I have decided to start my fundamental belief blog entries with the Bible. Why? Well, in my own personal experience, how you view the Bible has an overwhelming impact on your approach to Christianity and on your theological beliefs.
Like most protestants, I grew up with a divine, literal view of the Bible. First and foremost, the Bible was seen to contain the very words of God (i.e. it had divine authority). As a child, I could almost envision God reaching down and holding the hands of the Bible's authors to ensure they got everything exactly as God had intended. So with that perspective, when you read something in the Bible, you read it as if it was God himself (I know...herself, itself, whatever) was standing there mouthing the words along with you. So you didn't question the logic or rationale or applicability to today's world and culture, you just accepted it as God's words. (As a sidebar, it is interesting, isn't it, that we assume the Bible must be read literally - it is as if we have concluded that the authors of the day, even if one still believed that God was the author, couldn't have written in metaphorical language.)
And not far behind the divine authority thinking was the literal thinking. Yes that's right...the Bible is to be read literally unless the language is CLEARLY metaphorical. So the earth was created in six days (not five or seven) . Adam and Eve were real people in a real garden (apparently having a lot of sex since they needed to populate the entire planet...but as a child, this didn't really mean much I guess), and there was a real tree with apples and a real snake going around convincing people to take a bite. And of course there was a flood and an ark...how else to explain the extinction of the dinosaurs? And yes, that Red Sea parted upon command, and there was a guy named Jonah who was actually swallowed by a whale and lived there for a few days (And why not? You couldn't beat the rent I bet.). And that's just a few highlights from the Old Testament. Wait for the New Testament...Jesus was born of a virgin, a star lead people to Jesus, Jesus walked on water, turned a few loaves of bread into a feast for thousands, turned water into wine, physically rose from the dead, and so on, and so on.
And I'm not kidding...I saw it all as literal (except for those few parts of the Bible that the preachers and Sunday School teachers didn't like so much or couldn't explain...so those were a little more fuzzy and confusing). "Come on" you must be thinking. And to my own defense, let me say (with all modesty), I'm not a stupid or gullible person. But when you grow up on this stuff and it is taught to you the same way that 2+2=4 is, it tends to have quite an impact on your normally rational brain.
Now like many, though, as I got older, certain things didn't seem to make as much sense. But, to be honest, since I didn't dwell on those types of questions that much (otherwise, I'd being going to hell, right?), there weren't a lot of Bible stories I needed to come up with a rationalization for. But things like Adam and Eve populating a planet, for example, you start to question. And not eating certain foods or mixing different fibres in clothing...oh yeah, those we were able to justify as being "Old Testament teaching"...the New Testament overrides all that law stuff...well, except for the Ten Commandments, and that verse on homosexuality, and...well, you get the idea. And of course, then there was the Revelation material. Parts of that just didn't seem right...I couldn't envision all those coloured horses, for example. But don't get me wrong...I got to watch all the classic end times movies as a child (you remember the ones...where the characters were forced to get 666 branded on their wrists or foreheads - or with embedded microchips if it was a really advanced movie; and who could forget that guillotine in the middle of town chopping off people's heads who didn't get "the mark" - more than one person went running up to "get saved" after seeing that). So regardless of how strange some of it read, there was a lot of Revelation that you were sure was going to happen (somehow)...you were still waiting to hear that trumpet (literally!).
And then I read a book called The Pagan Christ by Tom Harpur, who argued, amongst other things, that many of the Bible's stories were essentially based on earlier Egytology stories. To be honest, I didn't particularly enjoy the book or respect Harpur's research and writing skills. But, the book did trigger my interest so, for that, I owe it some gratitude. My next stop down the Bible prospecting path was a book called Misquoting Jesus, by Bart Ehrman. This was a very interesting book focused on textual criticism of the Bible. From this book, it was clear to me that the words that are in the Bible have changed so much over the hundreds of years since they were written that if they ever were the "direct words of God", they aren't anymore. Several books later, I came across Marcus J. Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. This is a fabulous book that I would recommend to anyone who has read or may read the Bible. This book, along with several others written by Borg (which I will refer to in future blogs) have helped shape my current thinking to a large degree. I won't be able to do this book any justice in this short form, but suffice it to say that my fundamental belief statements below have been heavily influenced by and drawn from a lot of Borg's material.
With that, I will attempt to summarize the essence of my fundamental beliefs about the Bible:
(1) The Bible is a human product - capturing the experiences of the ancient Israel community and the early Christian community and their responses to God and Jesus. It does not contain the very words of God.
- As such, it is not a divine product (i.e. not the very words of God).
- It contains these ancient communities' "stories about God's involvement in their lives, their laws and ethical teachings, their prayers and praises, their wisdom about how to live, and their hopes and dreams. It is not God's witness to God (not a divine product) but their witness to God. (1)"
- Specifically with respect to the early Christian community's stories, the gospels (i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are the product of a "developing tradition" (1). That is, in the time between Jesus' life and the time when the gospels were written, there was an evolution of thinking about Jesus' life, message and mission. As a result, the gospels "contain some material that goes back to Jesus and some that is the product of the early Christian community - to use a vocal analogy, the gospels contain more than one voice: the voice of Jesus and the voices of the community." (1)
- With this belief statement, I do not deny the concept of inspiration, but I do not see it as direct inspriration of the words. I believe the authors had God-experiences (in a variety of forms) which inspired them to write their books/letters. But the words and thoughts are their words, not God's. Having said that, I also do not deny the wisdom and insight we can get from the Bible (more on that in belief #3 below).
- My reasons for concluding that the Bible is a human product as opposed to a divine product are many. Overall, though, to claim that the Bible has divine authority seems to me to be an arrogant and almost incomprehensible argument. If it has divine authority, how does one explain the inconsistencies and errors in the Bible itself? How do you reconcile this with the canonization process that took place where man (or men) decided what would go into the Bible? How do you deal with the changes to the texts that have been made over the years as a result of translations and mass production of the Bible? How do we justify the suggestion that God stopped communicating to man in any form that should be documented and seen as sacred as of about 135 CE (nothing from folks like Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Graham)? And does it make sense that God only spoke to Middle Eastern men (i.e. no women and no other ethnicity)? These are just a few of the types of questions and considerations which have led me to conclude that the Bible is a human product (maybe more on this topic specifically in a future blog entry).
- Interestingly, with the view that the Bible is a human product, it allows one to read and appreciate the sacred writing of other major religions and recognize them for what they are - a human response to "the sacred" (a term Borg uses a lot in reference to God, and a term which I have grown fond of) reflecting their language and culture.
(2) The Bible contains a mixture of history and metaphors. As such, it should not be (and was never intended to be) read literally. Instead, readers should adopt a "historical-metaphorical approach" (1) to gain a more complete understanding and appreciation of the Bible and the meaning of its stories.
- The Bible clearly contains some stories that are grounded in history. Likewise, there are clearly metaphors and metaphorical narratives in the Bible.
- After adopting my first belief about the Bible, there was a bit of a domino effect. If the Bible doesn't contain God's words, then I don't need to see the words themselves as literal, infallible and absolute truth. Instead, the words are related to the time and place of the authors and grounded in the culture of their time.
- As such, the Bible should be seen through historical and metaphorical lenses (1).
- The historical lens refers to reading the Bible in the context within which it was written. For example, understanding the state of political and social dynamics of the time sheds a great deal of light on the Biblical texts. (Reflecting on my experience within Christianity, it seems to me that we tend do this only for certain passages that we would like to "explain away" - for example, the role of women in the church, etc.) It should be noted, however, that the danger in just employing a historical approach is that it will become only a factual, scientific view of the texts looking only for the historical meaning and thereby not addressing (or ignoring) texts which are "saying something about God or about events that go beyond the boundaries of what is deemed possible by the modern worldview" (1) and not interpreting the potential meaning of the text for current-day readers.
- The metaphorical lens recognizes that much of the Bible's language is obviously metaphorical and that the Bible contains both history and metaphor (i.e. some events really happened and, in other cases, there may be little or not historical factuality behind the stories). As such, it seeks to understand the metaphorical meanings of the text, regardless of the historical factuality of the events themselves. The metaphorical lens emphasizes that the Bible can be "really true" even if not "literally true". As a lens, it emphasizes "seeing, not believing - the point is not to believe in a metaphor, but to see in light of it" (1). The danger with adopting only this lens is that the reader's imagination will "roam too freely, producing uncontrolled, fanciful interpretations that have little or nothing to do with the actual text" (1). So the metaphorical approach is balanced by the historical approach as well as the "discernment of the community" hearing the metaphorical meanings being suggested.
(3) The Bible is a sacred document for Christians. It is the foundation document for our faith with which we should be in "continuing conversation" (1) and from which we can better understand the character and will of God.
- In this context, sacred does not refer to the Bible being of divine authority (see belief #1 above). It refers to the fact that the Bible is sacred because of its "status and its function. Its sacred status for Christians means that it continues to be the most important collection of documents we know. As sacred scripture it functions as...our foundation document, our identity document and our wisdom tradition. To be Christian means to be in primary continuing conversation with the Bible as foundational for our identity and vision...for the Bible is at the heart of Christianity." (1)
- Given that the Bible is a human product, the "continuing conversation" should be both from a critical viewpoint (i.e. deciding and discerning what passages are relevant to our time, or discerning/interpreting meanings of texts) as well as from a more open viewpoint whereby we allow ourselves to learn from and be shaped by the wisdom in the Bible.
- As such, as Christians, the Bible should be used to help us deepen our relationship with God (by better understanding His character and will) and transform us. This is done by seeking the wisdom and meanings of texts and stories from the Bible.
(4) The Bible is a mediator to God (i.e. a sacrament).
- A sacrament is "a finite, physical, visible mediator of the sacred, a means whereby the sacred becomes present to us"(1).
- As Christians, the words of the Bible can become a mediator to God, addressing us in the present...helping us better understand the character and will of God...helping us to transform our own lives and deepen our relationship with God.
- For many, the Bible as sacrament is experienced in daily "devotions" (e.g. reading of the Bible and prayer). For others, it may be contemplations of specific Biblical passages or meditation upon the Bible.
In summary, I provide a quote from Borg's book "The Heart of Christianity":
"The Bible - human in origin, sacred in status and function - is both metaphor and sacrament. As metaphor, it is a way of seeing - a way of seeing God and our life with God. As sacrament, it is a way that God speaks to us and comes to us. Within this framework, being Christian is not primarily about believing in the modern sense of believing certain propositions to be true. To be Christian means a relationship with God, lived within the Christian tradition, including especially the Bible as the foundation of the tradition, as both metaphor and sacrament. The Christian life is about a relationship with the one whom the Bible both points to and mediates - namely, a relationship with God as disclosed through the Bible as metaphor and sacrament. To be Christian is to live within this tradition and let it do its transforming work among us." (1)
POSTSCRIPT: ON FURTHER REFLECTION, THE ABOVE BLOG CONTINUES TO REFLECT MY BELIEFS ON THE BIBLE (3 YEARS LATER) ALTHOUGH I WOULD PUT LESS EMPHASIS ON A "RELATIONSHIP" WITH GOD, AND I WOULD ADD AN EMPHASIS ON LEARNING FROM OTHER "SACRED" TEXTS.
(1) Marcus J. Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 2001) and The Heart of Christianity (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 2003). Marcus J. Borg and N. T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 1999).