It was a good question.
I was sitting in a friend’s living room with a dozen or so others, and we’d been talking about faith. One friend, Michael, isn’t religious, but in his vocation as a sign-language interpreter, he spends many Sundays in a variety of different churches. He listens more carefully than anyone I’ve ever known, and works hard to (literally) embody the words he translates, and all those sermons in all those churches had left him with a question.
“If God gave his people the Bible –inspired by him in some special way, and the Holy Spirit who dwells in every Christian gives you the ability to understand it, why do Christians understand it so differently? Why do you disagree about so much?”
As I said, it was a good question. One I’ve wrestled with for years.
I grew up in a staunchly fundamentalist family and in proudly fundamentalist churches and schools, but the deeper my relationship with God grew and the more I studied the Bible, the further I’d been drawn from that context. Where God was taking me gradually went from just different to contradicting many of the conclusions and beliefs of the faith that had nurtured me.
That was hard, emotionally as well as intellectually, and I wrestled with it.
Whether they are differences in denominations or theology, we who are Christians have very different understandings of the Bible. You can parse those out by philosophical commitments or cultural biases, by tradition or personal inclination or translation, but Michael’s question holds.
Why, with one Bible and one Spirit, do we believe and live so differently?
I don’t deny that some are reading wrongly, with unexamined commitments shaping their understanding of both what Scripture is and what it says. And some may well be defiantly disregarding the Spirit to do what they want with it.
But those explanations aren’t adequate. Not when people who love and are devoted to Jesus, whose lives show the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work, understand the Bible in such different – even opposing – ways.
I’ve seen that fruit in the lives of fundamentalists and in the lives of progressives. In the lives of Roman Catholics and in the lives of Baptists. In the lives of all kinds of people with contradictory theologies and convictions.
And I believe the witness of that fruit.
I do believe the same Spirit is at work in all of our lives. We all come from different places and are walking different journeys, and none of us are following perfectly. But following perfectly was never the point. We follow faithfully, doing our best, and God works.
I answered Michael’s question that night in the best way I knew how. I talked about my family and my own struggles with the same tensions and contradictions.
I do believe God’s Spirit is at work in both them and me, as well as in millions of other people who disagree with each other. I believe God has an end game bigger and better and more overflowing with goodness and justice and love than we can come anywhere near imagining.
We can barely catch glimpses of it from where we are. And we each come to those glimpses from such different places. But I believe Love is pulling it all together in the end, weaving what we see as contradictions into a tapestry that leaves no one out and nothing undone.
And here? Now? There are people, like my family, who are introducing people to the Love that is God that I could never reach. And, hopefully, there are people I’m helping to meet that Love who they could never make that connection with.
It’s not an easy hope, and it doesn’t resolve anything now. But I trust that there will ultimately be a resolution beyond all the ways we think about such things. That while contradictions are no illusion, there is Something bigger than the contradictions, and it’s going to make them irrelevant one day.
And I’m doing my best to trust Love and live into that future I can’t see yet.