I started to question my faith at least by junior high. I still vaguely remember arguing with a friend who was a year older – he was in a Catholic high school and I was in a public junior high. We were basically arguing the free will issue and whether it could exist if God knew everything . It came up because that was something they were discussing in his freshman high school religion class. It wasn’t something we did often – and in fact it may have just been that one time with that particular friend. But I do recall feeling, that I set my friend straight that the Christian perspective couldn’t work and excited to attend the same Catholic High School and take this up with the teacher.
And it all came to pass splendidly. I did discuss/argue this with the teacher at that Catholic High School. And the thing is I think the teacher enjoyed the argument and discussions as much as I did. Of course, he was probably very happy to have a student engage the material. And I was happy to find some school material I wanted to engage.
But I certainly never thought any questions were out of bounds for any of my Catholic teachers. And I have to say my experience with adults in the Catholic Church tended to be that way. It could be that I would pick out adults with a interest in the philosophical. I guess if just blindly picked people my experience wouldn’t be so good. But as it was, I never had the experiences many seem to have had where the adults in their Church just want to avoid the tough questions.
In my experience Catholics tend to fall in two camps when it comes to these philosophical questions. Camp one: I will give them a big analysis of how God couldn’t exist and they will shrug and say “yeah maybe.” Camp two: I give the analysis and they will share their own arguments pro and/or con. But I don’t recall every getting the Aretha Franklin “Don’t you blaspheme in here, don’t you BLAAAASPHEME in here!”
In my opinion this is good. But of course it does mean it was easy for me to fall away from the faith. And I did. I never decided to declare I was an atheist, but I certainly didn’t go to church on Sunday or particularly care about what the church thought was sin. But my love of philosophy never faded. So I majored in it and took classes in epistemology and philosophy of religion, reasoning and logic etc. I spent quite a bit of time reading, learning and thinking about philosophical issues.
About the time of College I started hearing all sorts of odd views from protestants on Christianity (“Faith alone” “actions don’t matter” etc etc.) and atheists. And all of them would have bits and pieces of scripture that would seem to support their views. So I really started to question if I knew what Christianity even was. Whatever they were talking about seemed foreign. I knew quite a bit of scripture from the times I went to mass but did the church leave big parts out?
So what to do? I wasn’t interested enough to read all 73 books of bible. And I knew Paul’s letters were there to address specific concerns of churches. I decided to read a Gospel. After all it is through the gospels that we learn about Jesus and spread the faith. It is through the Gospels that we learn the most about Jesus. But which Gospel?
Mark doesn’t have the wonderful “Sermon on the Mount” like Matthew, nor the “Prodigal Son” or “Good Samaritan” like Luke. And it doesn’t have the adulteress or any of the wonderfully poetic and touching narratives in John. But it did have one thing that was the most important at the time. It was short enough to easily be read it in one sitting. I had no excuse.
I still remember some trepidation at the time not knowing what this gospel would say. Would it have what I considered some pretty nutty doctrines atheists and protestants were espousing? Was I really that ignorant? I had to find out. So I read it, with the intention of learning about Jesus’s life and what he wanted us to learn according to Christian Scripture.
What did I think? First, it is beautiful. The narrative is fantastic for any time but especially when compared to other ancient writings. Second, it depicted the Jesus I grew up learning about in Catholic Churches and Schools. I followed up with the other Gospels. There were no surprises and I definitely felt my Catholic upbringing accurately represented Jesus and his teachings. I found many protestant and atheist views were very hard to square with what Jesus taught in the Gospels. I now understand why protestants often appeal to other parts of the new testament (such as Paul’s letters) and atheists appeal to the old testament.
As a Catholic we have scriptural readings that we rotate through every three years. You can know what scripture Catholics read every day around the world at church by picking up a missal or looking here online. I believe Catholics read from a Gospel every Sunday, if not every day. So we tend to cover the Gospels and therefore Jesus pretty thoroughly.
Although I can’t quote chapter and verse by heart, I can often tell what the story is by the name of the gospel general chapter number which is announced, and the first sentence or two as well as the prior readings. Catholics who try to attend mass on Sundays and pay attention will learn the Gospels and therefore what Jesus taught.
Now that I go to mass every Sunday I am often amazed how the priest will have a new insight into the same text. Often it is how passage might relate to our lives, but it also could be based on how the Greek is translated, or its connection with Old Testament scripture, or history, or just a small detail in the text.
Lately I have been introduced to some podcasts from Travis They take a more secular approach to the Scripture and I know at least one is an atheist. But they all seem to also have a great appreciation for the Gospels and an interest in what deeper meanings the writers may be trying to convey. I have been blasting through them and really enjoying them.
Of course, I am familiar with the historical Jesus research and especially Dr. Ehrman’s popular work which I recommend to people as well. But with all due respect to Dr. Ehrman I think he often misses the forest for the trees. Why are the gospels so important? I suggest it is not because we can find inconsistencies between the gospels or from copies of the gospels. All of that is interesting and worth being taught. But I think if you had a teacher teach you Shakespeare and the majority of his focus was on picking nits of plot inconsistencies and whether the copies accurately reflect what Shakespeare wrote, you would be missing out. Of course, Dr. Ehrman was a Moody Bible institute graduate and so his background does suggest his approach. Nevertheless, when I listened to his classes he starts out saying these texts are hugely important to human history. And I agree they are. But I don’t think his class really conveyed how that came to be.
What is my point? Read a Gospel. But don’t read it with the intent of trying to nit-pick flaws or justify doctrine or politics. Just read what happened to Jesus and try to understand what Jesus is trying to teach us. And then, regardless of your religion or lack of religion, you will begin to understand why Jesus has had such an impact in human history.