Science and Christianity
I became a Christian around my 4th grade year and did not seriously question that identity until my last year of undergraduate study. This questioning was inspired in part by my science studies (I was a Physics major) and in part with conversations with fundamentalists students.
I was raised in a liberal environment; my parents encouraged me to ask questions, to seek answers that made sense, and to think for myself. My father, who had served as a missionary and a minister prior to starting to raise a family, based his faith not on the Bible but on his experiences putting the commandments of Jesus into practice and following Jesus' example. He did not believe that every word of the Bible was divinely inspired or true. When a psalm of David calls on God to punish his enemies and to throw their babies into the air to land on spears, my father wrote in the margins, "Tsk, Tsk, David!" My father believed in the power of non-violence and knew that the power of God was in our ability to love even those who would do us harm. He knew this from experience, not just from some verses in the Bible.
I did not mingle with fundamentalists up until my last year of undergraduate study. At that time, I joined a group called Intravarsity Christian Fellowship. I went to services, retreats, and Bible studies with these people and appreciated their love and acceptance. But some of the things they got excited about, I found a bit disturbing. They touted Josh McDowell's book Evidence that Demands a Verdict (1972) as a must read that shows that the (fundamentalist) Christian ideas are based on irrefutable evidence.
I read the book and stopped about half-way through, when his logical fallacies became so blatent as to make the rest of his arguments worthless. (One critque of this book can be found here.) Up until this time, I knew that there were people who believed that every word of the Bible was true, but had never talked with anyone like this. I should point out that by this point I had read the Bible cover to cover, and many parts I had studied over and over again. I was familiar with the Bible and I knew a dozen reasons why the Bible was not the Word of God, at least not all of it. I also had some Philosophy of Religion coursework behind me.
Once it became known in the group that I disagreed with them about the Bible, several senior members of the group met with me to try to make me see things their way. What I came to see, instead, was why I would not be able to make Christianity the basis of my religious life. This is how my thinking evolved.
I had already rejected much of Paul's soteriology as irrational. He first says that no one but God can effect salvation, but then asserts that it is still the individual's fault, not God's, if someone is damned to hell. I did not see any of this justified in the Gospels, where Jesus often urges people to do what is right and even suggests that the key criteria for entry into heaven was a willingness to help the hungry, the sick, and the prisoners. He also urged love and forgiveness of enemies. So I could not really believe that the prospect of judgment and either heaven or hell was real.
But there are places where Jesus is quoted as saying that there will be some who will be thrown into the fires of hell. True, these words might have been put in Jesus' mouth, but I could not rule out that Jesus did include eternal damnation as a possibility. Could I be a follower of Jesus if he claimed that the God of love and forgiveness could mete out eternal punishment for sins that did not seem to justify such harshness?
Then I realized that in a way, the fundamentalists were right to insist on interpreting the Bible (or at least the New Testament) as a whole. The reason was that in order to understand the perspective of the authors, one must interpret their ideas in the context of their world view. They believed in a world that was created a few thousand years ago and expected it to end fairly soon. They saw human culture, and particularly the Hebrew segment, as foremost in the attention of God, who presided over the world as a ruler presides over his kingdom. Within that context, Jesus was a revolutionary, interjecting a trust in love and forgiveness that was rarely seen. But he was limited by the world view of those he ministered to.
Could we extract some essence from the teachings and example of Jesus into our present world view? Only the distinctly ethical aspects. Everything about the nature of the world and metaphysics cannot be translated; the difference in world view is too great. While I could define my Christian identity by this particular filter, I knew that the majority of Christians, even the liberal Christians, would not agree with me. It saddened me, for I had a great love for my Christian friends and family, and I did not willingly remove myself from their community.
Nevertheless, I continued attending Christian services for the next 16 years before discovering Unitaritan Universalism, which perfectly embraced the same respect for science and religion in a process of spiritual discovery and growth.
I will elaborate on the problems facing Christianity because of this shift in world view in future posts.