Friday, March 04, 2011

Blessed questions (Sunday Reflections for February 20, 2011)

Timothy Beal is Professor of Religion at Case Western Reserve University and author of the just-published book, The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book. He concludes an essay this week on Huffington Post on the book’s theme saying,

The Bible is not a book of answers but a library of questions. As such it opens up space for us to explore different voices and perspectives, to discuss, to disagree and, above all, to think. Too often, however, that's not what happens.

I agree with Beal but that first sentence also that points to why this view isn’t often followed, as he himself recognizes. At bottom, most of us prefer answers to questions. “I don’t need more questions,” I can hear someone saying; “I’ve got enough of my own. What I need are answers.” What we want, as the 19th century evangelical hymn say, is “blessed assurance.” Questions don’t suggest assurance.

And this dichotomy in how we view the Bible is true for religion in general. Are religion and faith primarily about questions or about answers? You could say this is the main division within religion today. In fact, it is a fault line that has probably run through religion throughout human history.

It’s pretty obvious that fundamentalist religions are all about having answers, and this has been the irony of modern fundamentalism. In terms of their frame of mind and how they look at the world, fundamentalist Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, etc. are pretty similar. For this reason they often espouse very similar views on moral issues (generally very traditional and conservative). In terms of their actual religious beliefs, however, they would each condemn the others as wrong and in error. Theirs is the true religion and theirs alone.

In our shrinking world, however, such black-and-white theology is becoming increasingly difficult to defend. Such religious purity is mostly the concern of the clergy leadership. Average lay people often have a more open attitude because they are increasingly familiar with people of other religions and beliefs. Interestingly, fundamentalist leaders rarely debate other religions about their beliefs. They reserve most of their energy for fighting liberals within their own religion, seeing them as the bigger threat.

Just a brief look at the history of Christianity’s unending theological squabbles and divisions shows that Beal is, of course, absolutely right. He would probably accept rephrasing his sentence above to “The Bible is a book of answers and a library of questions”—too many answers because they don’t agree with each other.

A perfect example can be found in the Gospels of the past few weeks, which have been from the so-called Sermon on the Mount. A repeated phrase of Jesus is “You have heard it said ______ but I say to you ______.” Here and elsewhere Jesus joins in the already long tradition of debating about what scripture means. Nothing has changed in the two thousand years since.

It’s understandable that in the turbulence of the modern world many people are looking for concrete answers to life’s challenges and problems. This is especially true when that turbulence disrupts people’s lives very personally. But the black-and-white certainties of fundamentalism are really not answers at all because they refuse to acknowledge the genuineness of the questions. We really have learned new things; our world really is different now; we really must live our lives differently than our ancient ancestors did.

One of the biggest changes is in how we view our own lives. In the past most people, in most situations, simply followed cultural tradition. Modern people, however, experience their lives as remarkably free and open. We have choices previous generations never dreamed of. Where they were essentially given most of their identity, today we create ourselves. “Here is your life: now, what will you do with it?

Many people, and probably all of us at some time, can feel overwhelmed at such responsibility. Freedom can be scary and is certainly hard work. I think a lot of people have problems with this because we aren’t doing a very good job of preparing them for it or even helping them understand it.

I believe this is the new calling of religion: not telling people what to do with their lives but helping them understand life’s questions and finding answers that are good for them. I actually think this is what Jesus was up to. It’s what made him unique at the time and what got him into trouble. Rather than interpret old rules and traditions, Jesus confronted people with the opportunity and responsibility of their inherent freedom. Needless to say, it was too much for some people, especially the ones charged with enforcing the old rules.

It could be that only now have we become able to fully appreciate what Jesus was saying and doing. That suspicion may be what has been behind the recent attempts by scholars to get back to the genuine historical Jesus, freeing him from centuries of encrusted layers of church tradition and re-interpretation.

I think this also makes it more intriguing that the description adopted by Jesus’ earliest disciples was “followers of the way.” It seems they thought of themselves not as people who had arrived at some ultimate truth but as people on a journey, the term we now commonly use to describe our own lives. Religion’s traditional answers increasingly look like detours that take us off our journey. Religious questions, however, can give us the insight and the courage to continue on our journey, however difficult it might be and wherever it leads us.


Michael_SC said...

Speaking of the historical Jesus: I attended a Jesus Seminar On The Road last weekend in southern California. It was the most intellectually stimulating experience I've had in years, because the people and speakers there were all about asking questions and giving the best answers scholarship can provide, which is to say, tentative. I was also struck that the average age of the attendees seemed to be about 60. I wonder if, as we get older, after enough life experience we finally give up pretending that the simplistic answers are really answers, and are more open to the honest questions; and focus on the Way.

Doug said...

Thanks Michael. I think you may be on to something with your observation about age and openness to questions. And I envy your Jesus Seminar experience--glad it was a good one.

Michael_SC said...

FYI: any church can host a Jesus Seminar On the Road -- you can check the Westar Institute web site for details. I think some specific requirements are, a meeting space with some minimum number of seats, and a modest financial committment. Sometimes groups of churches work together to host it.