Reading through the bible this year has raised a lot of questions. How could a good God ___? Did God really ___? Why does the bible include ___? Doesn’t this passage contradict this other one? What’s become clear is the bible is a complicated text, just as we are complicated creatures, and no matter how high a view you have of it (as we at NE do), you’re going to have to wrestle at some point. I love the stance our church has taken: instead of ignoring, glossing over, or assuming, we are going to dive in and do the wrestling together. The forum on violence in the Old Testament a couple weeks ago was a great example of that, as have been deep conversations in formation groups, discipleship groups, and beyond.
One issue I’ve encountered, in my own mind as well as in conversations with others, is the “where does that question lead to?” question, also known as the “slippery slope” stance. As an English teacher, I’m predisposed to looking for creative metaphors and figures of speech, and in bringing this into the biblical conversation I’ve had several interactions that have ended with a version of “Calling that a metaphor is a slippery slope—pretty soon you’ll be calling everything, including the Resurrection, symbolic.” There is real wisdom in guarding our hearts and minds as we engage the Scriptures, and yet it seems that often this stance is based more in fear than anything else. We fear that if one secondary belief is found to be wrong, our entire system will collapse, so we don’t expose ourselves to that risk. And, while we should always approach the bible with humility, fear turns out to be more of an enemy than a friend of faith.
So speaking of metaphors, let’s run with this one for a few minutes. The idea goes that if you allow yourself to put one foot on a “slippery slope” you’ll end up, inevitably if not quickly, falling all the way to the bottom and breaking all your bones on the hard rocks of atheism or universalism. And yet slopes can lead upward as well, and keeping off them entirely can neutralize and even deaden our faith. But in order to climb, you need the right equipment—at the very least two boots and a rope—and you always have a climbing partner.
And, while we should always approach the bible with humility, fear turns out to be more of an enemy than a friend of faith.
Boot number one is your brain. It may seem obvious, but often I’ll have students who don’t even try engaging with a complex issue because they assume it will be too hard. But sometimes mental engagement is crucial, and can lead to unexpected lightbulb moments. Saying, for example, X phrase or Y action in the Old Testament is meant to be symbolic does not have to lead to us thinking the Resurrection might be symbolic. Let’s use our brains. When we do, we realize that different biblical writers utilize different genres and might have different intentions, and that God inspires and works through each of those. We discern that the gospels, for example, are intended to be read as literal, that the disciples based their whole lives and ministries around the fact of a literal resurrection (including their deaths), and numerous other proofs that lead us to a literal reading, whereas in the psalms and other poetry metaphorical language dominates the literal. The point is, engaging our minds helps us see distinction and nuance, and lead us, in my opinion, to a richer, fuller understanding of God and how He communicates to us.
Boot number two is effort. If we want to climb higher, or simply to keep from slipping, we usually have to put in some time and energy. Read a few articles, listen to some podcasts, have vulnerable conversations with people you trust, even read a book or two. Put time and energy into your reading of Scripture, cross-referencing, reading larger passages to get context, understanding the history and the fuller Story. Too often people are more comfortable making blanket statements and walking away, instead of doing the hard work of truly digging in and considering a viewpoint. The two boots, by the way, need to work together to really get anywhere.
No real ascent will happen without the rope—the Holy Spirit’s guidance, which in this case is enacted through prayer. The rope anchors you, catches you when you slip, gives you grip to climb higher. Pray before, during, and after you climb, that the Spirit will guide you into truth.
And climbers, of course, never attempt a serious ascent without a climbing partner. Climb in community. Discern and interpret with others whom you trust, and, when possible, who don’t come from the exact same place as you. It’s better to find people who are like-hearted (as Alan Jacobs says) than are like-minded. Climbing with others who love Jesus and want to pursue Him and know Him more is always better (and safer) than climbing alone.
No real ascent will happen without the rope—the Holy Spirit’s guidance, which in this case is enacted through prayer.
Learning about and engaging with Scripture is not the only way to grow in our relationship with the Lord, but it certainly is an important one. And I believe engaging our minds can draw us closer to God and even be worshipful. So let’s not allow the fear of slipping to keep us from climbing toward new understandings of the Lord and how He works amongst us. And let’s climb together.