A planned Holy Week exhibition of a nude, anatomically correct chocolate sculpture of Jesus Christ was canceled Friday amid a choir of complaining Catholics that included Cardinal Edward Egan.
James Jensen from via the Internet writes:
"My name is James Jensen. I read of you through UU World and recently read Sins of Scripture (excellent book, by the way). Today I ran across an article on Wired entitled "The Church of Non-Believers." The author talks about a so-called New Atheism pioneered by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennet that is quite militant about their non-belief. They accuse moderate and liberal believers of being essentially accessories in the harm done by the fundamentalists and radicals. They make a few good arguments, essentially mentioning the fact that no politician in this country has declared himself or herself an atheist because it wouldn't be politically safe to do so. I can also sympathize with the idea that moderate and liberal believers aren't doing enough to oppose the fundamentalists, who strike me as not unlike the Nation of Islam in their approach to freedom and justice. It seems likely to me that this means there is going to be a new consciousness (as you term it) breaking through soon enough, but I am left wondering whether this will be more of a breakthrough in Christian thinking or in atheist thinking. In other words, is this the end of religion, or of atheism? What's your opinion on the matter? Personally, I am no longer sure what to believe and while I sympathize with atheism, it seems to me that without some basis in faith for proclaiming that life is not only good but right, crackpots are going to start thinking they can "fix"human nature, just like people have thought nature needs to be "fixed"and made more orderly — resulting, of course, in environmental destruction. After all, both the experience-affirming Carl Rogers and the utopian-behaviorist B. F. Skinner were chosen Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association"
Thank you for your letter. Religion is for many a vital and confusing subject and it justifies most of the criticism it receives. If religion were really about what the Religious Right proclaims, I would want no part of it. If my only choice was to be a Christian like the Falwells or the Robertsons, I would find atheism a compelling alternative. I believe that Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are expressing exactly that.
I met Richard Dawkins when I did some lectures at New College, Oxford University, several years ago. Just that day I had been reading Dawkins' book, "The Selfish Gene" at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. I found it fascinating. It was even more fascinating to discover that we were seated that night side by side at the High Table. I found the man personable and charming. Every theologian in England wants to debate him. Few come out unscathed. There is much irrationality in our God thinking and Dawkins loves to point it out. Does that mean that there is no reality in the human search for God? I do not think so. Does it mean that human definitions of God are always doomed to die? Because they are human creation I am convinced that they will. The God Richard Dawkins rejects is the one I also reject. What is in doubt is whether the God to whom I am drawn is real, whether the human yeaning for the 'Transcendent,' the 'Other' is real and whether Richard Dawkins' search for truth and my search for God are in fact the same search, but by different names. That is not so easy to answer.
I have never met Sam Harris. I have read him, read reviews about him and watched him at great length talk about his book and answer questions on C-Span. I think his work has articulated what many people feel. It is difficult for religious people to admit they might be wrong so when Sam Harris points out the flaws he finds in religious understanding, he elicits great hostility. Religious threat always produces religious anger. I found him to be dead set against the abuses he observes in Christianity. He sees no alternative to those abuses than to attack and rid the world of Christianity. I think a better alternative is to attack and to rid the world of that abusive Christianity, which suggests that ultimate truth has been captured in creedal forms, that God is an angry parent figure in the sky who wants to punish us but relents and punishes the Divine Son instead, and that followers of Jesus have the right to hate anyone who disagrees with them. I have no need or respect for such a religious system or for that abusive deity. That is also not the God that I believe I engage as a Christian when I worship.
So I welcome the Dawkins, the Harrises and the Dennets of the world and believe the Christian Church must be willing to listen to them, to hear their criticisms and to respond to them with the respect that their criticisms deserve. When we do that, I believe we will discover that Christianity can still be a vital and alive force in the 21st century.
John Shelby Spong
In summary, the Pentateuch story is Israel's decisive "identity story" - the most important story they knew that shaped their understanding of the divine-human relationship, their identity, their life together as a community and their vision of the character of God.
Within the story, Egypt and Pharoah are an archetype of the preindustrial agrarian empire - the most widespread way of organizing human society at the time. In such a society, roughly two-thirds of the annual production of wealth (mostly from agriculture produced by the peasants) ended up in the hands of the ruling elites. They acquired the wealth through taxation on agricultural production and direct ownership of agricultural land (with peasants working as share-croppers, day-labourers or slaves). The consequences for peasant existence were dire: unremitting labour, borderline nourishment, high infant mortality rates, and radically lower life expectancies. In addition to this economic exploitation, such societies were also known for political oppression (i.e. ordinary people had no voice in the structuring of society) and religious legitimation (i.e. the religion of the elites affirmed that the structures of society were ordained by God).
This was the world of Egypt and the world that Moses knew. The Pentateuch is Israel's story of radical protest against and liberation from such a world...and it affirms that radical criticism of and liberation from such societies is the will of God. The exodus story is about the creation of a world marked by freedom, social justice and shalom (well-being, peace and wholeness). The story is not just political though; it is also about God as God is the central reality of the story and God's covenant with Israel.
In summary, the Pentateuch is not about social justice without God; equally, it is not about God without social justice. The story thus brings together two areas of life that we tend to separate: religious passion and social justice.
And, as noted earlier, the story is also framed by the theme of "promise and fulfillment". It is interesting to note that this theme was strikingly relevant to the situation of the Jewish people in the exilic and postexilic periods - the years when the Pentateuch was composed in its final and present form (remember...when the Pentateuch was written, Israel had been conquered again, greatly reduced in numbers and exiled by another imperial power). So the promise of God that they would be "a great nation" seemed profoundly threatened again, as did their very existence. In this setting, they remembered and celebrated the promise given to their ancestors, the stories of Israel's liberation from a previous imperial power, and the gift of a new land and a new life.
Finally, for Christian readers today (and in all times) the theme of promise and fulfillment is relevant. As such, the story of the Pentateuch can be read metaphorically today with the key message being: in spite of life's threats and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, when birth and rebirth seem impossible, when powers of empires seem to rule the world...living in a manner that mirrors God's nature will enable us to make it through.
Personally, I think this is a much better and more reasonable take on the Pentateuch (as opposed to some Christians trying to take the Pentateuch and apply, in today's world, a set of ancient laws that were developed several thousand years ago for use within a developing nation after escaping slavery and oppression).
(For more on this - and most of the above - see Marcus Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time)
In the first, God creates the universe in 6 days and rests on the 7th day. It takes us through each of the 6 days in succession. In the second, the focus is on the creation of humankind...not on the creation of the world. In the first, humankind is created last (after everything else) whereas in the second, humankind is created first (before vegetation and animals). In the first, humans as male and female are created simultaneously, while in the second, man comes first, with woman coming later.
From a historical perspective:
From a metaphorical viewpoint:
On this last point, what went wrong (often referred to as the fall or the original sin)? There are different viewpoints including:
These various understandings can be combined. For example, the birth of consciousness in all of us as we move from infants to adults typically leads to pride and being centered in one's self. At the same time, the process of socialization leads to internalizing and living in accord with the agendas of others, including parents, culture and religion.
Given this combination of historical and metaphorical views, I can see the creation stories as profoundly true - not literally or factually, but in the truth of the stories' central claims. Borg says it like this: "This" - the universe and we - is not self-caused, but grounded in the sacred. "This" is utterly remarkable and wondrous, a mystery beyond words that evokes wonder, awe and praise. We begin our lives "in paradise", but we all experience explusion into a world of exile, anxiety, self-preoccupation, bondage and conflict. And yes, also a world of goodness and beauty: it is the creation of God. But it is a world in which something is awry.
The rest of the Bible is to a large extent the story of this state of affairs: the human predicament and its solution. Our lives "east of Eden" are marked by exile, and we need to return and reconnect; by bondage, and we need liberation; by blindness and deafness, and we need wholeness; by violence and conflict, and we need to learn justice and peace; by self- and other-centeredness, and we need to centre in God. Such are the central claims of Israel's stories of human beginnings.
A new way to look at the creation stories don't you think?
(Again, lots of credit to Marcus Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time for the bulk of this blog)
This second group typically take a "historical-metaphorical" approach to reading the Bible. By historical, the question is "What did this text mean in the ancient historical setting in which it was written?". By metaphorical, the question is "What does this story mean as a story, independent of its historical factuality?" With this view, the Bible is seen as a combination of history and metaphor. That is, some events in the Bible really happened. At the same time, there are "metaphorical narratives" in which an event that happened (or may have happened) is given a metaphorical meaning; or events are not based on a particular historical event, but which instead are purely metaphorical or symbolic.
To take this approach to reading the Bible, you need to move from precritical naivete to postcritical naivete. Precritical naivete is an early childhood state in which we take it for granted that whatever the significant authority figures in our lives tell us to be true is indeed true. In this state, Christians simply hear the stories of the Bible as true stories. Postcritical naivete is the ability to hear the biblical stories as true stories, even as one knows that they may not be factually true - that is, you can accept that their truth does not depend upon their factuality.
The remaining blog entries in this Bible Exploration series attempt to adopt a postcritical naivete viewpoint and a historical-metaphorical approach to reading the Bible and understanding its meaning for Christians.