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What I think of the Bible as Both a Critical Scholar and A Christian: Guest Post by Judy Siker

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.

 

 

 

 


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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Steve Clark  October 9, 2019

    Thanks so much for putting your thoughts and experiences out there. I’m curious if you have read any of Karen Armstrong’s books and what you think of her work. I really enjoy her books. She uses the word ineffable in relation to God often.

    I am not a Christian but do believe in God and to me the word God simply means a connection between things in the universe. As Carl Sagan said we are made of Star Stuff !

    Thanks again.

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    • JYS
      JYS  October 10, 2019

      Thank you. I regret that I have not read widely in Armstrong but I can say that I appreciate very much her emphasis on the need for compassion and her idea that religion is not so much about what you believe as what you do.

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    Ken2w  October 9, 2019

    Thanks Judy for the posts.

    Another question though… Doesn’t there come a point when unanswered questions are so numerous and troubling (why is God so capricious and cruel, and, dare I say, evidently man-made?) that to give the benefit of the doubt to Bronze Age scribes (that there’s some higher purpose driving their contradictory and implausible musings) is a bit of a stretch?

    You mentioned your church upbringing, which reminded be of Bertrand Russell’s assessment of philosopher Kant: “He was like many people: in intellectual matters he was sceptical, but in moral matters he believed implicitly in the maxims that he had imbibed at his mother’s knee. That illustrates what the psychoanalysts so much emphasise—the immensely stronger hold upon us that our very early associations have than those of later times.”

    Would you agree that to have ‘faith’ you really must take leave of your senses, or at least compartmentalize your brain between the rational (non-faith) and willing suspension of disbelief (faith). It seems an awkward path to follow — to maintain faith when you’re as informed as you are — and I’m still not sure how you do it!

    Thanks anyway for your thoughts.

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    • JYS
      JYS  October 10, 2019

      Thank you for you response and questions. Regarding your first query, I can only say that for me there has not come a time when my unanswered questions have become so numerous as to make me think that continuing to believe in God is a stretch. Perhaps it is the nature of my unanswered questions. I do not wrestle with your example “why is God so capricious and cruel,” for example.I do, however, wrestle with the presence of evil in the world. For me they are two different questions. Secondly, I agree that our early associations have a great hold on us, but as adults I think we grow (with any luck) into our own thinking beings and are able to weigh the relevance of those lessons “imbibed at [our] mother’s knee” and make our own determinations. While I am grateful for the home and atmosphere in which I was raised, I do not believe that my own religious stance today is merely the product of my youth. Finally, no, I respectfully do not agree that one has to take leave of one’s senses to maintain a faith once one has encountered scholarly analysis of the biblical text. As I had hoped to indicate in my post, it is quite possible to live as a rational, thinking human being and continue to experience and acknowledge an ineffable force (God) that impacts how one lives in this world.

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      • Avatar
        AstaKask  October 10, 2019

        But is it reasonable to assume that this ineffable force is all-good, or is it more as it says in the Iliad: “For two urns are set upon the floor of Zeus of gifts that he giveth, the one of ills, the other of blessings.” That certainly seems more in line with what we see. Even if we acknowledge that a lot of these ills are of human making, many aren’t – children with bone cancer and tsunamis that wash away loved ones… (Isaiah 45:7)

        • JYS
          JYS  October 10, 2019

          Granted we cannot attribute all of the ills of the world to human making (such as the examples you cite), but that does not mean we must attribute them to God.

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          • Avatar
            Ken2w  October 11, 2019

            Many thanks Judy for taking the trouble to answer all these posts. Much appreciated.

            Just a quick (and often made) point about God’s culpability with regard evil. God, if He exists, clearly created deeply flawed humans capable of making mistakes and doing ‘evil’. He is then arguably the root cause of evil. And if He is all-powerful then is He complicit in some way when He allows monstrous things to happen (rape, murder and so on)?

            Worse still, there are many instances in the OT when He commands and condones slaughter. And if you take the view of eternal punishment for those not accepting Jesus as their saviour, perhaps because their God-given powers of reasoning led them down another path, then God has got a lot to answer for.

            God and evil, in my view, are not that far apart.

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          • JYS
            JYS  October 11, 2019

            Interesting. I can see why “God and evil, in [your] view, are not that far apart. I don’t share this view. In part it is because I don’t share some of the basic assumptions in your previous statements. Granted, human beings are flawed creatures but I don’t see that as leading straight back to God’s culpability as “the root cause of evil.” Humans, I believe, have free will–and it is used to the detriment of themselves and others far too often. I also do not hold the view you posit in your third paragraph regarding “eternal punishment for those not accepting Jesus as their saviour.”

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            AstaKask  October 11, 2019

            If he could end those evils and chooses not to, how is he a good God? If we were told of a world ruled by an omnipotent, benevolent deity – would our first instinct be that children die in unspeakable agony in that world? It may not be a logical *necessity* that such a God is not all-good, but it certainly seems more likely. A Bayesian argument, if you will.

            And thank you very much for answering our questions.

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          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  October 11, 2019

            Rev Dr Siker –

            Thank you for your posts – they are thought provoking and serve as dialectic for those who both do and do not share your same views. Your framing of things in these posts reminds me somewhat of Tillich.

            Three questions, if I might:

            – Is there a solution to the problem of evil that you prefer, put forward by a another theologian or philosopher? I (and others) would love to know your view, but asking for an articulation of such a fraught and complex topic in a blog comment response isn’t exactly feasible…

            – Relatedly, is your view of God the traditional 4-Omni version, or another variant?

            – Not to ask the analog of “who’s your favorite child”, but if someone (me…) wanted to get their hands dirty in your favorite scholarship/research interests, are there pieces/products you would point one to pick up?

            Thanks a ton!

            1
          • JYS
            JYS  October 15, 2019

            Thank you for reading and engaging in some dialogue. In response to these last questions let me say briefly: 1) You are correct. Answers to such a complex topic in a blog comment is not feasible. Maybe the subject for another day, another post. 2) My view of God certainly includes the “four `omnis'” AND I would hasten to say that one’s understanding of the definition of those four would result in considerable variation among those who include them. Finally, right now I am fascinated by and appreciative of the work of a number of female biblical scholars who bring new lenses to the reading of the text. I am grateful for their work because my reading of the text is in part limited by my own life experience (as is the case for all of us) and to see through another’s eyes is always helpful. See, for example, some of the work of Musa Dube or Leticia Guardiola-Saenz.

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  3. John4
    John4  October 9, 2019

    Thanks for sharing with us, Judy!

    If I may, I’ll ask for your pastoral perspective on a question of mine that goes beyond “academic study of the Bible from a critical perspective.” I’ve never had a problem with academic study of the Bible from a critical perspective. To the contrary really. That sort of study has enabled me to make sense of the Bible.

    Instead, my own struggle, such as it is, has been with what I take to be the cosmological underpinnings of the faith. My impression is that Christianity ordinarily posits that in addition to our normal physical universe of matter and energy and time, there exists also a non-physical realm, a spiritual realm, beyond matter and time. And further, this supernatural realm is assumed to be peopled with supernatural, spiritual beings of various sorts, analogous in many ways to the natural, physical creatures we encounter every day here in our droplet of the natural, physical universe.

    Now I go to church and all, Judy. And, whenever the congregation rises to recite the apostles’ creed, I rise and recite right along with everyone else. But, I can’t really say that I see any reason to believe in the actual existence of this supernatural realm so regularly and so glibly discussed from the pulpit. Do you?

    Many thanks! 🙂

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    • JYS
      JYS  October 10, 2019

      You have touched on one of the issues of organized religion that raises concerns for many, such concern in some cases that folks just cannot remain within the church. I will say that I am not sure the “actual existence of [a] spiritual realm so regularly and so glibly discussed from the pulpit” is true for all churches. I think perhaps it is fairer to say (though perhaps no more complimentary) that some of our declarations have become such an intrinsic part of the services that we do not take the proper amount of time to discuss these within the Christian community. That is not to say that we would not continue to include them in our services because they are important markers of our history as a church but I do think we should not expect congregants to recite creeds that we have not discussed. If we did, and in my experience when we do, we are able to see what lies behind the wording and we are able to think together about what it means to each of us today. It is in these kinds of discussions that we grow as a community of faith.

      3
  4. Robert
    Robert  October 9, 2019

    Excellent. Thank you! Perhaps you would consider blogging here on a weekly or monthly basis to give dear old Bart a break from his wearisome duties. After all, it’s for a good cause, you know.

    5
    • JYS
      JYS  October 10, 2019

      Thank you. You are most kind. I have enjoyed the opportunity to share some of my musings AND I am even more impressed than I was before with the amount of time and energy Bart puts into this blog. Kudos to him (and to all of you who support this good cause)!

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  5. Avatar
    gbsinkers  October 9, 2019

    Thank you Dr. Siker for taking the time to write these posts and to be vulnerable in front of us. As a consumer of Bart’s books, blog, and several other authors as well, I lost my Christian faith and stepped away from church but like you I believe “there exists some greater force than you or I”. I still love the wisdom literature of the Bible and the teachings of Jesus. But I see Jesus as only a man, much like the Buddha, Mohammad, Confucius, and others but certainly not the Christ/Savior. I miss the church community but could no longer stomach the way they twist the Bible’s words to support their beliefs and expect us to swallow it whole as I did my whole life. I might call myself a Jesus follower as I continue to try to live by the way he taught but I cannot call myself Christian. It seems you do still call yourself a Christian though. I realize you said this post is not a doctrinal statement and that you live in the questions, but could you give us some of your doctrinal beliefs? Do you believe in the resurrection for example? Do you attend church regularly and if so do you find the teachings difficult since you know more than those teaching? Since you live in the questions I suspect you are open to the truths from other faiths as well which typically aren’t held by most Christians. Perhaps you could tell us how your beliefs align with the Apostle’s/Nicene creed? I’m guessing there would be a lot of differences. I know it is a lot to ask and makes you even more vulnerable to the critics but I am hoping for a third post that delves slightly deeper on your doctrinal beliefs. Thanks again! Loved these posts.

    1
    • JYS
      JYS  October 11, 2019

      Thank you for your comments. I do self-identify as Christian and I am aware that there are nearly as many understandings of that word as there are folks who call themselves Christians. I do not, however, think that means there is a once and for all time checklist that one must be able to tick off in order to qualify as Christian. Yes, I attend church regularly and I preach and I teach regularly and I find the interaction with that community to be enriching. I am indeed open to truths from other faith traditions; I wouldn’t presume that God only makes God’s self known through mine. (And, yes, I know there are a number of Christians who would disagree with me there.) Thanks for reading and responding. Hope this rather brief answer to your questions helps.

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  6. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  October 9, 2019

    This seems very reasonable to me, On this basis though we might regard other writings as sacred, in other traditions both religious and secular. Great novels? Why not? Shakespeare? I’d give a yes to that. The people who wrote what are now Biblical texts were grappling with the big questions and the issues of life and death and meaning we all face.

    I mentioned a creative approach: I’m playing with a variant of Gnostic ideas. The world we live in was created by no God. It is purely what the scientists take it to be– a place of forces and energies with no moral dimension. Hence what we take to be “evil”. It might be due to some fluctuation in a generic quantum field. It is ancient, complex, without cause or purpose. But it spawns sentience. There is the great mystery! And there is a spiritual realm existing in parallel, where sentience properly belongs, and in that realm there is God, and a multitude of beings. God is aware of us, God understands how the Physical Universe works, loves us in our primitive state, as newly spawned sentient beings (and I include every form of animal life) and that God will welcome us to the OTHER WORLD when we die. And then another life begins, advancing in a chain of being beyond our present understanding. God might well have entered this world in the only manner possible, which would be to incarnate as a human being and be subject to all the limitations and faults of any human, and if He did this He did it out of love for us, to give hope and encouragement. Of course, when God becomes man, perfection is stripped away. He did the best He could under the circumstances and died a shameful death on the cross. The crucifixion was not the sacrifice– entering this sad world was the sacrifice. And atonement had nothing to do with it. Love had everything to do with it. And so on. An attempt to solve the problem of evil in this world (it has nothing to do with God– God didn’t make it and God doesn’t run it. It runs itself according to inexorable physical law). But this world is not the only world. And at present we are in the painful position of being here and belonging elsewhere. But when we die we really do “pass on”. It works for me. Heretical, I know…

    • JYS
      JYS  October 11, 2019

      I agree that our Christian Bible is not the only sacred text. Indeed we have long been grappling with these big questions.

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  7. Avatar
    Judith  October 9, 2019

    Thank you for this!

    1
  8. Avatar
    Confused777  October 9, 2019

    Hi so would you say that your faith is anchored by your actual experiences and not so much the Bible ? Knowing all the discrepancies and inconsistencies in the Bible from your scholarly work is this still a faith that you would be willing to die for as the Bible would require of you if it called for it ?

    • JYS
      JYS  October 10, 2019

      No, I would not make such a stark contrast between actual experience and the Bible. Knowing the discrepancies and inconsistencies in the text we have received does not diminish for me the power of the efforts of those who wrote it. To answer the question about whether or not, given the inconsistencies in the Bible, I would be willing to die for such a faith requires a completely different conversation.

  9. Avatar
    shannonf  October 9, 2019

    “I live in the questions”

    I find this to be a profound statement. I will think about it a lot.

    Thank you.

    3
    • JYS
      JYS  October 10, 2019

      If you resonate with my statement then you will no doubt resonate with a favorite quote of mine by Rainer Maria Rilke from his 1903 Letters to a Young Poet, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves… . Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

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      • Avatar
        shannonf  October 11, 2019

        Thank you! I love that quote. I will look up Rilke!

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  10. Avatar
    VaulDogWarrior  October 9, 2019

    You’re a Liberal. That makes as little sense to me as Fundamentalism. And I rejected it for the same reason a Fundamentalist would. It is so vague as to mean almost anything. They embrace mystery, but claim to have some kind of handle on this mystery. I say that’s still intellectually delusional, though I understand it emotionally. But the positive is that Liberals are more willing to change with the times.

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    • Avatar
      godspell  October 12, 2019

      Liberal just means you accept people aren’t perfect, probably never will be, so let’s have some basic rules of conduct, but give everyone a lot of room to find their own way.

      It also assumes that the person you’ve just met may know things you don’t, so sometimes you might want to listen a while.

      2
  11. epicurus
    epicurus  October 9, 2019

    As the Koran is central to Islam, have you ever encounterd Muslim scholars who have a similar attitude as yours toward the Koran?

  12. Avatar
    AndrewJenkins  October 9, 2019

    Many thanks! Truly inspirational….

    As a researcher in a completely different field (impact evaluation) I completely agree that the questions are much more crucial than the answers.

  13. Avatar
    mombird903  October 9, 2019

    I still don’t see how believing in something beyond ourselves, a force or energy or whatever we call God has to do with Christianity or religion in general? How is Jesus relevant? How is resurrection relevant except metaphorically? Are you a believer on a metaphorical level? That I could understand, but there are better “words” out there to describe our thoughts and feelings other than the Bible. There is literature, poetry, science, all of which are mind expanding and thought provoking on a level much more rewarding then an old book of unreliable myths and fables. Aesop’s Fables have more going for them than the Bible IMO. I can see studying the Bible on an intellectual level but to believe!!! You really didn’t explain how that is possible. You said that you believe in a greater power but what has that to do with the Bible? I still don’t understand.

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    • JYS
      JYS  October 10, 2019

      I agree with you that there is much (in addition to the Bible) available to us that is mind expanding and thought provoking. I do, however, think the Bible has value beyond that of an intellectual pursuit. I believe that it contains the reflections of people of faith in their attempt to comprehend that which is beyond us as humans and as such it serves, at the very least, as a springboard for our own musings. Having grown up in and chosen to remain in the Christian tradition the relevance of Jesus seems obvious to me. His life and ministry were and continue to be exemplary. Whether one’s Christology is high or low, the story of the life of Jesus is a powerful example of how to live in the world.

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        mombird903  October 10, 2019

        JYS, not to be argumentative, but most of what we really know about the life of Jesus is so scant that it is next to negligible. All the miracle stories are just myth including the resurrection and a real human Jesus (if there even was one) is probably only 5% based in reality and 95% myth and the 5% is being generous. It just seems to me that the relevance of Jesus is nebulous. Christians are worshiping a myth or a concept or a tall tale based on nothing more than wishful thinking. I guess with the New Testament we did get a more gentle, kinder God and dumped the nasty smiting one but it’s still not much of a springboard to understanding since it’s still based on fantasy and speculation and doesn’t really further that “which is beyond us.” Believing something doesn’t make it so but wars are fought over these beliefs anyway. Religion has become a pox all too often and that is the danger of having faith and trying to defend ideas that are indefensible.

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        • JYS
          JYS  October 11, 2019

          Thanks for your responses. I don’t consider them argumentative. I agree that too much is done in the name of religion (pick one!) that is harmful, but I don’t find that reason enough to dismiss it. I think it is a part of human nature to seek and in my Christian tradition I find the Bible to be a great resource for the seeking. Do I think it has all the answers? Definitely not. But neither do I agree with your assessment that it is a “tall tale based on nothing more than wishful thinking.”

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            mombird903  October 11, 2019

            JYS, we need new religious paradigms, ones that are not religious and ones that are not based on myth and guess work. Personally, I have dumped the cross and adopted the Mars rover as my symbol of enlightened seeking for humanity! The Jesus story just seems unsatisfactory to me as it tries to make one believe the impossible. It’s really no different than the Santa Claus story. After awhile it just doesn’t work, IMO.

        • Avatar
          godspell  October 11, 2019

          Would you really argue that nothing harmful has ever been done in the name of atheism? After the events of the 20th century alone? Hitler wanted to destroy Christianity, because it polluted The Pure Aryan Spirit, whatever that is. Stalin and Mao were atheists, as was Pol Pot. Just a few examples out of many, and to those who say “I’m not that kind of atheist”–well, is Prof. Siker that kind of theist? You get to judge religion as a whole by the behavior of its very worst adherents (ignoring the Gandhis, the Martin Luther Kings, the Saint Francis’, the Dorothy Days), but atheism is to be judged only by the best? Nice system you have there.

          There are plenty of secular myths as well, that people of no religion believe in avidly–such as the myth that Jesus didn’t exist, or that we can’t know anything about him–and yet those same people don’t exercise the same skepticism when it comes to figures from ancient history not associated with modern religious beliefs.

          It’s not religion that’s the problem. It’s people believing they and they alone have The Truth. And people like that can be found in any system of belief. Or unbelief. As Bart said recently, the problem is people. Or as Jesus said, The Sheep and the Goats. And you don’t have to believe he was God to know he hit that nail right on the head. The Sheep and the Goats are with us to this very day.

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            mombird903  October 13, 2019

            I’m not sure if you are asking this of me or JYS but first I don’t think that the statement that Jesus didn’t exist is a myth. It is an observation. No one is asked to believe one way or another unlike religion which says you must believe or burn in hell or some such nonsense. The sheep and goats is a metaphor which I don’t particularly agree with. The human brain is complex and not easily divided into good and bad. Sheep and goats, good and bad are really too simplistic to describe what human behavior consists of and what motivates us. Anyway, the late, great Christopher Hitchens had an entire response to the Pol Pot/Hitler argument which you should read. He said that God, as described by religion, is a celestial dictator not much different than the dictators we have right here on planet Earth. He has a point as we grovel and worship and pray to the celestial god to keep him from smiting us and pay homage to the dictator to keep him from doing the same. Of course he said it much more eloquently than I ever could.

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        JAF  October 19, 2019

        I consider the teachings of Jesus Christ to be my “GPS” for navigating life in this world. For me, there is such great wisdom as well as simplicity in those teachings, which I learned from reading the Bible. I don’t doubt that others have gotten the same messages from different sources. I too, “live in the questions” and have many more questions than answers. Really, in this world, hardly anything is ever quite what it seems when we first encounter it–particularly when it involves human beings. However, the principles of humility, compassion, love, forgiveness, greater good above self interest, and TRUTH, have been constants and continue to resonate with me. If we all embraced these things the world would be a much better place. I do not struggle with God but rather with organized religions, invented by human beings, flawed as they are. Those who truly walk the walk continue to inspire me to do better.

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    gwayersdds  October 9, 2019

    Dr. Siker, I can’t thank you enough for your willingness to post your thoughts. I always enjoy reading something from someone who has a similar belief system. Who doesn’t like to find out that your beliefs are supported by an expert!! I too have found out that the more I learn about the Bible the more questions I have about it. The Bible tells me all that I feel I need to know to be a decent Christian. Whether it is historically accurate is not a big problem to me. It is the theology that is the message. Thanks again.

    • JYS
      JYS  October 10, 2019

      It has been my pleasure to share these few thoughts with all of you. Whether folks agree or disagree, I believe it is good to keep the conversation going.

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    Raemon  October 9, 2019

    Dr. Siker,

    You describe yourself as a woman of faith …. a believer. What, exactly, do you still believe? Can you assign a “strength of belief” index separately to each tenet of the Apostles’ Creed?

    Questioning something is not the same thing as believing that thing. I was hoping for a useful, tangible answer to the issue you were to have addressed: How can one be a believing Christian with your particular education and experience?

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    • JYS
      JYS  October 10, 2019

      I agree that questioning something is not the same thing as believing that thing. I am sorry you found these posts unsatisfactory because you did not get a list of specific answers to specific criteria. I did not see that as the aim of these posts. Everyone who identifies as Christian has his/her own particular beliefs regarding ancient creeds and modern “requirements.” With any luck, these beliefs continue to develop over time. Mine certainly have. I am not interested in, nor is there time or space for, laying out piece-by-piece outline of commonly held tenets of the Christian faith. As I mentioned to a member in an earlier comment my understanding of God through the life and ministry of Jesus places me firmly in the Christian tradition. Whether or not my specific understanding of the many ways the Church has elaborated upon his life and ministry and expressed those ideas in creeds and doctrines, is not the point for this discussion. It is, however, within the Christian community that I find good conversation partners on this journey.

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        mombird903  October 11, 2019

        Seems as if Christianity has become one giant support group circling around various Christian philosophies. It reminds me of the 12 step program.

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    rivercrowman  October 9, 2019

    Judy, appreciate your participation on Bart’s Blog. Do you have a favorite Bart Ehrman book? Thanks!

    • JYS
      JYS  October 10, 2019

      As you might expect, I am a fan of Bart’s books. To pick a favorite is a tough task. There are so many that have pushed the conversations in our field forward in new and challenging ways. I have to say, however, that my favorite is his NT textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. I choose this one for two reasons: 1) I was his teaching assistant when he was giving the lectures that resulted in this book and it was fun to witness that process; and 2) It has been an outstanding textbook for me in my teaching, teaching which has been done in college, university, and seminary settings. To be an excellent introduction to the NT for that range of audiences says much about how and what he writes. There are many, many professors of NT who remain indebted to him for this excellent book.

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    robgrayson  October 9, 2019

    In recent years I’ve transitioned from a fairly rigid and dogmatic faith, centred around and underpinned by belief in an inerrant Bible, to a broader and more inclusive (I suppose some would say liberal) but no less orthodox (small “o”) faith. A key element of this transition has been coming to see the Bible as the wonderfully diverse compendium of texts that is, rather than as the monolithic divine download I used to believe it to be. I’ve become fascinated by the Bible’s complexity, flaws and contradictions, all of which, I now see, only add to its richness and authenticity. And the funny thing is, I now have greater reverence for scripture than I ever did back in my more hardline, dogmatic days.

    All of which to say, I’m enjoying these posts and finding them particularly resonant.

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    • JYS
      JYS  October 10, 2019

      Your journey sounds like an interesting one. I’m glad that you resonated with these posts.

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    Boltonian  October 9, 2019

    Thank you for sharing this – very thought-provoking. I am with you all the way on questions being the essence of thought, rather than the facile answers which so many crave. I am agnostic and always have been – at least I do not remember a time when I believed in something supernatural as the answer to anything in this world (I don’t discount it but would like to see the evidence). By temperament I am a sceptic – I like evidence and mere opinion, however forcefully stated, is not evidence. I also think, like the great David Hume, that temperament (or passions, as he called it) precedes and governs reason: so if one craves certainty by temperament, belief is central to one’s being and evidence will be made to either fit, be ignored or trivialised.

    Where I struggle with your logic is why Christianity? I can understand why someone might incline to the belief that there is something ‘Out there,’ that is greater than us: I feel that too sometimes (not an interventionist or even a creationist God – but something) but it is a feeling without any supporting evidence. To be a Christian, as I understand it, one has to believe that Jesus, who was the Son of God, died on the cross and was resurrected before ascending to Heaven. That is such an outrageously unlikely thing to have happened that the burden of proof is entirely on the believer, which is just not there. Also, had you been born in Pakistan you would (almost certainly) be a Muslim or Thailand (like my wife) a Buddhist. So, I ask again, why Christianity?

    I do not underestimate the power of tribalism and I know that the pull of friends and family towards remaining inside the Christian tribe, as it were, is stronger in the USA than it is here in the UK. I also understand that, although Christianity is a doctrinal religion (unlike, say, Therevada Buddhism) people do take what they want from the pot and either discard or ignore the rest, contradictions and all, but nonetheless I remain baffled that a biblical scholar can also be a Christian, albeit a questioning one. That probably says a lot about the poverty of my imagination but at least it provides me with many more questions because your situation, I am sure, is not uncommon. I might be temperamentally incapable of ever understanding your position and perhaps acceptance is more important than understanding.

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    • JYS
      JYS  October 10, 2019

      Thank you for your thoughtful response. It would take far more time and space than I currently have to give you a proper answer but let me address two points you make. 1) Why Christianity? For me it is clearly and simply because it is the tradition into which I was born and in my own searching it makes sense to me. I have not gone off exploring other faiths because it did not seem necessary. To find myself in a long line of tradition that acknowledges Jesus as a manifestation of God and to resonate with that through my study of the Bible is sufficient for me. I know there are many who “shop around” searching for an answer across the many faith traditions. That is not for me to judge. 2) That said, however, you raise a good question that I have pondered more than once and that is “had you been born in Pakistan…” My answer may sound simplistic but it is my truth. Yes, if I had been born in another place (and/or time) I likely would identify as something other than Christian. And for me that is ok. It is not a competition. It is a human longing to discover that which lies beyond itself and for me I can begin to understand that force (God) through the person of Jesus.Others have begun to quench that longing through their own traditions. We have much to learn from one another. Again, thank you for you thoughtful response.

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        Boltonian  October 11, 2019

        Thank you for your considered reply. I have only two rejoinders:

        1. I expected a little more of a logical argument and consequently I now understand even less than I thought I did from your original posts; and
        2. I would argue that the various faiths, certainly of the so-called Abrahamic religions, are in competition with each other. Islam and,say, Roman Catholicism, cannot both be true and yet they both claim to be. They cannot have equal validity. Judaism denies the divinity of Jesus, Calvinism is based on pre-destination etc, etc etc. They are all mutually exclusive and doctrinal. They all use or have used fear and/or guilt to stop their adherents from changing their minds – or even from thinking for themselves. Evangelism was a core aspect of Christianity – and still is with some denominations, so conversion matters. Major wars have been fought and are still being fought over who owns the truth, and war is the ultimate competitive strategy.

        • JYS
          JYS  October 15, 2019

          Just because, as you say, “major wars have been fought and are still being fought over who owns the truth, and war is the ultimate competitive strategy” it does not necessarily follow that this is the correct way for people in these major traditions to behave. And it does not follow that everyone in each of these traditions understands his/her tradition to be the only one to own the truth. I have been involved in enough interfaith dialogue to know that this is true. The declaration by some within a tradition denying the validity of traditions other than their own does not make it so.

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    RonaldTaska  October 9, 2019

    Wow! I know you have spent decades working on all this so please keep going with these posts. They are more helpful than you know. It was certainly possible for me to take most of the Old Testament in a literary/legendary way without my faith being affected. There, however, has to be some history in the Gospels, such as with the Resurrection, or Christianity loses its power. My question: Why doesn’t God provide us with an updated, revised Bible? It is hard to have the whole religion depend on 2,000- year-old books which have lots of historical and textual problems as well as numerous contradictions. That doesn’t seem quite fair to me to have to guess the right theology without having adequate information. Thanks. By the way, I don’t expect an easy answer. I admire so much what you are doing and you seemed to have reached a “peace” with it all that I admire and respect. Any way, I really appreciate your posts. Several months ago, I asked Dr. Ehhman if he had to argue for deism and Christianity in a debate how would he do it? And, as he always does, he gave me a good and thoughtful answer. He might share his answer at some point. .

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    • JYS
      JYS  October 10, 2019

      Thank you for your comments. I appreciate the questions you raise and am happy to know that you know to answer your questions fully would take far more time and space than we have here. Do let me share briefly a couple of ideas in response to your post. 1) You say “There…has to be some history in the Gospels,…or Christianity loses its power.” I fear that we are such post-Enlightenment children here in the 21st century that we impose the need for history (read historical accuracy/ fact) on this ancient text. There are truths contained within the NT that far surpass, in my opinion, historical accuracy or facts. That is not to say that events in the NT did not occur. It is to say that we cannot go back and recreate them. Nor, in my opinion, should we try. 2) Your question about why God does not give us an updated version seems heartfelt. I would say that God does! For me this is a living text and by that I mean that although the words and stories are products of particular times and places, there are truths in this biblical text that are not bound by time. Whenever we delve into Bible and attempt to understand its relevance to us in our lives today we are in a way “updating” the text. I don’t think wrestling with this notion of God has ever been easy.

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        Confused777  October 13, 2019

        When you say the Bible is a living text , it made me recall an experience I had please let me know if this resonates at all.1day I decided to read a quick devotion and the scripture felt as if it came alive like it illuminated to me ,it felt like a reply to my previous prayer . I told my wife I think God just spoke to me , “coincidentally “ that Sunday the sermon was that specific scripture.

        • JYS
          JYS  October 14, 2019

          Thank you for sharing that experience. When I say the Bible is a living text I do indeed mean that for me it is far more than just an ancient collection of writings, “one and done.” I believe that there are truths within this text that can have tremendous impact on how we approach life today. More than simply a record of humans experience with and understanding of God in the past, the Bible has some lessons for us now.

  20. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  October 9, 2019

    Thank you, especially for explaining your thinking so clearly.

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