Dissecting faith

May 25, 2007 at 4:08 pm Leave a comment

Bumping along on I-75 yesterday afternoon on our way through Tennessee to Oklahoma, Mom read me an article in the May 21 issue of Newsweek about Pope Benedict XVI and his new book Jesus of Nazareth. Among other things, the article addresses the issue of scholarly scrutiny of the Bible and the effect it has on faith.

The problem: Can one dissect the Bible and the Christian faith in a critical manner and simultaneously maintain a devotional approach to the Bible and the Bible’s God?

At the beginning of the article, author George Weigel cites a line from Chaim Potok’s novel The Promise, in which skeptical Jewish scholar Abraham Gordon is talking with one of his students about the modern difficulty with religion. The problem for everyone today, Gordon explains, is “how to love and respect what you are being taught to dissect.”


It was precisely this problem that cost me a significant amount of angst in my last two years of college. My liberal arts education at a state university (I majored in the history of ideas and minored in English) trained me to think about belief and about texts and about religious faith, rather than teaching me to actually believe or to exercise faith. My professors taught me and my fellow students to study our subjects from a detached perspective, to analyze religious belief from a distance rather than using faith as a lens to analyze the rest of the world.

The unfortunate problem, as I discussed a few weeks ago, is that it is impossible to believe and think about believing simultaneously—to do one means you are not doing the other. Hence by teaching me to dissect faith, my college education was inhibiting the ability to exercise faith.

I have yet to figure out a good solution to this problem. My belief in Christianity requires me to view history (and all other disciplines) through the lens of the Christian worldview, but my desire for good historical scholarship requires that I attempt detachment and objectivity, that I go so far as to question my own faith for historical accuracy.

Put another way, training in the field of history tells me that I must judge my text; my training in the Christian faith tells me that I must let my text (or at least one particular text) judge me.

How does one maintain a scholarly approach to history and faith without abandoning one’s devotional posture? I don’t know. The best I have been able to figure out is to lapse back and forth between the two postures–an approach which I decidedly do not like.

Has anyone else encountered and successfully dealt with this problem?


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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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