I have recently been reading, and re-reading, a beautiful little book “Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God” by Brian Zahnd. It was recommended by a dear old friend of mine and I am so grateful for the recommendation. This book evokes a variety of emotions for me. On my first read, feelings of gratitude and comfort washed over me as I enjoyed the way the author’s conversational style gently picked apart the centuries and generations of misreadings that have misled so many to imagine their god as an angry, vengeful old asshole in the sky.
On a second read, those same passages evoke feelings of remorse and regret as I reflect upon the innumerable ways I have harmed others as the result of my own misreading and misimagination of my god as an angry and vengeful misanthrope. I regret how many times I have acted and spoken in arrogant certainty to and about others. I regret how easy it was for me to believe in a simplistic, narrow, and out-of-context misreading of a couple of lines in the bible as some kind of divine mandate to exclude or judge or combat others. Particularly others on the margin. Others already vulnerable and wounded. I regret how easy it was for me to, right after taking a simplistic, narrow, and out-of-context reading of bible verses that suited my bigotry, to pivot to the need for the hermeneutics and exegesis of scholarly experts in order to maintain some coherence between logic, rationality, and the brand of faith I was subscribed to.
Both reactions are, for me, incredibly important in my personal journey. I’d be a liar if I told you I often feel like my journey has been one of continuous improvement over the previous twenty-plus years of adulthood. Sometimes, when I look back on my 18-year-old self, and recall how deeply he felt his laughter, and how passionately he pursued his beliefs, I wish to go back in time to know those days of striving valiantly.
But the thing is, every arch-villain thinks he’s striving valiantly. I don’t think there’s any such thing as the nefarious bad guy who steeples his fingers and cackles loud and long as he relishes his villainy. The bad guys genuinely think they’re daring greatly. They think they’re striving valiantly against cold and timid souls. They think they’re the hero in the story. That’s what I thought, anyway, each time I’ve been the villain in somebody else’s story.
And so, while in the midst of the periodic existential angst that is my 2020, I’m grateful I’m no longer as certain as I was in the days of my youthful zealotry. As I grow more and more convinced of the toxic effect certainty has for my intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth, I’m reminded of an article a mentor shared with me early in my career. It was originally published in the Harvard Business Review in 1991, and introduced me to the notion of double-loop learning (and thinking). Here’s a link to the article, you should read it, especially if (like me) you’re among the legion of hypocrite educators whose life work is learning yet who are so resistant to, well, learning: https://hbr.org/1991/05/teaching-smart-people-how-to-learn
Back to Zahnd. Here’s a snippet from his first chapter: “It’s true that we can piece together a mosaic of a malicious God by selecting the most gruesome passages of the Bible. But this doesn’t mean we have revealed God as he is. Sometimes the Bible is like a Rorschach test: our interpretation of the text reveals more about ourselves than about God.”
Sometimes the Bible is like a Rorschach test
Now I should tell you that the first lightning-bolt inspiration this line gave me was to go back and give Alan Moore’s Watchmen yet another read. I mean, it’s the character’s NAME and I never thought to read the panels that showed his mask as changing based on how the other characters are reacting rather than how the character is thinking/feeling/doing. And then… what about re-reading it with his mask changing based on how the reader (that would be me) is thinking/feeling/doing. Fourth wall, broken indeed! But I digress, and have likely lost any readers who are not nerds. Even though everybody’s a nerd, just in different stages of actualization.
Sometimes the Bible is like a Rorschach test
My second lightning-bolt inspiration from this line came to me at mile 6 of my run the other day. Most people who call themselves christians would say they believe people are fallible. In fact, that belief is pretty foundational to christian doctrine. Most people who call themselves christians would also say they believe (or want to believe) the Bible is infallible. Inerrant. That’s a major piece to christian theology as well. So if we trust that people are (sometimes/often/always) wrong, how can we also be so smug with our “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” bumper stickers?!? And brothers and sisters, even though I think I’m too classy to put that bumper sticker on my car, it’s been plastered across my forehead (metaphorically) for most of my life.
So this is where I’m at in this loop of thinking and learning. And it brings me to gratitude for grace. I’m so grateful for the grace that my friends continue to demonstrate towards me each time I’m brashly in the “doom loop” of my own certainty. I’m grateful for the grace of my spouse: her love is tenacious and kind and consistently the image of our God’s character for our children, and for everyone who knows her. I’m grateful for you, dear reader, for making it through to the end of this post. I leave you with these prompts to ponder:
- After reading the HBR article “Teaching Smart People How to Learn,” identify something you’ve resisted learning that you will revisit. I recommend starting with something you have less ego invested in. In my case, it was easier to reflect honestly in the realm of physical fitness than it was in the area of teaching or faith.
- Contemplate certainty. What do you insist remains unquestioned? What are you willing to reconsider? Why? What does this say about your values and aspirations?
- Please, for the love of God, if you’re making mashed potatoes today: LEAVE SOME LUMPS IN!