The Slippery Slope

Slippery Slope Jonathan Billinger

Dear Russell,

We’ve talked several times since your last series of posts that explain your difficulties with the Hebrew & Christian scriptures.  You know that I’ve wrestled with this in large part because you are wrestling with it.  Several of your points have affected my thinking.  I’m not going to quote you but rather address the questions that your writing has raised for me.  Other readers will have different questions.  If we can help them, we will.

What is the effect of my upbringing in scripture and how can I compare that to what others have experienced?

My parents were older when they had me.  They were both 36.  By today’s standards that’s not that unusual.  40-odd years ago, however, it shaded to the right of the bell curve mean.  There are both benefits and challenges to having older parents.  One benefit – – by the time I was four, both parents had both feet firmly planted in middle age.  They, like me, were different people at 40 than they were at 20 – – mostly better for it.  One challenge – – they were not fit and active.  That, of course, can often be mitigated.

Mom was a new Christian – – about 10 years into her walk.  Dad was raised in the faith.  I still have my mother in the flickering light of dementia.  Dad died from cancer about five years ago.  I’m writing to his sister now to find out more about him as a younger man.  She is so gracious in her replies.  We actually use papers, envelopes, and stamps.  Mom adopted a charismatic faith in the 1970’s – – listening to Derek Prince, Oral Roberts, and Kenneth Hagen.  Dad was raised a Baptist.  My aunt is still strong in faith and I’m eager to find out more about how they were raised.

Why this mini family history?  It has occupied my thoughts and journal more of late.  Where did I come from?  Why am I the way I am?  Surely my parents contributed both the DNA and the environment that so strongly influenced me.  What was the scripture in my house?  I saw different things from Mom and Dad.  Dad read the Bible stories to me and had a regular quiet time.  Mom devoured the scripture for herself and encouraged me to read each day as soon as I could.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

We are different ages when we realize the humanity of our parents, different ages when we learn to forgive them, still different when we gaze into the mirror and see their flaws and glory.  How did the scripture survive when they inevitably fell off their pedestals?  How will it survive in my children when I stumble off mine?  So much had to do with the content of the message.  For better or worse, the message of the Christian scripture is that man is broken and needs forgiveness.  That was a concept that took early in my life and insulated me from the inevitable disappointment of human frailty.  It has helped me to be gracious to others and to receive the grace that I need.

I try to read 20 books each year outside of my profession.  In many ways, I’m remediatiating a broad education as my work tends to be more technical.  I’m on pace this year to meet and even exceed the goal.  My stagnancy in updating the list is not disinterest.  I’m close to finishing two 1200 page + tomes.  One is A Suitable Boy by  Vikram Seth.  The other is Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer.  I think about what we write here as I learn by reading.  In A Suitable Boy, I just finished a chapter relevant to this discussion.  What if I was raised with different scriptures?

The first book is the story book that my father used – – I began reading the scripture on my own in primary school, probably at the age of 8 or 9.  The entire Christian bible (hebrew scriptures old testament + new testament) is about 1000 pages depending on font and pagination.

Taylor's Bible Story Book Shia Children's Book children's ramayana

 The next two would be used by Muslim or Hindu parents to teach their children.  A Suitable Boy is set in post-partition India in the time before the first general election.  I have many Indian American colleagues in my field, often first or second generation, and the culture of India fascinates me.  I didn’t realize until reading this book that there even was a partition.  Pakistan and India became independent of British colonial rule on consecutive days in August 1947, forming independent nations.  Why split the subcontinent?  What is Pakistan’s capital since the 1960s?  Islamabad.  Pakistan and India were partitioned to separate Muslims and Hindus.  Muslims stayed in or moved to Pakistan and vice versa.  Minorities of both faiths remain in each nation, but minorities they are.  There are proportionally more Muslims in India than Hindus in Pakistan.

In chapter 15 of the book, I was introduced to both Hindu and Muslim traditions, prophets, and gods who were unfamiliar to me.  What if my first children’s book had been book two or three above instead of book 1?  I would then view the world through that lens.  Is it fungible?  Can you ever erase the indelible imprint of your childhood?  Can you ever examine it as an adult with tools of metacognition and logic?  I think you can. So many of my skeptical friends (yes Russell – – the list has grown) or friends of other faith have.

Can you choose to keep your childhood faith and make it your own or must it always be rejected?  I offer that it must always be examined and that doubt is not sin.  Every believer and every skeptic must understand why she believes or doesn’t and she must construct the answer in a language that resonates with her own personality, intellect, and experience.  She can’t borrow too heavily from me, John Piper, Russell, or Sam Harris.  Her belief or disbelief must be her own.  And if disbelief is the choice – – a choice that you know I respect – – a positive construction must follow.  Must?  Of course not.  The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.  Should.

Slippery slope?  I don’t mind them.  A good trail run to me often involves a muddy face or bloody knee.  The Bible is precious to me.  As I’ll explain in the next post, however, I’m not off put by learning of concordant creation or flood accounts.  I’m also not offended by scientific evidence that proves the world is old or that a flood was local.  I’ll explain why.

Why are my children’s stories more reasonable than the others?  I can only answer that as an adult – – with gentleness and respect.  But, I’m not able to now – – I’m just too ignorant.  Learn with me.

Pascal

–1:16

photo:  by Jonathan Billinger, CC license

3 comments

  1. Your third-from-the-bottom paragraph challenged me.

    “Every believer and every skeptic must understand why she believes or doesn’t and she must construct the answer in a language that resonates with her own personality, intellect, and experience.”

    It sounds so natural. It sounds like something I would be good at—I know how to manipulate words, and my words reflect my own unique, often odd way of approaching the world and finding meaning. But what happens when personality, intellect, and experience don’t speak the same language?

    I feel like I’m a walking example of the Tower of Babel story. I’m confused. I need resonance; there is very little agreement among my personality, intellect, and experience—I can’t construct an answer.

    I haven’t written on my blog in weeks—I literally can’t do it. My thoughts massacre each other, and there are no words left to write. The default position for me has to be disbelief—it doesn’t require words. It does not make a claim that demands evidence (as faith does). After the massacre, this is what stands. But I can’t get motivated to write about it. I’m not passionate about resolving inconsistencies or correcting false ideas as Russell sometimes seems to be. And I no longer feel the need to persuade believers to love me.

    So do I really need an answer? Maybe I disagree. I’m starting to think that it’s simply my experience—my upbringing—that makes me ask the question in the first place. My intellect tells me there are more relevant, inherently answerable things to explore. And my personality just wants peace—peace in my heart, in my thoughts, in my marriage, in my other relationships. Lately the greatest threat to that peace has been trying to answer a question I probably should have never asked in the first place. Do I have to choose to accept or reject my childhood faith? Can’t I just grow out of it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You once told me not to apologize for delayed replies and reassured me that you too understood the busy life where blogging is important but not daily, even weekly. That said, I’ve never been great at following the reassuring imperatives of another, and sometimes blogging is more like a letter to a friend. Delay requires apology or reassuring explanation, because delay could mean many things. In this case it certainly isn’t a lack of interest or compassion. Russell too is taking a hiatus as he enters a season of more intense work and family responsibilities. That said . . .

      You can’t choose not to be restless. If I’m wrong, I’d like you to teach me. Your struggle helps me, helps others, and will finally help you.

      Like

      1. Your delay requires no apology or reassurance. Was that even a delay? I commented just before the start of a work week. You replied at the beginning of the weekend, probably before your family woke up. Yes, delay can mean many things. I never assume the worst.

        “You can’t choose not to be restless.” Those seven words might require as many miles of thought. I’ll get back to you. If I disagree, I’ll try to help you understand my perspective. I actually don’t feel restless right now, but it’s hard to know if that’s a sign of recovery or impending death. I’m not sure if it’s something I’m choosing or if it’s something that’s happening to me regardless of my will. I know I made a few recent posts “private” because I am currently so far from being able to relate to my own words—and I feel better. Is that choosing not to be restless? Or choosing to ignore the restlessness? Can I do either for any significant length of time?

        Liked by 1 person

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