We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, June 16, 2014

Chaos & Creation: the Bible

In a guest opinion piece entitled, "Recent Gallup Poll On American's View of Bible Reveals Utter Chaos Regarding Nature and Authority of Scripture," John MacArthur reflects on the relationship of modern American culture to the Bible based on the findings of a recent Gallup poll (here).  As one can guess from the title of the piece, he finds little good in that relationship.  One can sense the anguish and alarm he feels concerning the way postmodern society treats scripture, at the debasing relativism to which the Bible is subjected.  The reader also senses MacArthur's alienation from our increasingly non-dualistic culture, which seems to him to have lost its spiritual center. Postmodern Americans including the majority of American Christians, that is, think that the Bible is open to interpretations from different perspectives.  In MacArthur's understanding, these Christians have replaced the authority of the scriptures with "the authority of self."

Early in the piece, he writes, "Clearly, the prevailing belief in our culture is that while the Bible may be the inspired Word of God, it doesn't mean what it says."  From a liberal/progressive perspective, this is a useful observation that helps clarify our view of the scriptures as being both authoritative and open to interpretation—or, again, both inspired and fallible.  At the heart of it all, lies the basic question of how we experience the divine, which leads us to our understanding of the incarnation as not so much as a doctrine as a matter of God's Presence in our lives.  We are touched by that Presence in different ways including through scripture, emotion, in nature, in relationships, in the fellowship of the church, and paradigmatically in the person of Christ to name a few.  In all cases including Christ and the Bible, God speaks to us within the framework of our humanity.  God is present with us incarnationally.

That is to say, God participates with us in our humanity and in the guise of the Spirit finds multiple ways to touch our lives and bend the arc of our habitually hostile fallibility in the direction of the Kingdom.  God, as best as we can make any sense of this, inspires us from within the human experience.  That is the whole point of our trust in God in Christ: Jesus was clearly human and shared the limitations of physical existence that all of us share.  The Bible, which speaks of God out of many generations of experience with the divine, as clearly exhibits the limitations of any human document.  Both in spite of and because of his humanity, Christ grabbed our attention.  So it is with the Bible.

Returning to the idea that, "...prevailing belief in our culture is that while the Bible may be the inspired Word of God, it doesn't mean what it says," the point that must be made is that the authors of the Bible did mean what they wrote.  They wrote, however, in a very different context than the one we live in today.  We are constrained to understand as best we can that context so that we can have some sense of the original intent of the authors.  The process of discovering that intent, however, requires a specialist training and even then is a tricky, murky exercise at best.  Thus, we do best to also read the Bible seeking to hear contemporary meanings as well trusting that God does communicate with us in that search.

The real difference in all of this, of course, is that "modern" or "Newtonian" Christians believe in absolutes and "postmodern" Christians don't.  Moderns believe that words written in one language two thousand years ago retain their meaning today.  Postmoderns believe that words and their meanings are constantly shifting even today and all the more so when dealing with ancient writings like the Bible.  Moderns are convinced that Christ had to be perfect and the Bible infallible in order for God to speak meaningfully to us, and postmoderns are convinced that God can't possibly speak to us through perfection and infallibility because such things are outside the realm of the human experience.

Apparently, humanity is created in such a way that we need both those who lunge forward in the direction of new ways of thinking and doing and following the path God sets for us in Christ and those who hang back wanting to be sure that we're still on the path.  I guess I understand why the hangers back worry so much about the plungers ahead.  A lot is at stake.  But, that is exactly why we who rush in where angels won't feel we must rush on ahead.  The future is waiting!  And somewhere in it is the Kingdom.