It's that time of the year again, when discussion of the virgin conception of Jesus is revisited. A new book by Andrew Lincoln, Born of a Virgin? Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology, has highlighted the issue even more than usual this year. I have not read the book, but have skimmed a few reviews. In the midst of the debate, I think Bishop William Willimon's perspective is worth considering. I offer it as one more voice.
A young man came in to see me and said that he thought he was losing his faith. I asked him about his major. "Philosophy," he said.
"That explains it," I said. You've been running around with the wrong crowd. But what is this 'faith' that you are losing?"
"I no longer believe in the virgin birth of Jesus," he said.
Well, what is it? Tuesday? I seem to believe in the virgin birth today, but who knows where I'll be on Wednesday? The point is not what you or I happen to believe, it's what the church believes, the Bible asserts. Relax, maybe it will come to you when you are older."
"But how can I be a Christian when I can't believe this doctrine?" he persisted.
"Look, I hate to tell you, but the virgin birth is not the strangest thing we are going to ask you to believe."
"Really. No, next we're going to ask you to turn the other cheek rather than turn violent, to look across a communion table and believe these strangers are sisters and brothers, to start thinking that the poor and the outcasts are really royalty. We start you out on the virgin birth because we think if you can believe that without choking, we can eventually get you to swallow the really important, really essential stuff about Jesus."
Come to us and we will, as our theological statement says, open up your little heart and mind and slap you with possibilities they don't tell you about on the 6:30 news.
We can only act within a world we envision. The modern world, with its rather myopic world view, tends to produce people who make small, cautious moves in life because their vision doesn't reach much further than the limits of their own egos. So most of us settle down and keep low. Even little moves scare us.
Our main problem is not to "clean up" the Bible so that it is worthy of being affirmed by a skeptical modern world. Rather, our chief task is the formation of a faithful people worthy of the Bible.... The modern mind likes to think of itself as open-minded. In reality, the modern mind has flattened the universe to a one-dimensional, human-centered reality
In our... preaching, in our reading and study of the Bible, when it is at its best, it is a wonderful, devastating encounter with the living God. A collision, something akin to a scroll being discovered after being long hidden in a wall. (William H. Willimon, Why I Am a United Methodist).
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)