Through a series of recent conversations I’ve had with a dear friend and mentor who happens to be a conservative theologian, I’ve learned that there is a stigma placed on liberal theologians; namely, that we are intellectually dishonest. It’s pretty easy to see how this stigma developed. Liberal theologians tend to have a “low” view of scripture, one that admits that the various works that comprise any religious canon come to us filtered through disparate cultures and personalities, leaving them full of claims that, when held up to a modern historical account (or a modern conception of ethics and morality), don’t necessarily line up.
To admit such a thing doesn’t seem like much of a problem to me. The problem, according to those with a “high” view of scripture (stereotypically seen as deeming scripture to be inerrant), is that liberal theologians shouldn’t be claiming that scripture has the power to reveal the truth or provide a moral framework for one’s life. Therefore, liberal preachers who tell entire congregations how the world works or how to act based off of a scripture they don’t actually consider to be “true” are engaging in intellectual dishonesty.
I’m not a preacher. I’m technically not a qualified theologian. That said, this controversy touches on something very dear to my heart: romantic readings. What is a romantic reading? The most iconic example of romantic reading is the way Don Quixote reads the world around him. He is obsessed with the chivalrous ideals touted in the books he has read, and believes with all his heart that he is a knight errant charged with the duty to defend the helpless and destroy the wicked. He sees a windmill and reads it as an evil giant he is duty-bound to slay. In the end, he is killed because of this belief. He was willing to die for a romantic reading of reality.
There is obvious danger in this kind of faith. Religious fanatics engage in bloody crusades motivated by this kind of faith, and I by no means condone such acts. On the other hand, Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer also had this kind of faith. He admits in his book The Quest of the Historical Jesus that Jesus believed the end of the world was coming within a generation. He admits that the Bible is probably not “true” in the literal sense of the word. Yet, he gave up all the celebrity and fame he’d acquired in Europe and moved to Africa in order to establish a world-class hospital, where he died.
The point is, you don’t have to believe something is actually true in order to give your life to it. You don’t have to empirically prove something before you consider it worth sharing. And even though I don’t think the Bible is literally true, that doesn’t preclude me from believing that it was divinely inspired, and it certainly doesn’t preclude me from reading it romantically, and in turn reading the world around me romantically. I believe in Jesus Christ and am willing to die for this belief. Does this make me intellectually dishonest?
This is a story about the end of time. There are stories about how we got here. There’s the story about a forbidden apple hanging from a tree. About brothers murdering brothers, divine promises and descendents flung out over the earth like sand on the seashore. There’s the story about volcanic heat and seafloor proteins and the inauguration of a spark of life which catches and spreads like a wildfire, shifting and molding itself until it manifests in as many variations as there are stars in the sky. There are other stories, too.
Since the beginning, we have been a people of creation. We’ve created music and words, art and traditions, towering structures and beautiful ideologies. Most of all, we’ve created stories. Our greatest strength lies in our ability to realize these stories, to render them across the face of reality the way a muralist paints a fresco over a drab gray wall. All of our social institutions, all the shoes we grow up to fill, are nothing but stories in the process of becoming real.
Each of these accomplishments, however, has come at a staggering cost. Since the beginning, our hands have been stained with the blood of our brothers. We distinguished ourselves from the animals only to become more calculating in our destruction. We hammered bronze out of molten rock only to slice open each other’s bellies. We crafted wheels only to grind our families beneath them. We mastered fire only to set entire cities ablaze and to watch them burn. We established religion only to divide the world into the divine and the blasphemous, only to feed our hungry while we slaughter their soldiers. We have unlocked the secrets of energy and physics only to massacre entire races, defile entire continents with nuclear fallout and acid rain.
Here, at the end of time, we stand on our heap of rubble and stare backward, clutching our meager jewels, wishing we could trade it all to start over again knowing everything we know now. We’ve taken the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and have let it ferment into a fine vintage, enough wisdom to stay our killing hand. We’ve planted gardens, we’ve cured diseases, we’ve eradicated poverty, and we’ve managed to weave science and faith and culture and politics into a seamless, synergetic fabric. But it’s not enough. The cost was too high, there are too many unmarked graves pocking the cratered landscape of our memory.
This is a story about the end of time, but also about the beginning. We’ve started telling a new story, a story about building a machine capable of throwing us backward, of skipping us like a stone over the surface of the waters of time, so that we might land on the shore of the first dawn. We hope to encounter our first ancestors and convince them that we are like Gods, and that they should walk with us in the cool of the evening as we tell them our tragic story. Our hope is to impart a cautionary tale, to give them the meat of wisdom along with the knowledge they’ll inevitably cultivate.
Has this been the first time? Is our idea of God nothing but the wisdom of a future race, a desperate attempt to keep us from destroying ourselves all over again? If so, then we must believe that, as the coral shell folds back in on itself, so with human beings and time. Though we will circle and gyre back to where we started, the poet must be mistaken, the center must hold. It must be a beacon for our upward spiral, our outward shine, as we reflect ever increasing glory back to the heavens. Maybe we’ll shine bright enough to turn God’s head; or at least become the God we never stopped dreaming about.
I'm Bryan Tarpley, and this blog is a repository for the thoughts that issue from my addled brains like mucus from a running nose. One of the things I enjoy most in life is good conversation, so please dive in; stir things up. Consider this a safe place. The title of this blog is derived from a series of posts I cooked up (originally as Facebook notes) for which there are links below.