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The Infallibility Problem

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Sacred texts don’t change so it must be our reading

When I was a kid we made fun of Roman Catholicism because they had a guy in a robe and funny hat who told everyone else what was right and wrong for all time. But what was right and wrong for all time seemed to change depending on the robed/hatted officeholder. This was hilarious to us: how could what was right become wrong and vice versa? If things were really true they would not change. Ha ha—gullible people. My people took marching orders straight from the Bible and that didn’t change.

06252013Years later I realized nearly every one of us erects our own pope: someone who interpreted the sacred texts for us and whom we believed without question. Whomever stood behind the pulpit was a potential pope. For some it was Billy Graham or John Piper. Others looked to Carl Sagan. For a while Richard Dawkins seemed to be pope for hard-line atheists, but a new batch of atheists are sounding sympathetic to what can be learned from conversation with the faithful.

Mind you, I’m not arguing there is no truth. I believe in truth and I believe it can be known by regular people. And I’m arguing for sacred texts (not against): I scour the Bible, want to hear from it and I try hard not to believe everything I think. Only because we humans have this odd predilection to read whatever we want into a text. Any text. Especially a text composed hundreds of years ago in very different cultures by wildly different authors. But what pulls me back to the Bible is the sense of hearing what God might be saying to us today, across generations and cultures and centuries. And the stories about Jesus the Christ pull me back big time—has there ever been anyone like him?

That’s why I don’t believe any one guy or gal owns it. Just like I don’t believe any single reading is the perfect reading. We’re all flawed and we all have only imperfect understanding of the truth. But when we combine our understandings of the truth, that’s when stuff starts to happen. My point is that none of us has a handle on the complete truth—and we desperately need to hear from each other.

I was reminded of this as Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International announced last week the closing of the ministry that aimed to help gay folks become straight folks. His announcement included something of an apology for the people that had been hurt through the years, including the notion that the ministry had been responsible for “years of undue suffering.” How Chambers said it was pretty interesting, at least as reported by David Crary for the Associated Press (and appearing in the StarTribune):

“I hold to a biblical view that the original intent for sexuality was designed for heterosexual marriage,” he said. “Yet I realize there are a lot of people who fall outside of that, gay and straight … It’s time to find out how we can pursue the common good.”

Two things I like about this story:

  1. I like hearing people of faith apologize for inflicting suffering. Mr. Chambers’ apology strikes me as bold. People will take that apology as real or lacking or simply more PR (letters to the Strib include all of the above and Salon finds the apology lacking), but it is a statement out there in the open that would most certainly produce a substantial loss of funding, were the organization to continue. I like the apology also because I’ve wondered what suffering I’ve inflicted on others because of my faith. Apologizing seems like a good communication strategy for repentant bullies like me.
  2. I like hearing Mr. Chambers hold to his understanding of the sacred texts. There is no getting around the fact that the texts do not point to the broad acceptance our culture seeks. And for those of us who hold those texts in high regard as words from God, our deep listening must include lots of wrestling: were they just unenlightened back then or are there theological truths we must still unearth and process together in conversation? And what do those truths look like, given the great varieties of people on the planet?


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

June 25, 2013 at 9:06 am

2 Responses

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  1. Thanks for writing this post. I deeply appreciated your focus on the need for community. We need each other to do this well. Christianity doesn’t do well in silos. We must always remember ourselves in light of “the other” and be aware of that relationship. Good stuff!

    Ryan Ingersoll

    June 27, 2013 at 12:37 am

    • Ryan–thanks for reading!


      June 27, 2013 at 8:03 am

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