Anyone who knows me knows that when a particular subject interests me, I go out and read every single thing I can about that subject until it becomes an obsession and it is all I ever talk about. Yeah, I’m that nerdy!
Lately the subject that has become my obsession is the history of Christianity. Turns out it’s a lot more complicated than the short history lesson a lot of evangelical churches teach: God wrote the Bible, the Catholics came along and ruined things, Luther and Calvin saved the day, the end. There’s a whole two-thousand year history that’s full of different doctrines, ideas, theologies, and schisms that have shaped the religion throughout the years. In fact, I think Christianity is still evolving right now as I write this.
Unfortunately, some of the things I have read had made me question a lot of my theology.
Long-time readers will know that I have mixed feelings about Marcus Borg. On one hand, his book Reading the Bible Again For the First Time has definitely taught me how to take the Bible seriously without interpreting every story literally. But on the other hand, when he questions the historical accuracy of anything that the Apostle’s Creed confirms, that’s when I get a little anxious.
For example, since this is the Advent season I’ve had the virgin birth on my mind a lot lately. Only two of the gospels mention anything about Jesus’ birth--Matthew and Luke--and none of the New Testament books written prior to Matthew and Luke say anything about Jesus’ birth. Also, both Matthew and Luke have different details about what exactly happened on that first Christmas morning. And then of course, there’s the fact that in the original Hebrew, Isaiah 7:14 could mean either “virgin” or “young girl.” (Hat tip: Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, chapter 2).
Of course since we can’t go back in time to give Mary a physical examination, there’s no way of knowing for sure whether or not she really was a virgin. But since I’ve always been the over-analytical type, I can’t help but wonder, “If the virgin birth isn’t factual, what about the incarnation? How else could God come to earth as a human?”
I can’t help but think about what Martin Luther King Jr said about science and religion:
“Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary.
Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism.”
And I think the same can be applied to history. We need historical fact in order to distinguish myth from reality. Of course all facts need interpretation, and this where faith comes in. The book of Hebrews tells us that “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (11:1). When there are gaps in the facts, or the facts leave gaps in our previously-held theology, faith fills in those gaps. It does not ignore the facts; it merely says that God is much bigger than all of our questions, all of our doubts, and all of our tiny little theological boxes.
Like I said, we have no way of looking up Mary’s medical records, but maybe we don’t need to. Faith is enough to reassure us that Jesus is still God-with-us.