angel, in a comment on this post, has asked me to unpack something I said, and I thought I’d devote at least one post to it, because I think its worthwhile, at least for me, to do some clarifying.
This is the quote:
“I don’t think I am free to confuse the Bible with God.” Simple but profound. I would appreciate it if you could unpack this thought further because I see a nugget of gold buried deep here. Youre statement, “I’m not interested in worshiping a God who is encased in a book, but I am interested in worshiping the God that the book points me towards” does help me to see a bit more of where you are coming from but help me to at least understand where you are coming from.
Whether those are profound things to say remains to be seen – lots of things I thought were profound at one point were pretty vapid on further examination (example: high-school poetry). But, let’s get into what I’m trying to say here.
I think that there is a tendency in traditions which put a great deal of weight on Scripture as a way that we know God for falling into a trap I’ve heard called Bibliolatry – that is, essentially, worshiping the Bible as an idol. In particular, when one believes that the words of the Bible are the exact words that God somehow expressed to the writers of the Bible (Biblical literalism), it seems like it is very tempting to treat the Bible the way you would treat God – inerrant, perfect, absolutely authoritative. For me, there are lots of problems with this – here are some of them:
1. Clearly, the Bible is not God. The Bible is a book, made of paper and language and a particular ordering of ideas in things like grammar or rhetoric or legal argument. Really, its made up of lots of smaller books, all of which are pretty different in content, style, language, what you might guess is their intent, impact on readers, subject matter, and so on.
2. Language is limited. It is limited by the things I listed above – by the grammatical structure, as well as by the ideas that lie behind it. For example, are words gendered? Do you have conjugation and declension of verbs? (Mandarin, for example, does not, whereas all Romance languages do) Do you have changes based on the social status of those who are speaking? (I’m told this is the case in Japanese) Are there five words for love, or one? It is also limited by vocabulary. For example, when Mandarin speakers needed a word for “computer”, they had to make a compound word, diannao, which literally means something like “lightening-consciousness”.
3. I believe that the Bible was written by human beings. That is, I don’t buy that God was, say, holding the Deuteronomist‘s hand as s/he composed a history in the Davidic court. The authors the books are ascribed to are not accepted as real by the majority of Biblical scholars – there are clear places where other styles and ideas intrude, where there are breaks that indicate that something was edited out, etc. Really, it ends up looking like a very human compilation. If God did indeed pen the Bible, God apparently went to tremendous pains to disguise the fact.
4. Our ideas about God are limited. Even the word “God” means something that isn’t God because, simply put, God is infinite, incomprehensible in God’s entirety, and the word “God” is a sound invented by human beings. The biggest idea you can possibly have of God is infinitesimal compared to what we claim in faith to be the real God – the eternal, the transcendent and immanent deity. There aren’t words that can possibly contain God – even “infinity” is a mathematical term that doesn’t mean most of the things we mean when we talk about God. All of our language describes finite things that we can experience, and God is more than all of those things combined, if our faith has validity.
5. The Bible is self-contradictory in many, many places. Multiple variations of things like Jesus’ genealogy, multiple depictions of the same events that disagree on crucial details (like the Acts compared to the Epistles, or the Gospels compared to each other). Studying it enables one to see melodies and harmonies which seem apparent overall, but the text itself is a very messy thing – it does not appear to be the harmonious work of a single author, God or otherwise. And, to me, that is one of its core strengths. It is as messy as our experience, as varied as human beings are varied; probably more honest than most of us are in its very messiness. It demands that we find multiple answers and that we cannot be satisfied with a few simplistic dogmas that we can tell ourselves explain all there is to know about God. It pushes us beyond itself, beyond ourselves, beyond simple answers, toward God, because it is messy.
6. On a personal note – I’m not passionate about the Bible. I don’t long to know the Bible, to understand the Bible, to be in relationship and communion with the Bible. I feel those things about God. Its why I’m here, doing what I do, though it often comes out in odd ways. I want what is bigger than what I understand. I want the thing, the person, that is an infinite source of shock and surprise and wonder. I want to devote my life to something bigger than everything else. Yes, the Bible is worthy of a lifetime of study, but in the end, the Bible is made of words; it is not made of God. For me, the Bible is one of the things that points me to God – along with my human experiences and relationships, my reason and intelligence, my imagination and capacity for creation and creativity, my observations of the people around me, my study of history, and what I can learn about the thoughts and experiences of others. The Bible is very, very important to me because it is a combination of many of the above things all at once, and in many cases it is the only record we have for hundreds of years of thought and experience and reflection. It is also the focal point of the majority of the reflection that goes on in the Church and has been so throughout our history; it is our shared language and the narrative we look towards to bind us together as a body.
So when I weigh something, I have to take all of this into account. The result is, frankly, a lot of stress and insecurity and doubt. It is a constant challenge that requires all of my faculties and much more. It is an unfinishable work to even begin to understand. And that’s precisely what I love and value about it. To me, simple answers tend to be dead answers. How sad would it be if I could truly understand God just by reading a book? That is, to me, the lamest of Gods. The most feeble and, ultimately, negligeable. Deeply uninteresting. Not really a God at all.
So, I say I can’t confuse the Bible with God. I like the image, from a Buddhist metaphor, of a finger pointing at the moon. The moon is huge – thousands of miles across, one fourth the volume of the whole Earth. Its gravitation is enough to cause tides and to divert asteroid impacts that would wipe out life on earth. It is incomprehensibly large, and amazing even at the vast distance across which we can view it. And how little is your finger? The Bible is the finger, and God is the moon, maybe on a cloudy day. The finger helps you find the moon, but the moon is what you’re really after, not the finger.
In the context of our continuing conversation about homosexuality and Christian faith and practice: for me, even if the Bible clearly denounced homosexuality between loving, consenting, committed adults (which some scholars claim it doesn’t address as such), there is still, first of all, my sense that God does not want us to call something sin without good reason. Sin isn’t arbitrary – it is sin because it destroys relationships and prevents the flourishing of life and drags us further from God. If homosexuality as described above doesn’t seem to do that, how can it be sin? It seems arbitrary, and I don’t think God is arbitrary, even if we can’t ever fully understand.
Second of all, the Bible was written by people, and through most of history the norm was to call homosexuality an abomination to some degree for most cultures. Similar abominations might include left-handedness, diseases like leprosy, mental illness, or red hair. In those cases, though, we’ve moved past historical biases because we’ve learned that many things about a person aren’t under their control, and if those things aren’t damaging, how can we call them abominations? How can we discriminate against them? So, I’d put the Biblical bias against homosexuality in this category – it doesn’t make sense for us to adopt it anymore.
Third – most researchers in the area of sexuality issues are clear to say that there is not yet a clear understanding of the causes of homosexuality – that it is likely a very complex process involving heredity and environment – like intelligence, for example, or autism, or talent. Almost all seem to agree, however, that it is not a choice, or is almost never a choice. There are certainly cases where homosexuality can possibly be traced back to trauma or abuse, but that just makes it similar to all other sexual behaviors when they become damaging to the people involved.
Fourth, and maybe most importantly, I have classmates who are homosexual. I have close friends who are homosexual. In many cases, these are beautiful people who love and want to serve God and who reflect God in themselves – I feel like I see the imago dei in them at least as much as I see it in myself. Some of them experience a sense of calling from God that is at least as powerful as my own. They tell me that their sexual orientation was never a choice, and they seem just as capable of having healthy (or damaging) relationships as my heterosexual friends.
Honestly, I’m not completely comfortable with homosexuality. I’m also often not comfortable when I’m the only white person in the room. I’m not proud of these things, but there they are. I’ve been converted, over time, to my position on homosexuality. I didn’t always feel this way at all. But, slowly, through something like erosion, I’ve moved – and I’ve been moved. Sexual orientation and race seem similar to me, in that they are socially constructed to a large degree, and they are things someone doesn’t have control over, but they are also things that if someone denies, it causes them suffering. Look at Langston Hughes and the Harlem Rennaissance literature and before that W.E.B. Dubois, with the idea of double consciousness, for the kind of suffering denying who you are can cause. I see this echoed in the suffering homosexuals feel in our culture, and I just…don’t have any good reason to think that its right for this to be the case, or for me to support it in any way.
For those of you reading this blog who don’t agree with me, please feel free to comment. This all came out of a conversation with someone who disagrees with me after all.
For those of you who do agree with me, just one note – you might want to check out some organizations that are related to this topic and committed to political action on this issue, both inside and outside the Church:
Soulforce is an organization that practices Gandhian nonviolent resistance to end the oppression of GLBT persons. I’ve been a member for a while, but woefully inactive for a few years now. Bad Doug!
Human Rights Watch has a branch committed to GLBT rights.
Human Rights Campaign is another political organization I’m part of.
More Light is a specifically Presbyterian organization – and they spell it LGBT.
The Covenant Network of Presbyterians is committed to “a Church as generous and just as God’s grace” – enough said. And, they have a podcast available on iTunes.