Two people contributed to the idea behind this post. The first is "Dr." Frank Turek. He has a doctorate in apologetics. That shouldn't be a thing, but that's a different post. The other is a gentleman, Rich, who commented on an old post, and in the response he said he'd like me to comment on what's likely wrong with my own hermeneutic (not sure what that means in the context of someone who doesn't believe sacred texts are authoritative, but...). He then changed gears and said:
"...actually, it would be cool to see a whole post about that... about what are you worried you've got it [sic] wrong? Is there anything that troubles you about the Biblical narrative (I believe there really is one - that is the "low-lying fruit" btw, I really like Scott McKnight, Dallas Willard, and NT Wright ' s work on the Biblical narrative) that makes you think maybe some of it might be true or reveal a God behind it all?"
First, I'm not writing a whole post about it, unless you want a three-sentence post. Second, Turek. He'll be speaking at Oklahoma's annual theocracy event: Reclaiming America For Christ. I took issue with the blurb about him because he called professors like me, I assume, "intellectual predators." Bearing in mind that this guy got his doctorate at a school founded by Norman Geisler, which is now presidented by plagiarist Richard Land, the phrase is likely not going to mean anything other than I don't tell Christian students what Turek would prefer I tell them. This, according to me, is because I prefer a full and frank discussion that adheres as closely to knowable truth as possible and that involves the possibility that all of us are wrong, at least about things that clearly can't be known.
So, to answer Rich, nothing about the Biblical narrative convinces me I'm missing anything. You mention three men that I have varying levels of respect for, but none of whom I would agree with about the substance of the Biblical narrative. The phrase is deceptive in the first place. There is no "Biblical narrative." There are several; even the evangelists disagree with each other. Paul and James are implacable enemies, with Paul going out of his way to discredit the Jerusalem leaders. There is literally nothing in the Gospels that anyone can point to and say, "That definitely happened." That doesn't mean I don't believe any of it happened, but it does mean that I find the Bible to be fascinating and utterly devoid of authority. Any argument for its authority is an argument based on faith, primarily in Church Councils, and nothing more.
As to its historicity, was there a Jesus? Yes, I'm content to say there was one. Was he the Messiah? No. Clearly not (nor do I believe any such thing exists). This is the entire reason Jews didn't accept him and the entire reason Paul was required to invent a new faith, a faith that irritated James and Peter. It's also the reason the evangelists and apostles redefined "messianic prophecies," ignoring those that were actually unfulfilled prophecies and choosing others that sort of pointed to Jesus. See Reza Aslan on these points, by the way. Hard to argue with his analysis unless you have a vested interest in there being a univocal Biblical narrative. Was Jesus God incarnate? No. Not a chance. We can know little about the historical Jesus, and the cosmic Christ is a fabrication of Paul, with some help from the writer of John's gospel. This is a complex argument where its best to say we are going to disagree. Does the Bible point to a God revealed in Jesus or its pages? No more than any other sacred text does. How do you decide between them? Which text is right? Which God should I choose? Pluralism has destroyed any coherent apologetic for theism. Most anti-atheist screeds I see these days can only argue for a form of deism, if they mean to be intellectually honest, that is.
All that to say, I'm sure there are holes in my "worldview," as I agree with Rich that none of us have access to a perfect one, but that doesn't mean flaws in my worldview lead inexorably to theism, nor to theism in the Christian tradition. This is so clearly a bias in the minds of theists that I'm amazed they don't see it. Just because a system doesn't answer all questions put to it (and I didn't hear any good ones from Rich) does not mean that I'm forced to accept whatever theist system you offer in its place. Might as well accept Islam or Judaism at that point. Might as well make up a new one, or create a lovely syncretistic option. Why would I prefer Christianity? Friend Jay Kelly puts it better than I, and I think he'd refer to himself as a believer of sorts, though likely not a theist. He replied to the first draft of this with:
"You address what I take to be the biggest terrible-assumption in Rich's comment: That if your worldview is wrong, you should default back to Christianity. Christianity doesn't hold a place of epistemological preeminence such that competing religions have to unseat it, and if they don't, Chrisitianity wins. But in a culture that is predominantly Christian (in professed belief if not actual practice), it's an easy terrible-assumption to make, I suppose."
I'm content not having answers because I have no idea what God is supposed to do for me in terms of how I live my life. And if I have something wrong, it's not affecting how I live my life in the present, and quite frankly, students can't answer the question about God's activity in any coherent fashion either, and not just the young ones. I'm not sure what kind of worldview flaws Rich thinks I have, other than not worshipping his version of god, but if they exist, and they surely do, they aren't keeping me awake at night. The best worldview option I know is that of the Rabbis: tikkun olam. I can get behind that one, but I don't have to be a theist to practice it.
I don't push students to a particular belief—except to say "don't be a dick"—but I do ask difficult questions that they struggle to answer. Does that make me an intellectual predator? No. It makes me a professor of philosophy and humanities, and students who aren't equipped to deal with my classes should ask "Dr." Turek why the hell he didn't tell them the truth about faith, scripture, metaphysics, competing narratives, etc. A young man told me this week that if the Bible isn't true in terms of a harmony of the Gospels, then it's not true at all. Who offered him this demonic false dichotomy? It wasn't me. My exact response was, "If you hold onto those categories and move forward in investigating your faith, you will reach a fork in the road and that fork will ruin you. You will abandon what you've learned and hide in simplistic faith, or you will abandon faith. The evangelists weren't modern people. They were not working with the same categories."
This is a catastrophic failure of Christian education, yet again. There is simply no way that everything in the Bible that purports to be true or to be a narrative or to be a historical account is true according to modern, historical/referential categories. Try teaching kids that before they get to my class. You'll find they keep their faith in higher numbers, but it won't be the kind of faith you prefer. For the record, very few students abandon faith in my classes, whereas nearly 25% of the students (at least) I knew at Southern Nazarene University stopped believing while in the religion program. Looks like religious instruction is worse for faith than non-theist professors in humanities classes.
This is largely because faith isn't a matter of apologetics or facts or answers. I've said this before and it remains true: faith is a tribal marker, a matter of affiliation and allegiance, not a comprehensive set of beliefs and practices. I find the persistence of belief in a god to be one of the great mysteries of being human. How is it that people believe a being they have never seen in the flesh, so to speak, is real? Even as someone who is comfortable as a person of no faith, I still find myself intrigued by the varieties of belief and the ways in which people explain why they believe or what belief (god) does for them. To be clear, I used to be a pastor, and I grew up in a family of mixed faith: Pentecostal mother and skeptic father—I don't recall him ever using the word atheist to describe himself. Because he had no apparent strong feelings about the gods, he allowed my mother to dictate the spiritual upbringing of her three sons, of whom I was the middle. I believed because my mother believed, and I trusted her. There were no rational arguments, t-graph charts of pros and cons, miracles, epiphanies, or theophanies; I simply grew into belief because my mother believed and took me to church every week.
I left the faith in 2006, and I have never regretted the choice. There has been not a day since that I woke up and pined for a community of faith or a set of beliefs in god. Because of my obsession with questions of faith, particularly how faith impacts culture, morals, and public policy, I have tried to remember what it feels like to be a person of faith, to genuinely remember what I thought God did for me. After all, what role did faith play in my life such that I don't miss it at all? What questions did it allegedly answer? What benefits did it provide?
The absence of solid answers makes me believe that, to paraphrase my friend John Cheek, any reasons for belief are probably impenetrable. In other words, people believe for a variety of complex reasons and almost no one can articulate the actual reasons. Let's be clear, God does nothing concrete in the world that I can see; it's one of the primary reasons I don't believe. I grew up in a tradition that believes miracles happen and I never saw a single one. Prayer is so utterly ineffective that the practice of it is nonsensical outside personal benefits like peace of mind and catharsis.
When these things are demonstrably true, why do people persist in belief? My task is not to disabuse students of their ideas about faith, but to help them articulate what they believe and why, all the while assuring them that I don't know the answers either, and that sometimes, there really are no answers. That makes me a gadfly, for sure, and even a professor; it does not make me an intellectual predator. Pastors and professors who lie to students, who under-equip them, who fail to disclose important details, who obfuscate and engage in sophistry, who offer straw man arguments for questions that "atheist professors" like me never ask—they are the intellectual predators.