“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2)
If you are committed to the life of the mind or serious inquiry you will probably find that some of the questions that challenge your faith the most come while spending time alone doing research. And in academe, there are ample opportunities for solitude.
In my case, one such moment took place in the rare books room of the main library for the university from which I received my master’s degree. As is the case with most graduate students writing a thesis or dissertation, I found out the hard way the importance of endurance and the ability to accept delayed gratification. As I worked on my thesis I could go for weeks without talking to my advisor, so I spent a lot of time with my research and my thoughts for company.
The rare books room housed a small collection of papers that included manuscripts of sermons and essays written by the man who was the subject of my thesis. The papers had been lent to the university library by their owners after decades of gathering dirt and serving as nourishment for rodents in an old attic, and I was quite excited to have access to them. Among the papers was the manuscript for an article that the person about whom I was writing published in a national periodical in the late nineteenth century. The article dealt with a sociopolitical question that was, at the time it was written, a topic of contentious national discussion. Because I had both the handwritten manuscript and the published version, I was able to compare what the author wrote with what ended up published for the magazine’s readers.
As I sat staring at a potentially controversial paragraph in the manuscript that was stricken through and that I did not remember seeing in the published version of the piece, I remembered a conversation I had years before with a friend of mine about the Pauline epistles and how easy it was to wonder whether something as mundane as a letter could be verbally inspired by God. I believed at the time of the conversation that the Bible is inspired, and I continued to as I sat in the library. But at the same time, something about sitting with a manuscript left unread for years and pondering what was cut from it—and why—renewed the question my friend had raised in a far more tangible sense than simply discussing it in his home. Suddenly, all of the footnotes in my NIV translation of the Bible pointing out that various verses “do not appear in the most reliable manuscripts” seemed like more than simply informational appendages. “What, really, was the difference between what I was doing and what Bible scholars did?” I wondered. Why were the “original manuscripts” of Scripture any more Holy Writ than any other manuscript by any other person? Whether a piece of writing in question was 90 or 2,000 years old, someone composed it, and others who may or may not have had access to the original work—or firsthand knowledge of its provenance—evaluated it. This time I was to be the person who evaluated and constructed from manuscripts and other sources the type of narrative that I had been reading in history books for years. While the prospect was thrilling in the way that perhaps only a dork can understand, it also seemed pretty unmiraculous. Sitting and evaluating a manuscript somehow took the mystique away from the process. I know that my thoughts on Scripture were far from original, but for me they took on a new dimension because that day in the library I was no longer simply observing a discipline—which is what an undergraduate in my field does for the most part—but training to become a professional practitioner of it. As that transition began, the practice of my field seemed a bit less lofty and mysterious. The more historians become immersed in historical research and the pertinent secondary literature, the more we question the solidity behind what we know as facts, let alone the interpretation of them. It makes sense that at some point, a Christian historian would wonder whether or not the Bible, recorded and passed down to us through the mundane processes of textual transmission, could really be any different.
Ridiculous though it may seem for a late twentieth-century student in his mid-twenties studying race relations in the nineteenth century United States to entertain the fleeting thought that he had somehow exposed Scripture as some sort of humbug, similar thoughts cross the minds of people throughout the academy. “Experts” and “specialists” are prone to using their knowledge of one field to conclude that they have unlocked the metaphysical and philosophical mysteries of the ages. Many academics have made second careers out of the practice. We are aware of some of the more blatant examples of this sort of reductionism, but even some who want to bridge the alleged gap between faith and reason argue that the pursuit of knowledge is inherently akin to Toto pulling the curtain back to reveal the wizard desperately trying to maintain his ruse. “A certain element of disenchantment may be the price we pay for freedom from the darker excesses of True Belief,” claims one author groping to connect wonder and skepticism (Chet Raymo, Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection Between Science and Religion (New York: Walker and Company, 1999, p. 46). No wonder many Christians seem scared of the academic world.
So what did I conclude from all of this? More on Sunday.