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The snow at my feet suddenly started flying. I was trudging in bright sunlight through Glacier National Park with a friend in late February. Then I realized that it wasn’t the snow but a pair of Ptarmigan invisible against a glaring white background who took off as we approached. Yes, the disruption was startling, but we both responded with silent smiles. Who would break the quiet of a wintry day?
I’m always perplexed by the question of whether I believe in the Bible. A stranger asked me that question just the other day. It’s not an easy question to answer.
I don’t “believe in the Bible.” I’m not even sure what the question means; the Bible is a text written over the course of a millennium, during which cultures, language and thinking changed. I don't, in other words, believe in a static book.
I don’t believe “in” the Bible, because it is first a catalogue of experiences that had a powerful impact on people, who in turn recorded them as startling disruptions in the snow for the next generations. I believe through the Bible as a result of studying it in depth and imagining those experiences that caused people to speak and write about something or someone they identified as “God.”
I see the text as the glaring snow and the Ptarmigan as one I couldn’t see in advance who has fluttered and flown away at my approach. An elusive presence, flighty and impossible to pin down, and yet real if not directly tangible. To shift the analogy slightly, an elusive presence like the kestrel on a wire who constantly flies just ahead of you when you are cycling along a road. You can see that bird, but you cannot trap it, and he will not sit still for you.
Such musings pose a fundamental question; namely, what does it mean to believe, period? The word is from Old English and originally meant to accept something as valuable or satisfactory, to have faith or confidence in something or someone. It is kin to German lieben, “to love.”
I guess you can say you love the Bible if you mean that you care about its contents at a deep level. But as our grammar-school teachers taught us, we don't love things, we love people. Or God, who comes to us personally, depicted as such throughout that flock of writings about human experience.
I don't “believe” in the bird carcasses I have held in my hands, but in the lively fowl who flies up at my footfall and startles me. Yes, the carcass is there, and it is valuable for research, but it is not a real or full experience of the bird. That you can only have with the living animal who flies free.
As so often, I turn to the poets for help, in this case to R. S. Thomas, a priest of the Anglican Church of Wales who served rural parishes for most of his long ministry and wrestled with God throughout his life. He spoke Welsh but wrote his poems in English.
History showed us
He was too big to be nailed to the wall
Of a stone chapel, yet still we crammed him
Between the boards of a black book.
Like Thomas, despite the agony of unknowing, I won’t do that. No bird in a gilded cage. I will continue to search the snow or the sky for the free bird who flies away just before I’m able to lay my hands on him. Happy Christmas season.
Fr. Gabriel Rochelle is pastor of St Anthony of the Desert Orthodox Mission, Las Cruces. Visit stanthonylc.org.