One of the most wonderful prayers in the whole Bible is in Mark 9:24, when a sick child’s father cries out “I believe; help my unbelief!” It’s a prayer we can use for an exercise in spiritual stock-taking.
There can often be gaps, sometimes yawning caverns, between what we feel we are supposed to believe and what we actually believe. And there can be gaps between what we say we believe and how we act in reality.
If that describes your faith, don’t worry, you’re normal. Me too. But it is good every now and then to have a look at these gaps. We don’t have to try to believe six impossible things before breakfast, nor to pretend to believe things we do not – and perhaps don’t have to. God knows anyway, so we’re not fooling anyone except maybe the next person in the pew – that person who has their faith sorted. And who is looking at you, thinking the same thing.
So this might be a good time to be honest with yourself and your doubts. Did Jonah really get spat out by a whale? Did the miracles happen? The resurrection? Does prayer do anything? Is God even there? And it’s OK if you come out with faith the size of a mustard seed – Jesus said that was enough. Remember there’s no ranking in heaven, with those of mighty faith snuggled up close to the throne and we mere plebs in a draughty corridor in the basement. We don’t earn salvation with works, not even works of faith.
You will need:
- Paper and pen
- A candle
- Some peace and quiet
Light the candle as a symbol of God’s presence with you, and sit quietly for a few moments, visualising your heart opening and the contents laid bare.
Write “I believe; help my unbelief” at the top of a sheet of paper. Then, very honestly, write down all the areas of faith with which you struggle. No-one is going to see this list, so take time and be real. They may be huge things or they may be small. There may be many, there may be few.
When you have finished, read the title aloud and hold the page out before God. Then burn it. Not as a denial of doubts and struggles, but as an offering of honest worship.
I believe the Bible. The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.
So I believe that this passage is not true.
“What? But you just said …”
Yup. I firmly believe what the Bible says. But I just as firmly believe what the Bible doesn’t say. And one thing it doesn’t say is that this passage is true. Not literally true. Not actually, factually, word-for-word, literally true. It was never meant to be read as fact. It’s not as if the befuddled ancients thought that the sky was literally a solid dome or that any more than they thought it literally stood on pillars. Nor did they think that God made everything in six periods of twenty-four hours, in the order stated. Clearly not, because chapter two has a different creation myth (yes, I used the word ‘myth’) and it contradicts the first one.
But that really isn’t a problem.
Well, it’s only a problem if we insist on reading the Bible as if it were a modern science or history text book.
Which is isn’t.
So we shouldn’t.
No-one would read Macbeth’s witches brew as if it were chemistry. And we should not read Genesis as if it were history. Or cosmology. Or biology. Or geology. Or anthropology.
Yes, I know that New Testament writers refer to Adam as if he were an historical person. Paul talks a lot about the ‘first Adam’ contrasting him with Christ, but that does require a literal first human being. We use the same construct today. When describe someone as a modern-day Robin Hood or as having an Achilles’ Heel there is no need for those people to be actual humans. We are referencing the concepts they embody, rather than the actual body.
And the Bible never says that Adam was the literal first man on earth. Really, it doesn’t, whatever you may have been taught at Sunday school. In fact, the Bible is clear that he wasn’t. In Gen 4:14 Cain refers to the people who were around at the time – other adults who were not children of Adam and Eve.
A lot of the Bible is not literally true, but is still actually true. For example: ‘the earth is set firmly in place and cannot be moved’ (Ps 96:10), yet Job says that God ‘shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble’, and later that he ‘hangs the earth upon nothing’. (9:6, 26:7) So which is it? Fixed or moveable? Supported on pillars or dangling on nothing? You can’t have it both ways, Job!
He can if we understand that these are not statements of cosmology. It would be weird if they were. Job was not an astronomer and his audience was not familiar with modern notions of astrophysics, so why on earth (or beyond it for that matter) would Scripture make statements about the motions of planets that were a) incomprehensible / irrelevant to the original author b) incomprehensible / irrelevant to the original audience and c) out of step with the facts?
What is true is that God is the rock (metaphorical, not literal) who holds us in his hand (metaphorical, not literal) and who alone has the power to uproot and plant (metaphorical, not literal), and that’s what these passages are trying to communicate. True, while not true.
To mis-quote C S Lewis, there are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the Bible. One is to disbelieve everything. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy need for literalism. The Devil is equally pleased by both errors and hails an atheist or a young-earth creationist with the same delight.
And while we’re on the topic, the earth is not 6000 years old. It just isn’t, and the Bible never says that it is. The Bible simply does not comment on the age of the earth. When it says ‘so-and-so was the son of so-and-so’ it does not have to be one generation. I mean, it says Jesus was the son of David and we know that David was about 1000 years before Jesus, so we’re looking at around 40 fathers, not 1 (nor the 27 listed in Matthew). If you are unsure about that, check out Matt 1:11 & 1 Chronicles 3:15-16 to show that ‘father’ there does not mean ‘father’ as we use it.
A very good piece of advice someone gave to me is ‘Beware reading parchment by electric light.’
If we have a high view of scripture, and I do, we must read it as it was intended to be read. Read literally the pieces that were meant to be literal. Read as poetry the poetical pieces. Read as propaganda the propaganda (and much of the history is that), and read as myth the myths.
This passage is not a scientific description of how come we have different animals, nor an account of cosmology, of bio-diversity, or of the geological time-line. It is truth about God. It is truth about the world we live in and our place in that world. But it is not scientific, historical truth, and was never intended to be.
Here is some of the truth contained in this not-truth:
- God is. God was. God ever will be.
- God is not the same as the world. The world is not made from God-stuff, and God is not made from world-stuff.
- The sun and moon are not gods, nor are hills nor animals nor anything else.
- Humans are part of creation, same as animals as far as the outsides go, but capable of relationship with God as far as the insides go.
- God is good and the stuff he makes is good.
- All humans are equal in God’s sight. There is no ordering, no superiority or headship. (For those who read male leadership rights from the man being made before the woman, might I point out that worms were made before the man?)
- Humans were designed for relationship, with each other and with God, who himself exists in relationship.
Really, I think that’s quite enough truth to be getting on with. Let’s not dishonour God by unplugging the brains he gave us.
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Talking-About-God-Practice-Theological/dp/0334043638 – Talking About God in Practice: Theological Action Research and Practical Theology (2010) by Helen Cameron
Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’ So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’ And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.