Increasingly, I’m becoming a Both/And person. Before we move any further, let me say I realize this is not a unique situation, and is in fact a perfectly healthy part of becoming a fully realized adult human. I am not special in this regard, and I won’t claim to be. But this is my blog, so I’m writing about about my journey- the metaphor is tired, but it holds. I used to be very much an Either/Or type. My upbringing, for which I am deeply grateful and of which I wouldn’t change a thing, instilled in me a code that categorized decisions into right and wrong, it clearly defined good and evil, and it assured me that making the correct combination of “good” choices would lead me into a safe and happy life. My mother’s voice echoes in my head regularly with this familiar refrain, “Make good choices.” When we’re children, we need this kind of structure. We need to know that touching the hot stove is bad because it hurts us and that sharing our toys is good because it makes our friends happy, and it’s important that people are happy because happy is good and sad is bad. You see? A tiny little human doesn’t have the capacity to weigh the intricacies and nuances of complex ethical decisions, because that part of her brain hasn’t been developed, yet. When we’re little, there are bad guys and good guys. Cops and robbers. Friends and bullies. The world is broken down into a binary system wherein everything is EITHER this OR it is that.
We can’t stay here, though. At some point, we move beyond the binary into the technicolor world where virtually nothing is black and white, like we thought. (Except ice cream for breakfast. Ice cream for breakfast has always been and will always be good.) Richard Rohr, in his excellent book Falling Upwards, refers to the first and second halves of life. In the first, this binary system of ethics is tremendously helpful as we learn to navigate this new world in which we’ve landed. Hot stove? Bad. Ice cream for breakfast? Good. At some point, though, we must deconstruct the infrastructure which has held our worldview together, take a more critical look at our place in humanity, and rebuild in a way that honors the tension of the in between. For some of us this happens early in life. Tragedy can trigger this deconstruction. Divorce. Death. Loss. Grief. Cancer. Some of us are thrust into deconstruction when, in spite of making mostly “good” choices, we’re suddenly confronted with an overwhelmingly “bad” circumstance. It’s the “Why do bad things happen to good people?” dilemma. I know of a family who lost their mother to cancer. This woman had children ranging in ages from 6 years to college and none of them had made any decisions bad enough to merit the loss of their mother. She wasn’t the recipient of some cruel karmic payback. Sometimes, shit just happens. Shit can seriously derail our tidy, binary ways of thinking.
If it’s not tragedy that forces us to face our first half of life and do the work to enter the second, it is often doubt; doubt that the way we’ve always seen the world can possibly be universally right. I grew up in wealthy suburban Dallas, attended private Christian schools my entire life, and never wanted for a thing (In spite of the 16 year old version of myself who thought briefly she deserved a Range Rover… she leaned a little to the bitchy left). My parents sacrificed a lot of personal possibility and opportunity for my brothers and I, because they were in a place in the world where they could and because their love for us is tremendous. I was fortunate to be surrounded by love and structure and community for the first half of my life. The way that I see the world is great… if you’re me. What about the girl who, from the time she can walk, spends hours each day fetching water for a village where she will never have the opportunity to get an education? What about if you’re the boy born into a patriarchal society where women are property and your primary goal in life is to have a son, even if that means killing or abandoning your daughters? What if you’re part of a wealthy family in India? What if you grew up in Apartheid stricken South Africa? What if you’re from the Bronx? What if you grew up in an affluent, atheist community in Prague? What if you lived hundreds of years ago and my concept of the world didn’t even exist yet? I can no longer imagine that what I consider “right” and what I consider “wrong” can be universally true for all of these people. I can already hear my conservative evangelical Christian friends with the, “That’s why we have the Bible, which is inerrant and true for all people across all of time” bit. I love my conservative evangelical Christian friends, but again I’ll say, “That’s great… If you’re us.”
Our understanding of the very book we call The Bible is unique to where we live in the United States, the current global superpower, in the most technologically advanced age in all of human history. The expectation that the word “inerrant” means historically, scientifically, and empirically factual is a very recent demand of the word, itself. Most of Scripture, certainly most of the New Testament in which modern evangelicalism claims to have her roots, was written by religious and political exiles to the underground communities which were heavily persecuted by the superpower of their day. Modern American Evangelicals seem to have far more in common, socio-economically and culturally, with the religious and political superpowers who persecuted and condemned the authors of Scripture than with the recipients of the letters that make up the New Testament. When was the last time you saw someone stoned to death for professing to believe that Christ rose from the dead after the government executed him for treason? When was the last time you witnessed someone dragged naked through the streets and crucified for claiming someone else had more power than the government? Are you inextricably connected to your faith community because without them your bills won’t be paid, your children will go hungry, or your very life would come under threat? This was the context of our early brothers and sisters. I’m not trying to belittle anyone, I’m just saying… perspective matters. Saying ‘Jesus is Lord’ for early Christians meant defying the Roman Empire and risking certain death. For us, it’s a $3 bumper sticker from the local Lifeway bookstore.
It wasn’t until fairly recently in human history- think the European Enlightenment of the late 17th and early 18th centuries with all it’s emphasis on science, reason, and individualism- that we began to demand evidence for the things in which we believe. Until that time history was passed down through communities as narrative, story, even myth. These storytellers weren’t interested in journalistic integrity, because they weren’t journalists. They were imparting tradition, history, and faith through the stories and myths of their people, not answering questions of Who? What? When? Where? and Why?. My favorite teacher (some have used the word heretic, which is hilarious), Rob Bell, has a great analogy that I’ll share with you because it really illuminated this idea for me. You could tell someone the story of September 11th, 2001. You could tell them that 19 extremists hijacked 4 airplanes to carry out suicide attacks on US soil. You could tell them that the first plane, American Airlines Flight 11, struck the North Tower of the World Trade Centre at 8:46 am, the second, United Flight 175 struck the South Tower at 9:03 am. You could tell them that another plane struck the Pentagon and a fourth was overtaken by passengers and crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. You could give them the timeline and the details of that morning, and you could give an historically accurate account of the facts. You could do all of that and miss the greater narrative: That there are people in the world who hate Americans, want all of us to suffer pain, and will go to great lengths to see this happen. You could list the station names of the firefighters who responded that morning, be completely accurate in those details, and miss the sacred mystery that the human spirit drives us to sacrifice ourselves for the love of others. You could go over the timeline of that morning with evidence to support each data point, and never tell the stories of the families who waited gut-wrenching hours by their phones to hear from loved ones, desperate to know that they were okay. You can have a grasp of the facts of September 11, 2001, and completely miss the way we all felt that day and the weeks that followed, because the words we have for that kind of deep grief, which was spiritual and mysterious and language defying, cannot possibly convey what was happening in our souls. You can talk about that day and neglect to grasp that we are still grieving, that we may never understand.
A modern reader wants to understand the facts. An ancient reader wanted to know the soul of the story. Jesus himself taught in parable. He said the Kingdom of Heaven is like and then he told stories. The stories of the Old Testament have echoes across many major religions and mythologies of human history because the people who first told them were after something deeper than the details of the story. These storytellers wanted to convey something about the human spirit, about the universe, about God, that had little to do with the details of the stories themselves. This is where I am in my deconstruction. I am seeking to read the stories without needing them to fit my context, without subjecting them to the demands of empiricism, without needing them to be literally true. I love this line from Rohr, that “literalism is the lowest form of meaning.” Was there a guy named Adam and a woman named Eve? Maybe, probably not, but maybe. However, if there wasn’t, my faith isn’t going to fall apart because the narrative has depth and meaning beyond the “facts” of the story. It’s true because it’s so much more than literally true.
Many of my traditionally leaning, evangelical friends expect that if the Bible is not literally true then it is not true. Either creation happened in six 24 hour days, or we have to call the “accuracy” of the whole book into question. Either the world was literally flooded and a guy named Noah and his family were the only survivors, or it wasn’t and then the integrity of the whole book goes up in smoke. Eh… More and more I’m removing the burden of historical, empirical accuracy from my understanding of Scripture, and the stories have so much more life and truth bursting from them when I stop forcing them into my limited concept of Truth.
The effects of this kind of thinking have been expansive, to say the least. Yes, I believe in the transformative power, energy, and life of Scripture. I also believe it is a book filled with contradictions and culturally specific codes for behavior that no longer apply, written by people across many generations with varied contexts and worldviews who had no idea their writings would one day become the basis for a world religion. I believe God created the world (although certainly not in 6 literal days- Genesis 1 is poetry and story and myth and still true… much more than literally true), and I also believe the stories told by science about the origins of our universe. Yes, both. (More on that in another blog because of all the words.) I believe Christ is the way and that we are ALL recipients of His grace, whether we recognize it or not. Yes, both. I believe God is involved in the lives of His people, and that He can handle my saying fuck occasionally. I believe I can go on stage and speak honestly in my stand up, or write with candor, about God and my sex life in the same breath because I don’t subscribe to the idea that sex before marriage is inherently “bad” or somehow disappointing to the God who gave me the ability to be smart, mindful, and autonomous with my own vagina. He is present in all of it. I believe my responsibility as a person who wants to act more and more like Jesus is to love people well and live boldly- without shame, and I also feel a great duty to live with integrity because of the young girls who are watching me. Yes, both are true and possible.
Both/And living touches everything. It shines a light on every corner of life, and casts away shadows hidden by the fear generated when we stay in Either/Or living for too long. I’m clumsily finding my way through, here, but I’m doing it. So far? Both/And feels a hell of a more honest, and that’s where I most want to life.
And, we can still eat ice cream for breakfast.