Perspective

A Conversation with a Bible-Believing Agnostic

By February 13, 2019 No Comments

“Don’t even get me started on religion,” David said.

We were riding in a nondescript black sedan somewhere in Dallas, Texas, in-between our hotel and the Presbyterian Church we’d decided to attend that Sunday morning. I was sitting shotgun. Jenna, our Development Director, was in the back. We had been at a conference and were headed to visit an alum. I had been talking with our Uber driver for several minutes. He was a good and engaging driver. Early in the trip he’d already adeptly navigated a shortcut, wisely dismissing his British-accented guide. In the first several minutes of the trip we’d covered several topics including the lack of nutritional options at McDonald’s and the labor practices at Walmart.

This interesting and winding conversation had led me to declare, “David, you’re a moral philosopher.”

“Yes,” he said, “but don’t even get me started on religion.”

As a pastor that spends lots of time intentionally listening to people rant about religion, I pressed.

“Please,” I said, “I’d love to hear your thoughts on religion.”

In the spirit of full-disclosure. I told him who I was and what I did for a living. I told him that I sought out opportunities for the kind of conversation he was withholding. When he protested, saying, “You’ll just try to convert me,” I countered with, “No, I don’t try to convert, that’s not my thing. I think that’s up to God.”

Immediately a switch flipped, and we were off.

“If you’re a Christian,” he said, “then you should try and convert me.” He loosely quoted Matthew 28, the great commission. “The Bible says go and make converts,” he said. “I know, I’ve read it several times.” 

For the next fifteen minutes we talked religion. It was a fascinating conversation, and what became clear to me was that David understood the Bible as absolutely inerrant and authoritative. “This is why I don’t go to church or believe in God,” he told me. The flood, Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, the occupation of the Promised Land and the genocide that went with it, the Divine child abuse of God the Father toward God the Son, it was just too much for David to bear. “How could I have faith in that crap?” he asked.

I tenderly suggested a handful of times that there might be other lenses through which to view the texts, other ways of reading. I even suggested that Christians read some of these texts differently, but he was adamant. He’d read the Bible. He knew it. And all those other interpretations were “made up.”

As we pulled into the parking lot of a towering Presbyterian Church, I was struck: struck by two things in particular. First, that if I had grown up believing in the God David had found in the Bible, I wouldn’t be a Christian either. Second, that although he had rejected the God he found in the Bible, he was so absolutely certain of the authority of scripture that he couldn’t believe that another way of seeing God was possible.

Simply put, David believed in the Bible—as authoritative and inerrant—so strongly, that he could no longer believe in God.

“Thanks for the ride,” Jenna and I said in unison.

David said, “You’re welcome, and thanks for the conversation.”

A few weeks ago, we started College Confirmation at The Lutheran Center, which led to Vicar Jason our Seminary Intern talking about idolatry. He was drilling down deep, and one student asked him if it would be possible to make the Bible an idol.

“Yes,” Jason said, “It’s called bibliolatry. The Bible, though it’s the best source we have for knowing who God is, is not God.”  

It’s an important distinction.

David, the Uber driver, trusted more in his interpretation of the Bible than the love of God in Jesus Christ. He was stuck. It was like he was a person wearing glasses, but who didn’t know it because he’d never had a chance to look in the mirror.

“No, my vision has always been 20/20,” he says, “because that’s the way I’ve always seen it.”

At times, I suspect we’re all liable to catch this ailment.

David got me thinking that recognizing that we all come to the Bible with lenses and assumptions is vitally important, not just for critical thinking, but for our faith itself. A faith that thinks it sees perfectly is always resistant to seeing things differently. It’s so certain, so sure, that it will break before it bends. And, as far as the Bible is concerned, our vision is limited. At least that’s what the Bible says. We see through a mirror dimly, as Paul put it.  

This recognition keeps us open to a living God showing up, often in the reading and hearing of the Bible, and blowing a hole in our assumptions.

I treasure author Barbara Brown Taylor’s description of our ideas about God getting exposed. She wrote:  

“[Those unquestioned things that have] been lost gradually become less important than what is found. Curiosity pokes its green head up through the asphalt of grief, and fear of the unknown takes on an element of wonder as the disillusioned turn away from the God that was supposed to be in order to seek the God who is. Every letdown becomes a lesson and a lure. Did God fail to come when I called? Then perhaps God is not a minion. So who is God? Did God fail to punish my adversary? Then perhaps God is not a policeman. So who is God? Did God fail to make everything turn out right? Then perhaps God is not a fixer. So who is God?”

“Over and over,” she writes, “my disappointments draw me deeper into the mystery of God’s being and doing … so who is God? It is the question of a lifetime, and the answers are never big enough or finished.”   

 

Connecting people to Christ, so they may discover their own calling as disciples.