A Progressive view of the Bible and Science

Saturday, June 21, 2014

There was a good discussion on my article over at Red Letter Christians. I wanted to respond to a couple of the comments here in order to hopefully clarify things in more detail than I could on a comment board.

Johnboy asks,
Don't you use scripture itself to formulate your ideas of who Jesus is and what He's about? Doesn't that make your viewpoint self-defeating?

Yes, the New Testament is where we read about Jesus. That makes it a unique and central source, but the goal is not simply to have information about Jesus, or even (contra what some liberal Christians would say) to simply follow the teachings of Jesus (which we should of course do!). Far more central is to connect with the living Jesus, to connect with God in Christ, to connect with the one John calls "the Word." In other words: Christianity is not just about information, but about relationship. It's about reading the Bible as a sacrament that leads us to a living life-transforming connection with the Spirit of Christ, and having that relationship of being loved and shaped by the Spirit lead us into a life of loving others as we love ourselves, being transformed by the renewing of our minds to have the mind of Christ. The Bible plays a key role in this as the vehicle that leads us to Christ, the window through which we see Christ with the help and vivification (fancy word meaning "breathing life into") of the Spirit.

Scripture (and in particular the NT) is unique in that it is the record of the disciple's encounter with Jesus the logos of God, the "image of the invisible God" as Paul says. The idea is that we would not simply read about that, but that we would likewise come to know, personally, this same Jesus through the Spirit. As John writes, "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete." (1 John 1:1-3). In other words, "We met this guy Jesus who is Life, and we want you to meet him too, and have that same living connection to God! That would make us so happy!" They are writing what we now call the New Testament in order to have us come into a relationship with God in Christ. That's what it's all about. Their inspired written words serve to lead us to the living Word. 

The next comment comes from Digger who writes,
It is essential that the Bible be incorrect in order for the beliefs and practices of progressive christians to ok with God. If the Bible is correct as written, then the doctrine of progressive christians, which is based on the world's idea of correctness rather than scripture, is disobedience to, and likely outright rejection of the God of scripture. (If the Bible is incorrect, the God that the Bible describes is not the true God.) If the Bible IS incorrect, then it is I who worship a false God.

I certainly cannot speak for all progressive Christians, but a lot of us would see it this way:

The issue is not so much that the Bible has contradictions. The issue is that the Old Testament is multi-vocal. That is, it contains multiple conflicting perspectives on things. It contains a record of dispute. An example of this is the contrasting perspectives of the book of Ezra and the book of Ruth and the opposite ways that they see foreign wives (one presents them as good and says to welcome and shelter them, the other says they are immoral and to send them and your kids away into the night).

So since we have multiple perspectives in the Bible, making conflicting points, we need to decide which we accept. On what basis do we choose? Here the key is to look at what Jesus chose and learn what led him to make the choices he did and learn to think with that same priority.

A second issue is recognizing that there is movement in the Bible. It is not a record of a static view, but a record of a developing view. A key point is slavery. The OT affirms slavery. The NT just says to treat slaves well. Based on a plain reading people in the past saw this as justifying the American slave trade. So why have we today abolished slavery? Is it going against the Bible to not own a slave? Are we putting our own cultural view (to abolish slavery) over the Bible?

Some conservative Christians argue that OT slavery was different from American slavery. But does this mean that we should continue the practice of slavery modeled after the OT, rather than abolishing slavery all together? Should we do the same with the OT policy of executing adulterers and continue that practice today as well? When we do not, are we going against the Bible?

If we can instead recognize a trajectory begun in the NT we can see that it leads us to go beyond where the NT did at the time and move towards abolishing slavery. Not because we are moving away from what Jesus wanted, but because we are continuing to move further towards what he wanted. Slavery is just one example, but there are many others where the question is: how can we be more faithful to Jesus and the things he cared about? How can we move to change ourselves and our world to be more Jesus-shaped?

So to be clear, what we are objecting to are things like slavery, torture, and child abuse -- all of which have been promoted in the past by the church as being "just" and "good" and "God's will" according to (their reading of) the Bible. Progressive Christianity says "no" to these and other things that hurt people in the name of religion. 

I have a hard time seeing how being against these things can be described as "the world's idea of correctness." I would instead say that they are going against the stream of worldly thinking (what Walter Wink called the domination system) and instead moving in the direction of Jesus. Again, the question is: Is it going against the Bible to be opposed to child abuse? Is it going against the Bible to be opposed to the state's use of torture? Or is it just the opposite: If we do not move forward away from these practices that we can objectively see are deeply hurtful, we cannot claim to truly follow Jesus.

This brings up the question: How can we know what is loving? If it appears that a biblical author (for example the author of Proverbs) has the view that beating children is loving, "Beatings and wounds cleanse away evil, and floggings cleanse the innermost being" (Proverbs 20:30) how can we say that it is wrong to hit children with a whip so as to leave wounds as this verse endorses doing? Are we saying we know better than the Bible when we say that this is wrong, and indeed make it a crime?

The fact is, we can objectively observe the severe trauma and damage caused by what we now call physical abuse. We know this because of social science, which at the time of the Bible did not exist (nor did any science). They did not understand what we do now. Let me also stress that this is not simply an opinion, it is science. Because of this we can say that physical abuse (for example flogging someone and leaving wounds) is objectively not "cleansing," but deeply harmful. We are so convinced of this today that we have passed laws making this a crime.

Now at the time they did not know this. If we simply take the view of "This is what Scripture says we cannot question it" then we would need to go against what we do know. Thankfully most of us don't. Thankfully even people who claim to read the Bible this way actually do not in practice. However the problem is that they promote a way of reading the Bible in an unquestioning way that results in turning off one's conscience and sense of compassion, and as a result when people say "Hey this way of reading the Bible is really hurting me!" -- as for example blacks and women and  LGBT people are saying -- this is dismissed. In other words, with the things that our culture has agreed are wrong (child abuse, slavery) we do not practice, but with other things (like how we treat LGBT people) we stick to the same "the Bible says it so there is no room to question this at all" approach. As if we never questioned those other things. That is a really messed up way to read the Bible that results in our perpetuating societal views that oppress and hurt people. Indeed conservative evangelicals are some of the most outspoken advocates for the state's use of torture, for the use of state violence, for corporal punishment, and so on. I object to this because I see that it hurts people.

We need to have a way to recognize when our reading of the Bible is hurting people, and we need to care about that. We need to listen to those people. The Pharisees did not listen. Jesus did listen to these people who were rejected and condemned as the "sinners" in his time. He was known as the friend of these people (being called "friend of sinners" was not a compliment). The people who were called "the least" valuable, Jesus said we should care for the most. 

Adopting the heart and priorities of Jesus goes hand in hand with a scientific approach. When we take what we know from science about what hurts people and what allows them to flourish this is not in conflict with the way of Jesus. On the contrary, it helps us to more faithfully follow Jesus because it helps us to grow and to move towards human flourishing. Science -- and in particular the parts of science that deal with us as humans in relationship -- enriches and deepens our faith.  What it is in conflict with is a static status quo view of the world, a view that says everything should stay as it is. That it's good that way.

Does science get things wrong? Yes it does. So we learn and grow. That's how science works. Does the Bible (think Proverbs 20:30 here) get things wrong? Yes it does. It is a record of a people learning and growing in their understanding of God. The fact that we have these conflicting views together in the canon of the Old Testament demonstrates an understanding of Scripture as a record of this growing developing search for love and truth and God. To read it as a locked static thing is to read it for something that it is not.  The Bible is not one single static view, but multiple developing views, cataloging how these views developed and changed up to the NT. As followers of Jesus we continue to develop and change in our understanding -- to move in the direction that Jesus pointed us towards.  We need to do that with humility, and we need to do that together. That entails a faith that is characterized by being open, seeking, and communal. It entails a faith that listens to our consciences, and listens to others, that cares about others--even those who disagree with us.


How is a Fallible Bible Inspired?

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Over the past several months we've been doing a lot of deconstruction work with the Bible on this blog. It's important work because the motivation is one of compassion. We've seen how an unquestioning reading of the Bible has led people to do all sorts of hurtful things to others in the name of God, and because we care about people and love the Bible we need to confront that. Still, even so, it's hard. It takes a toll because, even though we believe we are doing something good, it cuts away at our old beliefs, and that means it cuts us, too. 

Brian McLaren recently compared this process of deconstruction to peeling an onion, 
"Every new conception of God necessarily requires doubting or rejecting the prevailing conception of God... For many, the process is like peeling an onion. First they lose faith in the 6-day creationist god, then in the bible-dictation god, then in the male-supremacy god, then in the european-supremacy/western-civilization/colonialist god, then in the anti-gay god, ... eventually, every layer of the onion is peeled away and one is left with nothing, but maybe some tears.

The fear of being left with nothing leaves many people desperately afraid to question anything, which might be a good definition of fundamentalism. ... The question, I think, is this: what happens after one peels away the onion and faces the possibility that there is nothing left"
With the Bible the question we are left with is this: After we strip away a hurtful unquestioning way of reading the Bible, what does it then mean to read Scripture as scripture? If we lose the "God said it that settles it" approach, in what sense can we say the Bible is inspired if we don't mean "everything it says should be followed without question."  Is it just a "human book" or is there a way to find God in there, just as we find God amongst the mess of our own world?

Jesus said that all of the law and the prophets were summed up in two commands: Love God, and love others as you love yourself. That's not just a summary for Jesus, it is at the same time the aim of Scripture: The Bible is intended to lead us to love God, others, and ourselves. That's the ultimate aim and purpose of the Bible as Jesus saw it. If we are reading in a way that leads us away from love, then we are reading wrong. That was the mistake of the Pharisees, and continues to be the mistake of many Christians today. If we see that our interpretation is causing hurt, we need to pay attention to that and make a course correction.

Seen positively however, the purpose of Scripture is to lead us to love, and since God is love that means first and foremost the  purpose of Scripture is to lead us into an encounter with God's love. Scripture is therefore not our master, it instead is our servant leading us to God. Scripture is a vehicle meant to bring us into an experience of God's love that shapes us, making us whole and deeply alive, setting us free. Being loved forms us, and then spills over into every area of our lives as we show others (including the people we don't like or respect) the same love and mercy we have known. 

Here Scripture takes on the role of a servant which brings us to encounter God's living Spirit. It acts as a window to the divine, as a vehicle that leads us to Christ. Not Jesus in a book, but the living risen Jesus known through the Spirit. In that sense the Bible becomes a sacrament, that is, it becomes a means for us to encounter the divine.  
Scripture is therefore not "inspired" in the sense that it is a static book of eternal laws that are beyond question, rather it is inspired when it is read by us so as to lead us to love. It is inspired when it becomes a sacrament leading us into an encounter with the divine, an encounter with the risen Jesus, leading us into a life-transforming relationship with God. 
The word "inspired" literally means in-spirit-ed. That is, to be indwelt by the Spirit. Without the spark of life from God we have no life in us. In the same way, apart from the Spirit the Bible is simply a dead letter. The Bible is therefore inspired ... in(Holy)Spirit-ed ... when we learn how to read it in a way that leads us to meet the one who is love, who is truth, and who is the way. That is what a devotional reading of Scripture needs to look like, what it means the read Scripture as scripture. That is a truly evangelical reading of Scripture because it puts the focus on the gospel, the good news of God's kingdom impacting our lives--both on a personal and societal level. That's a way to read the Bible that keeps God at the center, rather than making a book central, or more truthfully making our interpretation of a book central.

So in the end, when we let go of the unquestioning Pharisaical way of reading the Bible that has characterized fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism, while we lose our own certainty and instead need to be a little more humble and aware of our limitations and potential towards sin (even sin in the name of religion!) what we gain is a way to read the Scripture as a sacrament that can lead into a life-changing encounter with God and Love and Life.


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