Blame it on Socrates: The Bible and Doubt

A few blogs ago I outed myself and let the world know: I no longer feel comfortable calling myself a Christian. A few friends asked me to share how exactly I’ve come to this conclusion, so for the next few months I hope to tease apart how exactly my foundation fell apart, and then tell you why I have no interest in putting it back together.

It’s hard to know where to start, so I thought it would be best to look at the set of beliefs from the evangelical church I spent most of my adolescents attending.

A few notes:

  • I don’t plan on mentioning the church by name, so don’t bother asking. From here on, I will simply call my old church “the church.”
  • I will be copying and pasting their beliefs from their website sans hyperlinks, mostly because I don’t think it’s worth being an asshole to them just because they taught me something that I now believe is untrue.
  • If it is in your nature to try to dispute my journey thus far, I ask you to refrain from commenting. This is not a forum for theological banter, but instead a forum to share our experiences. There is no room here for anyone to try to prove each other wrong or right. With that said, choose your tone wisely when you comment.

Not to my surprise, when I went to the churches website, at the top of their list of beliefs was the heading “The Bible” which read:

We recognize that the Bible is the Word of God. We view the Scriptures as an accurate source of God’s perspective on human events throughout history and an inerrant source of His wisdom and will, delivered through chosen men who were directly inspired by the Holy Spirit. This means that the Bible is the final authority regarding matters of faith and life and is not superseded by any other source.

Whoa. That is a seriously assertive statement right there, and such assertions are the reason why I have such a strong reaction to Christianity (and all other ideologies) to begin with. It’s like saying, “I have the key, and all of the rest of the world—the traditions and ideas—are wrong. But I am right.”

Here’s the thing: I believed all of this. I believed that I was right, that I had the key, that every other religion was wrong, and that the Bible was the only way to ‘get at’ the truth. I believed that the Bible was completely without error, and that God literally came down through “his” Holy Spirit and possessed each author to write what they did. I believed that the Bible was the only place to draw my knowledge from, that anything else was not worthy.

Talk about a superiority complex. A “I’m the king of the hill” complex.

So where did this break down for me? I can’t remember if it was while I was in class, or maybe I was doing some reading on Socrates. Either way, I came across his paraphrased quote: “All I know is that I know nothing.” It was like ripping a muscle to make you stronger: it hurt like hell when I read it, but I knew, in all of its humility, that there was something there, it was burning and ripping something new in me. If there was one assertion that could ever be made, it was that we can’t fully ‘get at’ anything, except admitting that we can’t.

This Socratic concept was an act of grace and humility for me. I began to accept that my worldview was but a speck in the great cosmos. In this I had to admit to myself that maybe, just maybe my understanding of the Bible as I knew it was wrong, or at least not right. My foundation was crumbling, and next I had to ask myself, ‘how then do you view the Bible?’

Upon a lot of introspection and critical thinking, I’ve now learned that most of what I am reacting to is bad theology. The theology of the Bible that my old church is using, where they say the Bible is without error, etc., is actually a Evangelical trend that started in the 1970’s through the signing of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI). The authors of the CSBI do a good job of covering their bases, with statements like this:

Since the Renaissance, and more particularly since the Enlightenment, world-views have been developed which involve skepticism about basic Christian tenets. Such are the agnosticism which denies that -God is knowable, the rationalism which denies that He is incomprehensible, the idealism which denies that He is transcendent, and the existentialism which denies rationality in His relationships with us. When these un- and anti-biblical principles seep into men’s theologies at presuppositional level, as today they frequently do, faithful interpretation of Holy Scripture becomes impossible.

The writers of the CSBI thought that they had a heads up on Biblical understanding, interpretation, and revelation. They decided to fully trust their tradition and not ask questions. I can’t fathom this. Attempting to read the wikipedia page about canonization (and yes, I know wikipedia is not a scholarly resource) makes my head spin, but it shows us one important thing: every tradition has their own interpretation of scripture, and every tradition has decided by some set of rules (where these rules have come from is news to me), what is true, what is false, what belongs, and what does not. Forget that all of these men were run by their personal agendas, as all humans are. Forget that there was a political climate, where Christianity was becoming the law, that war was being wagged against anything that didn’t “fall in line.”

Everything is so much more complicated than we understand, how can any of us can say we’ve got it figured out? The best my logic can tell me is that the Bible was written by humans, interpreted by humans, and reinterpreted by humans. It is thought that parts were added and subtracted to create power and control, people became divided, there were schisms and sects and blood and lust. And the one similarity is this: all religions have this, a yearning to be right. When we look across the landscape of religion anthropologically, we see that most every religion is making the same claim, that they have the upper hand on the divine.

And thus, I’m skeptical. How can any church, any theologian, any religion think that they are right, and everyone else is wrong?

All I know is that I know nothing.

Aside from my great skepticism which was born upon reading those simple and piercing words from Socrates, my foray into hermeneutics was another step into my great doubt. I’ll write more on that soon.

21 comments

  1. Walter

    Thanks for sharing this journey, Brianna. It’s always a great thing to leave bad, life-sucking theology behind and I understand why much of what you have let go of had to go.
    During the lead-up to the War in Iraq I declared that i would never again use the word Evangelical as part of my identity. While still clearly a fan of “good news”, I was simply no longer willing to share the identity with those millions of Evangelicals who (from my point of view) were publicly betraying Jesus’ example and teachings while proudly calling themselves Christians. At the risk of my being mistaken, your public stance seems similar in that I have seen many who seem to love Jesus less than you and many others who barely even think about what on earth Jesus’ divinity even means who still comfortably call themselves Christian. I can understand, however, why being a devout agnostic feels a more comfortable fit.

    I’ll just share one interesting recent discovery that you may have read too – it is the research that those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” are significantly more prone to mental health issues and substance abuse (than either non-spiritual people or spiritual and religious people). Who knows why? But I suspect it has to do with community and rootedness as particularly necessary for those exploring the spiritual side of life. So I only hope that your honest struggle never (unnecessarily) closes doors to community and rootedness – and knowing you, I doubt it will.

    • Brianna Kocka

      Thanks for weighing in, Walter. It certainly does feel better using ‘agnostic’ over ‘Christian’ and not a lot of people understand why this distinction is important to me currently. Will I be stuck as an ‘agnostic’ forever? Probably not, but it’s the best fit for my psyche right now.

      It is interesting what you’ve shared about mental health, addiction and ones self-removal from the Church proper, and I totally understand how that could happen. For me, the devastation of loosing my idea of God and faith, etc., launched the usual addictive reaction—I felt I needed to fill the hole in me with mind numbing substances, in my case, a lot of alcohol. Luckily for me, I have learned how to really let go of the confusion, and quiet my mind when I need to so the questions and crumbling of my foundation don’t drive me to what I now think is a juvenile response to these things: over-drinking. But, it was the road I needed to walk on, and I’m happy to have come out the other side feeling stronger and more free.

      One thing I do long for is a community that is not bound by doctrine, where we can explore spirituality together in an open minded, non biased and non partisan way. I often have a very emotional reaction when I go to a Christian church now, I find it very difficult to sit through a service without feeling jaded by what often feels like assertiveness, so for my own health I’ve left that behind. (Although I do wonder if I lived in St. Stephen still, would continue to go to SCV? That seems like something I could do, because everyone there knows my story and journey and that alone helps me feel unbound by needing to fit a certain doctrine or set of creeds.)

      Maybe one of these days I can create this community myself. In the mean time, I’ll keep walking the path of peace in myself, while bringing hope to those around me as best I can.

      • Walter

        I’ve had several chats with people on that last question of how community can start when it’s not connected with a church. The chat often gets stuck. I’m thinking, though, that the answer must involve a potluck (or some kind of shared meal) plus some level of intentionality. But that latter point seems to be the kicker – subtract the church and people don’t seem to know how to add the intentionality to the mix (unless maybe it centres on some kind of activism or something – but that usually results in a really narrow community). In the meantime, do come visit…

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  4. Debbie Davis

    Brianna, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about spirituality and the difficulties that come from identifying with Christians. Since you mentioned longing for “a community that is not bound by doctrine, where we can explore spirituality together in an open minded, non biased and non partisan way” you might want to check out David Hayward’s websites: http://www.nakedpastor.com and thelastingsupper.com. He was a pastor for 30 years but has now left the church. He uses the first site to engage in debate and the other site to create safe community for people in transition.

  5. AJG

    Hi Brianna. I found your blog from Tony Jones’ blog. I’m in the same boat as you although I’m a bit older (42). I don’t identify as a Christian anymore either, at least an orthodox one. I spent over thirty years in the same Southern Baptist church although I knew very early on that I didn’t believe that most of the Bible was literally true. It just took me a lot longer to finally own up to it (which I have done in the past year).

    Biblical inerrancy is a ridiculous assertion that cannot be defended in any shape or form. Most defense of this doctirne is akin to avoiding the difficult questions. I wonder if you’ve read anything by either Peter Enns or Kenton Sparks? They self-identify as evangelicals but they reject inerrancy based on historical criticism of the Bible. In my opinion, men like these offer the only way forward to salvage evangelical Christianity’s claim that the Bible is God’s word. I’m not convinced anymore, but I do applaud them for confronting the issues head on instead of ducking them.

    Good luck to you! Christian agnosticism is incredibly freeing! And if we’re honest, everyone is an agnostic.

  6. kevinwilliams07

    I found your blog via Tony Jones. I like the honesty in which you write. Although I am a Christian, I struggle with the bad theology of the Church. I think it is problematic that we have dismissed others and assumed we are right. As you say it is much more complicated. The best place to argue is from a place of epistemic humility. This way stands somewhere, but does not assume rightness. It is an openess to the voice of the other.

    Thanks again for your smart engagement of one doctrine of your Church. I look forward to future posts.

  7. Jim Armstrong

    I spent most of my life in S. Baptist life (in the more moderate west). Suffice to say that it was generally a benevolent majority of my life, but my compass began to swing more toward a simpler but challenging distillation of what this Jesus seemed to say and do. In looking for a more compatible church life, I found out a couple of useful things. First, Christianity is and always has comprised quite a wide spectrum of understandings (many understandably viewed as heretical in mainstream thought). 2. There are – here and there – churches whose likemindedness centers about learning from the diversity of understandings in their congregation, rather than seeking a uniform consensus around a fixed set. Surprisingly, I found one in the United Methodist Tradition [It’s also on the Progressive Christianity part of the spectrum, a “Living the Questions” church].

    Over time, the sorting out of my internal “stuff” moved me to release my grip on some beliefs that are core to many traditional Christians. In their view, I am probably no longer a Christian. But I have recognized my need for community, …and the one I found self-identifies as Christian, but is both very open and very conversational in many ways that most churches are not. …And I am not an outsider in my church!

    I no longer think of myself as a Christian in the traditional sense. But I have retained my respect for the substance of what Jesus taught and did, and I do consider Jesus part of the providence of God, and so I consider myself a follower of Jesus (though no longer the Jesus a la the Gospel of John, for example).

    In full disclosure – sorta – I am 70+, post grad in physics, active in my church, much more agnostic than I used to be (I frame that as humility), no longer believe (intentional use of that word) in original sin, hell, a God-dictated literally-interpreted Bible, same-as-God divinity of Jesus, bodily resurrection of Jesus, or spiritual redemption via blood.

    Despite that, I do consider myself as a follower of Jesus, and count myself fortunate to have found a very diverse congregational company of friends who value serious thought and conversation about such things (sadly, all too often only discussed in seminaries).

    I write this, not to commend this particular “space” to you, but to assure you that others have walked the path that you are on, and that there are like-minded folks – in churches (and out!) – who nonetheless identify themselves as Christians, though occupying one of the less populated portion of the Christianity spectrum.

    In short, you are among friends.

  8. Simon Nash

    I love what you have written, and the beautiful way you have expressed it. I agree with you that religion’s “yearning to be right” is at the heart of so many toxic strains of Christianity, instead of perhaps a more Christlike “yearning to be kind”, “yearning to be hospitable to the foreigner”, “yearning to be generous to the stranger”, “yearning to love and to be loved”, “yearning for beauty”.

    Often I find its my friends outside of churchy circles whose hearts are more in touch with this, this spirit-filled desire for connection that does not dominate or impose.

    And yet in places like Fred Clarke’s Slactivist blog and Richard Beck’s Experimental Theology and oh so many other places I find I touch base with people who see Jesus in these yearnings, not in some way of stamping a brand of ownership over anything that is good, true and beautiful, but I suppose of recognising as you have that we don’t know anything, but we do find depth, beauty and goodness in this story, whcih seems to write new possibilities of love into our lives.

    Peace.

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  10. Bryan Sirchio Blog

    Thanks for this Brianna. I also found out about you from Tony Jones. Love the way you articulate your ideas. Thanks…

    All I’ve got to say in response is that I think the larger Story of the Judeo-Christian vision is ultimately more about “being Love” than about being right. And yes, something funky inevitably happens to a person or a people when he/she/they are too convinced that they are “right… ” But if it’s ultimately all about Love, then we can live out and maybe even die for deep convictions, while at the same time being humble and open to the possibility that we’re wrong, or at best partially right. Love causes me to want to listen to others, learn from others, respect others, be open to the possibility that even those with whom I strongly disagree may have something to teach me.

  11. Lana

    haha! Funny. I learned that quote in philosophy class, and frequently went around saying, “I know nothing” after that. I do believe the Bible is a human book. I still believe Jesus is God. Where that puts me, I have no idea. Thought-provoking posts.

  12. Steven Kurtz

    Briana, thanks for your honesty and your integrity. I too found you via Tony Jones. Reading your post, I couldn’t help but think of the reaction among mainline Protestants (like me) to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” – they simply observed: Rob is now a mainline Protestant. Have your read Emergent folks like Brian McLaren (“A New Kind of Christianity” or “A Generous Orthodoxy” or Diana Butler-Bass’ “Christianity for the Rest of Us”? They may be interesting for you. Lots of us who still are able to identify ourselves as “Christians” because we want to follow Jesus, have long ago left behind the hyper-uber-smugly certain stance of much of Evangelicalism in favor of a widely divergent, open and embracing, admittedly partial and inadequate grasp of the Eternal that we cannot help but see in every leaf, every act of love and in every tear. Lots of these types show up at the Wild Goose Festival (Galic symbol of the Spirit). Blessings on your wonderful journey!

    • Brianna Kocka

      I have read a handful of those authors, and unfortunately I think I’ve moved even further beyond their line of thought. I can mostly stomach Richard Rorh and his idea of a ‘cosmic Christ’ and living within the set of beliefs your are born into while still embracing a vast universalism, but even that sometimes rubs me the wrong way.

      Either way, thanks for your encouragements, and keep commenting! I love it hear where other people are at with these ideas.

  13. Scott Paeth

    Nothing is more genuinely Christian than an honest agnostic. I always liked the Ernst Bloch quote: “Only a Christian can be a good atheist; and only an atheist can be a good Christian.”

  14. Jim Armstrong

    Robin Meyers has an interesting take in his book, “How to Stop Worshipping Christ and Start Following Jesus”. Christianity generally has a much broader landscape of expressions (and always has) than one normally encounters in church life. You might find some resonances in it.

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