My World Literature class at NDSU was a 90-minute class period devoted to literary works, mostly from the ancient world, not written in English. Included were several passages from the Bible, notably Genesis and Isaiah. The afternoon we began to discuss Genesis still hangs in my mind. We spent 45 minutes talking about the phrase, "In the beginning ..."
What did it mean? Why not give a date? What about setting a foundation for the rest of the work? Why just jump in like that? When is the beginning? Is there anything before the beginning? Could there be anything before the beginning? How does or doesn't this mesh with scientific understandings of the Big Bang and the primordial formation of galaxies, solar systems, planets and all the rest? What is the agenda of the writer here -- why choose this phrase?
We spent the rest of the 90 minutes talking about the word "God" and I recall walking out of class that day totally amazed at the candor and depth of the discussion at a secular university. We talked in depth about the nature of God as we understood it, and various people in the class shared their assumptions about what they think when they hear the word "God." We talked about the personal God of the Hebrews in contrast with the non-theism of the Buddhists and the multiplicity of gods in Hinduism and the impersonal God of deism. It was quite a discussion.
I find it fascinating that the Old Testament makes no argument for the existence of God. In the 1300's Thomas Aquinas, building on the foundation of Aristotle's work which had just been reintroduced to European cultures, came up with several "proofs" for the existence of God. For example, everything has a cause, said Aquinas, and that cause has been caused by something else, and if you trace that back far enough you come to an uncaused Cause or a first cause -- and that must be God. I've never found Aquinas' proofs very helpful. I like what the Bible does. "In the beginning, God ..." No arguments, no proofs, no logic, just presence. Just a story, if you like. Or if you don't like.
It almost sounds like "Once upon a time," doesn't it?
Yet God seems quite content to let the Bible tell this story about him without appealing to logic, without appealing to proofs. In the beginning God. Here he is, and if his presence makes you uncomfortable, it's just a story, so you can blow it off. But the story hangs in the back of our minds and the back of our hearts and doesn't let us escape so easily. Stories have power like that. Ever tried to forget an off-color joke? They keep coming around like a bad penny because stories are powerful. And this story of God keeps haunting us until the only way we've been able to bury this story as a culture is to create so much noise, mental and emotional and spiritual noise, that we don't think very often about God.
I heard an interview yesterday on the radio with a woman who said she had just found herself, after a long period of atheism, believing in God. And she said every morning she wakes up and asks herself the question, kind of like taking her temperature, "Do I believe in God?" She said she takes such great comfort in finding each day that yes, she still believes in God. The interviewer asked her if she attended a church. "Oh, there's no way I could do that," she said. So she is content just believing.
This seems strange to me. If you find yourself believing, wouldn't you get to know the stories about this God you believe in? And if you're struggling with belief, wouldn't you check out the stories of what the God you maybe don't believe in has purportedly done?
I think the best way to read the Bible is to arrive as if it was an enormous negotiation, carrying all we have and all we are to the table, or in my case the recliner, and then opening the Bible to encounter all God has for us. We may find that some of what we bring to the table is totally useless and needs to be discarded. But we may find that other things reflect the very image of the God we meet in these stories, and these things are of supreme value.
The important thing, however, is to keep showing up, questions and certainties and all. Read the stories. Chew on the mysteries. Laugh at the jokes. It's not the fastest way to read the Bible, but this isn't a contest.