Can Faith and Learning Coexist?

NPR’s “Fresh Air” last week aired an interview with Elaine Pagels, author of The Gnostic Gospels who has written a new book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics in the Book of Revelation.

Setting aside my inability to get over having the same word twice in one book title, the interview is fascinating and well worth a listen. Growing up with a belief in “Left Behind” eschatology, I find the idea that this particular interpretation is wrong both intriguing and compelling, but I haven’t done my own research into the subject. So I basically store whatever information I glean from interviews such as the one with Pagels for whenever I have the time to really dive into Revelation on my own (or, even better, as part of a class).

One thing that struck me, however, was Pagels’ response when asked near the end of the interview about her own faith.

Pagels discussed how she first read Revelation as a teenage member of an evangelical church. From a family of nominal Christians, Pagel said she became an evangelical at age 14 because of “the intensity of the emotional power – of the  music, of the preaching, of the group identity.” She left a year later, however, because she couldn’t stomach the theology of a Jewish friend being condemned to hell.

I just suddenly said, “Wait a minute. That’s not what drew me into this group. That’s not what I loved about the messages I heard here. That is not anything to do with the power of Christianity, as I understood it.” It’s ridiculous because Jesus and all of his followers were Jewish, to say nothing of anything else.

So I had to leave that group, and becoming a scholar of religion is an interesting path because later I had to think, “What is it about Christianity that was so compelling and powerful?” I think it is about the religious imagination and a sense of a spiritual dimension in life. But I also had to think about why did I have to leave that group, and I think it’s that insular sense of being in a righteous, homogenous, good group against a sort of a faceless mass of people who are Satan’s people. That is a very dangerous way of looking at the world in the 21st century, particularly.

So far, this makes complete sense. I fully believe narrow views of us versus them (with “them” inevitably defined with increasing narrowness) are a large part of why churches are bleeding followers these days.

Then, when asked about whether she receives criticism from those who take the Bible literally, Pagels responded:

Do I ever? I do very often. Many people write to me, call me and say to me they know exactly what this book means. Many people would say, “Well, she’s not really a good believer,” and that’s accurate because I’m less interested in simply believing these texts as understanding them. And I don’t mean understanding them intellectually, but also understanding the emotional power and the spiritual power, or lack of it, that we find in them.

There’s a lot of anger, there’s a lot of outrage, and there are people who really want to explain to me that if I would just accept their understanding of the faith, which is authoritative and absolutely certain, I would understand everything, and now as a scholar, I acknowledge that I don’t, and that I’m still searching. And they want to enlighten me with their version of truth. I’ve been down that road, and I didn’t find it compelling.

That led Terry Gross to ask whether Pagels goes to church.

I sometimes go to church because the traditions that I feel closest to are often Christian traditions, but I often don’t go, as well, because there’s a distance that it takes for the work I do. But the work I do also has questions about spiritual truth in it, and those are some of the ones I was trying to sort out in this book. It’s not just a sort of intellectual’s distant look at people I don’t agree with, it’s an attempt to look empathically at a phenomenon that I feel I have some understanding about, but also one has to have some distance on this – at least I do.

I think then I was looking, as many people do look in religion, for some kind of authority, some kind of answer, something sure, right? And there are plenty of religious people of all kinds who can tell you they know absolutely what’s right, and they can speak with authority, and they can tell it to you. Now I understand that that sense of authority has to come from ourselves. And I was writing this because I do believe there are some insights that we have that are like revelations, that are deeper truths, and I still look for those, but they don’t come from somebody else or some book or some preacher. For me, that’s not a source I can unequivocally believe in. In fact I’m not interested in believing it. I’m interested in how we discover revelations the way John thought he had done.

Finally, Gross asked Pagel essentially what she believed. Pagel said, “What I feel today is that there is something I call a spiritual dimension in human life, and that there are truths that are truer than other perceptions, and so I look for that sense of authenticity.” Pagel added that she finds such truth in pieces of the Gospel of Thomas and other gnostic works, in other apocryphal apocalyptic readings, in Mark and other “traditional Christian sources,” and perhaps even in Revelation, depending on how it’s read.

There’s quite a lot there. I certainly disagree with where Pagel’s ended up, but I empathize with her story, especially the rejection of conservative evangelicalism and feeling a need to understand how people end up believing what they do based on the texts they use. But Pagels unknowingly highlights a problem brought up by Bo Sanders at Homebrewed Christianity: That those who study the Bible most tend to be those who believe in it the least:

Over the last 4 years, it has become painfully clear to me that we have a problem when it comes to reading the Bible. Simply stated, those who spend the most time with the Bible know less about it but make greater claims for it than those who do more scholarship on it but may have little faith in it. …

What I would really like to see is a move within the emerging generation that is tenacious about engaging contemporary scholarship while fully embracing the kind of devotional passion that the innerant camp demonstrates  – all the while avoiding the fearful and intimidating chokehold that camp utilizes to squelch innovation & thought.

I want the next generation to both find life and direction in the scriptures and also to not have to read the tough parts with their fingers crossed behind their back.

Is this possible? I think so. I certainly hope so.

There is always a danger in studying so intellectually that we crowd out any room for the mystery of faith. Dissecting the authorship and development of a book or a doctrine can leave God completely out of the picture. It’s frustrating in a way because God – being apparently enamored with an evolutionary process to seemingly everything – consistently lets human beings shape his words and revelations in thoroughly human ways. It would be much easier if he would just throw a few lightning bolts around and, once the smoke cleared, reveal a perfect, divinely inked handbook for life. He has chosen not to do that, and those of us who have decided to study how he did it instead run the real risk of deciding he hasn’t done anything at all.

Pagels’ story is her own, and, as I said, I have real empathy for it. I see that path before me all too well. It would be quite easy to go down that road. When she says, “I’m less interested in simply believing these texts as understanding them,” I can hear echoes of my possible future.

But ultimately Pagels winds up begging the question, doesn’t she? Why are belief and understanding juxtaposed? There is no rule arguing that with an increase in faith, understanding must suffer a corresponding decline. This is not a zero-sum game, even if it was treated that way in the conservative evangelical traditions she and I have left behind – and the scholarly traditions in which we are now immersed.

The motto of this blog is Fide quaerens intellectum. Faith seeking understanding. Like Pagels, I now understand that I don’t have the answers I thought I did. But if I ultimately cannot find “life and direction” in the scriptures, what is the point of studying them? For all the academic work I’m doing now, in the end I must believe in them in order to understand them.

Perhaps that is where the Pagels’ path and mine must diverge. For all the problems and flaws and questions left behind in the Bible – and the horrific ways in which it has been used (including by me) in the centuries since its compilation – I must believe. Even when it’s hard, even when it makes no sense, even when every intellectual bone in my nerdy little body argues against it, I must have faith.

Because isn’t that what faith is all about? If having faith were easy, after all, it wouldn’t be faith. If the claims of the Bible could be apologetically proven beyond all doubt, faith would be unnecessary. And that I think is the true problem with the traditions in which I was raised: We were taught that we could argue our way to having faith, forgetting that if it’s truly faith, the argument will have to fall short. No matter how much Pagels or I try to grasp God with our minds, he will elude us. But the more we have the faith to allow him to grasp us, he will be ours, and we will be his, and the rest of it will recede into the noisy background of certainty.


5 comments on “Can Faith and Learning Coexist?

  1. Matthew says:

    > Why are belief and understanding juxtaposed? There is no rule arguing that with an increase in faith, understanding must suffer a corresponding decline.

    I’m confused. You say this, but in your final paragraph you yourself argue that faith is opposed to, or at least superior to, understanding.

    A lot depends on what you think “faith” and “seeking understanding” mean. If faith means “continuing to believe what you already believe”, and if “seeking understanding” entails a willingness to change one’s beliefs in the face of evidence, then yes, the two are diametrically opposed.

    But if they mean something else, there might be some wiggle room.

    • Paul says:

      I think they mean something else. Certainly the things in which I believe have changed over the past year or two, but I consider my faith to be stronger. I guess when I say “faith,” I’m referring to specifically Christian faith. If I became an atheist, that would be faith of a different sort, and I could claim to still have it, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to the context of this conversation. But I think the broad contours of Christian faith have plenty of room for disagreement on the particulars, and we can change our beliefs on the particulars as our understanding grows or changes. But faith in the death and resurrection of Christ and the existence and love of God remains.

      In that way, I do not see faith and understanding as diametrically opposed. There is room for both. While one can certainly understand his or her way out of faith, I don’t see that as a necessity; in fact, I think faith can deepen understanding while understanding deepens faith. Nevertheless, one must come first, right (chicken or the egg)? So I don’t think true understanding can occur without faith, whereas I think (tentatively) that one can have true faith without much understanding.

  2. Matthew says:

    Apologies for double-posting, but here’s something I encountered further down in my feed reader that may sharpen your argument. Or maybe it will just fuddle things further.

  3. Michele says:

    The biggest impression I got from listening to the Pagels interview didn’t really concern her interpretation of Revelation, but that basically she is an atheist who realizes there are times when dabbling in religion brings her comfort, when herself isn’t quite sufficient.
    She never mentioned any personal encounters with the living God in the interview nor in any other pages I read on her.
    So her interpretation of Revelation was neither here nor there to me because of this shortcoming.
    She somehow fails to understand that faith does not exist without God, without the personal knowledge of both His existence and contemporary dealings with us and that trying to interpret the Bible without faith won’t get a person too far.
    She assumes faith is about a set of beliefs or creed, and totally misses that it is about knowing God personally. And that can only happen through a personal encounter with God through Jesus and the work of His spirit. These things sound like creeds or doctrinal teachings, but they are actually what follow having experienced God in firstperson, which the writer of Revelation had.
    Elaine contended basically that early believers simply made up what they believed for this or that reason, because of the times they were living in.
    She obviously has never experienced the transforming work of God’s spirit or she would hot, could not say those things.
    As to whether faith and learning can co-exist? I only conclude more strongly as I study the Scriptures, their background, the original intent of the authors who penned them that Jesus is the Christ and that all my encounters with God are validated.
    Because genuine Christianity isn’t about creeds or a set of beliefs, teachings on hell are something that should be left out, because no one can absolutely prove that their interpretation of Scripture on this subject is definitive.
    Unfortunately teachings on eternal punishment for the non-believer is seen as coming as part and parcel with faith in Jesus Christ, however, we as followers-disciples of Jesus should not make the Bible say more than it does and be careful before asserting that it says what we think it says, what we have been taught that it says.
    I can’t go beyond what I’ve experienced when interpreting Scripture.
    I have to rely on what I know of God and His goodness when reading.
    I know of a surety that God does love the world and He did send His Son into it to redeem it.
    I know how God has worked in my own life and that I can relate to his dealings with people as recorded in Scripture. But I can’t say the Bible teaches eternal suffering and punishment in hell because the passages concerning this topic are, in my opinion, not clear enough to make that claim – especially considering the translation and culture gaps.

    • Paul says:

      Hi Michele,

      Thanks for the response! I agree with most of what you say, but I don’t think we need to disregard Pagels entirely just because she doesn’t have the faith we do. In fact, the professional distance she seems to believe is required, though I disagree that it is, does provide her a perspective that we might miss, and in so doing better inform and deepen our own understanding of our faith. I’m reluctant to dismiss the ideas of smart people simply because they don’t share my beliefs.

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