Friday, May 8, 2009

The Blessing versus the Bane of the Bible

As a liberal Friend (as in progressive Hicksite, Beanite, Anthonyite, Woolite;-), I am very biblically focused, which sometimes confuses people who tend to think of the Bible as every thumper's rigid rule book which he uses to chastise others, bludgeoning them over the head, trying to drive out a legion of modern liberal ideals.

Isn't living Scripturally, fundamentalist?

And there is, too, right up front, the chameleon-likeness of how Scripture often changes into different meanings according to which religious group is quoting it.

This compendium, of sometimes contradictory, ancient spiritual and ethical texts acts as a Rorschach inkblot of squiggles, worded phrases where any and all humans find whatever they wish to see.

Slave owners see justification for human bondage, but abolitionists see the truth of liberty.

Augustine, Luther and Calvin see mostly a God of sovereign power and self-centered glory, creating a reality of damning theological determinism, but
Pelagius, Origen, and George Fox see God as empathetic father with limitless love for everyone, lighting all of reality with creativity and beauty.

One can even become fluent in Greek and Hebrew and read enough tomes for a PhD. and still fall victim to the humor (or is it the tumor?) of proof-texting:

A person wants to know God's will. He opens his Bible and reads:
>And he went and hanged himself.

The person worries; there must be more than such an awful command.
So he opens to another verse:
>Go and do thou likewise.

Surely that must not be God's will.
The person flips to another page:
>What thou doest, do quickly.

Also, for many Christians (not many Friends), the Bible is a flat inerrant book.

Immoral actions in I Samuel are given equal weight to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Joshua and Judges carry equal weight with Jesus and Acts.

That is why Bernard of Clairvaux, Oliver Cromwell, Stonewall Jackson and R.L. Dabney, Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman could justify the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of humans in the name of Jesus.

They, actually, were following Joshua, not anything that Jesus did or said. They held that O.T. actions and commands are still valid for Christ-followers. According to them, Jesus' words only apply to personal relationships, while the O.T. orders for slaughter, slavery, conquest, theft, deception apply to government and us as a nation.

Evangelicals think the Bible must be inerrant because Scripture is the very words of God, and God wouldn't create a book of errors.

In sharp contrast, thank goodness, early Friends realized that the words of the Bible witness to Christ, who is the Word of God, who represents true reality (like an ambassador represents a nation in the UN). Scripture must be interpreted by Christ's Spirit, not by a theological flat literalism.

We are to reject texts that contradict Jesus' life and words.

So how then is one to be instructed, guided, and inspired by Scripture as a liberal Friend?

Here are a few suggestions that I learned the hard way. I kept bumping into the low theological literal doorway until I finally realized there was a wide-open-to-the-heavens alternative. Some of this came by the help of wiser persons of hope.

#1 Written by humans (as well as inspired by God), the Bible is ancient literature which needs to be interpreted like other writings. For instance, in Genesis 1, a reader doesn't assume this poetic praise to God for creation is a modern scientific explanation of the cosmos. Rather it is a symbolic hymn to the Divine, a celebration to the wonder of existence, and a declaration of the importance of the Sabbath.

#2 Unlike much secular literature, within Scripture there is a witness to God--to Truth, Goodness, and Love.

This is true sometimes in spite of the literal meaning of various texts, not because of it.

And there are many key passages throughout the Bible which will transform our lives if we live in them. For example, try this. Read I Corinthians 13 every day for a year. Whenever the subject refers to love, insert your name.

[Dan] is patient;
[Dan] is always kind;
[Dan] is never envious or arrogant with pride...

Practice those words of ethical truth.

I'm still working on the very first one;-)

#3 The whole Bible is not one consistent theological treatise using 21st century standards of rationalism and logic.

On the contrary, the books of the Bible (the book is a library of ancient texts) often disagree and are filled with symbolism and much paradox.

Hebraic thinking was mostly image-based and concrete, while modern people often expect information to be logical and abstract.

The Bible doesn't try to philosophically prove theism. It assumes God IS
and focuses on images of what God is like--a father, a mother,
a romantic lover, a shepherd,
a just king, a strong tower,
a shield, a consuming fire...

(Thanks to Professor James Kallas for showing the paradoxical nature
of literature in the NT.)

#4 When interpreted by people of hope, an individual can find true guidance from God. This isn't easy. But when was Life ever easy?

Are any of the other ethical systems of ethics reliable?

Too often they amount to the "end justifies the means."

Life is a dangerous journey not a walk in the park, not the Garden.

But if we seek transcendent Truth with our whole self, we will discover new vistas of living.

#5 Much of the Bible is filled with stories of individuals encountering God.

These encounters (and even some ethical rules) are told from the humans' point of view and often display distorted, at times even evil twists.

For instance, the devout Jewish Pharisees and Scribes (textural scholars) said that divorce was okay because Moses had gotten the Jewish law from God, and then they quoted the Old Testament (the Jewish Bible)

In contrast, Jesus countered that divorce had never been God's idea, not the Truth, but Moses permitted divorce because of the "hardness" of humans' hearts.

Mark 10:2-12:
2 And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" 3 He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" 4 They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away."

5 But Jesus said to them, "For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 7 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two but one flesh.

9 What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder."

10 And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 And he said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."

Jesus held to very strict ethical ideals! For a primer on how to live as a Friend of Jesus, read the Sermon on the Mount.

On the other hand, Jesus is very compassionate when we fail. When he met a woman at the well--an immoral one who had had five husbands and was living with another man-- Jesus didn't launch into a condeming speech.

He asked her for water. Imagine that!

A Jewish rabbi asking an immoral woman in public for water.

Furthermore she was an enemy of the Jews, a despised minority and a heretic too, but Jesus loved her and shared with her Living Water.

#6 Scripture is not the end of revelation but the foundational beginning. Revelation continues.

For example, early in the biblical narrative (I Samuel), the text claims that God "tempted" David.

Later, however, in Chronicles, the biblical text changes the story and states that "the Adversary (the satan) "tempted" David.

And James in the New Testament totally contradicts all of the past literature, emphasizing that God never tempts anyone.

In the O.T. according to the text, God ordered Israelites to slaughter every single human in villages, including children and infants.

Indeed, Psalm 137 blesses people who bash babies onto rocks to kill them!

But in the New Testament, the son of man says to let the little ones come unto him and that if anyone hurts a child, it would be better if the person were hung with a millstone and dumped into the sea.

Every child is precious to God. All ancient texts need to be interpreted by Christ's ethical insights.

As one leader stated, God sent a prophet, not a proposition.

The key to understanding the Bible is to remember, the book (written over thousands of years) demonstrates increasing truth, increasing ethical insight.

What is condoned or ordered in the O.T. is often strongly condemned in the New.

David kills 200 men and mutilates them--cuts off their foreskins--as a present for his first wife! (1 Samuel 18:14-28)

But in the NT, Peter doesn't mutilate or kill others. On the contrary, Peter blesses and encourages the Roman jailer who had him tortured!

Who among us today, even the most literalist fundamentalist would encourage or order soldiers to behave like David?

In total contrast to David's actions, we are supposed to live in peace with everyone, even love our enemies.

James says violence and war come from selfishness, not from the Spirit of God (James 4:1-7). How many of us pray for the Islamic State leaders and the Taliban bombers every day?

Are Friends making an effort to give the Good News to them?

Would any person of hope in modern time
(excluding Christian soldiers of the Spanish Civil War under Franco and some Muslim jihadists) think it morally right and the will of God to kill others and mutilate them?

Yet in 1 Samuel verse 14 says "David behaved himself wisely in all his ways; and Yahweh was with him."

What a LIE!

Evidently, one has to judge such a declaration as not true when evaluated by the Spirit of Jesus.

A good interpretive method is to remember that what is ethically condemned in the Old Testament is even more stringently true in the New and now in the present.

Jesus said the act of adultery had been condemned in the OT., but he emphasized even lusting in one's heart for a woman who has committed her life to another man is sinful.

The closer one comes to the Truth of God, the holier one must seek to live in the Light.

Since the closing of the NT canon, there have been many further developments in ethical truth.

Most humans (except for a few Reformed and Muslim thinkers) now hold that slavery is inherently evil despite the fact that neither the O.T. nor the N.T. claim slavery is wrong, let alone evil.

This new ethical truth finally shown forth with clarity among the Mennonites/Brethren of the 16th century, then eventually among the Friends of the 18th century after the witness of John Woolman, and among some Methodists of the 19th, etc.

Finally the total ban on slavery was accepted by most people (though a few Christians and some Muslims still defend the slave system).

Torture was practiced by Christians for centuries, justified by Augustine, the Reformers, etc. and is still held to be good by many American Christians today such as Evangelicals, but many humans now realize torture is contrary to the Light and Love of God.

Then there is the case of equality of the sexes and races...

To be continued

In the Light,