Saturday, October 31, 2009

Karen Armstrong: Think again about God

Karen Armstrong, British author and scholar of world religions, writes in Foreign Policy magazine that trying to dismiss or oppress religion only serves to bring out its worst inclinations. God and religion aren't going away so we need to figure out how to live with them, contra the "new atheists" like Dawkins and Hitchens.

These writers are wrong -- not only about religion, but also about politics -- because they are wrong about human nature. Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus. As soon as we became recognizably human, men and women started to create religions. We are meaning-seeking creatures. While dogs, as far as we know, do not worry about the canine condition or agonize about their mortality, humans fall very easily into despair if we don’t find some significance in our lives. Theological ideas come and go, but the quest for meaning continues. So God isn’t going anywhere. And when we treat religion as something to be derided, dismissed, or destroyed, we risk amplifying its worst faults. Whether we like it or not, God is here to stay, and it’s time we found a way to live with him in a balanced, compassionate manner.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The PARADE passing us by (Sunday Reflections for November 1, 2009)

Last month, PARADE magazine (the Sunday newspaper insert) reported the results of a national survey it conducted on religious attitudes and practices. Here are a few of its questions and answers.

1. Which of the following best describes you?
I consider myself a religious person 45%
I'm not religious but I observe the holidays/traditions of my religion 17%
I'm not religious but I am a spiritual person 24%
I'm neither religious nor spiritual 14%

3. Are you more or less religious than your parents?
More 19%
Less 38%
About the same 43%

6. How important is religion in your life?
Religion is the most important thing in my life 24%
Religion is an important part of my life, but not the most important 33%
Religion is part of my life, but not particularly important 22%
Religion is not a factor in my life 22%

9. How often do you attend religious services?
Rarely 30%
Never 20%

(The survey’s full results can be found here.)

For anyone who has been paying attention to national religious polls in recent years little of the PARADE survey results will come as a surprise. Nor should they come as surprise to anyone active in religious organizations in this country. They shouldn’t—yet it seems they still do.

I write frequently about the decline of religious activity and belief and if you’ve read those previous stories you may be thinking, “What, again?” But as I talk about these kinds of reports and listen to others talk about the state of organized religions, I continue to experience denial, disbelief or incomprehension. It’s not that people reject these kind of results as much as it is a kind of deafness and blindness—the proverbial head-in-the-sand. “If I don’t look at it maybe it will go away.”

Briefly, here’s what PARADE’s survey tells us. Over half of those asked do not consider themselves religious. For each person saying they are more religious than their parents, two say they are less religious. More than 4 in 10 say religion has little or no importance to them and half say they rarely if ever attend worship. At the same time over 80% believe in God or a higher power and three-quarters of respondents pray at least once-in-awhile. Only 1 in 10 believes theirs is the true religion while 60% say all religions are equally valid.

One interesting question PARADE asked was what movie dealing with spiritual themes people liked the best. The winner at 25% was the religious classic Ten Commandments. Over half, however, selected a not traditionally religious film, such as Ghost (the next most popular), It’s A Wonderful Life, Da Vinci Code, or Sixth Sense.

The survey doesn't help us much in understanding trends (no comparison with previous results) or with demographic differences (region, age, gender). When combined with other recent surveys, however, the picture is pretty clear. Interest in organized religion is falling and falling fast. Some of this is the result of people discontinuing religious involvement but more is due to younger people not adopting the religious practice of older generations. At the same time, however, people continue to be interested in spirituality and spiritual practices (and fairly conventionally as there was little interest in either astrology or psychics).

The implications, obviously, are sobering and ominous for America’s traditional religious organizations. We can expect that congregations will continue to close and national and regional church budgets and programs will continue to be reduced. The question is whether any creative response is possible. To this point, most churches have followed the strategy of “if it doesn’t work, do more of it.” For thirty years (at least) church administrators and independent gurus have trotted out one “exciting” innovation or program after another. Unfortunately they all have born a striking resemblance to each year’s “new” lineup from GM, soon forgotten as more of the same.

It isn’t very daring to prophesy a Christianity decades hence shrunken to a cultural footnote. As people today say “Let’s go to the Amish country in Pennsylvania,” tour guides in the near future may be giving bus trips to see the Lutherans in Minnesota. Already today, many churches in Europe are operated mostly as museums supported by taxes, admission fees and tourist contributions.

Unfortunately, most people within churches can’t imagine such a scenario or dare think of it. As a result, for example, the ELCA continues to operate eight seminaries despite having lost nearly a quarter of its membership. Similarly, we continue to imagine ministry done primarily by congregations with expensive, stand-alone buildings and expensive, full-time professional clergy. The impracticality and even impossibility of this, however, will soon be impossible to ignore.

Shrinking the church, while inevitable, is by itself not a response but a capitulation. Perhaps realistically it’s all the church can do. I keep wondering, however, how the church can re-invent and re-imagine itself to be a cultural agent for genuine good which addresses the needs of people and society as they really are today.

There is so much about the church and Christianity that we consider “non-negotiable.” Much of that, however, is exactly what people today have no interest in or use for: our traditions, liturgies, structures, theology and doctrines. Yet those same people continue to need and look for values, ethics, meaning, beauty, and spiritual depth for their lives—those things which religion has provided across cultures and across the ages.

In the midst of all this I continue to think of Jesus and his practicality. He reached out to meet the needs of people whoever they were and wherever they were. He was happy to just eat and drink with people. He showed little interest in participating in formal religion and was highly critical of its leadership. He showed the most interest in people society said were of little or no importance. And his philosophy was stunningly simple yet true to the scriptural tradition: love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself. It just seems that somewhere in there ought to be the seeds for a renewed and reborn church and Christianity.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Jewels of the system

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd reflects on the Vatican's current attempts to reign in American nuns. As she describes it, Rome wants them to be more "sepia-toned" and much more like their docile predecessors. She quotes author Kenneth Briggs that nuns who saw Vatican II as a call to reimagine their mission “started to look uppity to an awful lot of bishops and priests and, of course, the Vatican.” The result, however, was for the church to (once again) shoot itself in the foot, as more forceful nuns could well have blown the whistle on many of its current problems, in the opinion of Bob Bennet, lawyer and leader of the lay inquiry into priest pedophilia. “It’s a tragedy because nuns are the jewels of the system.”

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Adieu, Church of England?

Professional commentators and bloggers on both sides of the Atlantic have been having a field day with the Vatican’s offer to take in disaffected Anglicans, clergy and lay. Author A. N. Wilson sees this as the final push to end England’s established church—an event, in his view, that is long overdue.

"Although it will be a sad day for those Anglicans who have reached a parting of the ways, for Britain itself, the pope’s maneuver is actually good news. It will formally bring to an end the idea of the Established Church, and of the monarch as that Establishment’s symbol and head. Whatever our private religious allegiances, we Britons no longer want to force our royal heads of state to jump through those impossible hoops. The paradox is that a move by a conservative pope to ease the tender consciences of conservative-minded Anglicans will actually be a move toward the complete secularization of Britain, and an acceptance of its new multicultural identity."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Reformation truth revisited

I feel a need to bring attention to the good writing and thinking that I frequently come across, even if I don't have time--or feel the need--to offer much in the way of commentary. So that is what the next few posts are going to be and I hope to keep this up going forward. I will acknowledge in advance one of my main sources, Andrew Sullivan's The Dish at The Atlantic. In addition to his own writing, he and his assistants come across a lot of good stuff on topics I'm interested in.

Today and this week Lutherans, Protestants generally, and surely some Roman Catholics are remembering the beginning of the Reformation on October 31, 1517. With that in mind, here is a profound contemporary endorsement of Luther's doctrine that all of us are simil justus et pecator--at the same time justified and sinner.

The writer is a correspondent with Sullivan and quotes a work I am not familiar with. S/he endorses the Puritans (!) and correctly identifies contemporary fundamentalists of both right and left as missing this key Reformation insight. Their concern is much more for being right than about enabling transformation and redemption--to everyone's loss.
Efforts such as political correctness and movement conservatism are destructive of civil society and are based on nothing more than a chasing after the wind.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A place to vent your outrage

The American Bankers Association is holding its annual meeting this coming week in Chicago and major demonstrations are planned for October 25-27. Scheduled events include a protest in front of Goldman Sachs' Chicago headquarters and a prayer vigil. Information is available at Showdown in Chicago. If you're wondering "where's the outrage?" (see below) you'll find a fair amount of it here.

Where's the outrage? (Sunday Reflections for October 25, 2009)

“Where the hell is the outrage?” That is the title of a long post this past week by financial advisor and blogger Mike Shedlock. The post was in response to the announcement of the multi-billion dollar profits and employee bonuses of the huge Wall Street investment bank Goldman Sachs.

Shedlock is a strong supporter of free-market capitalism so the fact that Goldman made profits and paid bonuses is not what upset him. It was how they did it. Goldman, of course, is one of the “too big to fail” banks which received billions in government bailout money last fall. Those tax dollars were intended to keep the banking system from imploding and enable banks to loan money again. Yet as most anyone who has tried to get a loan has discovered, credit is still tight for both individuals and businesses.

To the consternation of Shedlock and many others, the big banks that took government funds are now making money again but are doing so not by lending but through speculative investments. In other words, the government bailout kept the banks afloat but that’s about it. Little of that money has found its way into the economy as credit. Instead, most of it is creating billions in profits for bank shareholders and billions in bonuses for bank employees.

Why is this happening? Shedlock relates at length the countless ways Goldman Sachs has been able to influence government policy and regulation. Goldman alumnae are everywhere: from the Treasury to the Federal Reserve to the White House. They are in almost all the other major banks and in countless corporations. Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin (Clinton), Henry Paulsen (Bush), and Timothy Geitner (Obama) all did time at Goldman. The company and its employees have poured millions into the election campaigns of both parties.

Goldman is the largest member of an elite society of banking and financial empires. For most people (including me), the Wall Street financial world is as bizarre and confusing as atomic physics. Few people deal with it directly yet, as last year’s financial debacle showed, it has enormous influence on the economic health of the nation and the world. Unfortunately what has been missing is any sense that such enormous power also carries with it enormous responsibility.

In response to another critique of Goldman’s practices, a past employee wrote this about the company’s unique environment:

I worked with a lot of great people who were compassionate, funny and even cool. I also met a lot of people who couldn't hide their snobbery even if someone paid them another million to do so. Most of the work is a grind and many supersmart people put their brains to work in this highly competitive place without really even looking up long enough to see the big picture. In their downtime they fix their bleary eyes on shopping and travel sites to get a hint of why they sacrificed so much in the first place. Money, prestige, cool stuff, hot dates, and good times. Oh, and some have families too (boats, multiple homes, private schools...).

Is this the American dream? Is this “the good life”? It takes highly intelligent, hard working people to execute the incredibly complicated (and mind-numbing) financial maneuvers of banking behemoths like Goldman Sachs. But to what end—either for those involved or for society?

In a recent speech, Obama economic advisor Larry Summers (not a Goldman alum) declared that it is time for change. "Financial institutions that have benefited from government support can, should and must use this moment to think about what they can do for their country. . . . [We have] one crisis every three years. Surely a system that produces this many accidents and accidents this severe is a system that is in very much need of reform."

Yet the need is much larger than preventing “accidents.” Credit and investment are essential to every economic participant. As the source of these funds, banks’ function is not unlike that of the public utilities which provide gas, water and electricity. Such companies could not stop delivering these essential commodities because they found a more profitable way to invest their money. The same should be true of banks and the credit they provide.

America, of course, is the world’s pre-eminent champion of free enterprise. Nonetheless, we practice capitalism not as an end in itself but because we believe it is the system most conducive to the prosperity of society as a whole, rather than the prosperity of a few. Businesses and the people who run them can be greedy or stupid—or both. Preventing these tendencies from causing harm to others is one of government’s essential roles.

Yet government can’t perform that role, if it has been co-opted by the interests it is trying to monitor and regulate. Nor can a free economy function when businesses are allowed to completely separate themselves from the social consequences of their practices and products. Nor can democracy function when it becomes obvious that certain segments of society are being grossly favored over others and the mechanisms for correcting such inequity have broken down.

With Goldman Sachs—a company salvaged just a year ago at enormous tax payer expense—about to pay out bonuses larger than what most people make in a lifetime, yet at the same time failing to provide the supposedly essential service it was rescued for, it’s hard not to see that there has been a catastrophic breakdown in our social compact. This is a recipe for both continued suffering and injustice as well as dangerous social discontent.

Thus says the LORD: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals — they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way. (Amos 2: 6-7)

Friday, October 16, 2009

Team Jesus thrown for a loss (Sunday Reflections for October 18, 2009)

The cheerleading squad at Lakeview Fort Oglethorpe High School in north Georgia got an unexpected civics lesson this semester. A couple weeks ago, the cheerleaders were informed by the district superintendent that a practice they had begun six years ago violated the US Constitution. Oops.

As happens at many high schools, the LFO cheerleaders hold a banner that football team members crash through when they come onto the field before the game. Sometime around 2003, however, they added an original twist and began painting inspirational Bible verses on the poster, such as: “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:14”.

The school is in the smallest county in the state (just south of Chattanooga, TN) yet has 66 Baptist churches, as well as dozens of others of other stripes. Church life is very important for the area’s approximatley 10,000 small town and rural residents. Still, the principle of church-state separation is hardly a secret and you might have expected someone to point out problems with the cheerleaders’ banners before this.

The whistleblower was not who you might expect. The mother of a LFO student recently took a law course at Liberty University, an evangelical school founded by the late Jerry Falwell. Though a committed Christian herself, she alerted the school district that, based on what she had learned, the cheerleaders’ banner probably violated the law. She was afraid the school was setting itself up for legal trouble and a few days later the district agreed. The banners had to go.

Residents don’t seem surprised by the decision but they’re also not very happy with it. Prayer meetings and rallies have been held in support of the banners but a challenge to the decision seems unlikely. As one resident said, the signs were “probably” unconstitutional yet he also believed in what he called “heart laws.” He said the Bible tells Christians to be bold witnesses and the signs were “a way of being bold.”

The incident raises questions on several levels. You have to wonder what is being taught in LFO’s social studies classes that such a basic constitutional principle is being missed. On the other hand, recent surveys have shown that in some states less than 5% of high school students can pass the constitution test required for naturalized citizenship.

This would seem to be a teachable moment. Several banners in the stands at the game following the banner-ban read, “You can’t silence us.” You? You who? Students and parents imagine some oppressive dark-force-out-there has taken away their banners. “They did it.” That force is the force of law and the United States Constitution, presumably our country’s most cherished legal possession.

Unfortunately both the district superintendent and the school principle have taken similar “we’re sorry but we’re being forced to do this” stances. Both professed personal support for the banners. The principal acknowledged he wished everyone were Christian “because I believe that's what's best” but admitted vaguely “you can't force anyone to believe what you believe." The superintendent who issued the ruling said she regretted doing so but she had “the responsibility of protecting the school district from legal action by groups who do not support their beliefs.” Yes, the constitution can be a nuisance sometimes.

Interestingly people in the community seem aware of First Amendment, freedom-of-religion issues that are at stake here. They just don’t like them. More than one said that verses from other religions would not have been welcome. The principal (!) even admitted that "As a Christian I would not have liked it if they had used verses from the Quran, and if I had known about it, I probably would not have approved of them doing so.” It seems even the adults could use a refresher course in the Bill of Rights.

The banners and the supportive attitudes expressed also raise questions about the nature of the Christianity being practiced here. A local youth minister defended the cheerleaders saying they were not trying “to shove religion down someone’s throat” but were only using the verses “to show motivation and inspiration to the players and the fans.” Cars, t-shirts and local businesses sport slogans like “LFO FOR CHRIST,” and “WARRIORS (the school mascot) STAND FOR JESUS.”

It’s hard not to conclude that at LFO Jesus has really become the school mascot and evangelical fervor is providing the inspirational energy to win football games. (I’ll let you interpret the game following the banner ban, a 34-0 shutout and first loss of the season.) It now seems nearly blasphemous for medieval Crusaders to have assumed God was on their side (with crosses painted on their shields). It’s hard not to see using Bible verses to fire up the team and the crowd before a game as a nearly blasphemous trivialization of the Christian tradition and the gospel.

One of the concerns of American evangelicals is that the country is losing its Christian heritage. What they don’t realize is that their response of trying to “Christianize” culture usually serves only to accelerate that process. Using verses like the sayings on those colorful “inspirational” posters hanging in office hallways doesn’t lead anyone to spiritual insight (let alone an encounter with God). Instead, they become as quickly forgotten and ignored as the slogans of last season’s marketing campaign.

The early Christians were firm in their beliefs but still went out of their way to avoid being offensive to their non-Christian neighbors. Today it can be nothing but offensive to refuse to recognize that we live in a multi-cultural and multi-religious country and world. Every community, no matter how small or insular, will have non-Christian members. They have the legal right to feel welcome and safe in public places and Christians have the responsibility born in Christian charity to support that right.

Our non-Christian neighbors are not the opposing team, let alone the enemy. We have not been called to “win one for Jesus.” Rather, the Bible speaks of our calling in language that is remarkably simple and universal. In Micah it says we are to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. According to Jesus we are to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.

I doubt such verses ever appeared on the cheerleaders’ banners. They probably wouldn’t do much to fire up the players or the crowd. Ironically, however, they probably would pass legal muster because these words or words like them appear in nearly every religious tradition and secular philosophy. They are words that bring people together and create community, rather than words that define a community by telling people who’s in and who’s out.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Religious revolution? (Sunday Reflections for October 11, 2009)

Almost fifty years ago a little book was published that shook up the academic world. It generated a whole new way of understanding how groundbreaking ideas come about, summarized in an innocent sounding phrase invented by the author: paradigm shift. The book was The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) by Thomas Kuhn. While Kuhn’s interest was in how new ideas came about in science, people quickly realized that the concept of paradigm shift could be applied to any field of knowledge or any way of understanding the world.

A paradigm shift is a dramatic, even violent, change in the way some aspect of reality is understood. One of the most well-known examples is the Copernican Revolution. Prior to Copernicus, people believed that the stars, sun and planets all orbited the earth. This was mostly theoretical until the late Middle Ages when increased commerce caused sailing ships to get more adventurous and head out across open seas.

To do that, sailors navigated by these heavenly objects. This required accurate charts telling them exactly where they would be in the night sky on specific dates and times. The only problem was that it couldn’t be done, at least not very accurately. Astronomers had the mathematical tools but no matter how much they tweaked the existing system they could never get it quite right. And even slight errors could send ships far off course.

They couldn’t give up on the earth-centered system, however, because there was no alternative—until Copernicus. He proposed that everything in the heavens orbited the sun, including the earth. Knowing how controversial his ideas were, he delayed publishing them and they didn’t become public until after his death. Thus it fell to Galileo to lead the charge for this radical new theory—and take the heat. Yet as emotionally and theologically distressing as it was, ultimately the Copernican system won out for one simple reason: it worked.

Kuhn showed that paradigm shifts are not gradual or evolutionary. Rather, they are complete breaks with the past which are, as Kuhn says, revolutionary. Other well known “scientific revolutions” include the theories of evolution, genetics, relatively, quantum mechanics, continental drift, and the Big Bang.

A new paradigm never makes sense from the perspective of the old one it replaces and is always disturbing to people accustomed to the old. Believers in previous paradigms are rarely converted. Adoption of the new idea really only comes about, according to Kuhn, when proponents of the old idea finally die off. The eminent British astronomer Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) went to his grave convinced the “steady state” theory of the universe was true long after most everyone else had accepted the Big Bang—a term he had coined to make fun of it.

As is true of their political versions, intellectual revolutions produce great results but they often aren’t very fun to live through. During the time of upheaval most people aren’t sure who’s right and who’s wrong. There is an awareness that the old system isn’t working—“but could this new idea really be right? It doesn’t seem to make sense.” The new proposed paradigm is usually so different and so disturbing that most people would rather put their efforts into fixing the old one. “It’s gotten us this far, hasn’t it?” People often have a lot invested in the old system. Some have built their lives and careers on it. “Do we dare give it all up?”

I have been convinced for some time that we are living at the beginning of such a revolutionary period. The article which reminded me of Kuhn’s book (I had to read it in college) was about the growing awareness of major problems with our economic system. Last year’s credit collapse revealed fundamental flaws in banking, finance and their regulation. Do they just need to be tweaked or is some more fundamental change needed?

Similar questions are being asked about nearly every other area of culture and society: health care, education, government at all levels, marriage and the family, energy, communication, transportation—you name it. The fact that we are much more aware of the problems than of solutions has spawned an ambiguous yet descriptive name for this period of human history: post-modern. It’s as if people of Galileo’s day had called their time “post-medieval.” Only in looking back do we call it the Renaissance—they didn’t know that’s what they were living in.

This time of pre-revolution also applies to another area of culture: religion. Notice I didn’t say Christianity, though it’s certainly included. The crisis (for that’s what it is) goes further than that and really includes all religions and indeed the very concept of religion. The reason is because we are becoming a global culture. Wherever one goes in the world, where globalization is taking hold, religion is on the defensive.

The most violent reaction to this, of course, is fundamentalism, some form of which has arisen in nearly every religion. Yet it clearly is a “fingers in the dike” response rather than a real answer. It will only hold back the water for so long. The dam, it seems increasingly obvious, is beyond repair.

Could religion be going away? The idea is probably as incomprehensible to us as the notion of the earth going around the sun was to people 500 years ago. But notice that these revolutions never do away with human experience. Rather they give us a new way of understanding and looking at that experience. Galileo didn’t say the heavenly bodies didn’t exist but that we needed to understand them in a different way.

I think we may be on the verge of something similar in religion. Clearly for hundreds of millions of people traditional religion has grown stale, tired, irrelevant, and even offensive—in short, it doesn’t work. People’s lives and the world they live in are putting new demands on religion that it isn’t able to meet. It’s not keeping our ships on course, if you will. We need something new to guide us and get us to our destinations.

What will religion’s paradigm shift be? We don’t know. That’s what makes living in this time so awkward, uncomfortable and indeed, to some, even frightening. Yet Kuhn’s survey of history shows that eventually the new idea appears. This is one of the most fascinating aspects of this phenomenon. Where and why it develops is a mystery. Indeed, we might even call it a miracle: the miracle of human imagination and creativity. And this is why we can yet rely on a traditional practice, faith. Somewhere, the Spirit is at work—still, again—showing someone the way ahead. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Karen Armstrong's "Charter for Compassion"

British religion scholar and author Karen Armstrong is leading a campaign for the world’s religions to adopt a “Charter for Compassion.” She went public with her effort in a speech accepting a TED Prize in February 2008. After taking suggestions from around the world, an inter-religious panel has been working to develop a concise statement of commitment to the core principals of compassion.

The statement will be unveiled next month on November 12. Below is a video of her 2008 speech which lays out her hopes and plans. It’s a bit long but well worth hearing. This year she gave a similar but shorter speech which you can find here. I will be writing more about the Charter soon. Armstrong’s recently published book, The Case for God, also supports this effort and I hope to post about it in the near future, as well. A recent post about Armstrong by Andrew Sullivan gives insight into the religious movement underway supporting her endeavor.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Ending bibliolatry (Sunday Reflections for October 4, 2009)

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope, To Timothy, my loyal child in the faith. . . . Women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
(1 Timothy 1:1-2, 2:9-15)

Is this “the Word of God?” Or is it just Paul’s opinion? Or is it actually someone writing in Paul’s name years after his death, trying to “correct” Paul’s radical gender inclusiveness (“there is neither male nor female”), as many New Testament scholars now believe?

A group in our congregation has just started reading and discussing Marcus Borg’s Reading the Bible Again For the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally.The opening sentence of his Preface says, “Conflict about the Bible is the single most divisive issue among Christians in North America today.” The ELCA’s churchwide assembly this past August certainly added support to that assertion, if any more is needed.

Again and again during the debates, speakers both pro and con read from and interpreted Bible passages to support their beliefs. I didn’t hear of anyone, however, being persuaded one way or the other by any of these arguments. Rather, both sides talked past each other, even as they both used the same Bible.

According to Borg, there are essentially two ways of looking at the Bible. One is to read the Bible literally and believe that all that it says is factually true. The other method is to understand the Bible historically and to see its truth being contained in the metaphors of its stories. It is not an exaggeration to say that a person using the first method to interpret the Bible is reading a different book than someone using the second.

Lutherans, like Protestants generally, place great emphasis on the Bible. Luther found the Bible to be the necessary corrective to the institutional and theological abuses of the church of his day. It wasn’t just what the Bible said that was important but it was the Bible itself that became a counter-balancing authority to the spiritual dictatorship that had been established in Rome and in the office of the Pope.

Once the Protestant churches separated from Rome, however, a new imbalance was created. Since no authority comparable to the Pope was established, the Bible became the new spiritual dictator. In theory, of course, dictatorships can be benevolent and this one sometimes was, but often it was not.

The passage cited above has been used countless times over the centuries to strictly limit the roles of women in the church and in society generally. The ones using such a text were, of course, male preachers and theologians. They were aided in doing so by the fact that, through most of the church’s history, they were much more educated than the average person (most of whom couldn’t even read) and that Bibles were rare and in languages few understood.

All this and much more has changed since the Enlightenment and the advent of the modern era. Now, no authority can get away with saying, “This is true because I say it is” (not even a boot camp drill sergeant). Every authority is “peer reviewed” and subject to some other authority and thus potentially can be overruled. Why should the Bible be any different?

The fundamentalist response, and even that of more moderate churches, is that the Bible is the Word of God. Ignoring whether or not it’s even clear what that means, such a statement is still a human judgment and only sidesteps the issue. More importantly, we now have two centuries of intense scholarly study which give us a much more plausible way of understanding the Bible than simply saying all its words are factually true because somehow they came from God. In the end, it’s hard not to conclude that biblical literalism really replaces faith in God with faith in the Bible (a suspicion further fueled by the tradition of many churches to put a large Bible in the middle of their altars. Why wouldn’t a stranger be justified in thinking that was the object of their worship?)

Borg offers a sensible and workable alternative. The Bible is not THE “Word of God” in a literalist sense. Rather it is a human response to God. Specifically, it is the written record of the early Hebrew and Christian communities’ experiences of God. “As the product of these two communities,” Borg writes, “the Bible thus tells us about how they saw things, not about how God sees things.”

And so we return to our opening passage. No, we do not have to assume that God cares whether women wear jewelry or how they fix their hair. Nor do we have to believe God proscribes certainly roles as being only for women and others for men. It is true that some leader of the early church believed those things (almost certainly not Paul) but we can decide, individually and as a church, what we think of his opinions.

For those wanting a clear and certain source of God’s opinions, this is not very satisfying. But the question is whether we were ever meant to have such a source. It is one of the main assumptions of the modern world that truth is something we need to find on our own, often with great struggle. It won’t simply be handed to us and we should distrust anyone who tries to.

Anyone who looks at the Bible honestly and as a whole will discover this is actually a truth ancient people understood. Indeed, it is the meaning of the life of faith and the experience of grace. We are in a constant search for truth. Sometimes we find it, sometimes not. Either way, however, we are blessed in our commitment to that quest. That is our experience of grace.

The Bible records the experiences of a particular community’s quest for truth, lived out in the belief God would love and bless them for their commitment to that quest. As fellow travelers on that way, we learn from and are inspired by their story, even as we create our own. Borg also describes the Bible as a sacrament, a means for encountering God. It is in continuing to reflect on the Bible’s stories and the experiences of its people, that we experience God as our companion in this journey just as they did.