Here’s how it works:
You’re young, dumb and full of evangelical fervour and you discover some truths. Moral laws as immutable – as far as you’re concerned – as the fact Jesus loves you and died for your sins. Some things are right, some things are wrong and it’s fairly clear where almost all of human life falls as far as those categories are concerned.
You live a little. Do some things. Stuff happens. You find that some of the things you categorised as bad are actually pretty nice to do. More than that, you discover that some of the people who do them are really lovely. Things get awkward. There are shifting sands lapping at the edges of your moral foundations. You sweep them away and hold onto the truth.
You read a little more widely, talk to smart people, try to engage more deeply with the Bible, and find that some truths stand up better to scrutiny than others. You admit you were wrong about things. Your theology changes. Your attitude to others softens a little. You start making a small space on that concrete foundation for the interesting, ever-movable sands to play. Not a big space, but enough to feel you’re able to grow, keeping an open mind.
Not everybody has made that space, though, and as you listen to them shouting with the same stone-rigid certainty that you remember in yourself, you either sweep a little of the sand away or you react badly. You wonder if there’s any point in standing on these foundations at all. As the sands of open-mindedness (or relativism, depending on your perspective) close in on your foothold, you wonder if there really is much of a foundation to speak of at all. Are there really any moral laws beyond the obvious commands not to hurt people? I mean, who are we to say what is a ‘sin’ and what is not? We stop using the word so much. We look back with a mixture of embarrassment and oddly orientated guilt at the time when we did.
We mix with other Christians who are past all that and we do good works and we pray and we help people and we laugh at people for whom the world is black and white.
And then one day we open the Bible at the beginning again. Almost out of interest. And it tells us that the serpent says to the woman: “Did God actually say…?”
It really doesn’t matter how the rest of the sentence goes. The serpent still opens his argument that way. Today.
And while there are many things we believe in our early days as Christians that are functions more of our age, our mindset, our need to define our own egos in a religious and group context, there are many things that we believe then that are actually true.
There is a place for renewal and reformation. There is much wisdom in seeing the spiritual life as having stages during which different attitudes and even theologies are appropriate. And the work of separating out God’s will and Scriptural truth from cultural bias and religious prejudice is always important.
But sometimes we are just infants, railing against rules we don’t like, shouting: “But I want this! Why can’t I have it?!” And that’s when the serpent can come with his perennial question. “Did God actually say…?”
Sometimes, the truthful answer will be ‘no’. But if we are to be lovers of truth and followers of Christ, we need to be open to the possibility that the answer is ‘yes’. That the things we always thought were wrong are wrong indeed. That truths are sometimes true.