What happens when we question the Absolute?

There is more than one way to finding a sense of right and wrong. Questioning scripture doesn’t turn the world into a Mad Max Thunderdome of relativity.

If you’ve ever tried discussing your doubts about the authority of scripture with a biblical literalist, I’m sure you’ve run into an argument that goes something like this:

“If you don’t believe that the bible is the word of God, then there is no absolute basis for determining right and wrong. Under these circumstances, everybody just does what they feel like doing.”

Before you know it, you’re in the realm of nihilism or complete moral relatively. This is the line of thinking often used to oppose gay marriage and is often spotted in religious debates. But as Edmund Blackadder would have said. “there’s just one tiny flaw in the argument. It’s complete bollocks.”

It is intellectually dishonest and lazy to pull the moral relativism response on a believer who questions the authority of scripture. They are merely correctly pointing out a weakness in such a presentation of the argument for the authority of scripture.  Sola Scriptura is circular: the scriptures are divinely inspired and must be believed because they tell us so.

Questioning scripture doesn’t mean that we have to descend to complete relativity. Just ask any agnostic or atheistic – that’s why we have philosophy. There are centuries of tradition and thought trying find an independent path for how to live and how to act. Pretending that there isn’t is plain wrong.

The discussion of absolute laws misses a key question – what if God’s laws are arbitrary?  Do we only give them authority because of the higher principles like love and compassion contained in them? Or do we give these laws authority simply because they come from God? What if God were a tyrant – should we disobey them?

Religious thinkers often dismiss independent thought based on straw-man misrepresentations generated from within the church. But if you’re dismissing centuries of thought based on secondary source literature, you haven’t really walked the path of intellectual integrity you’re claiming to have walked. Make a little room on your bookshelf for the arguments of individuals in their own words, not in the words of those who claim to keep the truth safe by paraphrasing, dismantling and pre packaging your personal philosophy as though they were selling sandwiches.

This is why many honest seekers end up leaving christendom… Embrace the question, embrace the doubt. It leads you closer to the truth. Have a little faith.

[Note – this post was inspired by an exchange on Twitter. It’s always great to hear thoughts and comments from people who read this site. Please keep up the feedback].

24 Comments

  1. I have been on the road out of conservative evangelicalism. I consider myself an Aristotelian(non-christian). That same argument has been made numerous times, and it is a bunch of BS. Aristotelian philosophy has the resources to develop a very satisfying ethic. I am not really sure what my religious beliefs are at the current time. I am currently seeing if there is anything to salvage from Christianity after realizing that New Testament Eschatology simply got it wrong,

  2. I’m not really sure myself – I guess part of this blog is the journey of figuring it out.

    I personally think there is a lot that is salvageable. Unfortunately it tends to start with a very destructive process whereby one obliterates everything one believes and then slowly starts to build it up again.

    Have you tried Marcus Borg and Karen Armstrong as authors. Once you are prepared to leave the “safety” of traditional dogma I’ve been very happy and inspired by them. There is a lot of meaning still to be had, and I’d argue it is even more meaningful and relevant if you follow your head and your heart.

  3. I read some Borg a while back, he was pretty good. I read one book by Armstrong, but didn’t find her to my liking. I have set out a reading plan to read through most of the works of Aristotle and Plato, then I plan to move on to some other things. I have always found Schleirmacher rather interesting, so I will probably read his major works at some point in the not so distant future. I have to be honest I have never really felt anything special in religion. Nor, have I had anything like an identifiable “religious experience”. The closest thing I have ever had to a religious experience, is when I meditate, but that was still more of a probing of myself. So, unless I want equate myself with God, which I don’t, then I can’t say I have had any “special moments” with God. Even when I was a consistent and involved in church, the only memorable times I had were when I was with friends. Most of the years in which I was highly active were also my years of most intense doubt, so that my have had something to do with a lack of religious experience. Nothing like a little doubt to bring everything to a grinding halt.

  4. Taoism might be interesting for you. It is a skeptical system in the sense that it doesn’t really explicitly address the question of whether or not God exists so functions well for theists and atheists. It’s been helpful for me because it seems so evidently true, which is something I struggled with in Christianity.

  5. When I started questioning the authority of scripture after a faith crisis brought on by a tragedy in my life, I found that it is possible to retain your faith in Christ and in a loving and benevolent God without completely believing a literal interpretation of scripture. It took 2+ years to overcome the programming that I’d had my entire life, but I’m on the other side of the crisis now and I’m at total peace with it. Fundamentalist Christianity would have you believe that you are hellbound if you question scripture, but I’ve never been closer to God than I am currently. I would agree, don’t be afraid to embrace the question and doubt, it can lead to remarkable revelations. God bless :)

  6. Absolutely Jill. My life outside of that sphere feels more alive, more fulfilling and more spiritual. It also makes the scriptures more alive to see them as an unfolding conversation (the human side anyway). Questioning and doubt was the beginning of a real faith for me.

  7. I would like to recant what I wrote what I said previously. I see that it was nothing but foolishness now. I was at a point of deep despair when I wrote those words, and it puts me in great anguish to see that I wrote that I considered myself a non-christian (Lord have mercy!). I remained in that state for a few months afterwards, until about Christmas. My reading of Aristotle led me to Thomas Aquinas, and then onto more contemporary works of modern Christian philosophy. I also regained the ability to doubt my doubts. I read the church fathers on how they handled the Delay of the Parousia and was astonished to find that they had not problems with it at all. In fact Tertullian told the Roman Emperor that the Christians prayed for the Delay of the Lord’s coming! I also came to understand that the problem of imminence and delay has its roots in the Old Testament (as Richard Bauckham notes in a fantastic little article “Delay of the Parousia” in the Tyndale Bulletin). I do think that I lost faith in one sense, I lost a false faith. During this time of questioning, I had a profound experience of God’s love, and my absolute need of Him. This happened twice, but I will recount one experience. I was closing out the late shift at my job, and I was alone, the store was quiet, and I began to think as I often do, about my life and whether I am pleased with where I find myself. In the midst of this, I cannot explain it fully, I felt the presence of God. It was as if the belief simply arose out of nowhere. Since, that time I have had a spiritual life for the first time in my life, and I am seeing changes in my life that I thought I would never see. I just wanted to recant of my previous foolishness, and say that Christ waits for us, He’s always there.

  8. That’s a beautiful experience. I think many of us go our whole lives without such an experience and that shapes ones beliefs. You might be interested in the Schleiermacher podcast on the Partially Examined Life (link on sidebar). It is very faith affirming.

    Many people have a closer experience of God or the sacred in that space of doubt. That’s some people’s journey and I wouldn’t want to ever say it is their “tough period”. For some – that’s the only authentic journey.

  9. If the Bible is the word of God and helps us determine right from wrong why does the Bible have so many stories were God gets things wrong?

    Is he supposed to be the bad guy that we should shouldn’t be like?

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