A major stumbling block for those who reject Christianity is those parts of the Bible which seem to justify actions that we consider to be culturally backward, confusing, and irrelevant or, even worse, immoral. And I think that most Christians, if they’re honest, will agree that there are parts of the Bible that they find baffling, frustrating, or, possibly, just plain offensive.
Interestingly, characters within the Bible exhibit similar sentiments with respect to the self-disclosure of God. Moses, for example, boldly interceded to God on behalf of his people when God was on the verge of wiping them out for their idolatry. Moses repeatedly calls on God to remember what he promised, to consider what the other nations would think, to turn away from his anger and show mercy to his people (Ex. 32:9-14; 33:12-17). Surprisingly, God relents. Moses’ courage and boldness appear to earn him God’s favour. We see similar themes in the book of Job, where Job protests bluntly and bitterly to God about his suffering. Although God has some harsh words for Job at the end of the book, he also declares that Job and not his friends with their neat and tidy religious formulas explaining human suffering, had spoken rightly of him (Job 42:7-10).
In both cases, confusion, ambiguity, and outrage were presented to God honestly and unapologetically. In both cases, it seems that God was less interested in human beings pretending that God’s actions and intentions were perfectly obvious, transparent, and morally praiseworthy than he was in an honest acknowledgment of the confusion and even offense that walking with him can and does cause.
In The Reason for God, Timothy Keller has this to say about what to think when we come across a passage in Scripture that we find outrageous:
To stay away from Christianity because part of the Bible’s teaching is offensive to you assumes that if there is a God he wouldn’t have any views that upset you…. Now, what happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will? If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you? … Only if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle (as in a real friendship or marriage!) will you know that you have gotten hold of a real God and not a figment of your imagination.
In other words, one skeptical assumption worth challenging is that if God exists and chooses to reveal himself to human beings, he is obliged to do so in a way that will simply confirm and validate our (profoundly historically and culturally conditioned) conceptions of what is good, admirable, and admissible. If we take seriously the fact that human beings are finite and fallen creatures, whose only access to reality is profoundly shaped (in positive and negative ways) by a whole host of historical, cultural, and psychological factors, then it makes sense to say that our moral conceptions might not represent the last or best word on the question of what God is like.
In one of my university philosophy classes, a professor told the story of a friend of his who was a committed Christian and a celibate homosexual. When my professor asked his friend if he agreed with the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality, his friend said he did not. This, my professor found truly baffling. How could his friend possibly choose to commit to a religious tradition when he was in such obvious disagreement with it on a matter as important as his sexual identity?
His friend said that Christianity made sense of enough important elements of his experience, and that God had proven faithful enough over the years that he had learned to trust and yield to him when it came to matters that he disagreed with. His confusion and disagreement with God were preserved within the context of faith, and with the understanding that it is at least possible that human conceptions of what is right and wrong, permissible and impermissible might require modification or correction.
My professor obviously found this pretty difficult to stomach. What, after all, could be more important than being true to one’s own beliefs? If anything is sacred in our post-Christian Western culture it is the individual’s freedom to decide what is true and meaningful for themselves.
But perhaps facing the implications of the inherent limitation of the human condition—even when it comes to our moral intuitions—can be seen as liberating in a strange sort of way. We don’t have to pretend that we love everything in the Bible, nor do we have to pretend that God’s way of acting in the world always makes obvious sense and demands nothing but our reflexive and unthinking praise. Whatever else may be going on in the stories of how Moses and Job related to God, it seems that one important lesson is that God is not put off by human doubt, anger—even offense—in response to their understanding of his work in the world.
Some very good points Ryan. Never thought of Biblical offense as a means of protecting against idolatry before. Please keep sharing your thoughts!