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I grew up in churches that had all the answers. Heaven was up, hell was down, and we knew who was going in which direction. God created the world in six days--one hundred and forty-four hours. The Red Sea parted just like in the movie. The whale swallowed Jonah. If the Bible said that Jonah swallowed the whale, we would have made that a test of faith. We reduced the mystery of the Unknowable God to Four Spiritual Laws that would fit on a post card and still leave room for "The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it." We didn't have room for questions, because we were certain of everything.
I was going to be a Baptist preacher, so I thought I needed to go to Baylor University, the world's largest Baptist university, even though my people thought of Baylor as a bastion of liberalism. My plan was to straighten out the misguided freethinkers. If the Bible said "Thus saith the Lord," then the professors better act like "Thus saith the Lord," or they would have to answer to one angry freshman.
My first religion class was Introduction to Old Testament. I hadn't figured out that you didn't really have to read the required reading, so after the first day of class I read one hundred pages of Bernard Anderson's classic Understanding the Old Testament. In his commentary on Noah and the flood, one line set my blood boiling. Anderson writes that the closing of the ark by the hand of God was a "naïve anthropomorphic touch." I wasn't sure what a "naïve anthropomorphic touch" was, but I knew that my home church would not approve.
I underlined the offensive passage, made several exclamation points in the margin, and marched out of the library to begin the crusade by straightening out the heretical professor who had assigned the profane textbook. I began calmly, but firmly: "Dr. Christian--that's his name--you may not realize that the textbook you assigned questions the Word of God. Here on page 98 it says that in Genesis, which was written by Moses as I hope you know, when we read that God closed the door of the ark, that is 'a naïve anthropomorphic touch.' I'm not positive what that means, but it doesn't sound like a compliment. I don't think we should question the Bible. Do you?"
Dr. Christian, who is aptly named, gently replied: "Brett, do you think that God might want us to ask questions about the Bible? Could it be that God wants us to work to believe? Maybe faith shouldn't be easy."
By the conclusion of our conversation, it was obvious even to a state Bible drill champion--Mississippi Baptist Convention, 1971--that there was more real belief in his questions than in my answers. I transferred my membership from the church of the certain to the church of the questioning.
There will always be those who struggle with the relationship of faith and learning. The Pharisees thought of themselves as the defenders of both the religious and the academic, so they found Jesus doubly troubling.
They asked, "Where did Jesus go to school? Does he have a terminal degree? What has he published?"
Finally, the Pharisees sent a graduate teaching assistant to ask, "Which is the most important commandment in the law?"
Jesus had thought about this question: "Love God with all your heart and soul and mind."
It wasn't the most sophisticated response they'd ever heard. Since then, the majority of Jesus' followers have at least given lip service to the heart and soul portion of Jesus' answer, but on occasion the mind has been left behind.
Some who claim Jesus' name believe Christian education is an oxymoron. They think that we have to choose between being open-minded and being Christian. They're afraid to listen to anyone who sounds the least bit intelligent, and some of us sound the least bit intelligent.
Just before I left home for college, a man in our church who was disappointed that I wasn't going to Bob Jones University took me aside and said, "Brett, you're about to go to college. They will try to teach you things that you've never heard before. Promise me that you won't let them change your mind about anything." I wondered if he would give the same speech to a six-year-old: "Brett, you're about to go to the first grade. They will try to teach you things you've never heard before, but don't let them change your mind about anything."
We shouldn't be threatened by knowledge, but by ignorance. It's what we don't know that gets in the way.
Around the beginning of the century, the Mexican bank robber Jorge Rodriguez was making quite a name for himself by sneaking across the Texas border, robbing Texas banks, and then running back to Mexico. An outcry developed and the Texas Rangers sent a posse. One afternoon a Ranger saw Jorge sneaking across the border with a sack under his arm. He followed him carefully. Jorge went back to his hometown and into a cantina to relax.
The Texas Ranger slipped in, got the drop on him, put a gun to his head and said, "Jorge Rodriguez, I know who you are. I'm a Texas Ranger. I've come to say that if you don't give back all the money you've robbed from Texas banks I'm going to blow your brains out."
Unfortunately, Jorge didn't understand English and the Ranger didn't know Spanish. They were at an absolute verbal impasse.
A boy who was watching it all stepped forward and said, "I'll translate. I know Spanish and English."
And so the boy translated the ranger's threat.
Jorge got down on his knees, began to shake, and said, "Tell the big Texas Ranger that I have not spent a cent of the money. If he will go to the town well, face north, count down five stones, and pull the stone out, all the money is there. I haven't lost a cent. Tell him."
A wry look came over the boy's face. He turned to the Ranger and said, "Jorge Rodriguez is a brave man. He says he is ready to die."
Sometime we want to think that we know enough and have no further need to learn; but when challenges come, we need as much understanding as we can get.
Some argue for a narrow approach to learning that decides the answers before the questions have been asked, but there's no virtue in uniform ideas without any thought behind them. The narrow approach forgets that no knowledge is outside of the realm of God's knowledge.
Did you know that the title most often given to Jesus in the New Testament is not "Master" or "Lord," as you might expect, but "Teacher"? On a number of occasions, we read that the crowds were astonished, not by miracles, but by his teaching. When Jesus called disciples, he called them to be learners. The Greek word mathates, usually translated disciples, could just as easily be rendered students.
If we don't include our minds in our love for God, we end up worshipping simple ideas about God rather than humbling ourselves before the Infinite. When we think hard, we begin to realize the ways in which we might be wrong. We learn to factor in a lot of uncertainty. We ask harder questions.
The best teachers help us understand that God calls us to learn, because learning is one of the ways we find our way to the most meaningful life.
On the first day of History of Western Civilization, the professor handed out a list of homework assignments. We had a reading assignment for each day of class.
He said, "I can give you a quiz over that day's reading any day, so make sure you read the assignments."
For a while, we skimmed the assignment, but he never gave a quiz.
We had a major exam the Monday before Thanksgiving, and the day before Thanksgiving--this was when students went to class the day before Thanksgiving--he came in with a folded sheet of white legal paper and said, "I think it's time for a quiz."
This is going to be ugly. I am confident that no one did the reading. Who could have guessed that we would have a quiz on the day before Thanksgiving? We were begging one another for any scrap of information. I heard someone whisper that he thought the reading might be over "a war in Europe."
But then the teacher offered a temporary stay of execution: "I want to be fair. Before we have the quiz, does anybody have a question over the reading that you've done?"
We were desperately looking around in the hope that someone who was about to become much more popular with his or her classmates would come up with a question that wasn't incredibly lame.
In the back of the room a hand went up hesitantly, "Can you tell us what you thought was most significant in the reading?"
We grimaced. How could a question be more transparent?
But to our surprise, the professor responded: "That's a helpful question."
He started writing on the chalkboard, telling us about the reading that he appeared to believe we had read. We were listening as hard as we could, clinging to any fact that might make the difference between an F and a D. After about thirty minutes of an intensely followed lecture, he got out his ominous piece of paper again and said, "Okay, let's get to the test. Here we go. But does anybody have any questions about what I just explained?"
This could be another reprieve, but at first no hands went up.
Then finally, "How would you set all this in context?"
More pained expressions. This wasn't going to work, but it did. He went back to the board and fascinated us with more details of the Crimean War. He stopped five minutes before it was time for class to end and said, "We still have time for the quiz. Number 1-20."
We still wished there wasn't a quiz, but we knew 1854-1856, England, France, Turkey, Sardinia wins, Russia loses. He slowly unfolded his piece of paper and said, "Here's your quiz." It was blank. There was nothing there. He never planned to give a quiz. He smiled and said, "Have a happy Thanksgiving."
What I most remember, more than I remember the Crimean War, is how stunned I was to realize that our teacher just wanted us to learn. I was genuinely shocked to discover that for him it wasn't about quizzes, tests or grades. He wanted us to learn.
God wants us to learn. God calls us to love with our minds, because the search for truth leads to God.
Let us pray. Almighty God, source of faith and learning, forgive us when we do not examine our beliefs, teach us to love you with our minds, to ask good questions. Give us a passion for exploring your creation. Make us thoughtful followers of Christ. Amen.
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