Sunday, July 24, 2011

Reading the Bible (for the rest of us)

One of the main mental walls that I keep hitting as of late is this: if everything we believe about the Bible is ultimately based on assumptions (including the assumption that it's Gods revelation to man), is there really much to be gained from studying it? If I can't be sure if "God did this" or "Jesus said that" what is the point of trying to apply it to my life or help others apply it to theirs?

As I've said before, most people at this point simply give way to atheism and secular humanism (which I guess would be in line for me to do seeing as people already consistently ask me whether I'm an atheist or not). However I still feel there is more to this than I am seeing, or at the very least other possible alternatives. The first being that if there is anything to be gained from studying the Bible, I think it needs to extend beyond the old perspective of it being God's revelation---more specifically God's 100% inerrant and infallible Word. For if it is God's Word, then I'd say we are doomed to be lost within the never-ending halls of interpretative guess-work. What I mean by that is such a conclusion forces us to undergo a tireless process of guessing which translation is most accurate in regards to the original "God-breathed" manuscripts, which we obviously don't have. Then after that, guessing what the original intent of the each text was, which is hard to determine given that all the authors died 1,800 years ago or more. And lastly, guessing what the application to your life is which is usually influenced by particular pastors, authors and theologians (and of course you have to guess which ones are dispensing "Biblical truth").

Of course, to make this process sound easy we're told all this can be done by following the Holy Spirit's guidance, which was always the litmus test I banked on in the past. But it doesn't take a seminary student to notice that many devout Bible believers in several denominations all claim to follow the Holy Spirit, yet come to several different conclusions. And the few central conclusions those denominations have are probably only still shared because there are simply some things you're not allowed to question (like the deity of Christ). So if the Bible is the divine product of God, the honest inquirer has to wonder if He was serious about the part that states that God is not the "author of confusion"(1 Corinthians 14:33)? "Confusion" would indeed seem to be a fitting word for the common approach to the Bible.

I will note here, however, that despite the seeming complexity of this old perception of the Bible, many Christians seem to be just fine with it. They simply don't see it to be as messy as I have laid out. And for those people I would say there is probably no real reason to change their perception if they feel it works for them. Yet for those of us that have grown weary of that perception, I'd say there needs to be an alternative approach in order for the Bible to still play a vital and honest role in our lives. So I'm going to attempt to lay a very basic framework for just such an approach, based on what I've thought about so far:

I make my first point by noting that the old perception of the Bible as God's word is obviously very much concerned with historical accuracy. For if God put historically inaccurate information in his Word, He must be a liar and not trustworthy Himself (or so the logic goes). So for those of us who no longer think it is entirely historical are often confused on what exactly to make of stories that seem only likely or true in part. The solution though is rather simple if we are willing to look for truth in the metaphorical sense rather than the literal or historical sense. Adam and Eve, for example, don't have to be actual people who existed and conversed with a talking snake for them to be an allegory representing humanity. Adam and Eve can easily represent humanity's inclination to trade a God-experience for deceptive promises that ultimately cause us much suffering, without anything having to be accepted historically speaking. This is simple truth that I think is evident from our everyday lives and thus can serve as a cautious reminder. So whether all the Biblical stories happened or not as is recorded is not as important, I think, as the power and wisdom that can be gleaned from those stories.

Secondly, the old perception typically identifies the thoughts and opinions of the Biblical authors (and those whom the Biblical authors talk about like Jesus) with the thoughts and opinions of God himself. But some of us are unable or unwilling to make that connection 100% of the time. So alternatively, I think we can appreciate the perspectives of the Jews and Christians of old without believing those perspectives to be God's own. After all, is there really any good reason to think that the authors of the Bible necessarily understood God and His ways any better than we ourselves do today? And though many Bible stories record God being physically present in some form or speaking audibly, does it mean that He really was? Could it not simply represent how close to God the people involved felt? Or represent how strong their convictions were on what they believed God was telling them? It doesn't mean that God was actually telling them to "conquer this city" or "stone that sinner" but merely that that is what they believed based on their limited perception of God.

Lastly, our perception of God should be able to grow beyond our ancestors' ideas about God and spiritual reality. This does not mean that we completely scrap their ideas of course, but rather we build upon them with not only our own experiences but with our ever expanding scientific and philosophical knowledge. Suggesting that we can only construct our theology with "Biblical" ideas is akin to suggesting we can only construct towns with the tools and technology available in Biblical times. Yet I doubt too many people would sign up for that idea, because it is generally good and necessary for us as humans to improve upon past methods and ideas. If that seems a bit discomforting though, I would urge you to briefly consider the matured perception of God in the new testament as compared to the old.

In the old testament, God was often painted as angry, dissatisfied, vindictive, and for the most part only concerned with the well being of the Jewish people. He has rule, after rule, after rule, many of which seem down right silly to us today (such as wearing mixed fabrics in Deu. 22:11). In the new testament you can still pick up on those aspects to a degree, but it is greatly over-shadowed by Jesus' radical perception of God. Jesus' perception of God is much more focused on His desire for restoration and reconciliation, for both Jew and gentile---He is not prejudiced. God's grace therefore evolved (from a cultural standpoint) from the tribal success of one people to the spiritual success of all peoples. This evolution is often missed or masked by the idea that God was just teaching us a lesson about how we couldn't live under the law and needed grace. Which may be true in a sense, but I think more importantly the Jewish God concept had matured. Likewise, our perception of God should evolve and mature with the minds and hearts of the human race. That is the journey I think God calls us to and is why He doesn't just make obvious all truth about Himself and the universe.

If this all sounds really hazy and ambiguous, thats probably because it is. And truthfully I've become so burnt out from the old way of reading the Bible that its hard to really get back into it even with such refreshing ideas as these. But even if I had spent hundreds of hours doing it, I still wouldn't want to hammer it down to another ritualistic formula. We always want specific formulas for these sorts of things and if you explore deeply into the realm of Christian theology, formulas is exactly what you'll get. The thing I dont like about formulas though is they deduce the nature of God and truth-finding to a science---which makes it sound like we can find out much more than we really can. And in my opinion, Biblical study (and theology in general) should be much more free and exploratory than the common methodology of Christendom.