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.


Anonymous said...

I know a few woman that practically spit if you mention Paul. Perhaps a change in attitude would repair his reputation.

Thy shall not have any idols before me- this should include any book written and assembles by humans, no matter how much truth it contains- David Mc

Chris said...

Pastor, I fear you're ready to throw out the baby with the bath water - or the baby with the straw, to use Luther's image of the Bible as the manger for the Christchild. Borg's "sensible response" chucks the whole package. If the Bible is merely the record of a people's experience with the divine, then all writings of this nature are equally useful for Christians, and the content of the Christian faith becomes nothing by being everything. The answer to biblolatry is not to give up on the word of God, but to follow the Lutheran Confessions in understanding HOW the Bible is the word of God, starting with Apology Article IV: "All Scripture should be divided into these two main topics: the law and the promises." (see also the following sentences.)
Even so, the Apology doesn't include the Jewish dietary and ritual laws here - they were for a particular time and place. Luther said clearly, they are not binding on Christians in any way (Luther said not even the Ten Commandments are binding on Christians!) Similarly, I think, this quotation from 1 Timothy is for a particular time and place. The writer tips his hand when he writes "I permit..."
There's more to be said about this. But I would urge you not to give up on the Bible as the word of God, and to use the Lutheran confessions to guide you in understanding what that could mean for us now. Peace!

Doug said...

Chris, thanks for your response. I do understand that the traditional Lutheran hermeneutic has an appeal. I was taught it and, for awhile, bought it. But now, when I get to your appeal at the end, my response is “Why?” I think the weakness of Lutheran theology is that it often over-plays its cards. “Law and Gospel” was a helpful tool for both interpretation and proclamation. But it was never the only tool and today its value is fading. (The same could be said for “justification.”)

Theologically, Luther and the reformers were operating from an essentially medieval mindset. That world was already fading (hence Lutheranism’s decline into “dead orthodoxy” in the 17th century) and is now long gone. Attempts by people like Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Bonheoffer and Tillich to move the Lutheran worldview forward have always been sidetracked and never embraced by its mainstream. Now Lutheranism is fading away like snow in the spring, hanging on in places like those icy piles in the parking lots.

I disagree that Borg “chucks the whole package.” Other similar writings may be useful but not equally so. What defines Christianity is that it is the biblical writings from which we draw our identity. We’re not concerned with how to interpret the Koran or Upanishads—they’re not our writings.

The “content” of the Christian faith that matters now is not dogmatic but ethical and existential. Who are we, how do we live, what ultimately is of real value are the questions we struggle with today; not how am I saved or how do I get right with God. While our worlds are very different, such existential questions are found throughout the Bible. Reflecting on the struggles of the Bible’s people is, at the least, a valuable place to get perspective on our own struggles. Hearing their stories can also help us find meaning and hope, especially in a world so often characterized by confusion and wrenching transition.

Chris said...

Doug, thanks for sharing your thoughts. In response to your question, "Why?" - why not give up on the Bible as the word of God, (and, implicitly, "why be Lutheran"?) there are at least two reasons:

1. Truth in advertising. You are a pastor of the ELCA, which says in the statement of faith part of its constitution both that God has a message for us that is both Law and Gospel, and that "this church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life." You promised, in your ordination, to preach and teach in accordance with the Holy Scriptures, the creeds, and the Lutheran confessions. If this is a promise you find you cannot now keep, it might be good come clean about that and perhaps consider ministry in a different context.

2. Because God has something to say, a Word that says and does something. Lutheran theology rightly understood has never been about dogmatics for dogmatics sake. Dogmatics exist for the sake of proclaiming that Law/Gospel message of God mentioned above. They're about fundamental convictions about who God is and who we are, the very questions you say people are asking today. Of course we should engage people where they are at, and engage the questions that they have, even explore with them when we are unsure ourselves. But ethical and existential questions do not exclude dogmatics. We have these fundamental convictions to apply to their, and our, questions. There is a danger that when you make our questions (vs. God's message) the center of what we do as church you exclude the possibility that we might not be asking the right questions, or delving deep enough into who we are and who God is.

I find in your approach (as articulated in your most recent response) an inherent contradiction. You are quick to dismiss the insights of the Lutheran Reformers because of their obsolete worldview, but are happy to embrace the insights of ancient people who are even further removed from our time and culture.

The Lutheran proposition has never been in the mainstream, even, I fear, among Lutherans. Luther himself predicted that it would never catch on among most people. But popularity and validity/relevance have never been coterminous.

Doug said...

Well, Chris, you can live in the world of Lutheran purity (if anyone can agree what that means) if you want to but it’s going to be an increasingly lonely place to be. Right now the ELCA is in “altar and pulpit fellowship” with the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Reformed, UCC(!), Moravians, and now Methodists. Whatever lip service we give to the importance of the Lutheran confessions it’s obvious that in practice they are rapidly fading into the background—as is true for comparable documents of the above churches.

In defending these affiliations the ELCA website quotes the Augsburg Confession: “For the true unity of the church it is enough to agree concerning the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.” The theological issues which were so important in the 16th and 17th centuries are hardly a memory anymore. They certainly mean little to the average person in the pew, as is true for the documents coming out of the struggles of those times.

The world has moved on and—slowly—the church is beginning to do the same. Your concern that people “might not be asking the right questions” typifies the old arrogance of ecclesiastical authority: “We the church will decide what your needs are.” People’s questions and problems are what they are—how can they be right or wrong? The church’s great fear is that people will wake up one morning and realize they have no need of it, which of course is exactly what’s happening. Can we imagine a “churchless Christianity”? I think it’s happening before our eyes. The church, of course, can’t imagine such a thing. It’s horror itself.

I do not dismiss the insights of the reformers. Luther and others had profound insights into the biblical tradition and the human condition. They were products of their times, however, (and Luther is much closer to the ancient world than the modern) and many of their concerns are not ours and many things they thought were true we now know are not. The same is true of the biblical writers and of all such people from the past. We can still read Aristotle with profit but I certainly don’t want my doctor using him as a primary source, as was the case in medicine until the Enlightenment.

There is a growing awareness that religion’s primary concern is with how we live, not what we believe. (I’ll be posting more about this shortly.) Religions of fundamentalism and dogmatism, of course, totally disagree but I believe they are increasingly behind the historical curve. People are voting with their feet and just about anything—brunch, golf, the gym, kids’ soccer, the New York Times, cutting the grass—can now beat out Sunday worship. Christianity is transforming, though with little help from its official guardians. Eventually it will re-center on the ancient tradition of Micah 6: 8, the golden rule, and the great commandment, i.e. the call to the life of compassion.

Chris said...

Doug, you're not hearing me, and I'm starting to suspect you can't. You've already pigeonholed me into your categories: dogmatist, purist, arrogant ecclesiastic - and dismissed me. So I suspect it's not worth my time trying to respond to those labels.

So let's go with "how shall we live?" Would that include keeping promises? How will you live now as someone who represents himself as Lutheran pastor - who promised at his ordination to preach and teach according to the scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions - but who now rejects the core of Lutheranism, and the confession of faith of the church body he represents? There is an ethical challenge worthy of your attention.

Doug said...

I’m not sure why you say I’m “dismissing” you or not hearing you. I hear you but I disagree with you. In any case, I try to focus these comments on the issues rather personalities.

For what it’s worth, I have been ordained for over 25 years. I do not intentionally provoke members of my congregations but I don’t hide what I think, either. This particular post, for example, appeared in last Sunday’s bulletin. And as I wrote, Borg’s book is one we are reading in a congregational study group. Nor have I hidden my beliefs from my bishops but have written to and spoken with them on many occasions on topics such as these. "Truth in advertising" is not a concern.

In expressing my ideas I certainly haven’t expected or received complete agreement. I have, however, been surprised at how much support I have gotten. What I have discovered is that far more people in our pews than we think are aware of the irrelevancy of much of church life. I have heard many times people thank me and express relief that someone has said what they have thought for years but kept to themselves.

As I said before, the world moves on and the church does, as well. I have not rejected “the core of Lutheranism” as you say, nor have I violated my ordination vows. My calling is “to preach, teach and administer the sacraments” and I have been faithful to that. In my ministry I believe I am both faithful to the gospel and to the evangelical spirit of the Reformation. It’s simply the case that the needs of people today are not the same as those of people 500 years ago. It’s the real needs of real people in the real world that are my concern and the church’s concern.

Anonymous said...

Doug, Keep doing what you feel is right. You're a brave leader indeed. I have to sometimes coax my pastor along these paths. I think our (older group) congregagtion actually enjoys the debates. David Mc

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