Reza Aslan prefaces his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth with his personal story. “When I was fifteen years old, I found Jesus.” he writes. But: “…something unexpected happened in my quest to save the souls of the world. The more I probed the Bible to arm myself against the doubts of unbelievers, the more distance I discovered between the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of history. …The sudden realization that…the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions – just as one would expect from a document written by hundreds of hands across thousands of years – left me confused and spiritually unmoored. And so…I angrily discarded my faith as if it were a costly forgery I had been duped into buying.”
And yet Aslan continued study as a religious scholar. And in this study, he writes, “No longer chained to the assumption that the stories I read were literally true, I became aware of a more meaningful truth in the text. …Ironically, the more I learned about the life of the historical Jesus,…the more I was drawn to him.”
My professor for a Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) course in college spoke of something similar, using Paul Recoeur’s term “second naïveté“: After letting go of a literal expectation of Scripture, and working through whatever grief, fear, or disillusionment may accompany that letting go, many people are able to come back and claim a deeper truth to be found there, a truth not reliant on historical literalism. But first, one must let go of the expectation that this truth will have no contradictions, no errors, no messiness. A safe and consistent scripture will not be found – and yet, truth can be found.
If I am ever to come back to a church, it will have to be in this way: after accepting and working through my grief and fear over the deep flaws that the church of my youth has proved to carry. I need that critical distance between a first and second naïveté, not in regards to faith itself, but in regards to a faith community. The written and inspired word of God is replete with blatant and obvious errors and contradictions, and yet it speaks truth. The people of God likewise are replete with blatant and obvious errors and contradictions. A safe and consistent church will not be found. Will I come to a place where I can accept those flaws, that risk, and still be able to find truth?
I’m not there yet. I’m not promising I ever will be. But if I am, it will be by going through this current darkness, not running away from it.