I read yesterday that Barack Obama is the most polarizing President in history; people either love him or hate him. But what was really interesting about that study is that, before Obama, George Bush was the most polarizing President in history and before Bush, Bill Clinton was the most polarizing. I think we are detecting a pattern here. Maybe Obama, Bush and Clinton are not primarily the cause of polarization but the result of polarization. Maybe the problem is us.
Polarization is the increasing American norm and I strongly suspect that it will get worse. With so many available sources of information people are increasingly turning to “trusted sources” and ignoring, even fearing, all other voices. I’ve also been convinced that this is true in Christianity too. We are increasingly polarized over a variety of issues; Calvinism, the role of women, the prosperity gospel, just to name a few. And we primarily listen to voices who agree with us.
Those engaged in polemic battles tend to see their own conclusions as reasoned and well thought out, but they also tend to see the other side as either ignorant or willfully misleading, perhaps both at the same time. Each side is sure they know what the Bible teaches and that the other side is appallingly stupid or evil. But, as I have said before, our battles are not really over the authority of the Bible but rather the authority of our understanding of the Bible.
So how do we understand the Bible? Not surprisingly there are many people ready to explain that to us. I did a search on “How can I understand the Bible?” and found, according to Google, 85,000,000 sites ready, willing, and able to answer that question. What was really interesting however was seeing that the most visited sites were – wait for it – highly polarized. Several popular sites were wildly different in the way they interpret the Bible; in how to understand it.
If you take the time to look at any of these disputes between Christians you will quickly find that, contrary to what both sides tell us about the other guys, the vast majority of serious thinkers on both sides have done a great deal of biblical research and reached their conclusions with care. This leads me to my first axiom in understanding the Bible:
It is not a good idea to assume that people on the other side are either wicked or stupid.
I’m not going to give yet another “how to understand the Bible” speech; explanation number 85,000,001. But I do want to share another axiom that I have found helpful to give me a hint that I may, repeat may, need to be cautious about an understanding I hold. It goes like this:
My understanding of [Issue X] is right because…
If the only way I can answer that is “…the Bible says so” (Which is really saying “My understanding of the Bible says so”) than I need to be cautious about declarative statements. For example, if I was to say “Only men, and not women, should be able to give sermons because…” and the only way to finish that statement is “…the Bible says so.” then I need to spend some time researching the studies of those who differ with me.
Many of us who are committed to the authority of Scripture go into a panic if someone even hints that perhaps, just perhaps, reasonable, intelligent, and well-meaning godly people can reach different conclusions. In a panic we throw up our hands and say “If I can’t be certain about the Bible’s teaching, then what good is the Bible? Everyone just gets to have their own point of view and chaos will reign!” That leads to my third and final axiom for this post:
Faith is not the opposite of doubt; it is the opposite of certainty.
One final thought. Don’t confuse confidence and certainty. Being confident in our beliefs allows us to say to those who differ “Hit me with your best shot.” Confident people are not afraid to have their beliefs challenged or even modified. Those who cling to mere certainty must always be afraid.