Just a few weeks ago, I discussed Christian inclusivism. I stated that beliefs were not going to save you, and that there was something more to the picture — something which even non-Christians could access. But then what good are beliefs? How do they bring us to God? Let’s explore.
If I were to tell you, “Picture an elephant,” then there would be something that it is like to picture an elephant. Now granted, I can’t pull out a thought from my mind, hand it to you, and have you put that thought into your mind directly. I have to say something which is not the thought itself, and you have to interpret what I say in such a way as to produce the thought I indicated with my words. The words “picture an elephant” are not the same as the actual experience of thinking of an elephant.
Christian beliefs are much the same. The beliefs are the words we use to indicate the inner states which we desire for people to have, but the words are not the states themselves. Virtue, for example, is such a state, and we can talk about Christian virtue until we are blue in the face, but never will the words we say be a proper substitute for actual virtue on the inside. Thus, we have idioms like, “Don’t just talk the talk; walk the walk.” Your talk is fine, but be that which the talk indicates.
In this way, Christian beliefs completely lose all inherent value, and their value is merely practical. That is, some beliefs will be more conducive to producing the desired inner states than will others. And so if Christianity is much more interested in changing who you are on the inside than merely having you say words, then we are suddenly free from having to nitpick which beliefs are “orthodox” and which are “heretical.” These words are category errors, because the specific beliefs we have are not good or evil in and of themselves; we are good or evil.
Now granted, some beliefs are going to be far more practical than others. “Shooting people in the face is good” is not a belief conducive to instilling virtue. But then again, neither is “If God orders the genocide of an entire people, so be it. He’s God.” Neither are laws governing how we should take slaves or concubines from our captives in conquest. Neither are commands which denigrate women and place them in a subservient role in marriage from which they cannot escape. The fact is, there are a lot of things in the Bible which we look at and are rightly disgusted.
“But the Bible is God’s word and therefore is inherently good!” I should hear my detractors say. “Category error,” I say. Words cannot be good of themselves. We should drop this notion of the Bible as God’s word altogether. We received it from tradition, and while we should not depart from tradition just to be edgy, tradition is not always right.
On the contrary, Christ as God’s Word can be good in and of Himself. Christ is not merely practical. A person can have virtue; words cannot. In this way, Christ can be what we have traditionally thought the Bible to be, and the Bible only points to Him. The life Christ led for us as an example, and the scriptures we have giving us a glimpse of that life, can lead us to a point of reflection whereby we become better people, more Christ-like people who love God.
But if we corrupt our beliefs by making them out to be what they are not, then even those very same beliefs which from a proper perspective should have led us to God suddenly grow poisonous. Belief that Christ died on the cross and rose again is not the point, even if we should believe it to be historical fact; these are signs which should allow us to reflect on the meaning of Christ’s love and to become people who exemplify that love.
This is why I can appreciate friends of differing beliefs: the beliefs aren’t the point. Meditating on so-called wrong beliefs in the right way can be as beneficial to one’s character as anything else. Reading Mein Kampf, for example, might lead us to appreciate people of other ethnic backgrounds by reflecting on what happens when we don’t.
The Bible is a tool for the same kind of meditation. It is not good; it is not bad. We are good and bad, and the way we approach the world, the perspective we apply to our experiences, will either grow or diminish our Christ-like character.
The Bible, and the beliefs within it, is the fertilizer from which life grows. It is not the life itself. God is a God beyond belief.