This is a quote commonly attributed to Mark Twain: “Never trust anyone who can’t spell a word more than one way.” Now, of course, the quote and it’s origins are in question. The sentiment and its meaning to me, however, remain the same. I’ve likewise never had much time for exclusivistic, black-and-white thinking. And I often find it off-putting when someone thinks themselves to be unerringly right.
In his book “Mere Christianity,” C.S. Lewis wrote “Here is another thing that used to puzzle me. Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.” The above statement is (at least to me) one of the most powerful moments of Lewis’ masterpiece of reasoned Christianity, and it is one of the reasons I trust Lewis’ thoughts and musings. I tend not to trust people who see things only one way, and I tend to discredit people who can see only through their own lens. Here, Lewis is admitting that the Bible is at least incomplete, and perhaps is also a bit unclear. He’s admitting that he doesn’t know everything.
In the first couple chapters of Marcus Borg’s “Reading The Bible Again For The First Time,” he addresses one of the chief qualms I’ve always had about Christianity. The essential fulcrum of his work is to point out that both natural literalism (taking for granted that everything the Bible says is literally true, and happened pretty much as it says) and conscious literalism (understanding the problems associated with a literal interpretation of the Bible, but forcibly believing it anyway) have ceased to be persuasive for a large percentage of Christians.
I know that I am certainly among those for whom a literal interpretation is problematic. In order for me to do so, I would have to dispose, or at least suspend, much of what I have learned and observed about the natural world. Some Christians, I think, believe that accepting the Bible as literally true is virtuous unto itself. I am not one of those people.
One reason this is problematic for me is the awareness of religious pluralism. Borg addresses this directly: “We are aware of the world’s religions in a way that most people have not been for most of human history, even as recently as a century ago . . . Thus many of us find the exclusivistic claims of the Christian tradition impossible to accept. This is so for both commonsense reasons and Christian theological reasons. Does it make sense that the creator of the whole universe would be known in only one religious tradition, which (fortunately) just happens to be our own? Moreover, such a claim is difficult to reconcile with the centrality of grace in the Christian tradition. If one must be a Christian in order to be in right relationship with God, then there is a requirement. By definition, then, even though we may use the language of grace, we are no longer talking about grace.”
I remember having read that and highlighted it in my copy of the book the first time I read it in my youth. I remember feeling relieved. I remember it being a seminal moment for my understanding of my own faith, and for how I saw Christian faith through a wide lens. My old Pastor, Jim Bartsch, helped me find this book, and helped me reconcile my personal feelings about this.
My reasons for being uncomfortable with that exclusivism are my own, but I will try to summarize them here: When I think of God, I believe in a God that is infinite, omnipresent, and exists outside of time. I believe that God to be capable of literally anything, including infinite love, infinite grace, and infinite thought. It makes absolutely no sense to me that such a God could be wholly captured by a single collection of scriptures full of contradictions and legalism.
One of the most wonderful things about human language is that we have the ability to discuss anything. We can use and invent language to convey any thought of which our human minds are capable. But here’s the kicker: in order to convey some ideas, we have to speak metaphorically. Even then, we are confined to discussing that which we can conceive of. To me, then, the Bible cannot be taken absolutely literally and at face value. It is trying to put infinity on paper. We can argue until we are blue in the face about the actual origin of the Word, the inclusion and exclusion of some books, and the historical accuracy of the stories. That is not my point here at all.
My point is this: The mere fact that the Bible is restricted to human language means that it is limited in its scope, whereas God is not likewise limited. It cannot be used to understand the totality of God, then. My other point is this: believing that does not make me a skeptic, or anti-spiritual, or an undisciplined Christian. It does not change the core of what I believe, it is just an admission that my human mind cannot conceive of everything, and I therefore cannot consciously put God in a box.