Q&A Interview with David M. Holley
Click a question below to read David’s response.
In the book I describe growing up in very conservative Christian churches where I was assured that what the church taught was just what the Bible says and told that the Bible was a message directly from God. I learned to repeat our standard answers about what the Bible says, but I also learned that asking too many questions about our teachings made people feel uncomfortable. During my teenage years I discovered the writings of C. S. Lewis, whose example convinced me of the value of thinking hard about what I had been told to believe. When I went away to college, it became evident that I needed to rethink my understanding of Christianity in the light of what I was learning in classes and what I was reading on my own. Eventually I found my way to the study of philosophy, which encouraged me to examine what seemed puzzling and gave me some tools for seeking satisfactory answers to my puzzles. So, trying to understand Christianity in a way that made sense to me has become a lifelong quest, and I try to share where that quest has taken me with those who read this book.
I would very likely have ceased being a Christian if I hadn’t realized that I had been taught a particularly narrow version of Christianity and that there were intelligent Christians who didn’t subscribe to many of the teachings that were presented to me as nonnegotiable. These Christians had understandings that were informed by their knowledge of science and history and literature. Through them, I learned that the battle I had imagined between science and religion was not even much of a fight within broader Christian circles, that there were deeper and better-informed ways of understanding Jesus and his mission than those I had heard, and that teachings I had found morally objectionable were not inevitable products of accepting biblical revelation. My philosophical reflection also led me to realize that I needed some kind of big story to guide my life, and in the end, I found the Christian story more compelling than any other secular or religious alternative.
Most of the time, people who speak in this way are imagining being spiritual to be something they can do on their own. I have come to think that genuine spirituality doesn’t work that way. In the first place you need a tradition through which you can receive deeper wisdom about how to live than what you can discover on your own. You also need teachers who can help you learn to inhabit that tradition, and you need a community that will encourage you, but also hold you accountable, as you attempt to live out the desired way of life. You can certainly reject particular communities as unhelpful or counterproductive, but you need to find one that can be your community.
There are definitely risks in trying to revise what you have been taught, but there are also risks in trying to hold on to what has come to seem unbelievable. A mature faith will be one in which you examine and reject teachings that you have good reasons to think are mistaken, but also discover what it is vital to hold on to. As the book explains, the task of rethinking faith claims is not a purely individual undertaking; your own reflection needs to occur with an awareness that in the larger Christian community others have engaged in the same kind of project of reflecting on the faith and have reached conclusions that are worth considering. In the book I use my own experience to illustrate how you can reject what is unacceptable, but also work toward a faith that you can affirm wholeheartedly.
Some people will definitely be put off, but I am writing to people who have found that the way they have been taught to read the Bible leaves them confused and dissatisfied. I introduce readers to ideas that are familiar to serious Christian thinkers, even if they are not often explained or even acknowledged from the pulpit. For example, I talk about the idea that divine revelation comes through people who make assumptions that are typical of their own time and place, some of which we find inadequate, so we can’t simply equate what they say with divinely revealed truth. I also talk about how divine revelation is a process that takes time and how some things biblical writers say need to be corrected by fuller revelation. Without these ideas, we would have a tough time dealing with such things as scriptural texts containing descriptions of God doing terrible things or giving instructions for us to do what seems clearly wrong.
The idea of salvation is sometimes reduced to being forgiven so you can go to heaven. But a fuller biblical account of salvation will involve some conception of a transformation God seeks that will enable us to achieve genuine fulfillment. While there can be identifiable turning points, the transformation God seeks for us takes time and often involves choices we are hardly aware of that put us on a path toward or away from spiritual growth. When we limit our attention to what happens in one particular moment, we divert our attention away from God’s larger project that is the point of salvation.
If you imagine God to have total control over whatever happens, it is difficult to explain why God allows genuinely terrible things to occur. I believe that it is better to think of the kind of control God has in relation to the kind of universe God creates. Creating a universe in which physical things and biological agents have genuine powers can be thought of as a kind of relinquishing of total control on the part of God. In this kind of universe what God is able to do depends on the receptiveness of created things. Rather than thinking of God’s acts as overriding the created order, I think it is better to imagine God’s power as being activated when created things come into alignment with divine purposes.
There can be what the Bible calls signs or wonders that defy our expectations and point toward powers beyond what we think of as ordinary. I think of these powers as aspects of the natural order that we can sometimes connect with and that God is sometimes able to use for revelatory or redemptive purposes. When the right kind of harmony between God and created things exists, there can be remarkable events that function as signs of an unseen spiritual order.
When Jesus announced that the kingdom of God was at hand, he wasn’t talking about life after death. He was talking about God’s purpose being realized “on earth as it is in heaven.” My understanding is that he was outlining a way of living by a new kind of community in which God’s intentions for human life would replace standard human practices. Justice would be done for the vulnerable, and love would be extended even to enemies. If we think that he was primarily focused on preparing us for what happens after death, we miss the central focus of New Testament teachings anticipating a transformation of earthly existence in which God’s intentions for human life are fulfilled.
I don’t imagine that he thought we could immediately do the most difficult things, but I think he was describing a way of living that could occur when we are shaped by a community that has taught us to live in accordance with values that differ from those that are generally operative in human society. Discipleship is a process of voluntarily adopting practices that will help us unlearn some habits and learn new ones, so that over time we draw closer to the goal of caring about others as much as we care about ourselves. Jesus himself is the model of this way of living. Committing ourselves to learning such a way of life means doing things that people may find surprising because they reflect a different vision of what genuinely human life should be.