I did not grow up a progressive Christian. I grew up a conservative Christian. I do not disparage that; it is part of my life that I fully embrace and is part of my journey. I suspect this is true for many of my readers.
The beliefs into which we were indoctrinated are, however, difficult to shake even when we know they are wrong and biased. For example, I was taught that the Bible is literally the word of God and, therefore, inerrant and infallible. The Bible was given a place equal to God in my evangelical tradition and was regarded as the very voice of God.
At some point in my spiritual pilgrimage, after two degrees from conservative theological schools, a crack opened, the light crept in, and I began to question that assumption about the Bible. And while this belief was deeply ingrained into my spirituality through both church and academic training, I slowly began to realize that the Bible, while a sacred book, is a human product of diverse writings and genres reflecting the interpretations and faith perspectives of its human authors and faith communities and did not fall down from heaven on the wings of angels.
Even now, however, after many years growing a more progressive, inclusive faith, I still hear echoes of my past programming and indoctrination. Even today when I read a passage of Scripture that I know reflects the prejudices, shortsightedness and cultural conditioning of the biblical author and the historical and cultural context in which he lived, my first reaction is to want to interpret the passage in a more positive way, rather than simply declaring the obvious, namely, that the biblical writer was simply wrong.
By the time I started working on my doctor of ministry degree, I had come to this more progressive understanding of Scripture. My doctoral project involved a plan to move the church I served as pastor to a more inclusive understanding of the role of women in ministry. This included a series of lessons I taught to the church.
One lesson involved that notorious passage in 1 Timothy 2 where the writer, writing in the name of Paul, instructs the women in the church to learn in silence in full submission to men. The writer does not permit a woman to teach a man or exercise any authority over a man, because the man was created first, and the woman was the first to be deceived and become a transgressor. Even though I knew the biblical writer was wrong and the passage reflected the patriarchal assumptions of that day and time, it still was difficult for me to admit that.
“Even though I knew the biblical writer was wrong and the passage reflected the patriarchal assumptions of that day and time, it still was difficult for me to admit that.”
In my lesson to the church, I engaged in some extravagant exegetical gymnastics to make the writer say something much more positive, which, of course, he didn’t intend. Why did I do that? That, friends, was the power my programming, indoctrination and cultural conditioning had over me. How do we break free from that?
This is the question presented by Nicodemus to Jesus in John 3. Nicodemus asks, “How can this be? How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” I think we misread Nicodemus and the author of this Gospel if we think Nicodemus is taking Jesus literally and is confused. Let’s give Nicodemus and our Gospel writer some credit here.
Nicodemus surely understands that what Jesus is telling him is that he needs a new kind of spiritual experience. In response, he says to Jesus, “How is it possible for someone like me, who has been trained as a Pharisee, to start over? Why would I need any new spiritual experience? Surely I don’t need to begin again and start a new path?”
Nicodemus gets it; he understands what Jesus is telling him. His response is, “How is this possible?” And Jesus responds by saying (I’m paraphrasing), “Yes, you do. But you can’t do it yourself. This is the work of the Spirit.” (“Spirit” is just another name for God emphasizing God’s active engagement in our lives.)
Jesus says, “What originates in the ego is ego, and what comes from the Spirit is Spirit, it’s real and true.” Now, the text says, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is Spirit.” Flesh here has a double meaning as words and phrases often do in the Gospel of John. The surface meaning is a reference to physical birth, but the deeper meaning is to be interpreted in an ethical or moral sense the same way Paul uses the term. It refers to the ego, or the little self, the false self.
Jesus is telling Nicodemus that the knowledge he had acquired through his training and the ways he was programmed to think and believe and act are not sufficient. He needs a spiritual awakening that enables him to “know” at a deeper level. He needs the kind of spiritual experience that will transform the way he “sees” and “knows” and “loves.”
And that is what we all need. Whether we are religious or non-religious, Christian or non-Christian, we all need this kind of spiritual awakening, over and over and over again.
Chuck Queen serves as pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Frankfort, Ky.
Are you sure the Bible actually says that? | Opinion by Russ Dean
The word of God may not be what you think it is | Opinion by Chuck Queen