The Reverend Dr. Richard Topping, former minister at the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul, Montreal, now teaching at the Vancouver School of Theology, inspired by example much of my understanding of a Christian life. In his doctoral thesis, he defines “the Bible as contingent human historical witness to the manifestation of the absolute in history.” It parallels my own understanding of the book as the God-inspired words of Man, the synthesis of the thought, myth and allegory of hundreds of generations.
Dr. Topping often scoffed at the packed shelves of self-help books, but one of the major chains has as many volumes in the religion department. Granted, we need some help picking through the J, E, D, P and Q sources jumbled into the Bible’s canon seventeen centuries ago, not to mention the many commentaries and “lost” gospels. For starters, what to make of the two creation stories in Genesis? Despite Genesis and the Michelangelo paintings, it is hard to believe that Man was created in God’s image. Quite the reverse seems far more likely.
With a stack of Kung, Armstrong, Frye and others by my side, I embark on a voyage of biblical exploration. I imagine hearing pitiful screams of tiny angels losing their grip on the crowded heads of pins. Often a phrase will cause me to lift my eyes and gaze out the window. Why didn’t Jesus tell his disciples about the universe his Father created? Maybe he did.
John crumpled another scrap of papyrus and tossed it on the floor.
“Book not going well?” asked Peter.
“I’ll never finish,” John grumbled. “I’m trying to tell about the time J.C. said his Father made the universe and billions of stars ten billion years ago. And all that stuff about the Earth being round and circling the Sun. And the red-skinned men who live with nature on the other side of the world. How’m I supposed to write that? I mean, he was the Son of God, so he musta known what he was talking about.”
“I remember,” Peter laughed. “That was the night we thought our Lord had way too much wine.”
John scribbled for a moment, then read aloud.
“And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.”
He looked up at Peter.
“Works for me.”
The Bible is like a new friend with puzzling foibles I do not understand, and others that are downright annoying. It took me a while to maybe figure out how the Old Testament God who slaughtered children, destroyed cities and drowned everybody except one family morph into the loving Father of Jesus in the New Testament. I remember today how my dad grounded me when I rebelled, our own children sullenly took their punishment when they misbehaved, and our grandkids squabble and scream, testing parents’ endurance. Maybe God didn’t grow up. Maybe we did.
Later, beer in hand, I stand on the back gallery, reflecting still, maybe praying, daring to debate with God. There are things we absolutely know, I muse, watching an airliner bending over the city onto final approach. Some people need faith to fly in an airplane. Having earned a license to pilot little Cessnas, I know the laws of aerodynamics, understand the engineering and meteorology, fathom air traffic control. I know.
I do not know God. That’s why they call it faith, I smile to myself.
A thought. Sparked by … God?
Look at your children.
Suddenly, I know. I fall to my knees and tears roll down my cheeks.