Once I walked through the door of who has the authority to interpret the Bible, I found myself facing Rome, the EO (Eastern Orthodoxy), the JS (Jesus Seminar), Luther, the latest evangelical best-selling writer, various Christian historians' versions of what the early church believed, contemporary theologians, the Early Church Fathers, and any number of other (almost all male) interpreters. I paid attention to academic credentials. I examined the ministries and personal lives of those writers as far as I was able. I listened to the stories of how these interpreters of the faith had come to receive the right to interpret on behalf of Christians.
I felt kinship with some perspectives because I liked the writers' writing styles more than others, or because they struck a chord with my experiences. I noticed that I "hoped" certain theologians were right because I liked the vision they cast better than others. I then chastised myself for controlling the process. I found out that some theologians didn't even address my central concerns. In Hans Kung's 687 page volume, On Being a Christian (which I read three times), the word "salvation" is not even in the index! I remember how it slowly dawned on me that the answer I wanted wasn't there because the question I wanted answered wasn't even on his radar. Heaven and hell, as I understood them then, were that far outside his understanding of the faith that he didn't address them. That was a mind-blowing moment.
In grad school I spent time reading writings from the early church period. You'd think that biblical writers and early church fathers would have had a better handle on the faith being closer to the originary event. Yet even they disagreed! There were all kinds of Gospels and letters not included in the Bible, there were entire Christian groups formed around interpretations of the faith that were later deemed heretical and their writings, destroyed. Christianity was not a straight line from Jesus to present with a set of clear directions for how to live out the faith. Yet most of the interpreters I read felt that they were in fact unpacking the clear, undiminished truth of what Christianity should be.
No matter where I looked (from Jerusalem to Rome to Wittenberg to Cincinnati), someone laid claim to superior credentials for interpreting the faith...
...and I still had to decide between them for myself.
Which made me ask: who am I? What are my credentials for evaluating the claims made by biblical writers, scholars, theologians, Church Fathers, clerics, and Popes? How do I make judgments about God, theology, biblical interpretations, sin, the mission of the church, and salvation? When do I know that it is the Holy Spirit leading me into "all truth" and not my own human subjectivity? How do I avoid the mistake of adopting a belief system because it makes me feel better rather than the one that is actually true?
Can I ever gain enough spiritual acumen, education in the fields of scholarship (grad school was one attempt to gain those for myself), breadth in the possible answers to make a sound judgment, not just one I hope to hear? And does every person really have to make these decisions every time they convert, for all of history (I couldn't help but think about the dicey mission field where we couldn't even agree on whether or not Muslims had to give up fasting for Ramadan as new Christians... how would those new believers decide who to trust as authoritative in issues like baptism, church hierarchy, the role of women and so on?)? Is this really the way Christianity is supposed to work, each person weighing 2000 years of tradition, scholarship and theology to reach a decision?
Worse: Is there, in fact, an answer to be found (even if this is the cumbersome process through which every Christian must go)?
That question could drive a monkey mad. The crux of the issue boiled down to this for me: On what grounds could I trust someone else's spiritual judgment? What qualified me to make that judgment? I felt wholly unqualified.
In being pressed up against my limits - my education, my western background, my gender, my experiences living abroad, my Christian formation and experiences, my affluence, my nationality, my personal history and baggage, my native language, English (not Koine, not Hebrew, not Aramaic), my tendency to lean toward absolutes, my anxiety about not making God into what I wanted God to be, my need to be right and not make mistakes, my awareness that the Bible was written in a social and cultural context that I knew little about, my fear of hell - if these limits influenced how I understood God, theology, the Bible and the tradition, wouldn't similar factors also influence everyone else: biblical writers, pastors, Bible experts, Ph.D.s, the Popes, Bishops, Luther, modern day theologians, St. Paul, denominational leaders, the emergent movement, the Christian next door and anyone else claiming to know what the Bible teaches...?
And if it is true that everyone suffers from the limits of social-location, how might these limits create interpretations of the faith that cause ripples through hundreds (sometimes thousands) of years of mistaken judgments (e.g. patriarchy, authoritarianism, contentiousness with science, mistaking myth for history, justification for slavery, cultural imperialism, and so on)? Is it possible that the essentials were also time and culture bound as well?
We all know that the church (collective, individuals, RCC, Protestant local expressions) has plenty of mistakes from which they've repented over the 2000 years of church history.... what makes us think anyone has it right this time? The Protestant Reformation is perhaps the biggest example of the belief that the Church could perpetuate wrong theology in the name of the Holy Spirit's guidance. Whether or not you agree with the reformers, the impulse to correct the tradition supported (at least to me) the idea that we're all making judgments about what qualifies as God's message to us, all the time. Apparently the idea of what constitutes salvation, faith, Christian essentials is not static and has never been.
So then I wondered, how right do we need to be?
Claiming the Holy Spirit as the authenticating power behind an interpretive authority did little to resolve the disparity between authorities. Was the Holy Spirit leading and guiding the Pope or individual believers who read the Bible or the local denominational leaders, or...? I still had to decide which claim to the Spirit's power I was going to trust.
I hit a real low when I admitted that every person is limited by conscious and unconscious constraints that decidedly impact how Christianity is interpreted, presented and understood... and that I had those same limits in operation when I read and examined each of their positions. It was the ultimate vicious circle.... which led to a total breakdown in my faith.
As I faced my crisis of faith, I comforted myself with one refrain. One of my online dialog partners had left Christianity completely as a result of a similar search for truth two years earlier. She emailed me one day to let me know that she could no longer believe in Jesus as the Son of God. I had been truly devastated. I spent those next two years telling myself that as long as I didn't go as far as "Jane" in my questioning process, I'd be okay. My entire goal from start to finish had been to hang onto faith, to hold onto Jesus in spite of the contradictions, the ambiguities and the erring "certainties" I kept encountering.
And I did, for awhile...