Sue said: Picking and choosing what to believe?

My dear friend Sue commented last night:

I'm very curious about you're talking about choosing to believe in the virgin birth. You choose to believe something because it's personally useful? How does that work? Isn't that overwhelmingly arbitrary?

I'm not trying to pick on you Peter, but I guess I'd like to believe things based on reality. I fear I'm delusional enough the way it is! Maybe I haven't read you correctly.

I said:

...I guess I think of it in the same way that I think of LOVE as a choice. It's not that I'm faking it or that it's arbitrary. It's that I don't always "FEEL" it, "EVERY DAY!" You know? Some days are rough. Sometimes I'm pissy or selfish...

I have experienced a very real and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, and that relationship was introduced to me in a conservative Evangelical context. Though the context has changed, I have changed, and the way I view the world has changed, I choose to keep loving the personality of the God I have known most of my life.

It's not blind love. I know there are things about Christianity I might not like. Or might not even know about. I may have doubts, at times. I may wonder "what if things had turned out differently..." I may find Sufism or Buddhism attractive from time to time... I start to visit philosophically "suggestive" websites... but I come back to my first love. My first love is Jesus.

I don't mean to be caddy, disrespectful, or arbitrary. I don't want to pick and choose based on convenience and my own selfish personal needs (though, inevitably I do from time to time). I don't know if that's a great answer, but it is absolutely the attitude I take though, Sue.

Sometimes choosing to believe is like choosing to love. It's no fairytale romance, but it's real and true and still beautiful and life-changing.


Helen said...

Interesting. I guess I'd turn Sue's comment around and say "If it's not personally useful then that means it doesn't make any difference to me - and if it doesn't make any difference to me why does it matter whether I believe it or not?" Why does it matter any more than whether I believe it's raining in Minneapolis today?

In case this sounds a bit selfish, maybe I should expand it to 'is personally useful to me or me in my interactions with others'. Whether I believe in responding with sympathy and kindness and respect if someone I see is having a bad day seems personally useful to them in a way that whether I believe in the Virgin Birth doesn't seem useful.

(Maybe some would say my belief in the Virgin Birth could lead me to say more eternally helpful things to them than if I didn't believe it but that seems a lot more indirect and uncertain than my belief about whether I should listen and be kind to them or not)

Also: there's a difference between disbelieving something, as in, being sure it's not true, and simply not having an opinion because it's not useful/relevant. Peter, is the Virgin Birth on the list of things you're not sure about, that haven't mattered enough for you to have a strong opinion about? Or do you strongly disbelieve in it?

By the way Peter, have you been to Craig's Recycle Your Faith video site yet? I could be wrong, but I think you'd like it.

Sue said...

OK, I think I understand a little better. You are saying that, based on lack of scientific evidence one way or the other, you choose to believe in the virgin birth because it fits in with your experiences of who Jesus is.

I guess what I was thinking was more along the lines of how it doesn't make sense for us to talk about believing in history based on how it is useful to us. That's how people can end up saying the Holocaust never happened or that none of the Jews in Israel today are biological descendents of the Jews of Jesus' time. (I just learned there are people who actually promote that.) If it's useful, I'll believe it. If it's not, I won't.

The virgin birth is either an historical fact or not. If it is merely a metaphor (even though it is a powerful metaphor) then for me to believe that it is a fact is,imho, just like believing in 6-day, 24-hour creation. I may win points with the Religious Right, but my understanding of scripture, my understanding of God's relationship to the world, and my understanding of how God created the world are all diminished.

If someone can show me solid evidence that both Matthew and Luke are using mythological and poetic language in speaking of the virgin birth, then my understanding of scripture, of Jesus, of God the Father, and of the Holy Spirit are all affected, just as those understandings are affected by how I interpret Genesis 1.

But as CS Lewis observed--a master of poetry, legend and myth--the New Testament, including the narratives of Jesus' birth, doesn't read like that.

Thanks for the great conversation!

Al said...

You are right Helen, Recycle your faith is a great site. Just heard about it this week, and have really enjoyed the videos. And it's good to see you still part of the conversation I first encountered in Jim & Casper go to church.
I think the concern about picking and choosing what you believe is a serious one. And I think we all tend to at least pick and choose which system of belief we are going to follow. We may not realize that choosing to see things from a liberal or conservative, or republican or democrat, or catholic or protestant viewpoint affects what we believe as much as it does. There are some stereotypical beliefs that each camp has, and we tend to conform to the party line. So, a conservative evangelical probably picks the typical CE beliefs about creation, biblical inerrancy, virgin birth just as much as a liberal would tend to believe in the typical liberal beliefs on the same subjects. These choices are often made for us (by virtue of the camp we have chosen, and the 'indoctrination' process that occurs), and it is only when we start to question the party line that we begin to think through things more on our own.
I expect it is at that point (thinking, questioning) that it becomes more obvious that we are going to pick a particular view on inerrancy, or creation, or whatever. But we have really been making the same choices subconsciously all along.
I also think I agree with Helen regarding the usefulness and immediacy of certain beliefs vs others. Many theologians have made a case for the necessity of the virgin birth in order for Christ to be more than just human. But yes, I think it is more valuable to people around me today for me to be more concerned about being kind and helpful, and perhaps less concerned about more mystic, esoteric theological issues.

Peter said...

Hi Helen! Great to see you! You asked, "Peter, is the Virgin Birth on the list of things you're not sure about, that haven't mattered enough for you to have a strong opinion about?"

That's just about right. I like it. I haven't tossed it out. I don't feel like I need it - I don't feel compelled to believe in it. I think it's historically and academically problematic. But it doesn't particularly trouble me.

Actually, between Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, Virgin Birth is WAY less important to me. I think it's also less defendable from a strictly biblical standpoint. The Virgin Birth seems almost an afterthought to Matthew and Luke, and isn't mentioned by Mark or John. The resurrection seems far more central to the beliefs and priorities of the whole New Testament. But I realize that may sound a lot like personal bias...

I have not been to "Recycle Your Faith" - thanks for the recommendation!

Sue, thank YOU for the conversation. I'm enjoying it. I don't think Matthew and Luke are likely using metaphorical language. I think they either really believed it and chose to ignore some of the inherent contradictions in their genealogies that accompanied it, or that later Christian communities added text in - as is suspected of some Josephus texts concerning Christ.

Al, thanks for the reminder about the danger of "picking and choosing." For me, as much as I'm sure I AM quite biased, it's really about letting God be God, and letting whatever is ACTUALLY TRUE be true! Meaning: I'm done telling God what the truth is, dictating based on my own (or my denomination's) theological necessities.

If the Virgin Birth is true, then great. I'm not going to let my cynicism lead to stubborn disbelief. But if the Virgin Birth is NOT true, then that's fine. I'm not going to let dogmatic fervor turn to rigid disillusion.

It's the same way scientists adapt their theories based on new evidence, rather than rejecting science (or killing themselves) when a theorum is proven inadequate.

Since matters of God and spirituality will likely not be PROVEN in quantifiable ways, these will remain mysteries we hold in tension - and hopefully, in humility.

Helen said...

Sue I understand where you're coming from with regard to historical fact. However, with all due respect, there's hugely more evidence for the Holocaust than the Virgin Birth. Believing in the Virgin Birth is a matter of faith - faith that what the Bible says about it is true. I wouldn't say believing in the Holocaust is a matter of faith, since there is so much evidence it happened.

Hi Al, I'm glad you've already been to RYF and like it. By the way it seems to be temporarily down this evening but I'm sure Craig will sort that out as soon as possible.

By the way a brand new ChurchRater site just relaunched yesterday (the spin off site from Jim and Casper), if you're interested.

Peter thanks for the welcome and for answering my question. Hopefully RYF will be up again soon and you can go check it out.

Irritable said...

Hey all -- interesting conversation. I've been meaning to chime in but just now have the chance.

Peter: I appreciate your honesty. You seem a bit ambivalent about the virgin birth, and I don't fault you for that. But what about God? You seem much less ambivalent about God, and you want to let God be God and let what is actually true be true.

But what if God isn't God? Or isn't anything like anyone has ever imagined? Or isn't anything at all? How would you know? Would it change anything? Do you really have any more certainty about God than you do the virgin birth? I'm not trying to take you anywhere in particular, just seeing where you'll go.

Al: I think you're on to something. I appreciate the recognition that what we think, feel, believe and value are rooted in some kind of received tradition, whether we realize it or not. I don't know that the frameworks within which we cultivate those thoughts, feelings, beliefs and value necessarily line up in liberal vs. conservative binaries, but the general idea is sound.

And I'm all for pushing against the grain and challenging our received traditions. But it sounds like you're suggesting that if we push hard enough, we can reach some kind of neutral space free from those traditions. Are you suggesting that, or going somewhere esle?

Sue: With all due respect, I think Lewis is guilty of special pleading on this one. Virgin birth was a common religious trope back in those days, one used to narrate a person as special or significant in a religious and political way.

Lewis was very aware of parallels in various ancient mythologies. His answer? This one time, God made the myths real in Jesus, in order to reach that culture on its own terms. This is a clever argument.

Now I'm a very skeptical person, and given the choice between thinking that God arranged the events of Jesus' birth, life and death to parallel pagan myths in order to one-up the pagan religions, or that people narrated Jesus' story in such a way as to identify him as an important religious and political figure (which is what everyone else did), I'm inclined to go with the latter.

(I write more about this here, for the morbidly curious.)

As for it "doesn't read that like," of course it doesn't. It's our story. All those other people have the crazy stories.

Irritable said...

Helen: I remember you from CatE. I don't remember if I was using this moniker or not, but I enjoyed the conversations. You rock.

Sue said...

Hi, Helen,
Yes of course there is way more evidence for the Holocaust. My point is just that, when it comes to the Bible, understanding what is fact and what is metaphor really MATTERS. I grew up being taught that God hid dinosaur bones in the earth to test our faith, to see if we would really believe God's Word above all.

A God who hides dinosaur bones to test our faith is a very different being than a God who somehow uses evolution as we understand it today. (If you believe that there is a God, and that God is somehow involved in evolution.)

Irratable: I am aware of those other stories. I would love to get the author and publisher of the source(s) that document those other stories and show that Luke and Matthew had those stories in mind when they wrote their gospel, or that those stories were add-ons by later Christians.

Again, my point is that "what really happened" MATTERS, not that we are necessarily going to throw out the whole Bible because the first two chapters are metaphorical (like the foundationalists have to argue we must) but it is important to understand genre, history, and the author's intent.

If we don't, we end up getting Left Behind!!!!! ;-)

Irritable said...

Sue: There are any number of sources that document the prevalence of virgin birth and other tropes in ancient religions. On the sensationalistic end, Freke and Gandy's The Jesus Mysteries is very entertaining (but bring salt). Less sensationalistic but still a bit out there would be John Shelby Spong's Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus. More methodologically sound would be work by Crossan and/or Borg. There are probably better ones.

Of course you could also dig up any number of conservative sources, with the same range of credibility, arguing for the historicity of the virgin birth, and we could stack books on either side of the debate all day long.

But I don't think that "proving" Matthew or Luke (or whoever first told the stories) drew directly on these other stories is the point at all. First, proof is only possible in geometry. Second, the idea is simply that such stories were common, and embroidering a person's life history in order to underscore their importance was common, and it is difficult to tell how consciously such tropes were employed. The Gospels were, among other things, political propaganda.

If you're looking for that kind proof, then you'll probably happily believe in a literal virgin birth for the rest of your life. I'm fine with that -- but you're the one bullish on differentiating between fact and metaphor. :)

I'm not sure that dichotomy serves us well. Of course genre, context, and authorial intent are important, but between fact and metaphor are, I think, a range of things that the authors may not have consciously intended metaphorically but which we would narrate differently had we been there.

Maybe the birth narratives were always intended literally (whether true or not). Certainly later Christians took them quite literally. Maybe the authors or storytellers were self-conscious about embroidering the story -- again a common practice and not one we should judge from the modern concepts of intellectual property or historical reporting. Maybe it's somewhere in between, neither literal nor self-consciously metaphorical, in a way that we have difficulty getting our minds around.

My contention: lots of groups told fantastic stories about their leaders and origins, and we have no trouble dismissing those stories as ancient fables. Christianity (of which I am fond and to which I belong) gets special treatment only because it held cultural dominance for so long.

Sue said...


I believe you and I agree on a lot. What I'm saying is that everything you just listed matters. It matters if the virgin birth or any of the other miracles in the Bible really happened, or if they are metaphors, or if they are something in between that we can't get our minds around.

Whatever you believe they are will affect how you live into the Story of God. It can affect how you pray (or even if you pray at all), what you expect God to do in the world (if anything,) maybe even what you choose to focus your life on.

It matters, too, who is claiming that the virgin birth is a myth. Is it a person who has a completely empirical view of the world? Then of course they are not going to believe in any miracles.

I would be interested in sources written by people who affirm a literal resurrection of Jesus but who question the virgin birth. There are plenty of people out there who believe in a literal resurrection but not in a literal Genesis 1 & 2.

What I want to say is that if my faith is only built on things that I find useful or helpful, it's a very shaky foundation. I don't think Peter was doing that, but someone could have read it that way.

I want my faith to rest on truth as best as I can understand it, and there might be times when the truth makes me pretty darn uncomfortable or even makes faith downright difficult. I guess I want to know as best I can the point where faith actually becomes faith. When I know that, I can choose to reach beyond that point to faith, or I can turn away, but I hope that I base that choice on something more than what makes me feel comfortable or what I've always been taught.

I believe that reaching is going to be based on another way of knowing that is non-empirical, but still a valid way of knowing, but now we are delving into things that are difficult for me to explain, let alone explain in a blog post.

And maybe what Peter meant (correct me if I'm wrong) in a way that would make sense to me, is that Peter believes in the virgin birth not just because it feels good emotionally, but because it is congruent with another way of knowing. Ugh. There is no way I am going to be able to explain what I mean in this post. You'll just have to read Michael Polanyi for yourself! :-)

Thanks again for the conversation. It's good to think through stuff like this.

Irritable said...

Your concerns make a lot of sense, Sue, and you're right that we agree on quite a lot.

We agree, for instance, that it makes a good deal of difference what one believes, inasmuch as belief can make a pretty big difference in how a person approaches the world. And some beliefs that don't seem to be terribly important are connected to other beliefs (at least in that person's thinking) such that the whole sweater might come unraveled if we pick at that particular loose thread.

We also agree that people believe things for contingent reasons; of course an empiricist isn't going privilege any one virgin birth over another because none of them can be verified empirically (though I am not, myself, a thoroughgoing empiricist, but that's a different conversation).

By the same token, of course a theist (of the sort that believes in a God who intervenes in human affairs) will be more open to the idea of a virgin birth.

But the believer's acceptance is just as contingent as the empiricist's rejection. And any beyond-the-empirical way of knowing (including Polanyi's "tacit knowlege") is also contingent.

Where we disagree rather sharply, then, is that I don't think there's a singular Truth "out there" that we're going to be able to discover, by which you would be able to validate or invalidate your beliefs. We make truth as we describe the world. Claiming virgin birth was once a legitimate way of describing the world. I don't think it is anymore, though I think people have good reasons to continue to do so and many of those people are smarter than I am.

Two things that I don't think we'll ever have: 1) Irrefutable evidence that Jesus was born of a virgin, and 2) A coherent, incontrovertible account of how, if he wasn't, the stories came to be. I'd like 1) before I sign back onto that sort of belief, and I think you'd like 2) before you let go of it (which I am not trying to convince you to do, btw). Ultimately, we are going to make those choices based on other things.

And those other things are most likely based on other choices, some of which have been made for us in one way or another and some of which we have made and then hidden from ourselves. Some of them, as with Peter, come up from the depths and now have to be made consciously, which can get a little weird.

So you may indeed encounter the truth as something uncomfortable, but it's not because there wasn't a choice involved. It's more that you aren't aware of it. You may need that particular uncomfortable truth -- and you may need it to be uncomfortable. You have your reasons. :)

Helen said...

Hi Irritable, thanks for the compliment!

I saw an Irritable Reaching on facebook this week and was wondering if it was you and thinking it would be neat to 'friend' you if it is.

Peter said...

My internet has been problematic this weekend. Apologies. GREAT conversation!

Irritable, you said: "But what if God isn't God? Or isn't anything like anyone has ever imagined? Or isn't anything at all? How would you know? Would it change anything?"

Yes, it would change a lot, but I contend (though nothing's certain) that I would find a way to recontextualize the faith/spiritual experience of my past to adapt to new knowledge. I'm not one to become easily disillusioned, so without indisputable, quantifiable evidence for God's nonexistence, the real questions remaining go to who and HOW God is. And I've become quite used to re-calibrating based on new information. Maybe God is the fly-eating-lizard-god-thing on South Park. It ain't pretty, but I think I could get used to it...

Sue, I hear where you're going, and while we're not quite on the same page, I don't think we're wildly far apart. I also think these questions "matter" - the difference is, I don't think the ANSWERS to these questions are within our human reach, so we have to get beyond figuring out what the answers might be (or "need to be") and really determine why they're important in the first place. And then, hopefully, we're thoughtful and humble enough to acknowledge we may be wrong, and then deal with that possibility.

I also think the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection are quite different. The Resurrection seems - to me - to have far more theological implications. The Virgin Birth seems more like eye-candy for the reader, that - as Irritable points out (along with Rob Bell, by the way) - aligns it with 1st Century pagan pop-culture. Moreover, I think there's a lot more biblical and historical evidence to suggest that the various New Testament communities and writers were unaware of the Virgin Birth narrative, while they seemed fairly-consistently-fixed on the notion of a bodily resurrection. I realize both those points could still be intelligently argued.

Irritable said...

Helen -- it's me. Friend me. :)

Peter -- actually we agree quite heartily that these things matter but we're not going to arrive at definitive answers. I have strong opinions, but I can't claim that my description of the world bears a 1-to-1 correspondence to the world as it actually is. I don't believe any such thing is possible.

The point of my litany of questions about God is that you already believe what you believe about God in the face of all kinds of conflicting ideas on the subject, with no guarantee of certainty about which of them might be right -- or what it would mean to be right.

You could come to believe that God is the lizard thing, which would mean that, for you, God was the lizard thing all along. But you didn't believe that. You believed something else. And that something else was meaningful to you, mattering quite a lot, simply because you believed it -- and not because it accurately described reality, because God was the lizard thing all along.

Which means that your belief in God as the lizard thing, though it may be invigorating, and clearly matters, is in the same boat, in danger of being knocked off its pedestal by the next idea of God that becomes cogent to you. This is not because you're fickle, or because you are picking and choosing in some indiscriminate and frivolous way, but because beliefs are contingent (like thoughts, feelings, and values, etc.) and you, with the world around you, are constantly changing.

Of course the lizard bit is silliness, but how often has your belief in God changed -- and changed you? And yet at each stage of the game what you believe about God feels very real, with real effects in your life and interactions.

Each time feels like discovery, and it is -- but what we discover is not so much what's "really out there" as what we're willing to believe. I think this process is important even if (or especially if) we have no guarantees as to how our beliefs line up with the world as it "really is."

You're right about the Resurrection vs. the virgin birth. The VB is not attested anywhere else in the NT. Nothing rides on it, though there's some good stuff bound up in the meaning of the claim (which obtains even if the event doesn't).

The Resurrection, however, is the sine qua non of most Christian theology, including that of most of the NT. In the interest of disclosure, I don't think either event is historical in such a way that we could go back in time and come back with video to post on YouTube. And in both cases, I think it is the meaning of the claim that is more salient than the historicity of the event.

But I can't pretend it doesn't make a difference.

Peter said...

Yes, we align on quite a lot, I think. As you say, our beliefs about God are constantly changing, and that is usually more a reflection on ourselves changing (and our environments) than on God - or our proximity to the truth of God. Although, ever the idealist, I have come to believe (through my own biases and priorities) that the closer one comes to equality, freedom, redemption, unconditional love, (fruits of the spirit type of stuff) the closer we come to who God is. Lizard-or-not. But that's no different than any other Christian approaching God from any other vantage, with their own priorities and biases.


Irritable said...

This is going to sound condescending or patronizing in a way that I don't intend, but that's an attractive and healthy view of God, Peter.

What I've noticed is that often, when we speak of God, we are also saying something about justice, in the deepest sense, about freedom and equality and what it means to be human -- which among other things, is why the Incarnation (virgin birth or not!) is important in Christian theology.

This could be true because there is a very real God backing those notions of justice. But even there isn't, those things are still important to us.

Helen said...

Irritable, for some reason I can't find you in the facebook search. Feel free to friend me - you can look me up under Helen Mildenhall.

Al said...

A link regarding the virgin birth, not intended to be anything more than funny:

(thanks to a facebook post)

Peter said...

Ha! AL! I MUST have that shirt!

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