This is the second guest post by Judy Siker, who last week explained about her upbringing as a Christian in the south and then her move into the academic study of the Bible from a critical perspective. If you recall, Judy was my student in the (very secular!) graduate program in New Testament/Early Christianity here at UNC, where she did both a Masters and PhD in the field, focusing, in her dissertation, on the socio-historical background to the Gospel of Matthew, in particular as that involved the relations of Jews and Christians in the author’s community. She had a rich and varied teaching career in a range of schools — private liberal arts, Catholic university, and Baptist seminary, among them!
In this follow up post Judy lays out her understanding of what the Bible is (among other things, a book that asks compelling questions about matters of faith) and is not (a book that gives us all the incontrovertible answers), partly in response to comments and questions she received. She is willing once more to address any others that come her way.
I’d like to thank her for putting in the time and effort for these interesting and insightful posts!
… and you still believe? Part Two
In last week’s post I offered an overview of my journey from growing up a small town southern girl raised in a moderate Protestant church to having a career in both the academy (in the field of New Testament and Christian Origins) and the church. It was an initial response to the invitation to write a couple of posts about how I can both acknowledge that there are serious problems with the Bible and continue to live in my faith tradition. As such, it was a simple reflection on people and events in my life that have contributed to my ongoing self-identification as a woman of faith. It is clearly my own personal story and not meant to serve as a mirror of or template for anyone else.
Responses to this post ran the expected gamut from those of you who could relate on some level, to those who could relate in part, to those who questioned the intelligence of anyone (me, in particular) who identifies both as a biblical scholar and a believer. As I indicated in the closing of that post, today I continue my reflections, this time moving from the what (that I continue to be a believer) to the how (specifically, how I can continue to stand firmly in my faith and continue to explore the intricacies, nuances and, yes, inconsistencies within the Bible).
Let me begin by saying what this post is NOT. This post is NOT a refutation of readers who hold very different views from mine, be they fundamentalist, atheist, or agnostic. It is NOT a doctrinal statement of beliefs as a Christian; that would certainly take more than a post and, more to the point, that was not the question. It is simply a reflection on how, in my experience, the scholarly world of the New Testament and my Christian beliefs are mutually enriching rather than mutually exclusive.
As I explained in the earlier post I had lots of questions about the Bible growing up, some of which got answered and many more of which did not. And, as I mentioned, it was delightful to find myself in a college class on the Bible and realize that I was not alone in my questioning! It was those questions that lead me ultimately to pursue advanced degrees in biblical studies and, surprisingly to some, to deepen my understanding of the biblical text as my sacred text, that which holds a place of honor in the Christian tradition.
I have to admit that it still surprises me a bit when people decide so adamantly that one cannot have both a scholarly understanding of the Bible and a belief in the Bible as sacred text. I can only say that in my life and in my work it comes down to a strong conviction that life is about living the questions. (I have always been suspicious of folks with all the answers, be they politics or sports or religion. The tracts I used to find under my windshield wiper outlining the “Six Steps to Salvation” or some such information gave me the shivers. If salvation (whatever that means) is as easy as six steps then what’s the point really?) In matters of faith the desire to have answers or, perhaps more accurately, to eliminate questions seems to be a driving force for some. Here is where I differ. I live in the questions—and for me it is the most honest way to live.
It comes as no surprise that in the academy it is questions that drive the gstudy, the research, the writing. It is asking the next question that moves fields forward. I used to tell my students that not only did I give them grades at the end of a semester (the dean insisted), but I also graded myself. The criterion for my self-evaluation was this: Did the students leave the semester’s class with more questions than they brought in? And I meant it. I firmly believe that when we stop asking questions we stop learning and growing. People are usually happy to grant that—at least in terms of the academic study of the Bible.
Many people are not, however, as willing to grant this philosophy in regard to our faith. Why can it not be the same? For me, it is. This, I believe, has much to do with the reason I see the scholarly world of New Testament studies and my Christian beliefs mutually enriching. Through all the years of study, every exegetical move, every dissection of the text, I became more and more intrigued with this body of writings that not only has survived all the centuries but has also survived all our pushing and probing, our analysis and dissections. The more I studied the more I wanted to study and the more I learned the more I was aware of how much I did not know. Whereas the new ideas and the open-endedness of the explorations were a death knell to some of my friends and fellow students, I found it invigorating and felt pushed to raise even more questions. And so I did…and it hasn’t destroyed my faith. Indeed it has enriched it.
A scholarly approach to the Bible will without doubt demonstrate the inconsistencies in the Bible, will introduce the student to issues of authorship and dating and word use and definition. This is all intriguing, well to me, it is. If, however, one comes to the Bible with the idea that it can only be considered sacred text if it is historically accurate, factual, without error or inconsistency, then by all means the scholarly approach is anathema. If one comes to the Bible believing that it contains the answers to all of today’s social, cultural, even scientific questions, then by all means the scholarly approach is anathema. If one comes to the Bible believing that the words in the text came straight from God’s mouth to the writer’s ear, then, once again, and by all means the scholarly approach is anathema.
I understand why these approaches are held by some. If one works hard enough there is little room for questions (often equated with doubts). But as I stated earlier, I live in the questions. Not only do I live in the questions, but I believe we are meant to live in the questions. If there is one thing I’ve learned across the span of my lifetime it is that I will always have more questions than answers. Inevitably as I discover answers in my searching, it leads to yet more questions. But I have come to believe strongly that living the questions is really living.
So throughout my studies I continued to believe that there exists some greater force than you or I. In my tradition we call this force God. I believe that across the ages other humans have experienced this notion of a greater force and they have struggled with how to describe, define, and relate to this force. In the Christian tradition, we have written expression of these struggles in what we now call the Old and New Testaments.
As a biblical scholar and as a woman of faith, I find it fascinating to explore the writings of folks like you and me as they struggled to live life fully. I find it fascinating to explore how they reasoned with and reckoned with one another and life, and I find it hopeful and amazing that we have the record of their journeys in the biblical text.
But if you need to prove that the Bible is factual, historically accurate, then stay away from scholarly pursuits. If you need all the answers to today’s questions from a book that contains materials thousands of years old and is not consistent from beginning to end, then there is no point raising the questions of the academy. If what you believe is because of what someone else told you the Bible means and how that should define precisely how you are to live your life here and now, then stay far, far away from a scholarly approach.
Perhaps it goes without saying these are not my needs; this is not my approach. Over the course of my studies both in the academy and the church, I have developed a tolerance for ambiguity and I have tried to never place boundaries on my listening. As a result of these efforts I have come to understand the Bible as an imperfect collection of reflections people of faith over time who have struggled to understand that which is greater than themselves, that which is impossible to capture in words. Yet, try they did. And all they had were words.
Before you dismiss that last statement as simple or foolish, consider this. For those of you old enough to remember when we sent actual greeting cards, do you recall ever standing in a Hallmark Shop and poring over cards until you found just the right one, the one that best captured what you were thinking or feeling? You may never have found one exactly right, but you often found one that was close. Why? Because we have a great number of experiences as human beings, yet when we set out to express or explain them, all we have are words.
And I have clearly used up all the words allowed for this post and I am confident that they have neither captured all that I am thinking, feeling, or believing but I trust that perhaps they have come close.