This will be a short post, partially due to the fact that I am overwhelmed with studies for comprehensive exams next month, and partially because there are already so many brilliant posts on SoF that I would encourage others to read those instead of my terse prose.
I want to reflect most briefly, however, on the news that Rev. Peter Gomes, the chaplain of Harvard Memorial Chapel, passed away yesterday (Monday). Two excellent obituaries have already been published by the Harvard Crimson and the New York Times, and I can hardly add to these. What I can do, though, is share how influential this man’s writings have been to me.
I was raised in a Southern Baptist church in South Carolina. I fell in love with the Bible at an early age and found a deep faith in god that has grown throughout my life. Like many of us, my faith has taken some unexpected turns. I was, on more than one occasion, chastised in Sunday school for asking “too many questions” and told more than a few times, “you are not allowed to ask that question.” Among these occasions was when I asked “If god is perfect love, perfect grace, and perfect forgiveness, then how can god condemn one of god’s creatures to burn in hell forever?” Another one I recall – “If god is omnipotent (all-powerful), then how can the devil have power that is not god’s power?” And another – “If god is omnipresent (i.e., present everywhere), then is god in hell?” – The response was not “read Psalm 139:8.” Rather, the Sunday school teacher said “that is not a pertinent question” and another student in the class quipped “you should go and find out” – everyone, including the teacher, laughed. Most people in my church seemed to go to church to find answers, not god. They wanted to feel safe, comfortable, and justified. They did not understand, nor strive to understand, why Mary, Mary, and Salome were terrified in Mark 16.
I started to lose interest in church, but not my faith in god, and not my faith in the Bible. But I did decide to pursue other interests. I double-majored in music and finance in college (not religion). I moved to New York to work on Wall Street. I found a church where no question was off limits and, through questioning, my faith deepened rather than waned. I still didn’t know quite what to do with the Bible, though. Then someone gave me a copy Peter Gomes’ The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart.
I felt as if my eyes were opened. Gomes describes the difference between lovingly studying the Bible and worshiping the Bible – coining the term “Bibliolatry”. I began to understand what god said to Isaiah, that people hear but do not understand, they look but do not see—a verse quoted by Jesus in each of the four gospel accounts and repeated at the very end of Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. With Gomes’ help, I began to see the Bible not as a book that is to be carried around, revered, and worshipped, but as a library written by seekers describing their path of faith seeking understanding. I began to see the Bible not as a reference book filled with answers, but as a sacred guide filled with questions.
Gomes’ book opened my eyes and set me on a path that led me to seminary and lifelong questioning and seeking. This is a path where no question is off limits, where questions deepen faith rather than stifle it. Peter Gomes the man has passed away – but his message shall continue to be passed along.
Oh, and one final note – if you are at all a fan of Stephen Colbert, you may enjoy his interview with Peter Gomes: Colbert Nation 9/15/2008