By Rick James, August 19, 2010
Have you ever been so sure of something that you were determined nothing could ever change your mind or persuade you to think and feel differently no matter what might come your way? Then one day you have an experience (or perhaps a series of experiences over time) that does not make sense, that simply does not jive with the notion you currently hold as hard fast truth, calling into question what you’ve always taken for granted. It’s a rather uncomfortable place to be, wouldn’t you agree?
I imagine that you – like me, and certainly many before us – have had this experience. It’s a part of human growth. There are numerous examples from history that we could draw upon that would highlight this truth and occurrence. In a few moments we will look at some. But in the meantime as we begin to think about such things, here are some questions to entertain: What do we do with these experiences? How do we deal with the seeming incongruity especially when the clash comes against something that has been for so many of us highly foundational to our entire world-view: our faith tradition, and more specifically, our reading and understanding of the Bible?
Faced with this situation, should we just hold fast to what we “know” to be true, or should we explore another side that perhaps we’ve not considered before? Should we just accept without question what we’ve been taught, or that which a literal reading of the Bible appears to say on any given issue, or should we pay attention to what other mediums of truth and revelation have to offer us, no matter how vast the perceived chasm between what is suggested and what we’ve always understood and believed?
This problem has occurred time and again down through the history pages of Christianity and of the Church. And it has affected a great many lives at many levels. It is the saga of thousands upon thousands of people in our history books.
But this is not just the story of those in days gone by. This is also my story. And it just might be yours, or the story of someone you know and love, too.
You see, once upon a time, I was one who accepted almost entirely blindly what I was taught on many issues as they intersected with my faith and my world-view. I trusted those who claimed to have the answers because of what the Bible said. Never once did it occur to me that someone’s interpretation of God’s Word could be flawed, perhaps because of a lack of understanding of both the written text and from believing that the scripture’s authority trumps any and all other mediums of truth and revelation. The assumption that I held to was that what I read in the Bible, as well as what I heard from my conservative religious mentors, were God’s definitive answer for all of life’s questions – even when it did not jive with reason and experience.
Yes, once upon a time I was a Square B Christian …that is, until my own experience led me to a crisis of faith that challenged – no, …threw into mayhem – my world-view.
Perhaps you’re asking yourself: what in tarnation is a Square B Christian?
If you’ll bear with me for a few more moments, I’d like to try to answer that question by going first to the dictionary to look at a legal term that will be used interchangeably with our term in question. Additionally, we will use an analogy that I hope will bring clarity and light to the term in question. The legal term to which I refer is an a priori judgment or assumption.
Let’s look at what various Internet-based dictionaries tell us about this terminology.
a priori – a latin phrase, meaning “from the former”. A-priori-assumption denotes propositional knowledge; something that comes beforehand without experience; something that is assumed to be true. The opposite is a posteriori assumption.
An assumption that is true without further proof or need to prove it. It is assumed the sun will come up tomorrow. However, it has a negative side: an a priori assumption made without question on the basis that no analysis or study is necessary, can be mental laziness when the reality is not so certain.
2a: being without examination or analysis: presumptive b: formed or conceived beforehand
Involving deductive reasoning from a general principle to a necessary effect; not supported by fact; “an a priori judgment” derived by logic, without observed facts based on hypothesis or theory rather than experiment
1) from a general law to a particular instance; valid independently of observation. 2) existing in the mind prior to and independent of experience, as a faculty or character trait. 3) not based on prior study or examination; non-analytic: an a priori judgment.
And now, moving toward a definition of the term in question, I would like to suggest that a Square B Christian is a follower of Christ who bases his/her belief of a particular issue on what, in legal terms, is called an “a priori judgment or assumption.”
Now, to be fair, there are many a priori assumptions that we make on daily basis …and with good reason. One example was cited above regarding the rising of the sun. But there is one question that I think should be obvious as we look at the additional points of our dictionary designations:
What if the a priori judgment or assumption, and the belief system based thereupon (lacking, not seeing the need for, or ignoring proper scrutiny), is wrong?
Let’s explore that question by using a hypothetical – or perhaps an analogous – situation that was once a widely accepted concept.
There was a day and an age in which many – but not all – people believed that the world was flat, and that if you went too far you would fall off the earth’s edge. This is an excellent example of an a priori judgment/assumption, and it’s quite easy to understand why some humans (among others of no scientific schooling, those who did not use spherical start-charts to navigate the world’s oceans) would assume this to be true. The curvature of the earth is very difficult to perceive of with the naked eye.
So, let’s go back in time for a moment, but for proper perspective later, not out of our current scientific understanding, as we look at this scenario.
Christian is an explorer. He has decided that he is going to set out to find the earth’s end. Because no one has accomplished this before, and because the knowledge of this “fact” by more recent findings have begun to cast doubt on this long-held idea, Christian has developed a great desire to be the one who once and for all finds the ends of the earth. Furthermore, would there not be a great deal of excitement associated with the task? Certainly the glory of this discovery, and the confirmation of a lifetime of “the facts,” satisfied by the tangible, is a worthy goal. Hence, Christian packs his exploration gear into his backpack and sets off to find the drop-off, his a priori assumption intact and also along for the mission, informing his every move and thought upon the subject.
Now, quite some time after Christian has launched his venture he arrives at some cliffs that allow him to see father than he’s ever seen before. He looks down, studying and contemplating the fog that is far below the cliff-line. He says to himself, “This must be it. This has to be the edge. I can see nothing further.” Christian is about to turn for home, having satisfied his curiosity, having discovered what no one has ever beheld when suddenly the fog dissipates revealing that there is still more land over which he must pass to reach his destination. So, with his a priori judgment/assumption firmly in place he resolutely sets out once more on his expedition to find the finish.
Each time Christian comes to a set of cliffs, he reaches the same conclusion. But once the fog below clears he is driven to move on. Over mountains, over barren lands, and over oceans Christian travels in pursuit of his goal.
But one day, not realizing that he has traversed the entire curvature of the earth, Christian arrives at the same set of cliffs that were his first discovery and stopping point.
What happens now is key to understanding the a priori judgment/assumption.
You see, Christian has been told all of his life that world is flat. In fact, according to his instruction from early childhood, any other belief is seen as non-truth, as going against what the inerrant Bible says about the earth’s four corners (Isaiah 11:12 KJV). Because Christian trusts those who taught him almost everything of what he knows about life and the Bible, he has to reach one conclusion …or face the unease of another.
But what of the experience Christian has had? Should he not consider that that there just might be “more ground to cover,” another premise to consider?
Will Christian allow the a priori judgment/assumption to keep its reign over him? If so, he will likely conclude that he must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, though the evidence seems to contradict that assessment. Surely the earth’s edge is still out there somewhere to be discovered, if he can just find the right path. After all, Christian has been taught to reach such conclusions no matter what the studied say, no matter what experience and reason have to offer. Everything else on the subject that the other voices proffer is horse pucky.
The second option – God forbid! – would simply be going too far. It is an option that has the potential to bring great discomfort on a personal level, and with others, including the Church. The second option is to call into question the a priori judgment or assumption – which up until this point, to Christian, has been hard fact. But to do that would mean that Christian has to think and to ask questions about things which everyone else around him already “knows,” rather than to trust blindly what he’s always been told.
What will Christian do? Will he bow to the larger part of what his culture demands, or will he set out on a quest of a different nature – one that will surely be frowned upon and considered apostasy by the believing masses that are still bound to the presupposition?
The other explorers that have gone before Christian have allowed their learned assumption to continue informing their every thought and action as it pertains to the world’s flatness. Many of them have stayed their quest. They’ve continued the search, while still others have given up. But rest assured, for those who are no longer in pursuit, their confidence is unshaken. After all, it’s what the Bible says that really matters – their mantra will ever be: “God-said-it-I-believe-it-that-settles-it!”
The problem for Christian and for the other explorers is that they have started at point B. Because of it, point A is a moot issue. Hence, they have never once stopped to inquire of point A : “Is it possible that what I’ve been taught is not right? Could it possibly be that my presumption, the foundation upon which my beliefs about the earth’s edge are built, is flawed?”
Surprisingly, the answer to which many explorers arrive is NO! Why would they question that about which they already have the definitive answer from the Bible? But what the explorers have not yet understood is that when your foundation is flawed, when you start at point B – data that has only been informed by an assumption not tested or tried – will likely cause the conclusions drawn from this starting point to also be in error. If only the explorer would go back to point A and ask oneself: “Is there any possibility – no matter what the source of the acuity – that my ‘knowledge’ that the world is flat is incorrect?”
When one begins to open one’s mind to the prospect that their foundation might be flawed, any data that is assimilated from that point on is not simply dismissed for the sole reason that it might stand in direct opposition to the once held a priori judgment or assumption, as it had been previously. One is then free to re-discover the Bible and the observed world, unfettered by an immovable a priori judgment/assumption that does not allow for any other interpretation to occur.
Now, before we return fully to our time, I would like to make mention of the fact that this has been the posture of the Church on a recurring basis down through its history. The Church has often constructed its beliefs upon ideas that are merely a priori, and that have not been tested by empirical evidence, but that are based on surface observation, by supposition, and more specifically, by what a surface and out-of-context reading of the Bible appears to be saying.
Such was the state of affairs for both Copernicus and Galileo who were condemned by the Church for the proliferation of the idea that the earth was not fixed (as the Bible seemed to indicate) and that it revolved around the sun instead of the opposite. Why would anyone trust science over the inerrant Word of God? Perhaps it would have something to do with an a priori assumption that the Bible is the final authority on science?
On that note, it may interest you to know that in 1992 the Roman Catholic Church issued a formal apology to Galileo for the Churches’ condemnation of him for carrying the Copernican Revolution forward. It may also fascinate you to find out that just last Saturday (Aug. 1, 2010) the Vatican exhumed, blessed, and reburied the bones of Copernicus in an attempt to make amends for putting him to death for what is today a known fact of our universe, arrived at by the same scientific methods that Copernicus (and later, Galileo) had come to utilize and trust 500 years ago.
Likewise, not much more than 200 years ago in this “Christian nation” the evangelical church argued, based on an a priori belief that it was part of God’s plan – again, according to their understanding of certain biblical passages – that slavery was an ordained order of life. To go against it was to go against God’s intention for certain segments of society. Today, however, having divorced ourselves from the a priori judgment/assumption that was once commonplace among our church forefathers and which was upheld as God’s standard, we look back and shake our heads in bewilderment and disgust. How is it, we wonder, that the Church could have arrived at such a debase way of looking at things?
Unfortunately, many more examples from our Christian past could be cited and brought to our attention here. But for the sake of expediency, let us now return fully to our day and age. But before we do, taking one more glance backwards, I think you’d agree with me that it is glaringly obvious where Christian, the other explorers, and our historical church forefathers went wrong. As we look back with 20/20 hindsight, we can recognize promptly that their a priori judgments/ assumptions were indeed in much need of re-examination. But I wonder: are some people of faith in this very day, age, culture and context capable of recognizing and calling into question any a priori judgments/assumptions under which the larger part of our Christian culture might be operating? It is an intimidating undertaking, to be sure.
If you would indulge me, I would like for us to turn our attention to an issue that I believe is being treated this very day in exactly the same manner with which the previously mentioned analogy and examples of our church-culture in eras gone by were dealt with. It is my conviction that an a priori judgment/ assumption is securely in place regarding an issue that has profoundly impacted and scarred my life, and the lives of countless dearly loved children of God.
When I was growing up, nurtured by my loving, Christ-centered family and a Christian heritage rooted in a denomination that I, to this day, dearly love, I learned early to have deep, deep affection for spiritual matters. It has always been my desire and my goal to be attentive to God, and to what God wants for human beings, in relationship to God and other persons. From day one, I have striven to be firmly planted on a spiritual plane that would lead me to a higher plateau – to health, wholeness, and to a life enriched with God’s blessing.
To this end, I prepared myself for a life in ministry in every way that I knew how. I participated in every aspect of church-life. As a teenager, when the rest of my family dropped out of church because of some precarious life-circumstances, I was the only one who stayed the course. I went to a private Christian college to hone my skill and to seek training for what I thought would be a lifetime of ministry in music and in Christian Education. Several years after my college career had ended and after my ministry had begun, I became an ordained pastor in the denomination my family and I had participated in as far back as 5 generations.
I did everything I knew to do to be pleasing and acceptable to my family, my Church, and to my God (and even to myself) …and yet it was never enough to free me from my prison and from a hell that the larger population will never fully understand without the benefit of experience.
I am gay …and I grew up hating and isolating myself to a closet of self-rejection, fear and shame because of Square B .
You see, I had heard all of my life that homosexuality is nothing but sickness and sin, a deviation from God’s plan. In fact, according to my instruction from early childhood, any other belief was seen as non-truth, as going against what the inerrant Bible says about intimate, love relationships between two people. Because I trusted those who taught me almost everything of what I knew about life and the Bible I had to arrive at a certain conclusion …or face the unease…
But isn’t there something extremely valuable to be said of the collective experience of tens of thousands of gay Christians? Have you ever really bent your ear and listened to their cries that there just might be “more ground to cover,” another premise to consider? Could it not be that you have started, and stopped, at Square B ?
I can already hear your words of protest. In fact, I have heard them a thousand times: “But the Bible says…!”
May I take this opportunity to remind you that that is exactly what the Churches’ response was to Copernicus and Galileo when they stumbled across their scientific findings as far back as 500 years ago? May I call your attention again to the fact that it was evangelical Christianity in the USA that championed the fight for the “God-given right” to hold slaves, based on what the Bible said?
If we had more time, we could also talk about anti-Semitism, or the oppression and subjugation of women. We could talk about interracial marriage, or African-American civil rights. We could discuss numerous other issues down throughout our Church history in which an a priori judgment/assumption had been made based on a very poor (literal, surface, out-of-context/ out-of-historic-culture) interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. But let’s save those issues for another time.
The issue at hand is pervasive enough.
I ask you today: will you allow the a priori judgment/assumption to keep its reign over you? Will you conclude that my gay brothers and sisters and I have taken a wrong turn somewhere, though all the empirical evidence conclusively seems to contradict that assessment? Will you persist in you argument that “the cure” is out there waiting to be discovered, if we can just renounce our “sinful choices” and find the right path. Will you continue to accept blindly what you’ve always heard, even though because of it much harm is being done to thousands of God’s beloved? Will you carry on in the insistence that your interpretation is THE correct understanding of scripture without looking, in fear and trembling, at any other perspective?
It saddens me that Christians have been taught to discount the conclusions of the studied when it behooves them to do so. But when it suits their purposes, when it fits their world-view, look out! They will trample right over you while holding their banner of “truth and love.” How is it that Christians hold in such high regard the “secular” Magi that studied the stars and knew to follow them to Bethlehem, celebrating them from year to year, but when it comes to an issue such as homosexuality, reason, experience, and the very best of empirical evidence from those who study the genes, hormones, brain differences, and other influencing factors, that which the “other voices” have to say, is perceived as nothing more than horse pucky?
I do realize that what I am asking of you has the potential to bring you great discomfort …on a personal level, with others, and with the Church. But I believe that the only viable option is to call into question the a priori judgment or assumption – which up until this point, to much of Christendom, has been hard fact. And yes, I realize, too, that this undertaking would mean that people of faith will have to think and ask questions about things of which many others around them already “know” the answers, rather than to trust blindly what we’re accustomed to hearing.
Christian? What will you do? Will you bow to the larger part of what your religious culture demands, or will you set out on a quest of a different nature – one that will surely be frowned upon and considered apostasy by the believing masses that are still bound to the presupposition?
I’m begging you on behalf of my gay family: don’t do as those who have gone before you have done. Don’t allow your trained assumption to continue informing your every thought and action as it pertains to faith and homosexuality. Please reconsider the staying of your current stance.
If you are one, as I was, that has been raised and reared by the “God-said-it-I-believe-it-that-settles-it!” band of believers, would you not agree with me that you’d better make sure, damn sure, as a fallible created being, that your interpretation of God’s Word is not in error?
I have to be honest and say that as a former pastor in the Church of the Nazarene, as I look back over my ministry and training, I am appalled at how often I allowed myself to start from Square B – completely ignoring the point that lay before it. Because I did so, because I did not see the value and the necessity of going back to Square A , and because I allowed the a priori assumption to have control over my every thought and conclusion on the gay issue, many people in my life suffered a great blow.
I can never again allow myself to be a Square B Christian. I will never again just assume that I have all the answers based on a few Bible passages that I just might have interpreted improperly, read at a surface level only, or have somehow taken out of historical-cultural context and, instead, have imposed upon them mine.
I don’t have a great many answers anymore. Honestly, I have a good deal fewer than I thought I did as a pastor, and as a participant in a legalistic, fear-based, religious, church-culture that claims to have them all based on what the Bible says – or, in the very least, what people think it says. I do have some answers that I believe I can hold onto despite what the majority still says – some very important answers that directly affect my life and the lives of countless LGBT individuals.
I will never again claim to have them all, however, and I distrust those who say they do, or that say they know beyond a shadow of doubt on subjects they’ve never experienced on an intra-personal level, or perhaps by thorough association with those who have.
Today, I have turned over a new leaf. I have given my life over to becoming, and staying, a Square A Christian. Will you join me?
Hi, new friend,
I’m Rick James. I am a passionate follower of Christ who lives in the mile high city of Denver, Colorado. Among other things, I enjoy riding my bike, hiking in the mountains, singing with a local male chorus, participating in ministry with two metropolitan-area churches, and helping people understand a very complex and controversial issue that faces us today.
A former pastor of Worship Arts and Christian Education, I recently began a new life of openness, honesty, transparency, authenticity, and integrity. One would think that those would be a given as a Christian, and especially as a pastor. But, for a certain constituency of persons among those who share my conservative Christian heritage, this is very hard to achieve and to have, at the same time, the level of love, support, and understanding that we need to live courageously in the kind of life I described above.
The world is beginning to open its eyes to this fact, however, and is slowly changing. The same Spirit that – among New Testament believers – erased the division between Jew and Gentile is moving among us again, opening hearts and minds. Yes, God is pouring out His Spirit on a people who are viewed in much the same way as early Jewish Christians regarded the Gentiles. Lines are being erased. People of great diversity are being united in communion at God’s banquet table.
Thank God that His ways are higher than our ways.