In his column (July 11) the Rev. David Hegg, senior pastor at Grace Baptist Church, asks us to “honestly read and study the biblical story with someone who actually approaches it fairly, with literary integrity and intellectual honesty,” and to not “just write it off on the basis of what its opponents have opined.” Well, Rev. Hegg, I can honestly say that I have done precisely that, and I have come up with “some answers” that differ significantly from your own.
Not only have I read the entire Bible, Old and New Testament, several times. I have also read the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and that illustrious piece of work by the late L. Ron Hubbard, “Dianetics,” not to mention a small library of Apocryphal and Gnostic gospels from the very early days of Christianity, all of which were designated as heresies and eliminated from the Catholic Canon by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great and a gathering of 318 Bishops at the First Ecumenical Council, which was held in Nicaea in 325 AD. I think that covers most of the stuff being practiced to varying degrees by contemporary “believers.”
Why did I do this? Simple: I desired to know and understand where people are coming from and what’s going on in their minds when they proclaim this, that, or the other doctrine as being the divinely inspired “truth” that all should follow so as to secure their salvation and avoid eternal damnation. In other words, I don’t “take up my cross” and follow just because some fellow with a book, a beard, and the zeal of a prophet claiming to be on a “mission from God” told me to.
But more to Rev. Hegg’s passionate appeal for us to approach this matter with “literary integrity and intellectual honesty,” I have gone the step further and researched the works of Elaine Pagels.
Elaine Pagels is the Harrington Spear Paine professor of religion at Princeton University. Her many books include “The Gnostic Gospels,” winner of the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, the New York Times bestseller “Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas,” and, with Karen King, “Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity.” Ms. Pagels is known mostly for her research into “primary source” materials. These are letters, books and other written materials that have been dated to the 1st century AD, the time during which Jesus of Nazareth purportedly walked this Earth. Her research deals strictly with the origins of Christianity. I admire and respect her because she is both professional and objective – she’s not trying to prove anything. With her it’s all about exploration and discovery. Now that’s integrity.
Her book, “Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation,” inspired me to attend her book signing at the Getty Museum on March 12, 2012.
While Ms. Pagels was signing my book, I leaned in over the table and gently asked her this simple question: “Ms. Pagels, in all the time you have spent digging in the past trying to find out what really went on in the dusts of the Levant so many ages ago, did you ever once stumble upon something, anything, that convinced you that Jesus of Nazareth really existed?”
Her answer both astonished and satisfied me. Ms. Pagels smiled and replied, “No, but wouldn’t it be nice to think that he did?”
And upon this “rock” I shall build my church.
I cannot, and will not, rail against Rev. Hegg for dismissing all of the scientific and secular “meta stories” as falling short of the mark while proposing and endorsing his own theistic model as the superior choice. After all, he is a preacher, and that is his job, but he did challenge the readers of The Signal to propose their own answers as is clearly stated in the article’s very title. So to respond directly to his opening paragraph, I will counter with this: Sad as it may seem, when you really get down to the brass tacks, you may in all likelihood find that the “big questions” just might be “irrelevant” or worse, “unanswerable.”
There is a reason I say this.
I was once on a business trip in Portland, Oregon, representing the municipal utility I work for. I was trying to negotiate a price for power transmission lines from the Pacific Northwest to Southern California. During lunch with a very sweet and pleasant couple I came to know that they were “born again” Christians. Both had been alcoholics and had met at their church. Both had then “accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior” and renounced alcoholism – good for them. Like I said, they were a very sweet and pleasant couple, to the point where they were nearly always smiling. Perhaps it’s my innate cynicism, but that constant smiling really got my attention, so I asked them about it.
They told me their story and concluded by telling me that they “knew” that a loving God existed, that his son Jesus had died for their sins and saved them from alcoholism, and that an eternity in paradise awaited them. I ever-so-gently countered that this was not “knowledge,” but rather it was “faith.” I suggested that there was a difference between knowing and believing. They adamantly disagreed. They told me that believing was knowing, and that their faith made it reality. I just sat back in my seat, and that particular discussion came to an end – me in open-mouthed wonderment and them in pleasantly sweet smiles. Who was I to attempt to take away their faith in something that had helped them beat the bottle? Whether or not it was real, what did it matter? For them, it seemed to work…but for how long? There’s that cynic in me again. How long before what drove them to alcoholism, something about their lives that was very real and troubling, overpowered their newly found faith and their pleasantly sweet smiles?
As much as Rev. Hegg, his congregation, and all of the other pastors and congregations of the world might want to see things a certain way, believing with all their hearts, minds and souls that it is real – does that make it real?
Being a confirmed agnostic, my answer to that question is this: I don’t know. But there is one thing that I do know, and that is this: I am not capable of putting on a pleasantly sweet smile when deep down inside I know that I am still troubled.