’s call it that. Let’s coin the phrase. Haha. Right? Rather than feeling fear and shame over the fact that our faith is evolving, maybe we can see that the God of the infinite universe nevertheless embraces us, our humanity, and understands our human predicament and is working with it. And so, it’s okay to try to understand and say, “I don’t know, I don’t understand.” The ancient Christian faith actually has ample room to allow us to sit with our experiences and to ask questions rather than to herd everything into a pen and to make it all stay and behave. And God not only can handle our experiences, but I believe that God works with them to move us along. And that, I think, is the new normal.
Okay, folks, that’s all for this episode, though I feel like I’m just getting warmed up. There’s a lot to say. But thanks for listening and see you next time.
Stephanie: You just made it through another entire episode of The Bible for Normal People. Well done to you, and well done to everyone who supports us by rating the podcast, leaving us a review, or telling others about our show. We are especially grateful for our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you would like to help support the podcast, head over to patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople where for as little as $3/month, you can receive bonus material, be a part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.
Dave: Our show is produced by Stephanie Speight; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team – thanks for listening.
[Music continues, then ends with whistling]
Pete: Hey Dave.
Yay! Okay, here you go.
Pete: You know, plus these people were-
I have to start that again, I’m trying not to say “you know.”
[In a very serious, super stern voice]
Don’t put that on an outtake.
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