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Ethics and Religion Talk: Do Archeological or Historical/Linguistic Discoveries Affect Your Faith?

Can you give any examples of such discoveries or developments that may have led you to look at things in a different way?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

It is hard for me to think that anyone “of a certain age” alive today can hold to the same religious beliefs that they did decades ago, given the vast amount of new archeological, historical, and linguistic evidence that has surfaced in recent years. This would seem to affect all ancient world faiths. Can you give any examples of such discoveries or developments that may have led you to look at things in a different way?

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“My faith is not the same as it was forty-plus years ago! My relationship with God has grown and deepened beyond my wildest imagination.

“I cannot say that my faith changed because of new archeological, historical, or linguistic evidence. My relationship with God has deepened because I take time daily to meditate and pray. God speaks persistently but quietly. To hear God’s voice requires spending time in silence.

“One of my most memorable faith-filled experiences was viewing the Dead Sea Scrolls at The Field Museum in Chicago in 2000. I was mesmerized by the items on display. I realized it was fellow believers who wrote down the words I viewed. Still, this was more an experience of faith than of recent discoveries.”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“Unitarian Universalists would agree that the experience of life, years on the planet would cause our beliefs to evolve over time. I grew up in household with two devout Catholics for my parents. At age six I struggled with the need for confession. If God knew everything, why would I need to tell a priest about my behavior. I questioned the Trinity, I believed God was God and that Jesus and the Holy Spirit were separate from God. I started to believe in the science of Big Bang Theory over the story in Genesis.

“In my late twenties when I discovered Unitarian Universalism, I learned there were other people like me who questioned their faith. It wasn’t that one person was wrong and the other person was right, it was that we had different beliefs.”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“Not only do I agree with the premise mentioned here, it is shared by most every Hindu whom I know. Constantly reevaluating one’s beliefs with the light of new knowledge is considered a virtue, not a shortcoming. As with many ancient religions, aside from the great wisdom that has been passed down through generations, superstitions and cultural biases can creep in to corrupt traditions to some degree. I admire people who embrace ideas and narratives that challenge preconceived ideas that may be hindering spiritual and emotional growth.

“I see competing movements striving to be embraced by people of faith. One seeks to maintain domination by enforcing strict dogmas upon the flock. Any derivation from what is considered orthodox is met with suspicion or outright scorn. Another encourages a complete freeing of the mind and abandoning the beliefs of the past. A 3rd option is something of which I see a great deal. And that is a sort of sweeping under the carpet of doctrines, practices and scriptural passages that are problematic to the modern mind. They are not challenged or dismissed, merely somewhat ignored.”

Imam Kip Curnutt, Director of Religious Education and Associate Imam of Masjid At-Tawheed in Grand Rapids, responds:

“For me, I have not found that new developments in science our archeology have had any effect on my beliefs or level of certainty. My understanding of religion, especially in my own tradition, is that it makes very few scientific claims. Rather its domain is the moral and the metaphysical, two areas that are not easily affected by changing understandings of the material world. I think it is a great intellectual mistake of our age to allow the great leaps in material science to influence use into giving material science reign over non material domains. I think the impulse to allow archeological discoveries to override inherited historical traditions is a result of the same trend. Historical claims about ancient history based upon archeology are highly speculative and the result of interpretations that are not at all decisive. I am more inclined to understand ancient history based upon traditions inherited by ancient people rather than the interpretation of what little scraps of material are left from their time.”

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“I can add to your experience in life by introducing myself as a Presbyterian who 71 years after his baptism into the Presbyterian Church still believes in the great truths taught in Scripture and summarized in the Westminster Standards. I understand them better, of course, and believe them more deeply, and they have been illuminated and confirmed by years of experience. A philosophy professor was shocked to discover that my Presbyterianism remained intact and unmodified even after four years at an Ivy League university. He despaired of ever converting me to Logical Positivism, and he was right.

“As a minister of the Word, I was introduced to many of these archeological, historical, and linguistic discoveries in seminary. I have tried to keep abreast with them to the present time. In the popular press these matters are sensationalized, and give rise to much speculation. Much that is reported as new is in fact something known in the past, and its significance is greatly inflated. Unlike rocket science or atomic energy, there have been few substantial discoveries or advances in Christian theology or our knowledge of the Bible in the last one hundred years. Reformers such as Luther and Calvin made more progress and fostered more progress in their lifetimes than we have seen in all the centuries that followed the Reformation.

“The Dead Sea Scrolls are a case in point. It was thrilling to have these manuscripts unearthed (about the same time that I began my Presbyterian pilgrimage!) but the upshot was only to confirm that the text of the Hebrew Bible has been faithfully preserved across two millennia in a way that can rightly be called miraculous, at least those parts of it represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls. As for the Greek New Testament, while a study of its variant readings is instructive to a point, nothing has come to light which would compel us to revise a line or a word in the Apostles’ Creed or the Westminster Confession of Faith.”

My response:

My faith does not depend on archeology confirming the Bible, and although I want to understand the meaning of the Bible as closely as possible to the way the framers of the passages intended, my faith and practice are not strictly determined by the “original intent.” It is important to understand how and where the Bible departs from the actual events of history, but since the purpose of the Biblical narrative is to teach moral lessons, not historical lessons, discoveries regarding the history of the ancient Near East do not change the lessons. The single biggest factors that have influenced my religious faith have been the changing sociological realities in the contemporary world, regarding the role of women, sexual orientation, and understanding of gender.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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