Thursday, September 10, 2009

The authority of community (Sunday Reflections for September 13, 2009)

Following the ELCA’s vote last month to permit gay clergy, Charleston, WV Pastor Richard Mahan said, “I can't believe the church I loved and served for 40 years can condone what God condemns.”

How does he know?

This is the question the ELCA stumbled over in trying to resolve this issue: How do we know what God thinks? Pastor Mahan thinks he knows, but does he? For Mahan the answer is simple. What God thinks is in the Bible. Yet anyone who has read even a small portion of the Bible knows it’s not that simple. Or at least, if what God thinks is in the Bible, it isn’t easy to clearly identify it.

It’s understandable that we may want the Bible to be an answer book. “What should I do in this situation?” You check the Bible’s index and find that the answer is on page 317. Some evangelical publishers have come out with Bibles in which you nearly can do this. Of course then you have to decide if you trust the editors who have connected the questions with the “answer” verses. In any case, by itself the Bible certainly isn’t set up that way.

Since the Reformation, the church has been in an unending search for an objective, reliable authority for its life and teaching. Prior to that, the church simply was its own authority. But then along came Martin Luther who said, “The church is wrong.” How could it be decided who was right: the pope or Martin Luther?

Such conflicts had occurred before, of course. Those that became serious enough were resolved by calling a council of bishops where the issue was ultimately put to a vote. This time, however, church authorities decided to treat it as an internal rebellion and just squash it. Of course, it didn’t work. Luther had too many powerful allies who had grown tired of Rome’s corruption and political meddling. As a result, the church split without ever answering the question of who was right or, more importantly, of how to decide who was right.

At about the same time (and not coincidently) there began the intellectual movement that led to the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. It’s radical assumption was that ancient authorities could no longer simply be trusted or assumed to be right. Truth was to be determined by human reason and observation, epitomized by what every junior high student learns as the scientific method. This became the foundation of the modern world.

Having just come through the debacle of the Reformation, suddenly the church found itself on the defensive again, threatened by a completely new source: science. While most scientists at this time considered themselves faithful Christians, the church found their discoveries to constitute yet another threat to church authority. The classic case, of course, was that of Galileo.

Galileo’s error was to take Copernicus’ theory of a sun-centered planetary system and claim to have proven it by observations made with his newly invented telescope. Church authorities claimed this contradicted biblical teaching that the sun moved around the earth and Galileo must, therefore, be wrong. But is that what the Bible says?

Here, of course, is where we enter the arena of biblical interpretation and the issue that has vexed the church ever since. In Galileo’s case, the key passage was the story of Joshua stopping the sun. Joshua did this in order to have longer daylight so he could win a battle with the Amorites. Based on this and other texts, the church concluded that the Bible teaches that it’s the sun that moves, not the earth.

There was nothing wrong with the church’s logic. The problem was with its understanding of the Bible. Did the Bible “teach” that the sun moves? No, the authors of the Bible wrote stories, poems, etc which included the common assumptions of the time; in this case that the sun moved around the earth. So how do we know when something the Bible says is a possibly erroneous assumption of the ancient world and when is it “the truth”?

The church has never really resolved that question (which explains why Galileo wasn’t formally exonerated until just a few years ago). Fundamentalist Protestants responded with the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. There simply is no problem, they say: the Bible is always right. Roman Catholics avoided the biblical question with the doctrine of papal infallibility. The Pope decides what the truth of the Bible is and the Pope is always right.

Christians between those poles have taken on the more difficult task of judging each case individually. So when the Bible says women should keep silent in church, this is dismissed as reflecting ancient gender roles. When the Bible says slaves should obey their masters, even abusive ones, this reflects that Bible’s acceptance of slavery as a part of ancient culture. People in biblical stories having fits weren’t really demon possessed but suffered from epilepsy or some similar medical disorder. And so on.

Of course this approach is open to the criticism that one simply picks and chooses the pieces of biblical teaching one likes and finds some excuse to toss whatever is inconvenient. This is exactly the accusation being made against ELCA supporters of gay clergy. Yet this isn’t how it works in practice.

Instead, the process involves a genuine wrestling with biblical texts, as well as with history, science, personal experience, and any other factors relevant to the issue in question. Further, this isn’t decided by any individual but involves as much of the church as wants to join in. The result, of course, is that there isn’t any one simple authority, be it a book, a pope, an ayatollah, or a “council of elders.” The authority rather is simply the process of thought, study, debate, and discernment, with the commitment of those involved to seek the truth and with a trust in the guidance of the Spirit. For those wanting quick and clear judgments this can be very frustrating.

What this process recognizes, however, is that life is not about “getting it right.” It’s not a game show or a class with a killer final exam. Life, as God has given it to us, is about learning and discovery within a community of love and faithfulness. It’s not about jumping through hoops but living freely and creatively under grace. Being right is important if life is about scoring points. Discovering the truth is important if life is about maturing and growing and becoming the people we have been created to be.

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