Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Necessity of a Critical and Relevant Faith

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of my book, Reframing a Relevant Faith. You can purchase the book from the publisher at or through Amazon at An e-version is also available at

If a relevant and progressive Christianity is to survive and bear witness of God’s love to the world, the adherents to such a faith, those who seek to follow Jesus, must embrace a critical approach to the Christian faith.  Critically thinking about the faith is not equivalent to criticizing the faith, as some may think, although that may be part of critical thinking.  Rather, thinking critically about the faith is to continue to ask questions, to inquire about the history of the faith, its present relevancy, and its future hopes.  It is also to admit its flaws and weaknesses with honesty and transparency.
For this to happen with any degree of success, any question about the Bible, theology, and the practice of faith must be taken as a valid question.   In dealing with the mysteries of God, we should never be completely satisfied with the idea that if the Bible says it, then that settles it. Nor should any of us be entrenched in our own interpretations of scripture.  We should always be open to new ways of thinking about the Bible and theology, for to do so leads us toward the truth and the realization that, in the words of Jesus, the truth will set us free. 
I have no doubt that many readers of this book will quickly identify with what I have to say. At the same time, I have no doubt that just as many others will find what I have written to be difficult to accept, and they may even reject these ideas outright. I am not so bold as to think I have figured it all out. However, I would like to offer my own story that has led me to many of the ideas I am arguing in this book.
Readers of this book will find out rather quickly that I am a person who seeks always to ask serious questions about faith.  I don’t ask these questions to be provocative, and I am not simply playing the “Devil’s Advocate”.  I am also not seeking to create a straw man that I can easily attack.  I am asking such questions with a great deal of honesty about my own interpretation of the Christian faith that has evolved over many years.  There are specific reasons why I asked such critical questions, and why I encourage others to ask challenging questions.
One reason for my determination to raise critical questions about faith, and why I encourage others to do so, is that I grew up in a fundamentalist tradition in which queries about the Bible and faith were not appreciated.  This was particularly true when one tried to ask questions about the inconsistencies found in the Bible, or when one tried desperately to harmonize a belief in a good God with the reality of suffering.  As a teenager, I was told that such questions are not important, and even heretical to ask; only knowing Jesus and believing in him were necessary.  I was satisfied with this answer until a later time when I began to discover the intellectual obstacles one encounters when approaching the Bible for definitive answers.  It was then that I returned to ask those serious questions, which opened more questions, and which eventually led to evolutionary, and indeed revolutionary changes in the way I view the Bible and the Christian faith. I can say with all honesty that this shift in my thinking did not come easy and it took time. In fact, I fought this for some time until I realized that venturing into unchartered waters, at least uncharted for me, led me to a deeper and more satisfying faith.
A second motive for my critical look at the Bible and Christian faith is that I have perceived an insufficient education in our faith and in the Bible on which our faith is based, particularly in churches.  By this I don’t mean that churches are doing a poor job at doing Christian education.  Many churches are doing a fantastic job at providing training in the faith to their members.  But there may be a bit of shallowness to the education we provide, in the sense that we are not always struggling with tough questions. There is no doubt that asking tough questions may lead us down paths that we dare not want to travel, but such questioning may be necessary if we are to make our faith our own.
This deficiency in the kind of Christian education that promotes critical thinking has led not only to biblical illiteracy, but more tragically, to ignorance when it comes to biblical interpretation and theological thinking.  Many Bible study groups do not seriously consider the complexities inherent in reading ancient texts.  Rather they focus only on what these texts say to us as individuals, as if the books of the Bible were written with our needs in mind.  Furthermore, churches are not providing tools to help folks think theologically.  Instead, theology becomes a separate box of propositions we always believe, without critically assessing their value for our context.    
Of course, much of the fault lies with those who print such materials for church groups.  Some materials produced for the purpose of Christian education are often so insipid and limitedly focused that they only serve to heighten our emotional experiences without moving us into a deeper and more thoughtful understanding of God and humanity. While finding personal meaning from the Bible and from our faith is vitally important for Christians, it is secondary to and flows from delving deeply into the text of the Bible to discover something outside ourselves and our own narcissistic needs.  The popular idea that God wrote the Bible for me needs to be stamped out.
Failure to do so will only lead us to assume what the Bible says, or will cause us to make the Bible say what we want it to say without giving careful thought and attention to the text itself.  Moreover, such Bible readings will limit our understanding of our faith to simply a personal spiritual experience.