When I started my theology course, one of the first things they told us was that they hoped to make us question and evaluate every part of our faith, to take it apart, decide on what it was based, and then reconstruct it from a basis of understanding. I would now say that this is a fairly accurate description of the process I am experiencing; the lectures and books I am absorbing are raising lots of questions. It’s an uncomfortable process, sometimes difficult as I evaluate ‘truths’ that I have believed since childhood, only to discover that in the cold light of ‘logic’ and the piercing eye of ‘experience,’ some of them don’t seem as ‘true’ as I thought.
I was deliberate in my wording of the title. It is my religion, my beliefs, that I am questioning, not God. I have experienced too much in my life to ever be able to properly question God. I have heard his voice correcting me, felt the warmth of his peace at my most desperate hour, known his touch. I cannot deny those things even if I would. But everything else, the outworking of religion, what God actually wants, what I should believe—those things are less certain.
It began a while ago, when I started to learn biblical Greek and Hebrew, hoping to read and better understand the original manuscripts that our Bible is based on. Bit of a shocker to discover that we don’t have any existing original manuscripts, our English translation is based on scraps of parchment (some of them very scrappy!) which were written centuries after the original manuscripts were written. Copies of copies of copies…not all the same. This was huge for me. We do have other writings, carvings on Egyptian stones, and myths from Mesopotamia, which have survived. So the question has to be, why did God not ensure the books that form our Bible survived? Is it because he didn’t want us to be completely certain that we understood everything? Is it because humans have a horrible tendency to decide they know exactly what’s right, and then apply the rules that arise to other people? Perhaps we are meant to be a little uncertain.
I think perhaps we should read paraphrased versions of the Bible more often. I have always been irritated by Bibles such as The Message which give an updated version of the books. But actually, at least when we read them, we all know we shouldn’t take them literally, they are the essence of the Bible but not the actual words that were first written. All our English translations are also this, but sometimes we forget that.
What I realise is that to have a belief seems to create more questions. I am currently studying the Garden of Eden story (the one with Adam and Eve, and the forbidden fruit and the snake—you remember it?) Now, I have always believed that this was the point whereby sin entered the world, that by eating the forbidden fruit humans became sinful, and from then on, every generation that followed was also sinful. Some scholars (like Augustine, a monk from centuries ago) named this ‘original sin’ and taught a tidy lesson about what this means for humans. All humans, because they are descended from that first man, are sinful. The problem with this, is that we also believe that Jesus was human, descended from his mother Mary. We also believe that he was God (because his father was God) but logically this creates a problem. Did Jesus inherit ‘original sin’ from his mother, and if not, why not?
Some people solve this problem by stating that Mary was therefore without sin too. But was she? There isn’t much evidence for that from what I can see. And of course, if Mary was without sin, then what about her parents? Why didn’t she inherit sin from them? We end up having to form convoluted explanations about how Mary either was made pure somehow before conceiving Jesus, or Jesus somehow didn’t inherit that bit of humanity. It all feels a little unsatisfactory to me. I don’t doubt that everyone sins—I can see that for myself—but as to why? Not so sure.
Of course, the Garden Story causes all sorts of other problems. There are a few ways to view it, which one is you?
Either you don’t believe it at all, think the whole thing was created by Iron-Age people as a story and it has no relevance today. Or you might think it literally happened, as stated, in an actual garden somewhere at the source of four rivers. Or you might think that it’s a myth or parable, not an historically literal event but a story that explains a situation. Which one is you?
I have spent several weeks reading the views of different scholars, looking at the story in biblical Hebrew, trying to discern what it means. It has been a fascinating study. There are so many ways of looking at the story, and a tangle of conclusions that people have drawn from it (like Augustine with his belief in original sin). I will write a few blogs describing the different views. Whether you believe in ancient giants, or carbon-dating and fossilised evidence of evolution, I hope you will find the different views interesting. You can draw your own conclusions when you have read the evidence.
Thanks for reading. Take care.
Love, Anne x
As the story was first written in Hebrew, I will begin with an appraisal of the book by Ziony Zevit (a Hebrew scholar). He shows how Eve wasn’t made from a rib, and Cain was born before the couple left the garden, and the snake never actually told any lies. All very interesting…