Unpacking

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.

P.S.

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.

13 thoughts on “Unpacking

  1. That’s for the heads-up. I sent a comment, and since he moderates comments, it may not show up, but at least he’ll read it. I tried to defend myself respectfully – though I don’t expect it’ll do that much good. But you never know…

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  2. Dear Doug and Aric,I sit on the Administration Committee of my presbytery, and we’re watching very closely the issue of churches pulling out of the denomination and wanting to take their property with them. Right after GA last summer, we heard about the Kirk of the HIlls in Tulsa, OK preparing to pull out. I check their website and found links to their pastor’s blog. I’ve done a rather incompetent job of posting my progressive viewpoints there, but, sobeit.Anyway, if I hadn’t been following Tom Gray’s blog so closely, I never would have found your excellent blogs. Thank you for articulating Christian faith so well from the liberal perspective.By the way, Tom has posted your comment. He also posted my comment, which quoted your “unpacked” blog. I hope you don’t mind.Yours in Christ,Mark

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  3. Mark: please feel free to read, distribute, comment on, etc. my blog at least, and I’m sure Aric agrees.On an interesting side-note, this blog entry is going to be linked to by the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, whose link is at the bottom, sometime in the near future. i was really humbled to even have the mention – and Anitra, the person who spoke to me (an SFTS alum and ex-neighbor) was glad that I mentioned their podcast. Anyway, this sure is an interesting and surprising few turns of events.

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  4. Dear Doug,If you don’t mind my saying, get used to it. Anytime one articulates one’s faith publicly, one draws attention. The sad thing in current culture, at least in this country, is that partisanship drives discussion. There is almost no dialogue, simply reaction. That is also the way of things in the PC(USA), which grieves me deeply.Yours in Christ,Mark

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  5. I have been wrestling for some time with how folks relate to the Bible. I’ve served as musician in conservative and moderate Presbyterian churches, as well as some United Methodist churches. Some time ago I coined for myself the notion that many folks suffer with a sin I called “idolatry of the Word.” Imagine my fascination to discover someone with a similar conceptualization! While I may hold a slightly deeper reverence for scripture than it appears you do in this post, I think we’re onto something with suggesting that folks need to move beyond the Word to that which the Word conveys to us. Thanks for unpacking!

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  6. Ok. I have read the positions you have unpacked. So, lets get rid of the bible as the spirit breathed, literal word and truth of God. Lets rely on our own human intelligence, spiritual sensitivity and world awareness to help us live our lives and navigate our way through the time, space and experience of this world. But before we do that I have a few questions: 1) If the bible does not contain the exact words of God then how else are we to know what he thinks, feels, believes and asks of us? It seems the ancient human writers have mucked up God’s truth and intentions and we are now left with a bible that cannot be trusted as far as its ability to communicate the divine heart and mind.; 2)How, then, are we to communicate with the Divine? And how can we trust those communications to be accurate, seeing as we are so fallible?; 3) Are we left to interpret and develop our own truth, and if so can we really trust ourselves? We are human and fallible, just like all of those ancient human writers. Or are we now more enlightened?; 4) Maybe its time for a human God?

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  7. angel: As a preamble, I’d like to say that the bible can be spirit-breathed and truthful without being literal. Equating truth with literality is a recent invention that I like to just reject. 1. The short answer is that we can’t know for sure. God is fundamentally unknowable. To think we know God is almost certainly idolatry, because the God we construct with our limited minds is never going to compare to the God that our faith attests to. The idea that through the Bible we can capture God and make God predictable is, for me, just another idolatry. So, you’re right. If what you want is a schematic that parses God out in detail, the Bible is not trustworthy. But neither is anything else.2. I don’t worry about “accurate” as a category for any communication I might have with God. I focus more on “meaningful”. I reject accurate for the reasons outlined in #1 above. For me, there are lots of ways to communicate with God. The bible is even one of them. But it always a communication that is indeterminate. It is always us communicating with something both immanent but also entirely beyond ourselves. So I never fully understand, and I never know, beyond any shadow of doubt, that I am communicating with God at all. There’s faith in God, hope that God is there and that God is for us, and love of God and of other people, but not certainty. That’s a different category that, for me, doesn’t apply to God at all.3. Yes and no, respectively. Yes, we are left to develop our own truth – in my opinion, that’s all anyone is doing. If not, how could there be so much disagreement in matters of faith? There’s no disagreement on the force of gravity, because gravity is knowable and quantifiable. God is neither, so when it comes down to it, I have to take responsibility for my beliefs, because they are my beliefs, and not Gods in themselves.In some ways, in the modern world, it is possible to be more enlightened. It need not be widely assumed that women are property or that poverty and disease result from sin. We’ve also hopefully very suspicious of people claiming to hear God’s voice telling them to kill people. There are legal systems that presume innocence and provide council and accept the testimony of women and cultural minorities. All of these took time to develop, and all were hard-won.On the other hand, we still have horrific injustice and poverty and war. We are still human, after all. We’ve accumulated some knowledge, and I’d say we’ve developed ethically a bit, but these often look like small differences.4. Is that what God was thinking when God incarnated as Christ?For the most part, what we always get seems to be human gods. Gods have human attributes that are modified, things like justice or wrath or mercy or knowledge or authority. These are all human concepts that I have no doubt fall entirely short of God.They are, however, all we have when we’re thinking or talking about God.I have hope that it is possible to have experiences of God, encounters with God, even revelation, individually or in community. Aside from that, we’re human and we’re stuck doing theology like humans, which tells me that certainty isn’t available. Rather, we do the best we can, always seeking to improve and challenge our ideas of God, but never claiming that they encapsulate God.

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  8. Good grief. You are full of contradictions. On the one hand you say that you aren’t interested in the Bible, then you say that you are. Then you tell us that God is infinitely unknowable, but then you go on to say that you know Him by your feelings, your experiences, your reason, your relationships, your intelligence and imagination.So now you are arguing that God can’t reveal Himself through 66 books and their authors, but HE CAN reveal Himself through YOUR emotions, YOUR experiences, YOUR relationships, etc. Stop being so disingenuous. All you’re arguing here is that you are the final arbiter of truth, not God. And you are doing precisely what the Apostle Peter said many would do when he talked about Paul’s writings: “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:16).In fact, Paul himself writes about your approach in Romans:“For although they knew the truth about God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.” (Romans 1)You’re not fooling me with your double-speak. You’re not fooling God, either.

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  9. Alan:I’ll be honest. I’m not really interested in the views of someone who wants war in the middle east so that Jesus can come back. I find that position indefensible on any level. I think there is way too much distance between us for even meaningful conversation to occur. I don’t know how I would even begin to explain myself to you. You’ve read this post, and you’ve rejected it. Let’s leave it at that before we’re drawn in to attacking each other more. I’m not interested in your views and find them absurd, and you’re not interested in mine and find them disingenuous. I don’t think we’ll get much farther than that.

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