Within the Old Testament there is one theological debate which is never resolved. The particular discussion I am referring to is in the so-called Wisdom literature and concerns God’s protection of the individual who trusts him. The Wisdom literature is found in some of the Psalms, the Book of Job, Ecclesiastes and the Wisdom of Solomon. The important issue that is of great concern is whether or not God can be relied upon to look after the person who lives a righteous life. Many passages seem to indicate a confidence that when a person keeps the Law, no evil will befall him. A typical passage from the Psalms expressing this conviction is the one that says: ‘the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous and his ears are open unto their prayers’. Another passage which says something similar is the one that says: ‘I was young and now am old and yet saw I never the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging their bread’. A confident trust that links goodness and the blessing of God on its practitioner is a strong theme in the various books of the Bible which together make up the Wisdom tradition. However this confidence and certainty in God’s blessing is radically questioned by the Book of Job. The modern commentators of this book suggest that the book should be read as a strong protest document against the calm confidence of those who want us to believe that personal goodness always results in God’s blessings for our life on this earth.
For myself I have no problem with the idea that the various authors of the Bible text sometimes disagreed with one another. The Wisdom literature thus never resolves the debate on this issue of whether a right-living person can avoid unexpected catastrophes. This question continues today. Is a Christian in some protected from suffering and distress? With Job we see how disasters and calamities affect one man who is held to be upright and good. It would be unrealistic to suggest that a Christian will experience life’s griefs and tragedies less than other people. Do we really think that wealth, success and health belong more to practising Christians than other people? No, the only difference that we might detect is that Christians are prepared to deal with their griefs and sorrows in a distinctive way.
A claim that Christians, people of faith, can somehow avoid disaster while at the same time enjoying material success and constant health is the promise that is the implied promise being made in some church environments. There are also churches that hold out a constant promise of miracles, which relate to financial, emotional or physical problems. ‘Come to our church’, the message goes, ‘and we will sort you out as long as you make a hefty donation to our finances!’ Having studied the Christian healing ministry over a number of years, I have no intention of suggesting that miracles never happen. They do, but seldom with the regularity that is often claimed for them. Inner transformations connected with forgiveness and a new relationship with the past do often occur for individuals in the context of church life. They are however not regular events by any means.
While discussing this issue, Chris reminded me of an episode in his past. When one of the church communities he belonged to proclaimed that miracles were taking place, he had to pretend that he had witnessed one of them. In fact no miracles were actually happening as far as he knew. I reflected with him whether his claim to have seen something constituted a lie in the normal meaning of the word. My own take on the situation was that Chris and others had been caught up in the enthusiasm of a church’s self-understanding. By ‘witnessing’ to a non-existent event Chris was simply caught up in a wish-fulfillment, a kind of group delusion created by the church’s own rhetoric. Because miracles ‘ought’ to happen there was a naïve belief that ‘witnessing’ and proclaiming such an event would somehow make them happen.
Claiming miracles when they do not happen does involves a form of dishonesty which is not dissimilar to claims that are made about a Christian’s relationship with Scripture. There are many people who feel obliged to collude with the belief that Scripture is accurate in every detail. If it seems to speak of historical events, then it must be understood in this way. Questioning this accuracy is thought to be like a ‘slippery slope’ towards atheism and loss of faith. Such a way of understanding Scripture does in fact create so many problems for the reader that he/she would probably be better off never opening up the text when alone. I could give numerous examples of the ways that a Bible passage, purporting to be history is impossible to understand as a statement of fact. To take one example, which will probably have caused problems for most of my readers, is the claim that the star followed by the wise men stopped over the place where the infant Jesus was to be found. Anybody who has spent any time in the open air when stars are shining must have wondered how any building could be marked out by a star. Logic, common sense and a healthy grasp of realism says that this passage cannot and should not be read in a literal way in order to understand its meaning. It is not a question of belief or disbelief in miracles, but simply the way language is used. Here it was never meant to be understood in a literal way even if the words appear to be a statement of fact.
This one trivial example of a passage which cannot meaningfully be read in a literal way, allows us to suggest that it is inappropriate to impose scientific-type truth on vast swathes of Scripture. If we try to do this, we find that we have an internal argument with a part of ourselves which may say that the literal meaning is often simply impossible. A dogmatic belief in the literal ‘truth’ of Scripture which we may be required to hold on to with our surface mind is thus in conflict with another part of our selves which is ruled by common sense and logic. The dogma of the group is in conflict with the thinking and conscience of the individual. I see in this clash something similar to what Chris was saying to me about miracles. At one level he was mouthing the narrative of the group while at the other level he knew that the group was indulging in an act of group deceit or hypocrisy.
One of the ways that conservative churches control their members is by insisting that each member adopts the approved group belief system. As I wrote about the issue of unity, I noted that this kind of unanimity can be false and indeed detrimental to the spiritual health of the members. By professing an identical belief to everyone else, a member of a conservative church may be indulging in a massive deceit. Human beings are all different and they will normally react differently to anything put before them. To pretend that it is a good thing in religious matters to be a clone, whether of a leader or a fellow member, undermines our true humanity and our uniqueness. I rejoice in the untidiness of the spiritual journey. There are massive differences to be found among us as well as many areas of convergence. Coming to a church with one’s uniqueness affirmed, allows one to converge into the experience of the whole in a healthy and positive way. We begin to glimpse a vision, once more, of journeying together with all our different histories and experiences intact. As I have suggested many times before, the image of the journey allows us to emphasise the importance of respect, humility and mutual support. As the hymn puts it: ‘we are pilgrims on a journey.’