It’s funny what shapes a person’s religious beliefs and paradigms. Perhaps one of the biggest influences on mine comes from a passage of writing that appears not in the Bible, but in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, of all works! In it lies an account of a small group of Chinese philosophers who strove for over a decade to understand the meaning of a single verse from the Bible. They read everything they could get their hands on, consulted linguistic experts, and even learned Hebrew themselves in order to get at the meaning of but a single word!
And why? Because they thought the point being made in the passage was worthy of the effort required to understand it.
The Hebrew word in question is “timshel”, and you can read a short excerpt from East of Eden, explaining their investigation here. Please stop and read it right now. It will only take you about five minutes.
Not only is this particular investigation both “heartsy” and reasonable, but it also drives the first of many nails into the coffin of the immensely-popular “Calvinist” doctrine that man has no free will. This doctrine, though it has permeated to some extent even churches that claim to reject it, makes a monster of God, for it has him blaming people for behaviors they cannot help but to commit, and failing to protect them from an enemy they cannot themselves resist. And further, it denies the obvious: that men and women exercise free will every day. Or do you honestly believe that you did not choose your socks this morning?
I don’t mean to imply that “Calvinist” doctrine is the biggest doctrinal problem in the world (though it’s pretty huge, for it encourages its adherents to be irresponsible for themselves and to do nothing to solve problems). But that’s just a byproduct of the deeper problem: Christians don’t do their own “math”; instead, they practice a hearsay religion in which all the conclusions are already assumed to have been rightly arrived at by those who have come and gone before. In this sense, I believe that they do not practice a religion of their own at all, but merely a hearsay religion, with which they are ever struggling to stay contented. By ignoring the puzzles and diminishing the various dysfunctions that arise, they strive mostly to “keep moving”, rarely even attempting to solve anything, and even less, to understand it.
It was against such a dark and thoughtless backdrop that I first discovered this “timshel” passage in East of Eden, and it intrigued me from the very beginning. Little did I know that that sort of thinking would eventually lead me out of every church institution I would ever join! The pursuit of complete and rational understanding does not jibe well with the paradigms of traditional Christianity. Indeed, even on the most fundamental question of all (“Why did Jesus have to die?“), one popular Bible answers website must first strive to shut down the reader’s critical thought processes when it answers thus:
Question: “Why did Jesus have to die?”
Answer: When we ask a question such as this, we must be careful that we are not calling God into question. To wonder why God couldn’t find “another way” to do something is to imply that the way He has chosen is not the best course of action and that some other method would be better. Usually what we perceive as a “better” method is one that seems right to us. Before we can come to grips with anything God does, we have to first acknowledge that His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts—they are higher than ours (Isaiah 55.8">Isaiah 55:8). In addition, Deuteronomy 32.4">Deuteronomy 32:4 reminds us that “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.” Therefore, the plan of salvation He has designed is perfect, just, and upright, and no one could have come up with anything better.
The article proceeds, not to answer the question, but merely to repeat popular traditional doctrines on the topic. It doesn’t tell us “why”, it tells us merely “what” to believe. Thus does it completely shut down critical thinking, and bids us instead simply to take their word for it.
Contrast that, however, with Steinbeck’s philosophers, and you see an entirely different class of human beings! Here’s a reminder of the discussion from Steinbeck (emphasis added):
But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”
Ask a typical Christian who is responsible for the church institution to which he is joined, and you will not get a straight answer. On the one hand, he’ll point perhaps to the preacher or the elders, and on the other hand, he’ll claim that “Jesus is the head of the church”. If you try to blame his church’s shortcomings on Jesus (as its head), he’ll immediately oppose that idea and blame it instead on sinful men. So if you suggest, then, that he put out the current leaders and promote more righteous people instead into leadership, he resorts back to the previously-abandoned argument that “Jesus is the head of the church”, and he proceeds with the circular goose-chase of an argument that “If Jesus wanted these leaders replaced, he’d do it himself.”
Timshel, however, “throws it right back on a man”, as Steinbeck’s character put it. The man is free to choose. And the man is responsible for his choices. Churches are as they are because of the collective choices of their members. Indeed, what a dreadful thought it is to assume that God has consigned any church to its present dullness and dysfunction! What would be the purpose of such a consignment? Punishment?
If punishment, then why not rather teach them to overcome? Is this not possible with God? And yet I do not know of even one church institution that has managed to overcome its ailments. Not one. Instead, they make out as if it’s impossible, and further, as if even thinking it might be possible is an exercise in evil pride! Never mind the examples of First Century congregations, such as Thessalonica, Phillipi, Ephesus, and others, who managed to reach maturity in that very first generation of the ekklesia!
And to add insult to injury, so many believers today look down upon those first Christians, considering them to be “primitive”, and considering it a deficit that those believers did not yet “have the Bible”! But we, for all our sophistication, cannot seem to muster even a fraction of the maturity and unity enjoyed by these early congregations. And so I ask, who are the real primatives here?
I believe that people are free to be as righteous and upright as they care to be. They are free to learn, to adopt, and to reject as much as they care to learn, adopt, and reject. They are free to dream and to strive and to change as much as they’d like. I cannot imagine one single problem, whether in “church” or in society, that cannot be fixed, except for the problem of convincing those who would rather not be convinced. If we all cared to succeed, however, we could fix anything.
It comes down, therefore, to whether there is indeed a choice. Meanwhile, however, we have a massive segment of the Christian society preaching to the world (and particularly to themselves), that man is a helpless and miserable “worm”, destined for filth and weakness, and incapable even of desiring a good thing unless God himself puts that desire into the man. Thus do they embrace their own filth and failure, clinging to it as a basis upon which they are to be granted a life-giving “grace”, by which they seem to believe that God will pretend they are more righteous than they actually are! In their view, God does not make righteous men of sinners by actually transforming their characters into godliness, but he merely chooses to view the ungodly with the same view he holds of Jesus.
Thus have they not only managed to gloss over the actual evidence to the contrary in the Bible, but they have, in one fell swoop of traditional hearsay, gutted the true nature of mankind, turning him into a mere shadow of what God made, and consigning themselves to despicable depravity where no such existence is necessary. They will claim, of course, that the power of God is required for man to achieve greatness, yet claiming that very power unto themselves, they cannot explain why they continually wallow in failure and repeated excuse. If they are empowered by the indwelling of God, why are they not achieving greatness? They will be surprised to learn that, any indwelling aside, their very doctrines are counterproductive to the greatness to which they claim to aspire, for they excuse man rather than to hold him accountable for himself.
Even a Church of Christ elder once revealed to me (unwittingly) that he holds such a “Calvinist” view, excusing man of responsibility for his own actions. I had asked him what his congregation was “working on” and he mentioned they were trying to get people to “be faithful” to coming to Sunday night and Wednesday night assemblies. So I asked, “What’s the plan?”, not knowing that such a simple question would leave him speechless for several seconds. He stammered and stuttered, and eventually offered, “We’re just waiting on the Lord.”
Waiting on the Lord? That’s a curious answer. One wonders just how long it’s going to take the Lord to convince these people that they need to show up at all the meetings. (Do they?) Apparently, the Lord had not been able to achieve this in the last several decades of the existence of that congregation, yet still they were “waiting”.
Not only could they not show from scripture that people ought to come to every meeting, but they had no promise that God would ever bring the members to such a conclusion. Yet they were convinced that this was an issue worthy of their (passive) attention!
What a sad and helpless state this is, and it is not isolated to a single congregation! No, this sort of helpless and worthless thinking is found nearly everywhere. Even in the denominations that claim a higher-than-average state of personal accountability, the limits of that accountability become quite obvious when one begins to discover the shortcomings of the leaders and of the institutional model they have designed. Boasts such as “radical repentance” and “go anywhere, do anything, and give up everything for God” quickly turn to excuses such as “change takes time”, “no church is perfect”, and “nobody is perfect” when the very leaders are challenged to exhibit the same kinds of changes that are expected of the members!
Thus do we see that practically no church truly believes in personal accountability; they all want to blame their ailments on someone or something else. They do not agree with God when he said “thou mayest”. They argue to the contrary, “I’m just a lowly human, fraught with sin and weakness, and in need of your ever-flowing font of grace and forgiveness.”
They expect God to be impressed with this argument, and they somehow lose sight of the fact that repentance from sin was universally demanded of all believers in the First Century. Where actual character change was once mandatory, it is now considered enough merely to feel guilty for one’s shortcomings! And the more one wallows in them, bemoaning their sad state, the more “spiritual” he is held to be!
I suppose it is this “vice” of trying both to understand and to overcome that has so separated me from the institutions to which I once belonged. Many would have accused me of leaving because I wanted to be “worldly” or “unspiritual”, but the source of my frustration was that I wanted to be MORE spiritual than was the practice in the institutions! I did not want to be told that change and growth and maturity and excellence are impossible, because I was reading exactly the opposite in the Bible accounts of the early ekklesia.
It took me several decades to figure it out, but eventually, I admitted the obvious, that the “change takes time” voice I had always heard was simply not the voice of God. And did I learn this lesson from the church? No. Ironically, that lesson came through Steinbeck and his “thinkers in exactness”. Just as it was said of them that, “They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and tells a lie with one verb”, so do I not believe that the successes of the congregations as exhibited in the Bible are to be completely discounted, as if impossible for today.
And to be perfectly clear, I’m not even talking about doctrine, which can sometimes be difficult to arrive at flawlessly. No, I’m talking about upright behavior, which any fourth grader can easily understand from the scriptures. Ironically, good behavior requires no church institution at all, and may likely not be able to survive the institution’s influence, for it will be continuously counseled to compromise itself and to resist the urge to expect others to follow suit!
So while the rest of the believers are still uncertain whether righteousness and self-exertion are required parts of Christianity or not, I chose simply to move on to other matters, having already decided the necessity of these things. And since then, I have been amazed at how much I’ve been able to learn, to grow, and to overcome. It was such a huge trap–all those years in the institutions, keeping me from learning the very things they claimed to promote! And how tragic it is that so many are still wondering about the most basic of all questions: whether they are indeed free to change or not.
They cannot make up their minds, but since I made up my mind, I’ve gotten a great deal accomplished otherwise, and I would no more go back to the quagmire than I would to join anything else I don’t believe in.
Thou mayest, I believe.