Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Discussing the nature of religious texts with the Bible as example

From a discussion held months ago elsewhere...

      [As to interpreting the Apostle's Creed by strictly defining all the terms...]

    Religious and spiritual language is poetic and transformative.

    Subtlety and nuance unfold to match our experience. You may get one meaning from a passage at one stage in life because you are predisposed/have the capacity to grasp that level of meaning, then later you may be able to appreciate that in addition to the first impression you also discover a deeper you missed before. Each Christian will be in a different place with what such a profession of faith means based on the depth of their experience, but there is a general picture presented that anyone can appreciate (summed in one word, grace).

      [As to as to why Christians insist the truth of the world is their truth and their truth alone...]

    That is human nature, not Christianity per se. We all have root metaphors and organizing symbols that we use to interpret the world. How we choose our lens depends on what matches our experience. Christianity reveals a certain truth of our nature to Christians, just a Buddhism does so for Buddhists.

    So a Christian asks "How can this or that make sense from a Christian perspective?" So do Buddhists, Taoists, Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, etc. So do atheists ("How can explain this or that if there is no God/if everything is founded on materialism?").

    Each of our experiences of truth are connected to our prevailing worldview, hence in that sense each of us will claim our truth of the world is ours and our truth alone. The fiction of neutrality is comforting but easily shattered. The real question is to what degree can we be/are we willing to sympathetic to other worldviews. I find that the tendency to possess or lack such sympathy cannot be predicted by the worldview a person possesses but rather the degree of their development of compassion and whether they are more concerned with showing they are right or showing that they care for others.

      [As to whether the violent imagery in the Bible is disservice to Christianity...]

    If you view the Bible as a record of a portion of humanity's attempt to understand (the revelation of) God then the Bible does no disservice. In the OT and the NT there are constant references to God as just, kind, faithful, gracious, loving, etc, and there are far more of these references than there are of God being wrathful or playing favorites. 

    In fact the Bible talks much much more about social justice and human dignity than war or depravity. As for those notoriously disturbing passages, some are examples not of hate but concern. That is, they are prophecies explaining that there are consequences to our actions, so if you do X you will get Y. Still others reflect human conflict and confusion trying to reconcile their desire for justice and vengeance or reflect the insecurity of a society that is constantly at war and being threatened or enslaved by its neighbors. The Jews made the same mistakes over and over, much like people around the world throughout history have, especially in trying to make God into a little mental, emotional, or even physical idol that grants wishes such as victory in battle. And time and again, they suffered for this folly. 

    On balance, the Bible depicts a one-step-forward-two-steps-back account on the journey of seeking God, with God taking two steps toward those seeking for every one step of the seeker. That's the overview of the human struggle presented in the Bible in a nutshell, from the exodus out of Egypt to the release from Babylon to the Gospels. Seeing the faults and flaws of the Biblical authors, whether they be cultural, historical, or personal, presented in the Bible actually make it much more honest sounding. And the fact that despite these issues there is an underlying theme of grace that shines through these texts makes that message/lesson all the more compelling. 

    The tendency towards exclusivism and xenophobia is hardly unique to OT Jews or NT Christians, and one shouldn't be surprised to find it anywhere. Christians in the first few centuries after Christ were known for taking in orphans and the homeless, for staying when plague hit when everyone else was fleeing so that they could care for the sick and dying, etc. And this charity wasn't given out based on whether or not you claimed to be a Christian (which was a dangerous thing to do in those days). 

    Ironically, OT prophets and Jesus warned against letting such differences interfere with one's duties to God (which included first and foremost loving your neighbor). But the ruling elites have always found that exclusivist rhetoric, scapegoating and identity politics are effective in distracting the populace, maintaining power, and selling wars. This is reflected both in some of the gruesome accounts of the OT and in the history of Christianity after Constantine. 

    And yet that message, the counter-intuitive revolutionary message that defies unjust institutions, opposes the consolidation of wealth in an elite group that neglects or abuses the poor, speaks truth to power, and calls for the worth and dignity of all humans, it just keeps going. No tribal chieftan, no king, no emperor, nor even any malicious ruling council of corrupt religious leaders, has been able to squelch it or edit it out. 

    On the other hand, if you see the Bible as a Divine Memo sent from the Heavenly Offices of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and on top of that apply the flat thinking mentioned previously, then yes, the Bible is a schizophrenic mixture of confused conflicting chaos that requires an elaborate scheme of contortions and compromises that will make your head spin. 

      [As to the question of the authority of the Bible/which parts really reflect flawed humans versus a divine message...]

    The Bible is seen as authoritative for many reasons. One is the simplistic and circular reasoning that the Bible says so or slightly less problematic "my church/pastor" says so. However, we shouldn't be too quick to dismiss the value of recommendation by others, as it plays more of a role in our attitudes than we tend to suspect. 

    The issue comes down to reliability and how this is defined. 

    If your church has always been reliable, then there is a tendency to accept its statements as valid. Another source of reliability in this case is how well certain parts of the Bible speak to your life -- to your experiences and your concerns. Again, people in the Bible screw up all the time. Some of us can relate. People in the Bible sometimes want God to be our servant. Some of us can relate. People in the Bible sometimes mistake God for a "big guy in the sky" rather than seeing that as an analogy. Some of us can relate. And then these pathetic, broken people, bound by their own ignorance and fear, find liberation and redemption through grace. And some of us can relate. 

    To really unpack that last paragraph, not only do we have to avoid flat thinking but also consider that truth can be historical (declarative facts) and ahistorical (timeless wisdom). Moreover, it helps to not think of God as *just* a person or as an object, even the biggest, most powerful, or coolest kind of thing (demonstrated in passages such as 1 Kings 19: 9-13 and elaborated on by numerous saints, mystics, and theologians). This kind of insight requires spiritual maturity, not education per se, and unfortunately some groups (especially since the advent of modernism vs fundamentalism) stay at a rather immature level of faith. But throughout the Bible and throughout the history of Judaism and Christianity this maturity is not rare (or at least not nearly as rare as some seem to suppose). 

    The upshot then is not to think of God as sitting there with a bucket of grace ready to pour it on you if you give intellectual assent to a series of mysteries connected to historical events or stamping your passport to heaven if you say the right magic formula. 

    Instead, if God is the source and sustainer of all phenomena (you may have seen people here quoting verses like Acts 17:28), then God isn't just an extra hypothesis or a layer on top of "normal reality". Reality is part of God and God is part of reality, like facets on a diamond. Hence one may find depictions such as "not merely a person but not less than person". 

    This is also where you can add a person's personal relationship with God. Many people do have transformative experiences related to the insights and counsel produced in the Bible. Religions are living traditions and communities, so to really appreciate them one can't just be an outsider trying to peak in through an intellectual window any more than an anthropologist can just sit and observe a culture remotely. 

    (On a related note, in the modernism vs. fundamentalist entrenchment what has happened is that the fundies tried to play by the modernist rules and make scientific and historical accuracy supreme in determining truth and reliability and then applied that way of thinking to sacred texts that were not written to strictly serve those goals.) 

      [As to the violence and hatred some parts of the OT and the issue of inspiration...]

      This presumes that being inspired by God means things such as 1) lacking the ability to err or 2) only being all sweet and full of joy. On a basic level, from a Judeo-Christian perspective, all people are inspired by God since that is the basis of reality/existence. 

      On another level we can mean they are excited or motivated, in this case to seek to increase their knowledge or appreciation of God. And at yet another level it can refer to being almost possessed. All of these are valid ways to appreciate inspiration from the Christian worldview, but not all of them apply equally to all authors and texts in the Bible. Even in the latter case, a flawed tool will will still produce some errors in the product. The issue is whether we just focus on those errors or on the meta-message being communicated. 

        [As to whether the message of the Bible has been carried in despite religions...]

        I am suggesting it has both survived because of and has also been threatened by religion. That's why simplistic analyses of the history of religion by any group are so distorting. The "it" here of course refers to the underlying vital message or theme found in the living Judeo-Christian tradition and recorded in the Bible. A word that I often use to summarize this theme is "grace", which we tend to think of in terms of forgiving an offense or other debt. Yet grace is that which permits such a behavior, so that the act is the expressed form of that quality. 

        In the same way, the Gospel is not just the story of the life of Jesus as presented in the NT cannon or elsewhere. That is a primary expression of the Gospel, and the essence of the Gospel is revealed in those accounts, but too many people equate "spreading the Gospel" with just recounting Matthew, Mark, Luke and/or John. Indeed, this limited understanding is exposed by saints such as Francis of Assisi who famously suggested: "Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words."

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