Virtuous doubt: Viewing the Bible as the Word of God?
I recently asked a non-religious friend for some feedback on an essay I had written. He and I grew up together outside of Boston and have known each other since high school. Spiritually, he identifies as an agnostic; culturally, he is Jewish. After reviewing the draft, he sent me this query via Instant Message in Facebook:
“One other question I’ve been meaning to ask you about your writing: why do you feel compelled to quote the Bible? It seems that since it’s so old and very self-contradictory at many times (due to having many authors with different political stances), isn’t it much more useful to study as a historical document rather than to rely on it as a foundation of truth?”
Wow. I was not expecting this question to show up in my chat box on a Saturday morning.
But what surprised me even more was the answer to his question that popped immediately into my mind: “Because the Bible is the Word of God.”
"So why am I – a thinking, feeling, politically engaged, educated person – embracing the text of the Bible as the Word of God?"
Now, when I say that, I fully recognize that the Bible is confusing and challenging and sometimes maddening. And of course, once in awhile, the Bible even borders on horrifying. So why am I – a thinking, feeling, politically engaged, educated person – embracing the text of the Bible as the Word of God?
There are many answers to this question, but I will give you two. One is conceptual, the other is more experiential. On the conceptual side, I have been deeply influenced by my Buddhist husband’s answer to questions like this about tenets of his faith that he finds difficult or confusing. When he encounters an idea that is tough and requires a leap of faith – such as the concept of karma – he doesn’t throw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater. Instead, he sticks with it. Even when it’s hard and he’s skeptical. In his tradition, this process is called having “virtuous doubt.” Virtuous doubt is different from blind faith. It is a commitment to engage with a spiritual idea even when it’s difficult and your first inclination is to not believe it.
In my old life – before I was called to Christ and converted to Christianity in my mid-thirties – I never would have dreamed that I would rely on the Bible as a foundation of truth, let alone as THE foundation of truth. But now, in my unfolding journey, I try to maintain virtuous doubt. What I’ve learned from my husband’s example is that when we follow the pick-and-choose path spiritually, we may miss the opportunity to be profoundly challenged and changed. We may miss being rocked to our very core. In my old life, if I had read the Bible (which I didn’t) and I had come across a difficult passage, I would have rolled my eyes and said, “Of course this is not for me. Time to move on.” But when you commit to a spiritual path, you can’t move on. Because it’s a commitment. A commitment to be transformed. A commitment to talk with God and listen to God, even when things feel confusing or challenging or maddening or, yes, even horrifying. And yeah, that’s not easy. And yeah, it’s sometimes not appealing. But it’s a commitment and it’s a discipline. And in our anything-goes culture when I’ve often felt adrift in how to understand the world and recognize my place in the order of things, I am very thankful for the challenges and all of the gifts that such a commitment has brought with it.
The second reason I turn to the Bible for truth and guidance is because of the experience I have when I do so on a regular, ongoing basis. As I describe in my memoir Following the Red Bird: First Steps into a Life of Faith, I never read the Bible growing up (which is embarrassing since, at minimum, this seems like a prerequisite for being a culturally literate person). So, when I began reading the Bible in my mid-thirties, I was a total novice. I started out with what I describe as the “Ouija Board” method of reading scripture: I would quiet my mind and try to let the Spirit work through me by intuition to select a scriptural passage. I would run my fingers along the edge of the pages and stop when I felt a nudge from the Spirit to do so. The effect of this approach on me was dramatic. I was deeply moved by the ways that the words of the Bible seemed to speak to me – right where I was in my life, at that moment. I started to “hear” God’s voice by reading scripture passages slowly and meditatively using an ancient technique called lectio divina.
Now, six years after my baptism, I am continuing my Christian formation by approaching my Bible-reading in another way. First, I read the entire New Testament, and now I am in the middle of reading the Old Testament. I started reading the Old Testament with fear and trembling since several people including my devout Catholic father warned me that reading the Old Testament start-to-finish in its entirety is important for any Christian but can be a slow and heavy slog. But, amazingly, I am finding that I love it. I have discovered that I am an Exodus girl! I am reading the passages slowly, lingering over the words and savoring them, because God keeps talking to me through them. Go figure!
Of course, the story is more complicated than this. Tragically, many people misinterpret the Bible in ways that cause others’ pain or perpetuate injustice. Many apply the Bible’s words out of context, including people in positions of power and influence. Instead, we must always seek to look for and recognize what some people refer to as the “golden thread.” That is, the Bible and its story understood in its entirety, not taken piecemeal.
Yes, there is much more to the story of why and how we can rightly apply the Word of God we find in the Bible to our lives and in the world. But it has always been this way. As I’ve learned as a new Christian, we are a “story-ed” people – meaning we are in the middle of God’s unfolding story of creation. And that story is full of many confused, self-cherishing, skeptical, obstinate people (you only have to look at Jesus’ closest disciples to see this). And so, like them, all we can do is ask for God’s help and grace as we try to listen for God’s Word even when we struggle with our virtuous – and our less-than-virtuous – doubt.