The following is the transcript to a talk I gave at a church in the Okanagan in British Columbia in early November 2019. Some of the content of this talk is similar to a previous talk I gave in August 2019.
Some people had problems with my views. I address what happened after my talk last month in this post.
Reading time: 25 minutes
Good evening. Thank you for that introduction. It’s good to be here tonight. Some of you may be in shock that I have been speaking in churches since I was 15. I don’t do it as often as you might think, but every now and then I do get asked to brave an Adventist audience.
My family is originally from the Philippines. We moved to Vancouver just before I turned five. Next month will mark 31 years of living in Vancouver, which I think is a little insane given how much I absolutely loathe rain.
You should know that even though I have been speaking in churches for 20 years (which is shocking enough to admit to myself), I often do so with tremendous reluctance. I think, in part, it’s because sometimes church is not the safest place to share what you really think and what you really feel about God, about the Bible, about divisive issues like women’s ordination. (I am still trying to wrap my head around that last one. You can take a guess what side of the argument I fall on.)
In that regard, I have to be honest with you. The message that I am here to give tonight is not an easy one to share. For some, it will be terribly difficult to hear. Some of you may even demand that I never be invited to speak in this church again. Others of you will yearn for more of this message.
But here is what I believe: I believe that God is always at work trying to teach us something new, and that there will always be people saying, as the disciples did, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” You see, we have not been commanded to preach the same old Gospel. The Gospel is anything but synonymous with dreary predictability. The Gospel of Jesus always leads to a renewing of the mind and the transformation of our very souls. There is constant rebirth, self-discovery, and reforming of beliefs. It stands apart from and in stark contrast to the beliefs of the primitive people living in the Ancient Near East, who saw the course of human life as a wheel—always predictable, always the same. To them, nothing was ambiguous. Everything was certain because your fate was written in the stars. To journey was pointless. It’s why the Jewish telling of the story of Abraham is so captivating. Abraham, who came out of that time and culture, defined by sameness and predictability, dared to step outside the Wheel and journey, to venture out into the wilderness with nothing to go on but the prompting of a mysterious Voice.
And so, tonight, I bring you what I believe is a message for the church. It is a message for the church of our time because there is change happening now, and God is inviting us to journey into the wilderness with Him again.
Before her death in 2015, American theologian Phyllis Tickle said that the world is in the middle of a radical economic, political, cultural, intellectual, and social shift called the Great Emergence, and that this shift, like its predecessors, is giving birth to a new form of Christianity, what she called emergence Christianity. She wrote, “… about every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace [the upper shell of a tortoise, crustacean, or arachnid] that must be shattered in order that renewal and growth may occur.” In other words, the historical trends show that every five hundred years or so, part of the Church dies, only to be reborn again, transformed into something new.
It’s an astute observation. Since the birth of Christianity, Tickle opined, forms of the organized Church have lost “hegemony or pride of place” to a new expression of the Christian faith.
In the first century, the arrival of Jesus forced Jews living in that day to rethink what they had always believed, and to regroup, and thus Christianity was born. Five hundred years later, in the sixth century, barbarians who had invaded Rome a century earlier were eroding and corrupting the Christianity of the Early Church, including introducing the belief that Jesus was not divine, and so, with the help of Pope Gregory the Great, the Apostolic Church gave way to monasticism. As a result, the “treasures of the first five centuries” were preserved by convents and monasteries. Thanks to organized monasticism, the faith of the Early Church was not only preserved, but Christianity was scattered across broader geographic and demographic areas. Roughly five hundred years after Gregory the Great, the Great Schism in 1054 saw the break-up of the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Churches because of theological and political differences. Rome would practice its own expression of Christianity and so would Constantinople, allowing people to develop their own praxis and liturgy across even broader geographic and demographic areas. Then, five hundred years after the Great Schism, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, ushering in what we know as the Protestant Reformation and the globalization of western Christianity. For the first time, Christians were introduced to the doctrine of sola Scriptura, meaning Scripture alone. Ellen White lived the theological consequences of that re-formation three hundred years later, just as you and I are living out the consequences of the Protestant Reformation today.
With each hinge point or re-formation, Tickle observed that, curiously, Christianity did not vanish or disappear into oblivion, but grew strength in number. And spread.
But in order for re-formation to happen, a question needs to come alive first. According to Tickle, the one question that is always present in re-formation is “Where now is the authority?” She wrote, “Always without fail, the thing that gets lost early in the process of a reconfiguration is any clear and general understanding of who or what is to be used as the arbitrator of correct belief, action, and control.”
In other words, the precursor to great shifts in human history—what makes it possible for the Gospel of Jesus to spread more than it could otherwise—is for people to reassess, to rethink, who or what has authority over what they believe, how they act, and the things outside their control.
In my own life, I have found this to be true.
Growing up, the Bible was Everything to me because I am a product of the Reformers’ sola Scriptura, meaning it was my authority for everything—from the origins of human life to what to eat, what day to worship on, what to wear, and even what to think. I was taught that the Bible is the word of God and that all Truth (as in Capital-T Truth) was found in its pages. I was taught to be suspicious of science, especially evolutionary biology, because science and the Devil walked arm in arm and the Devil was always “prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour”. I was taught to be skeptical about any “man-made” theories or ideas because I could be taken captive by “human tradition” and the “spiritual forces of this world”. At a young age, I also learned that my heart was “deceitful above all things and desperately wicked”, so I couldn’t even trust myself—not even to read and interpret the Bible on my own. I needed the pastor or evangelist or theologian to tell me what it “really” meant. In short, as I look back, I grew up completely and utterly spiritually anxious.
Usually, anxious people avoid the things that trigger their anxiety. For me, that meant avoiding the things in the Bible that didn’t make sense or didn’t add up.
For example, why are there two creation accounts in Genesis—side by side, no less—and two accounts of the Flood? And which of these accounts are correct? Why did God “harden” Pharaoh’s heart and then punish the Egyptians with all manner of plagues because Pharaoh’s heart was hardened by none other than God Himself? How come the Bible takes for granted the fact that God could order the mass killing of Canaanites, but contain commandments ordering His people not to kill? Why is David’s story in Samuel and Kings different in Chronicles? Did God destroy Nineveh as in Nahum or did He spare it as in Jonah? Is Deuteronomy right that righteousness leads to blessings and disobedience to suffering, or is Job right that this isn’t how things work? Who saw Jesus first at the tomb—was it Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary”, or Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, or Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and “the other women with them”, or just Mary Magdalene? When Jesus said “no one comes to the Father except through Me” did He actually mean that only Christians can be saved? Can I still be a Christian and disagree with some of the things the Bible says, or the way my church interprets Scripture?
But who was I to question the Bible? I never went to seminary or had a degree in theology. I had never had a vision from God the way people say Ellen White had visions. Who was I to doubt its words? To challenge its witness? The only reasonable thing—the only Christian thing to do—was to live under its complete authority. And so I did. Sometimes begrudgingly, sometimes out of frustration, sometimes out of guilt, sometimes because I thought this is what loving God required, but usually, almost always, out of fear. The truth is, inside, I was trembling with it, terrified that questioning that authority meant God would spit me out and cast me aside.
So, if I wasn’t going to burn the whole house down, I might as well dig my heels in. It was less stressful that way. It was easier that way. It was safest that way. Yet what I found was that digging in my heels only made me more rigid, more narrow-minded, more defensive and more combative.
As a young university student at UBC, I joined a Christian students group that held regular meetings on campus. At the time, I was deep in my religion and listened to David Asscherick’s Revelation seminars on CD almost everyday in the car while I drove to and from school. My mind was filled to brim with Daniel and Revelation and Beasts and European history, but not a whole lot of Jesus. During a meeting with the other Christian students on campus one day, our group was discussing one of the Apostle Paul’s letters and I remember arguing a point of view that was uniquely Adventist with someone. I remember being so absolutely certain in my church’s interpretation of Scripture that I honestly felt that these people, regardless of the fact that they were fellow Christians themselves, didn’t know any better—that they didn’t know or have the Truth. They certainly weren’t part of the Remnant church like me. As I spoke, I vividly remember feeling this thick air of discomfort descend in that classroom and knowing that the others thought I was someone who could not be persuaded to open my mind and listen.
The sad truth is that they would have been right. I never went to another meeting after that day. After all, they weren’t Adventist anyway, so their interpretation of Scripture meant nothing to me. I was convinced everyone else was wrong and that their beliefs had no value if they were inconsistent with Adventist doctrine. No one could convince me that my church’s interpretation was incorrect, as if being “correct” was the point.
Over the years, it not only became more difficult to talk to people outside my faith tradition, but it caused real problems after I married my husband, an Adventist himself, years later when he and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on certain issues that I believed were settled in Scripture. Looking back, I was extremely, profoundly thirsty for that “Something more” I couldn’t quite put my finger on. In the end, it would take losing my own children to teach me that putting my faith in words was no substitute for putting my faith—my trust—in God alone.
Almost four years ago, my husband and I lost twin girls in the fifth month of my pregnancy. To date, that experience remains the single most difficult thing I have personally ever had to go through. There really is nothing quite like holding two lifeless babies the size of a typical school ruler in the palm of your hands to make your entire spirit rage and cry with such depth.
Anyone who has ever lost knows how grief can force you to re-examine all of your past assumptions. It is a hard lesson on how wrong we can be about how our lives will turn out. When our “blessed” lives are upended by tragedy or loss or illness, it’s not so easy to go back to the way things were, and harder still to say that God is good because “the Bible tells me so”. Sometimes I think that only those intimately acquainted with suffering know this truth best.
In my grief, I turned to my Bible anyway. I wanted answers as to why this happened and expected that God would give me those answers because it was His Word. However, what I found instead were not answers or even silence, but a cacophony of voices and viewpoints and theologies. There were verses that suggested God had been planning this from the beginning, verses that suggested He allowed this to happen for my own good, verses that said He was testing me, verses that suggested the Devil did it with God’s permission, verses that suggested God wasn’t and couldn’t be responsible. Whose voice do I listen to? And which voice was God’s? I wanted to grab my Bible by its covers and scream, “Just tell me!”
For the first time in my life, I was done with running from my questions and from wrestling. All my life I had felt like I had been deprived of my right to ask, to doubt, to wonder, to journey, to be human, as if I forfeited those liberties the moment I accepted Jesus into my life, as if Jesus wanted a robot for a disciple. It never made sense to me that we urge people to use their God-given intelligence when they are trying to decide to follow Jesus, but then subtly and in round-about-ways ask them to check their intelligence at the door once they do. God never asked me to give up my intelligence; He asked for my heart. The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur would say that it was the death of my first naïveté, a stage when I took the Church’s interpretation of Scripture and my religious beliefs at face value. For the first time, I became brave enough to ask that question that Tickle says is always at the heart of re-formation: “Where now is the authority?”
A little over a month after we lost our girls, my husband and I spontaneously decided to spend two weeks in California. At the time, my passport was due to expire in less than six months, but I was convinced that this should pose no problems whatsoever at the airport. Naturally, I was wrong, and I ended up having to separate from my husband at customs after we scanned our passports. When I arrived at the booth where my border official sat towering above me, I gave him my traveling document and then he took one look at me and gently asked why I looked so worried. I told him all about how we had lost our baby girls and that we were on our way to California and that I was desperate to get away. As I spoke, my voice broke several times and tears welled up in my eyes. I remember bowing my head, trying to avoid eye contact because I hated that I had fallen apart in front of this complete stranger. When the border official began to speak, I slowly moved my head up to face him and noticed the name on his chest. Eden. As I tried to compose myself, Eden took my hand and told me in the most comforting voice that everything would be okay because God was with me, and that he would pray for me. While Eden spoke, I remember my entire body shaking quietly beneath my clothes the way I imagine Moses must have been shaking when he stood on holy ground in the presence of God. Eden’s name brought my mind to the Garden of Eden in Genesis and then to the New Earth in Revelation, to John’s vision of a time when God restores paradise, a time when I imagine God will restore our children. I don’t know if Eden was an angel or if he was God in disguise or if he was just a nice man who took pity on a blubbering Canadian one day, but what I do know is that I felt more of God’s warm and tender presence in that moment than I ever felt waking up at the crack of dawn to read my Bible, feeling certain about what I believed.
As I think back on that experience, I wonder if the reason why I felt God’s presence more in that moment than when my certainty was strongest is because our experiences of and encounters with God begin and end with relationship, not information. In John chapter 4, Jesus tells a woman from Samaria, “… whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Three chapters later, in chapter 7, He tells a crowd and group of Pharisees gathered in the temple courts, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.” In the next verse, John explains that the living water Jesus refers to is actually the Holy Spirit and that we access the Holy Spirit through relationship with Jesus.
But relationship with Jesus doesn’t mean “getting into the Bible” for John, because John proclaims in the first chapter of his Gospel (his Good News) that the Word of God is Jesus Himself. A couple of chapters before the episode in the temple courts, we find Jesus’ clearest statement on how we should see the Bible in relation to faith. In John chapter 5, Jesus rebukes his contemporaries for taking the Scriptures too seriously. He says in verse 39, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” For Jesus, the Scriptures are a testimony, a witness of humanity’s encounters with the Divine. Game over.
This may be difficult to hear and may offend some of our Adventist sensibilities, but it is the truth and the witness of John’s Gospel: Jesus and He alone is the infallible and inerrant Word of God, not the Bible, and eternal life is found in Him only, not in Scripture.
In fact, like anything produced with the help of human hands, the Bible is far from infallible and inerrant. Religious scholar Timothy Beal writes, “The Bible … is a collection of texts written by many different people, mostly anonymous, in many different translations, and in many different historical and social contexts. These texts were edited, revised, and translated by many others. They were copied and circulated widely in scroll and codex forms for a very long time as independent texts and in smaller collections. They were not the same from copy to copy. There was no beginning and no end to them, no first and last page. They did not have one author or one voice. They were not read in a linear way, but were read around in. And they grew through interpretation, as newer texts that created new meanings from older texts became part of collections.”
Pastors David Felton and Jeff Procter-Murphy write, “The Bible is the witness of generations of faithful people recording their own understandings of the divine in their particular time, place, and culture. This theological pluralism reveals changing, developing, and sometimes conflicting ideas about God.”
One Adventist writer, Matthew Quartey, states, “Is God inerrant and infallible? Yes. Inerrancy and Infallibility are baked-in suppositions about God. But we cannot extend these same attributes to anything fallible human intermediaries helped to produce. The only possible way in which the Bible could be error free is if God verbally inspired the writers. But this is a position we have consistently rejected.”
The Bible is not an answer book, or an instruction manual, or a how-to-guide, or a crystal ball, or a “gatekeeper” for the Banquet Table. It is a sacred testimony of human consciousness maturing in faith in God.
I share this with you because what we believe about God and the Bible matters. According to a 2014 Religious Landscape Study by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 75% of Christians in the United States believe that the Bible is the word of God. Of that sample, almost half of the Adventists who participated in the study (48%) believe the Bible should be taken literally, word for word. In my view, the impact of these beliefs on people who believe differently from us is distressing. Recently, Barna Group, a research company specializing on faith and culture in America, found that only 34% of non-Christians and lapsed Christians consider practicing Christians they know personally to be non-judgmental when talking about faith. Similarly, only 26% of non-Christians and lapsed Christians feel that the practicing Christians they know personally do not force conclusions. Think about the last time you disagreed with someone about faith and religion. Did you sense that they felt seen and heard?
This is a problem. The other day, Ty Gibson asked this question on Twitter, “Why do young people leave the church and what are the issues that concern them most?” The tweet that people resonated most with people came from someone who said this:
“People go where they’re heard, seen, and valued. I really think it all comes down to those things. All kinds of prejudice, patronizing attitudes, and an unwillingness to progress are major issues, for us, but trace them back and you’ll find the same roots.”
How do we spread the Gospel of Jesus when we don’t know how to talk about faith like adults with people who believe differently from us, including people inside our own families? How do we resolve divisive issues, like women’s ordination and homosexuality, within our own church communities when we are so sure and so certain that our interpretation of Scripture is the correct one? Why do we shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces, as Jesus said of the Pharisees?
After we lost our girls and I had finished scouring Scripture for answers, one of the hardest things I had to admit to myself was that the Bible doesn’t have those answers. The fact is, the Bible doesn’t give an answer to undeserved suffering. If it did, everyone, including the biblical writers, would agree on what that answer was. Instead, the questions and wanderings and sufferings of the ancient Israelites are canonized in Scripture, with no clear answer from above. Jesus’s own plea, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” reverberates across the centuries with no response from the heavens.
As humans, I think admitting that we don’t know or admitting that there is knowledge beyond our reach is so difficult because it reminds us of our own vulnerabilities. Ambiguity can be quite unsettling. It can feel a lot like wandering around in the dark out in the wilderness. And so we reach out for anything that makes us feel a little less vulnerable, a little less exposed, a little less defenseless. I think believing that the Bible is the literal word of God does that for a lot of people. The feeling of certainty can be oddly comforting. Maybe sometimes we create our own golden calf out of it. I don’t know.
But here is what I do know from my own experience: information and biblical certainty do not have the kind of transformative power God is seeking to work in us. They will never transform us into the likeness of Christ. Oftentimes, they become ends unto themselves or a means for us to control the narrative, to create predictability, or even to control God. If anything, certainty makes our beliefs smaller and more rigid and, over time, we become less and less teachable. I often think about how the establishment Jews living in Jesus’ day missed out on who He was because they were so convinced they were in the right. Maybe it’s why Jesus said it is the meek who inherit the Earth. Teachability, not certitude of conviction, gets you a seat at the Table. Franciscan friar Richard Rohr says, “The Bible will not make transformation dependent on cleverness at all, but in one of God’s favorite and most effective hiding places—humility.”
How else can we be transformed? How else can our minds be renewed? How else can we live and move and have our being in Christ? How else can God trust that we will champion what matters to Him most? —loving other people with abandon as He loves us. Converting people into our way of thinking and believing and living and loving people are not the same thing. There is a profound and significant difference. The theologian Kent Dobson writes, “The only litmus test that seems to make sense for the divine in dwelling is whether or not we are dropping our judgments, radically loving other people, and being people of inclusive justice.”
If there is anything that the Bible teaches us to be certain about, it is one thing: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is safe and that the relationship He invites us to enter into is safe. Safe from judgment when we doubt and when we wander, safe from ridicule when we fall or come up short, safe from any reason to feel unworthy. How many times do we read “Do not be afraid” in Scripture? And when we ask, when we engage God with all of that we are—broken and doubting and uncertain and everything—we become spiritually alive, more than we could ever know. I am here to testify that this is true.
The pastor and poet Howard Thurman once said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Long before there ever was a Bible, the ancient Israelites modeled a faith in God that was marked by a fierce trust in God’s ability to handle their questions, their doubts, their fury, their journeys. We see this in Abraham when he dares to question God’s plans for Sodom, in Jacob when He wrestles God for a blessing on his way back to Canaan, in Moses when he pleads with God to spare the Israelites, in Job when he boldly challenges God over his suffering, in Jonah when he expresses his anger toward God because of God’s mercy over Ninevah, in David when he cries out “How long, O Lord?” And now, we are invited to be part of this same process, this same kind of relationship, this same rich, life-altering, dynamic faith. If you are concerned with biblicalism, it doesn’t get any more biblical than going down the road less traveled of asking our questions and leaning into our doubts and uncertainties while faithfully engaging God.
As He did with Abraham, today, I believe that God is calling us out into the wilderness again. To move outside of the predictability and sameness we have created for ourselves. To trust His voice. To thoughtfully engage the questions that confound and perplex us (even if we don’t have theology degrees and our vocation is not in ministry), just as the writers of the Bible faithfully engaged God with their questions amidst the ambiguity. To ask, “Who is my neighbor?” instead of “What does the Bible say?” To let go of our great expectations when it comes to the Bible and to turn our eyes upon the One to whom it points.
Tickle observed that every five hundred years or so, the Church undergoes a radical shift that results in a more vital form of Christianity and a new, purer expression of its former self. As someone else put it, “With each rebirth, Christianity becomes more inclusive and universal, as it was always meant to be.” If you ask me, it’s as if, slowly but surely, Jesus is trying to break through again—to be, at last, our sole authority—and His vision of the Kingdom of God is what is emerging. I don’t know about you, but I want to be part of that.
I think that, in the fullness of time, this is the only Revelation that matters: That Jesus stands alone. That He doesn’t need a holy book to stand in His rightful place. The two are not one in the same. That we don’t need what Tickle called “a paper pope” to feel complete or to be saved or to feel loved. Jesus will always be above all, even as He draws all people to Himself.
May God bless you and keep you. May you find faith in ambiguity. May you be transformed by the renewing of your mind and made alive in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The beauty of the Abraham story is in the journey of the unknown. In The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, Thomas Cahill writes, “This great, overwhelming movement, exemplified in the stories of Avraham and Moshe, makes history real to human consciousness for the first time—with the future really dependent on what I do in the present. This movement is the movement of time, which, once past, becomes history. But the movement is not like the movement of a wheel, as all other societies had imagined; it is not cyclical, coming around again and again. Each moment, like each destiny, is unique and unrepeatable. It is a process—it is going somewhere, though no one can say where. And because its end is not yet, it is full of hope—and I am free to imagine that it will not be just process but progress.”
You can read more about emergence Christianity in Phyllis Tickle’s book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.
The quote by Timothy Beal is from his book, The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of An Accidental Book.
The quote by Pastors David Felton and Jeff Procter-Murphy is from their book, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity.
Matthew Quartey wrote a fantastic article in Spectrum Magazine called “God is Inerrant and Infallible; The Bible is Neither“. You can read it here: https://spectrummagazine.org/views/2019/god-inerrant-and-infallible-bible-neither.
You can review the full results of the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape study here: https://www.pewforum.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2015/11/201.11.03_RLS_II_full_report.pdf.
The results of the survey conducted by Barna Group can be reviewed here: https://www.barna.com/research/non-christians-faith-conversations.
The tweet that is quoted above is by Kaleb from Tw!tter (@KalebEisele).
The quote by Richard Rohr is from his book, Things Hidden: Scripture As Spirituality.
The quote by Kent Dobson is from his book, Bitten by a Camel: Leaving Church, Finding God.
The last quote, which reinterprets Tickle’s thesis, is from a talk given by Richard Rohr called “Rummage Sales” at the Center for Action and Contemplation. See https://cac.org/rummage-sales-2019-10-27/?utm_source=cac.org&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=dm&utm_content=summary.