Assumptions, Faith and Facts
I grew up in Northern Ohio, in rather small towns. Nothing about my childhood was particularly “religious” in nature, other than the fact that I went to a Catholic school. By “religious” I mean the practice of faith, not the belief in anything. It was not until I was 16 that I became interested in “being” a Christian. I put “being” in quotes because at some level most Americans believe they are Christian, however, not nearly as many Americans attempt to live a life according to Christian beliefs. In other words, most Americans, my old self included, are cultural Christians. In academics, this type of faith is usually referred to an nominal Christianity.
Nominal Christians believe in the teachings of Christianity for the most part but their faith is one of only minimal importance. They don’t usually read the Bible for themselves. They don’t usually attend Church services except for social purposes. They don’t really understand all that Christianity teaches, nor do they really understand where some of those beliefs come from. A nominal Christian believes based on cultural assumptions that the religion is correct. They might not realize it, but the foundation of their beliefs is heavily formed from the assumption that certain truths exist. Those truths are rarely challenged. Below are some of the assumptions that the nominal Christian brings to the table.
- God exists
- Heaven and Hell exists
- The Bible is a series of writings that God inspired teachers and prophets to write
- The Bible is inerrant and trustworthy in every way
- The Church throughout the ages has affirmed these truths so we don’t have to investigate things
There are probably more assumptions that I personally had before really becoming a Christian but these are the ones that I already had when I started going to church. These assumptions made it easy for me to become a Christian. If I already believed in the truth of the “good book” then all I was lacking was to read it, learn it, and adjust my life to line up with it. In essence, this is the goal of most Christians. To get right with God and secure for themselves a place in Heaven.
The interesting thing about these base assumptions is that they are the same base assumptions for all variety of Christians. The baby Christian and the seasoned Christian both hold these assumptions. The same is true for a non-Christian living in the USA. Some of these 5 assumptions will be true to them. What I mean to say is that whether one grows up in the church or not, it’s likely that they will posses the same core beliefs of the faith.
Why does any of this matter?
I bring up the issue of cultural religious assumptions because they are so ingrained in our society that it’s actually difficult to convince a person that they are assumptions and not facts. But they are assumptions, not verifiable facts. I know that a number of apologetic types are offended by such a statement so I will address this claim later in the post.
The minute that a Christian begins treating these 5 assumptions as assumptions, rather than facts, then they begin the long journey towards liberal Christianity or towards rejection of faith. Additionally, the longer a person is a Christian, the more painful this journey is going to be. The longer you believe an assumption is a truth, the more difficult it will be to challenge that assumption. For many Americans these assumptions are planted firmly in them even as a child. Deconstructing a belief (assumption or true) is incredibly difficult if it was held since childhood.
To demonstrate the difficulty of belief deconstruction one only has to attend the first semester of Bible college or seminary. Bible colleges and seminaries have introductory classes called hermeneutics which attempts to teach new students how to question their beliefs in an academic method. Nearly all institutions of higher learning have recognized that these assumptions are present and sometimes they hinder the learning process. The goal of a good hermeneutics class is to teach the student to deal with the following the questions:
- Why do you believe that certain thing?
- Where does the source of that belief come from?
- What other interpretations can be drawn from the source material of said belief?
- Given the variety of sources and possible alternatives, can the belief/assumption stand?
You can usually spot a first year Bible student in your church because they have just recently learned to question and challenge the beliefs and practices of the church. They walk around at social functions and ask questions to people like: why do we look down when we pray when the Bible doesn’t instruct us to do so? They take pleasure in the fact they have discovered a new tool that allows them to better define their faith and correct possible errors in it.
This ability to challenge assumptions and reinforce the faith is critical for pastors. However, it can also be destructive. Not all people are able to deconstruct their beliefs without falling into the pit of doubt and disbelief. The road to falling away from the faith starts with the following question: if I was wrong about that one thing, how many other things am I wrong about? Once a person become aware that their beliefs are suspect because they are assumptions and not facts, the journey has truly began. This is the journey that guys like Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson are currently on.
From hermeneutics to heretic
For many Bible college grads, going to school reinforced their faith. It also helped them to see that the extremism of the fundamentalist denominations is rooted mostly in assumptions and not facts. The average Bible college grad understands the variety of Christian beliefs and why so many Christians differ in their beliefs. They have not necessarily become “liberal” but they have realized that fundamentalism is dangerous because it’s foundation is laid on the fact that, that group alone holds the “true” faith. There is only one way. However, the typical Bible college graduate is still be capable of fundamentalism and extremism, though, not as likely as a Christian who did not attend Bible college. Nevertheless, most students of the Bible go on to hold beliefs that are largely in-line with mainstream Christianity and they end up leading healthy churches and ministries.
A small portion of those students go on to even higher education, usually seminary or divinity school, and they commit to an even further deconstruction of their assumptions. Many become liberal Christians, realizing that many of their previously held assumptions were not well founded and that the Bible is not very clear on some issues. By the end of seminary, many Christians have either validated their assumptions as being worthy of standing as facts or they have become even more liberal in their beliefs, having found less answers and more questions. This is why fundamentalist churches refer to seminary as “cemetery”.
A small sub-sect of seminary graduates will go on to finish a Ph.D, in which they will study a very specific field, such as textual criticism of the gospels, or semitic language and culture in the ancient near east. Many doctoral students of the Bible are either liberal in their beliefs or have drastically altered their beliefs to be almost unrecognizable from mainstream Christian teaching. Are these people heretics? Are the confused? I submit that they are neither. They simply examined their assumptions and found them to be less than factual.
The Day I Began To Challenge My Assumptions
At 23 years old, I was still full of assumptions about my faith, even though I had now been a committed Christian for 7 years. I had spent nearly all my time, since age 16, going to Bible studies, various churches, and connecting with Christians. I engaged in occasional apologetics and I read as much of the Bible as I could. I studied theological debates between denominations and I could not wait to begin Bible college. My previous education was in engineering, which was good because I had no idea how many more years I would end up in school studying the Bible. I could not have paid for any of it if I did not already have a career in engineering.
Before taking any classes I was already familiar with hermeneutical methods and how to challenge my beliefs. Just a year earlier I had read “Misquoting Jesus” by Bart Ehrman and it wrecked me temporarily. It dropped on the scene of evangelical Christianity so hard that a slew of apologetic books and preachers cropped up, that made it their mission to defeat Bart Ehrman. Over-night, Bart became enemy #1. I did not see him as an enemy but as a guy that was just following the evidence, even if I thought his conclusions were misguided.
For me, the book made me question the doctrine of inerrancy, a doctrine that most Christians live or die by. Indeed, modern popular evangelical teachers have made a living out of convincing people that the scriptures don’t contain a single error, therefore it must be the word of God. I have even heard apologists say that their are only “apparent” errors in the Bible. An apparent error is just another way of saying that the problem resides on the end of the reader not the text.
The problem with that type of thinking is that the Bible does indeed contain errors and most atheists can easily point them out. There is no difference between apparent errors and errors. Apparent errors only exist if one holds that the Bible is the word of God. Yet apologists will incredulously claim that the they know the Bible is the word of God because it doesn’t contain errors. So this begins the flawed logic of circular reasoning. The Bible is said to be the word of God because it’s free from errors, yet it’s only free of errors because it’s the word of God. It’s an infinite loop.
Rather than just thinking of inerrancy as a theological argument, which as how it’s treated in Reformed circles, I decided to just search the Bible for errors. My reasoning was that no book or person can prove a claim by merely making the claim. It’s circular reasoning. The inerrancy of the Bible should not be based on the fact that verses in the Bible claim that it’s inerrant. It should be based on the fact that I cannot actually find any errors in the Bible. In other words, let’s not start with the assumption that the Bible is the word of God and just examine it for errors.
As it turned out, the Bible contains errors. The NT misquotes the OT in a dozen or more places. the book of Chronicles changes details from stories that are recorded in Kings and Samuel. Factual errors exist such as rabbits chewing cud and the earth being flat with a “foundation” and four corners. The gospel writers get dates wrong. They contradict each other, sometimes dramatically. There is no way to harmonize the empty tomb accounts in the four gospels. The list can go on.
What to make of all these errors?
I was okay with chalking them up to human error. After all, if God entrusted humans with something, it’s going to have the fingerprints of humans all over it. This is why a lot of pastors with higher educations will state that only the original manuscripts of the Bible are inerrant. However, we don’t have any originals so that claim is unprovable. There is no way to test it unless we find originals and even then could we prove they were originals?
It’s at this juncture in biblical study that most Christians either fall away, like Bart Ehrman, or they become more liberal in their theology. Joshua Harris fell away as did Marty Sampson. I just became more liberal. I had hoped that going through Bible college would help be find answers to these problems. It didn’t. A lot of what I learned from Bart Ehrman and my own personal studies is what first year Bible students learn….. if it’s a true academic institution. Because I was only a Christian for a short number of years before academia, I was rather mold-able and capable of adapting. Others in my classes were not as flexible. Even in matters of just theology some struggled hard to adapt.
In a NT class, covering the Pastoral Epistles and the Book of Revelation, I recall having to read a short book titled “Four Views on the Book of Revelation”. I suspect most Bible colleges use this book as a primer. It’s such a widely read book now that even the newest Bibles include a study note on the 4 views to the Book of Revelation. The four views are all plausible. However, one of the older students in class (late 50’s) struggled with deconstructing his long-held view one the interpretation of Revelation. He had grown up on southern theology which was heavy on the literalism of Revelation. For him, the question was pre or post millennial, not preterism or spiritualism. He admitted that after reading the book that he could no longer support his previous belief about interpreting the book. But he didn’t know an alternative to go to. He actually looked lost. Some people cannot handle losing faith in their assumptions, even if they are insignificant ones.
For the rest of the students, we were eager to learn more. I saw few classmates fall away in Bible college, though, I heard rumblings of some here and there who quite school to either avoid the challenges or because they didn’t know what to make of things. However, I was not deterred and off I went to seminary for another dose of realism.
From Fundamentalism to Atheism
For most Christians, like Joshua Harris, growing up in a very conservative environment was a hindrance in the long run, not an advantage. Fundamentalist groups go through drastic measures to reinforce the assumptions of conservative Christian doctrines and practices. They preach that they are the only way and all others are wrong. Often, they border on the line of being a modern cult.
Fundamentalist churches create all kinds of Christian alternatives to secular things so that their adherents wont even come into contact with something that could challenge their faith. They make movies, museums, and even schools dedicated to reinforcing their assumptions and practices. My first run-in with fundamentalists was when was 18 and I discovered that entire churches only read the KJV because supposedly the other versions were corrupted. I was perplexed that large groups of people could just believe something that was so easy to disprove. Ironically, at the time I still believe that the Bible was inerrant. I had yet to challenge my own assumptions vigorously.
Most conservative Christians spend study time learning arguments that support their already held beliefs. What they do NOT do is go out of their way to study arguments that contradict their faith. Such study is dangerous. The deconversions of Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson are the proof. Both Sampson and Harris have lamented the complete lack of answers to the questions that have challenged their faith.
For Joshua Harris, I am assuming his challenges came when he finally took education serious, took a break from pastoring, and attended Bible college. He went to a great academic school in Canada and soon crumbled. For Sampson I am not sure what began his journey of questioning, however, it’s clear that he is frustrated with the lack of answers.
This is a soapbox moment so here I go … How many preachers fall? Many. No one talks about it. How many miracles happen. Not many. No one talks about it. Why is the Bible full of contradictions? No one talks about it. How can God be love yet send four billion people to a place, all ‘coz they don’t believe? No one talks about it. Christians can be the most judgmental people on the planet—they can also be some of the most beautiful and loving people. But it’s not for me.
I am not in any more. I want genuine truth. Not the “I just believe it” kind of truth.
I think Sampson has struck the problematic nail on the head. So much about Christianity, we are told to believe even though it does not make sense and even though it seems to be in contradiction with the Bible. Moreover, why are so few people dealing with the issues of the Bible in a meaningful way? Why are only atheists talking about slavery, rapes, and violence in the OT?
I can feel his frustration. I started this website way back in 2012 because I wanted to spur on debate about the Bible’s problematic passages. I found few professors even in seminary that could provide sufficient answers. Few commentaries took the time to deal with problematic passages. Even academic Hebrew and Greek commentaries tended to skirt some of the deeper theological and historical issues.
How is it okay to murder innocent babies? How could a loving God send anyone to eternal hell-fire for simply not believing? Why did the gospels completely take the OT prophets and Psalms out of context every time they quoted from them? Why are so many of the NT teachings completely disconnected from OT teaching?
Luckily, my faith was never in the perfection of the Bible and I am able to follow after God without having all the answers. Sadly, fundamentalists rarely follow the same path that I did. Once the hole is poked in their dam of beliefs, the hole just grows until the dam breaks and they deconvert. I have witnessed this countless times. The reason is simple…..
A house of even modest foundations can be rebuild and reinforced. Holes can be patches and joists can be sistered. It can withstand some storms. Eventually it will either be rebuilt or it will fall. A house build of cards will eventually just topple. There is no storm it can weather. There are no patches or reinforcements. Once a single card is nudged, the whole thing falls. A slight breeze brings total destruction.
This is the core problem with fundamentalism. It’s built on a very rigid set of poorly researched assumptions and fundamentalists are taught that this is the only way. There are no alternatives. So, when a fundamentalist realizes they had been taught something that is incorrect, they have no alternative to turn to. They can’t turn to the liberal Christians because they are wicked non-believers; or so they were told. They rarely re-brand or re-tool themselves. They often just fall away.
This is the story of so many other Christians who have fallen away, not just Harris and Sampson.
Aleister Crowley was the child of two traveling fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren preachers. Bart Ehrman was born-again in a fundamentalist Baptist environment. Matt Delahunty was part of a conservative church; who, by they way, still believe that the devil has stolen Matt from them. Most of the guys who are on Matt’s show, The Atheist Experience, were, at one time, committed fundamentalist Christians. I worked with a number of atheists who admitted to once being “Bible thumpers”. There is no shortage of Christians turned into atheist. They usually fall away for legitimate reasons, not because the Devil stole them.
The difference between a lifelong Christian and one that deconverts is how they approach their beliefs. A fundamentalist says “this is what I believe, try and prove me wrong”. Once proven wrong they usually fold or reject the proof. A liberal Christian says “this is what I believe, but should I believe it?”
See the difference? One view doubles down on their assumptions until they are proven wrong. The other investigates their assumptions, making changes if necessary.
What does one do when they lose faith in something but don’t have an alternative explanation?
A number of my fundamentalist friends who fell away over the years went through the deconstruction that Joshua Harris speaks of. In his now famous Instagram post Harris seems to know that he no longer fits the mold of Christian belief that he’s come to understand, yet he does not know where he fits in the new reality.
“I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is ‘deconstruction,’ the biblical phrase is ‘falling away,'”
I have read countless blogs and articles trying to rationalize Harris’ deconstruction as a product of “liberal” Regent College or postmodern theology. Others declare that he was never really saved or else he would not have fallen away.
I propose another theory. Joshua Harris is simply finding himself now that he has learned that his fundamentalist assumptions have no real foundation. He has never seriously been challenged in his assumptions until he went to school and I am sure he believed that Regent would bolster his Bible knowledge, not challenge it. Like Many Bible college and seminary students, he is wrestling with the fact that there is far more in the Bible then he was aware of and some of it is incredibly difficult to deal with.
I applaud his honestly to grapple with these issues in an honest way. I appreciate that he is willing to challenge his assumptions, even though someone with his level fame in the conservative circles will draw the ire of many. The same is true for Marty Sampson.
I hope that Harris’ and Sampson’s quests for answers are long enough to lead them to something satisfying. We are not the first generation to grapple with these issues. The early church grappled with the same issues. Their writings are sometimes very helpful and other times not helpful at all. Great Christian thinkers also exist even in our own day. They usually teach at the various colleges and seminaries that happen to toss so many into deconversion. Do not be afraid to talk to them privately.
We must also talk to seasoned Christians in our local churches. I started to take my faith serious before I had a clue what was in the Bible. The people that we see on a weekly basis usually have incredible stories about the miraculous and about encounters with the divine. These stories are an absolute gift and we must provide an opportunity for them to be told.
I was in my 30s before I learned that my aunt hand-typed the original draft of the Civil Rights bill while working in a law office many years ago. I simply could not believe she was so involved in such an influential piece of history and never mentioned it. She simply said “I didn’t think anyone would care to listen to my stories”. This seems to be the case with many Christians. They definitly have a reason for the hope that is in them, we just need to ask about them and listen, without trying to fit them into our theological boxes.
Untimely, our faith is a matter of faith. We believe that Jesus rose from the dead on faith, not on fact. We believe that a benevolent God is in control of the universe on faith. We cannot prove these things beyond a shadow of a doubt. The Bible is a narrative and history of people wrestling with their own faith, a faith that was changed and adapted over the centuries. It’s not a magic book that can lead us to all truth and knowledge, as long as we just read it a certain way.
Stop The Bleeding
Quite some time ago I wrote a short piece called “The Biggest Threat to Christianity is Christianity“. In it I briefly addressed some thoughts on why people are reluctant to go to church or to explore Christianity. However, I think that Christianity has more problems than just attracting new recruits. It’s struggling to hold into existing ones.
Christians often cannot find answers to difficult questions. When they do find answers, they are usually getting them from bad sources or sources hostile to Christianity. Until the church makes a better attempt at challenging people’s beliefs and then guide them with wisdom as they explore their own faith, the church will continue to see many fall away, due to lack of answers to difficult questions.
Until churches stop teaching people that there is only one way to believe or only one denomination is correct, we will continue to produce Christians who simply cannot handle having their beliefs challenged. Moreover, until we end the modern trend of pastors leading churches with zero biblical education, we will continue to see a generation of poorly equipped Christians falling away when their faith is even mildly challenged.
We have to demand more of our pastors and religious leaders than merely giving a motivating sermon on Sunday. If they are not prepared to explore the challenges in the Bible the an atheist will easily take up the role for them.
Lastly, it’s time to change the larger dialog around biblical inerrancy. Until Christian leaders address the errors and contradictions in the Bible, Christians will continue to fall away. If a believe in the Bible is predicated on inerrancy, it’s only a matter of time before that belief is challenged to the point where it dies completely. The claim of complete biblical inerrancy is simply a lazy substitute for faith.