Ignorance and Infallibility
Well, it’s been an interesting week, theologically speaking. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, informed us that God has given Donald Trump the authority to use nuclear weapons against North Korea, which, I don’t know about you, but comes as a huge relief to me. I’m so glad that’s settled. I’ve been wondering for years where God was on the nuclear bomb issue, but apparently Robert Jeffress and God sat down and talked about it and now we know where God stands on the matter. To his credit, Robert Jeffress has been thinking a great deal about this. His most recent book, Countdown to the Apocalypse: Why Isis and Ebola Are Only the Beginning, is a cheerful little read that tells us how we can survive the apocalypse he seems determined to jump start.
I met Robert Jeffress at a book convention early in our writing careers. We got to talking and he asked me what I believed, so I told him I believed in the freedom of conscience and marriage equality. It was, as you might imagine, a very brief conversation. I wanted to ask him if he knew my great-uncle John, who belonged to his church, but was an old-fashioned Baptist who believed in soul freedom, as Baptists did back in the day, before the fundamentalists seized power and booted out everyone who didn’t agree with them, including my great-uncle, a wise and kind man who knew tyranny when he saw it.
I encountered my first fundamentalist in my early 20’s, when a man asked me if I believed the Bible was infallible, which is to say incapable of being wrong, and I said no, I did not, and his head exploded right then and there. It was amazing. One minute his head was there, then poof, it was gone! I suspect most of you have been set upon by someone wanting to get you right with the Lord. But have you noticed what I have? Whenever anyone claims infallibility they are usually insisting the status quo continue, and that status quo always keeps them in power and others out. There is no finer tool than infallibility to sustain the status quo, which always serves those in power. Any suggestion for change, any fresh idea, any effort to reshuffle the deck towards justice and equality hits a brick wall. This is God’s will. The Bible is clear on this matter. The tradition is without error. God has spoken. We must obey. These pronouncements are often said with a tone of regret that suggests they would change the rules if it were up to them, but alas, their hands are tied. God has spoken.
The advocates of infallibility claim it protects the church from error, as if modern people are incapable of discerning truth so must rely on the wisdom of ancient people who believed the world was flat and seizures were caused by demons. They have no confidence that thoughtful men and women can decide matters for themselves. This is why infallibility, at its heart, is not the defense of truth, but the protection of ignorance.
I appreciate what Thomas Jefferson had to say about infallibility, when he wrote to the Virginia attorney and historian, Samuel Kercheval, on July 12, 1816: “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in law and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind, as that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change. With the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as [require] civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
That is precisely what the doctrine of infallibility does. It drapes us in the garb of our spiritual and moral infancy and even as we outgrow it, forbids us from donning a more suitable garment, saying it is God’s will that we remain as we have always been. When we question those “preferences” of God, we are accused of doubt and heresy, the twin sins of the enlightened and thoughtful everywhere, and are admonished to return to the truth. Ultimately, what infallibility requires is our commitment to ignorance. It demands our steadfast refusal to study matters more closely, more critically, lest the wizard behind the curtain be revealed and we discover he had nothing to do with God and everything to do with his own authority.
Worse yet, infallibility enshrines not only the occasional good law, but the many cruel ones by justifying the continued maltreatment of the “other,” which apparently now includes killing them with nuclear bombs. Just recently, in Charlottesville, Virginia, we saw the commitment to ignorance require a fabricated history when the alt-right, neo-Nazis, and the KKK gathered to protest the so-called discrimination visited upon them. Like all forms of infallibility, their claims are based on distorted history and false assumptions. They are under the mistaken impression that white people suffered the burden of slavery for 250 years, that while people endured Jim Crow laws for 100 years, that white people now have a one in three chance of imprisonment.
This doctrine of infallibility, this poison of certainty, is a disease of the heart and mind that for too many years has snuffed out of the flickering light of fresh thought and freedom, doggedly preserving the status quo, all in the name of God, who apparently has nothing more to say. This is the real crime of infallibility─it not only prohibits our thinking a new thought, and becoming a new people, it prohibits God from offering it. Thus, infallibility might be the gravest sin of all─the world telling God to be silent, that we have nothing more to learn and God has nothing more to say.
But there is an antidote to the diseases of certainty and infallibility, and that is to test all claims. Scrutinize what you are ordered to believe. Don’t be cowed by robes or stained glass or big Bibles or power or tradition.
Don’t tremor when thunderous voices are raised, pulpits are pounded, and hatred is amplified. Indeed, that is the time to resist, for truth and volume are inversely related, when truth is shakiest, the volume is loudest.
Friends, this week a pastor in Dallas prayed for the end of this world and the return of Jesus. Others in our nation, steeped in anger, propagated their vile blend of bigotry and bias.
Let’s you and I separate the wheat of wisdom from the chaff of ignorance. Let’s you and I pray that the Spirit, like a mighty wind, will sweep ignorance, intolerance, and insanity from our land, that God’s Kingdom might come on Earth, as it has in Heaven.