I want to begin with a Dom Crossan story. A year ago this March, Dom was the featured speaker at a weekend event at Trinity Cathedral in Portland. He gave an opening lecture Friday evening and then a series of talks on Saturday. Saturday morning, he began his first presentation by saying, “I want to tell you a story about something that happened last night. Last night after my lecture, while I was signing books, a student from the local seminary . . .” (Footnote: There’s only one seminary in Portland. It is the Western Conservative Evangelical Baptist Seminary, and all of those adjectives matter. And so, the audience immediately knew that he was talking about a conservative student.) “This student,” Dom continued, “said to me, ‘I told my professor that I was coming to hear you tonight.’ And my professor said to me, ‘You’re going to hear Crossan!?!? Why, why he’s to the left of Borg!’” That’s not the punch-line, though. Crossan continued the story, and he said, “So I said to the student, ‘Please give my best regards to your professor. And tell him that the real problem is that both Borg and Crossan are to the right of Jesus. And rumor has it that Jesus is to the right of God.’”And I start with that, partly because I love telling the story, of course, but also to suggest that whatever we do hear will still be to the right of Jesus, who is to the right of God. And whether that’s good news or bad news, I leave that up to you to figure out.
I’ve already mentioned that I’m very pleased to be here. And, in part, I’m pleased to be here because I love doing this kind of thing – namely, talking to religiously-minded people about things that matter. I’m very grateful for how my life has turned out. And I’m pleased to be here because of the importance of what you’re doing, and when I say you, I mean you as a group of people at an event sponsored by The Center for Progressive Christianity. You and the Center are part of a crucial process going on in the Church in North America today – a shaking of the foundations and a rebuilding of the foundations – and that leads me to the theme of my talk.
We live in a very interesting and important time in the life of the church. It is a time of a major paradigm shift. I planned to say this before I heard Bob Keck last night, but it is a time of a major paradigm shift going on in the minds and hearts of millions of Christians in North America. The shift is from an older and very widespread way of seeing Christianity, to a way of seeing Christianity again. Now this older, conventional way of seeing Christianity was dominant for hundreds of years. And, in an important sense, it worked. It nourished the lives of millions of people. But over the last thirty to forty years, it has become unpersuasive to millions of people in our culture. The newer way of seeing Christianity has been in the process of being born for a couple of hundred years, but until recently, it was known primarily in the academic study of religion, including what happens in many mainline seminaries. What is new about our time, is that this way of seeing Christianity again is now occurring at the grass-roots level of the mainline church. Over the past twenty years or so, large numbers of laity as well as clergy have been moving in this direction. And in this movement lies the hope and the future of the mainline denominations.
My own phrase for naming this development is that “a major re-visioning of Christianity is happening.” Now when I use the word, “re-visioning”, I mean seeing again. I do not mean what the word revision sometimes means, as when we speak of a manuscript or a term paper needing a revision – implying that there is something seriously wrong with it, and that it really needs to be redone. Rather, by revision, I mean, “to see again”. And, importantly, it is not that the older way of seeing Christianity IS the tradition, and the newer way, the revisioning and abandonment, or reduction of the tradition. Rather, both are ways of seeing the tradition. I want to claim the tradition for our side, if that’s not too polemical a way of speaking. The evidence that this paradigm shift is happening at the grass-roots level, is persuasive and impressive. I’ll give you three quick pieces of evidence.
The first is from my own area of specialization, namely historical Jesus scholarship. There is enormous public interest in the quest for the historical Jesus. Seven different books by Jesus scholars have been on Publisher’s Weekly ten best-selling lists in the 1990′s. The major news weeklies each have run several cover stories on the quest for the historical Jesus in the 1990′s. And at Easter, 1996, all three of the major weekly news magazines had the quest for Jesus as the cover story. There have been television specials on it, on A&E, on PBS, and again (I guess this is an advertisement, but maybe not) Monday evening, June 19th, Peter Jennings Prime Time is doing a two-hour documentary on the quest for the historical Jesus. This will be prime-time on a major national network. Again, a barometer of the level of interest in the historical study of Jesus and Christian origins. And what is true of Jesus scholarship, is true of biblical scholarship generally. There has never been so much public interest in works of biblical scholarship.
The second piece of evidence comes from my own experience, and also reflects the experience of Dom Crossan, Joan Chittister, and many other people like us who are on the lecture circuit. Most of us get far more invitations than we can accept. I do about twenty-five trips a year, speaking to about forty different Christian groups on those twenty-five trips, and I have to turn down two or three invitations for each one I accept. Dom Crossan has the same experience. Joan Chittister is scheduled two years out. And the people inviting us in are Christian groups – clergy conferences, yes, but also congregations of mainline denominations. And an experience that I frequently have on one of those trips is that the people will basically love what I am presenting. (They wouldn’t invite me otherwise, right?) But they also will be saying things that suggest that they feel very much alone. They’re bemoaning the fact that there aren’t more people out there who see things the way they are coming to see things. And I can say to them, as I say to you, there are hundreds, and I would guess, thousands, of congregations across the country that are deeply involved in this process of seeing Christianity again.
The third piece of evidence is the enormous resurgence of interest in spirituality in the church today, in protestant churches as well as in Catholic circles. What is fascinating about this, is that spirituality (I’ll have more to say about this briefly later in this lecture and then again tomorrow) is really the experiential side of religion. Spirituality is not very much concerned with beliefs or doctrines. But spirituality is about entering experientially into life with God. Spirituality cuts across denominations. It cuts across religious traditions. And it is part of this re-visioning of Christianity going on in our time.
That’s all very good news. Not surprisingly, it is also a time of conflict within the churches. Not everybody thinks this re-visioning is a good idea, and so there is also considerable resistence to it. So what I will be talking about, this morning in particular, is two different ways of seeing the Christian tradition, of seeing Christianity. The older conventional way of seeing Christianity, and the newer way of seeing the Christian tradition that has been coming into view for some time. Both visions are present in the Church today. They are visible in the great divide between mainline denominations, and fundamentalist and conservative evangelical churches – what one of my colleagues calls, I think non-pejoratively, the “fundangelicals”. But the conflict is also present within the mainline denominations themselves. I think every mainline denomination has a [usually] minority movement that stands against the direction the denomination as a whole is taking. The conflict is also present within individual congregations. These are two comprehensively different ways of envisioning the Christian tradition, and what it means to be a Christian at the beginning of the third millennium.
To provide you in advance with a shorthand way of comparing and contrasting these two ways of seeing Christianity: The older one emphasizes believing. It leads to a believing understanding of what it means to be a Christian. It sees Christianity as something to be believed in. Versus the newer way, a relational and sacramental way of seeing the Christian tradition – a relational understanding of the Christian life, and a sacramental understanding of the Christian tradition itself.
My central claim, both today and tomorrow, is that being a Christian is primarily about a relationship with God lived within the Christian tradition as a sacrament – a claim to which I will return at the end of this talk. I will be exploring and developing this theme of re-visioning Christianity. And now to provide you with a road map for the rest of my first talk, in good Trinitarian fashion (I noticed Bob Keck was following this last night, too, with his three periods of human development) there will be three parts to my talk. Part 1: I will do a brief sketch of the older way of seeing God and the Bible and the image of the Christian life that went with it. Part 2: Some comments about why it’s become unpersuasive to many. Part 3: which is really the second half of my talk, Seeing God and the Bible again. As I do this, I will speak as clearly and simply as I know how. The risk in doing that is that I may be telling you things that you already know. But my purpose in being simple, direct, and clear, is to talk about all of this in such a way that it can be immediately useful for your own thinking, teaching, preaching, and living the Christian life. My concern is, how do we communicate this in such a way that it invites people in, rather than perplexing them, or frightening them away? How do we do, not simply the task of deconstruction, but the task of reconstruction? So if what I say makes sense to you, I invite you to borrow shamelessly.
Part 1 – The Older Way
I turn to Part 1– the older way of seeing God and the Bible and the vision of the Christian life that went with it. This older understanding is what I, and I suspect many of us, grew up with. It was common or conventional Christianity as recently as a generation ago, and it is still the common understanding among our fundamentalist and conservative Christian brothers and sisters. I will describe this with three main points.
The first is how it saw God. There were two primary elements in this older conventional Christian way of seeing God.
The first is that God was seen as a supernatural being out there separate from the universe. The shorthand phrase for this way of thinking about God is supernatural theism. This way of thinking about God sees God as another being, to use Karen Armstrong’s phrase, in addition to the world of beings, in addition to the universe. Supernatural theism is what you get if you literalize or semi-literalize the personal imagery for God in the Bible, so that God becomes a person-like being.
The second element in this older way of seeing God is an interventionist way of thinking about the relationship between God and the world. From out there, God occasionally intervenes in the world or the universe, especially in the more dramatic events recorded in the biblical tradition, and above all, in Jesus. In shorthand, one might call this a supernatural interventionist understanding of God.
The second main point about this older way of seeing God and the Bible is how it saw the Bible. In shorthand, the Bible was seen as a divine product. For this way of seeing, the Bible is the unique revelation of this interventionist God. It is thus unlike any other book, for it comes from God, directly or indirectly, as no other book does. Now it’s easy to see why most Christians have thought this through the centuries. We regularly speak of the Bible as the Word of God, or as inspired by God. And very importantly for this older view, this is why the Bible has authority. We can take it seriously because it does come from God. The authority of scripture and its divine origin are linked.
Third, the way of seeing Christianity that goes with this older way of seeing God and the Bible I’m going to describe briefly with six adjectives, expanding each with a couple of sentences.
It was, in hard or in softer forms first, quite literalistic. Now the hard form of literalism is, of course, fundamentalism. But there’s also a softer form of literalism, namely, taking the Bible literally unless there are obvious reasons not to. It was this softer form of literalism that I grew up with. My Lutheran family and the Lutheran congregation in which I grew up were never very concerned about defending the literal truth of the Genesis stories of creation. We had no trouble expanding those days to geological epochs, and so forth. I never had to struggle against the dinosaurs or the fossil record. But, we took it for granted that the more important things reported in the Bible pretty much happened as they are described. At the time of the Exodus, the sea really did part to let the Israelites pass through. Jesus really was born of a virgin, really did walk on the water, really did multiply loaves, and so forth. That’s what I mean by soft literalism.
Secondly, that older understanding was quite doctrinal. Being a Christian meant believing the central theological teachings of The Church. If you grew up in a denomination in which the creeds were said with any regularity, it meant being able to say the creed without crossing your fingers during any of the phrases, or remaining silent.
Thirdly, that older understanding was quite moralistic. By this I mean two things. It was taken for granted, first, that being a Christian meant trying to be good. And being good meant trying to live in accord with the ethical teaching of scripture, whether that was understood as a narrow and highly specific code of righteousness, or more generally as following important principles such as the golden rule, loving your neighbor as yourself, and so forth. Secondly, by moralistic, I mean, we weren’t very good at being good. And so this older form of Christianity was pervasively centered on sin, guilt, and the need for forgiveness. By the way, it is utterly amazing to me how central that is. This came home to me with real force a couple of summers ago, when I was at a week-long event in a liberal Christian institution. Each day there was a chapel service at nine in the morning, attended by several hundreds of people – a liberal Christian institution. That chapel service every day began with a confession of sin. And I thought to myself, its nine o’clock in the morning, and we’ve already been bad.
Fourthly, that older understanding was patriarchal – not only in its use of masculine language for God and human beings but also in its hierarchical vision of human life, socially and within the family.
Fifthly, that older understanding was quite exclusivistic, in both hard and soft forms. The hard form of Christian exclusivism is, of course, the insistence that Jesus is the only way of salvation. A softer form might mean experiencing some discomfort with that, but feeling that’s been such a central part of the Christian tradition, one is not sure that it’s okay to let go of it.
Sixth and finally, this older understanding was afterlife oriented. Indeed, so central was the issue of the afterlife, in the form of the Christianity that I learned growing up, that if you’d been able to convince me at age twelve or so that there was no afterlife, I would have had absolutely no idea why I should be a Christian, or why I should be religious. Maybe being a Christian was about many things, but heaven was what it was really about. If I had to put this older understanding into a single sentence, it would go like this: Be a Christian now for the sake of salvation later. Or, the same thought expressed only slightly differently: Believe in Christianity now for the sake of heaven later.
It is this way of seeing Christianity that has come undone for many people. There is in our time, for many, a crisis of confidence about the Christian tradition. And Christians have responded to that crisis in a variety of ways. Many have left the church, of course, becoming what Jack Spong calls, “The Church Alumni Association”. Over that same period of time, the last thirty to forty years, as you all know, there’s been a major decline in the membership of mainline churches. That’s no accident. The decline in the persuasiveness of this older view and the decline in church membership have gone hand in hand. Other Christians vigorously defend the older understanding, and even argue that the reason the mainline denominations have declined is because they’ve grown soft about it. It is a time of conflict within the church, as I’ve already mentioned. Still other Christians remain in the church, or on its margins, but are looking for a way of being Christian that makes persuasive and compelling sense to them.
Part 2 – Why the older way has become unpersuasive
So I turn to Part 2. Why? Why has this older way of Christianity ceased to make sense for so many people? The simple answer is, because of whom we have become. So I turn to the second main point in my talk: who we are in the year 2000. And by “we”, I mean us, those of us gathered here today, and also people who are part of mainline denominations, and part of the demographic groups from whom the mainline has typically drawn its membership. Indeed, I really mean most of us in Western culture, and so I will be making cultural generalizations about us on a grand scale. The summary generalization, which I will then unpack, goes like this: Culturally, we live on the boundary between modernity and post-modernity. We are modern people, in the process of becoming post-modern people. I will develop this generalization in two stages.
I begin with modernity. We are modern people. By this I simply mean that we live during the period of modernity – that period of Western cultural history that began with the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and continues into the present. Modernity has two central characteristics that are most important for our purposes. First, modernity is marked by scientific ways of knowing. Indeed, it was the development of the scientific method and science that marked the birth of modernity. And secondly, modernity is marked by a material understanding of reality. This is sometimes called the modern world-view, or the Newtonian world-view. It is that image: reality is made up of tiny little pieces of stuff, all of it acting in accord with natural laws. It is that image: reality is constituted by matter and energy and the space-time universe. That understanding has already been superceded in theoretical physics, which I will also return to briefly, but that image of reality is still dominant at the level of cultural consciousness.
Though I am a critic of modernity, and will soon make two important criticisms of modernity, I am not one of those theologians who trashes modernity, as some of my colleagues do. So before I turn to those criticisms, let me briefly honor the genuine contributions to human and religious understanding made by modernity, and I provide you with only a partial list.
One of these contributions is the historical-critical method, which is applied not only to the study of the Bible, but also to the study of theology. It is a real treasure.
A second contribution is an awareness of historical and cultural conditioning – that how we see and think is pervasively shaped by the time and place in which we live, by culture, that there is no absolute vantage-point outside of culture or time. This means that there is no absolute knowledge. It is all relative, all conditioned. In a really important sense, we don’t know what the hell this is.
Modernity has also been marked by an awareness of religious pluralism and, among some Christians, an affirmation of religious pluralism. The exclusivistic claims of the Christian tradition have become deeply suspect to many of us. The notion that the creator of the whole universe would choose to be known in only one religious tradition, which just fortunately happens to be our own, strikes us as impossible. Indeed, if I thought that being a Christian meant saying that Christianity was the only way of being in right relationship to God, I couldn’t be a Christian.
Modernity has also seen significant progress in human rights: in democracy, in race relations, in women’s rights, in gay and lesbian rights.
Now in all of these areas there continue to be issues, conflicts, and resistance. But who can doubt that we are better off in these areas than we were a hundred years ago, even fifty years ago, even twenty-five years ago? I don’t intend that as a complete list of modernity’s contributions. Rather my purpose is to affirm that modernity has highly important and abiding positive accomplishments.
I turn now to modernity’s limitations, its shortcomings. In particular, I have two criticisms of the effects of modernity upon the religious life, and upon Christianity in particular.
The first. Modernity has made us skeptical about spiritual reality. If one thinks of reality as constituted by matter and energy in the space-time universe, if one has basically a material understanding of what is real, then the reality of God, a nonmaterial reality (allegedly) becomes very problematic. It’s no accident that death of God theology emerged in the modern period. The question of God, along with the question of the Bible, is, it seems to me, the central theological question in the Western church today.
Secondly, modernity has made us preoccupied with factuality, with scientifically verifiable facts and with historically reliable facts. Indeed (and it seems to me this is a very important statement about us), we live in the only culture in human history that has identified factuality with truthfulness. And by that I don’t mean the U.S. I mean modern Western culture. We have become, in a useful phrase that I owe to Huston Smith, “fact-fundamentalists”. Within the church, both biblical fundamentalists and liberals have been preoccupied with factuality. For fundamentalists, the Bible must be factually true in order for it to be true at all, and hence all of this concern with defending the factuality of scripture. Fundamentalists are profoundly modern. They identify truth with factuality.
We liberals have tended to follow a different strategy. We have tried to save a few facts from the fire. But both fundamentalists and liberals during the period of modernity have agreed: facts are what matter. This is what I mean when I say, we, fundamentalists and liberals alike, are fact-fundamentalists. This has had a pervasive and distorting effect on how we see scripture and tradition, indeed religion itself. During much of the twentieth century, Christians and much of Christian theologies was caught between the two sterile choices of literalism (in harder or softer forms) or reductionism – either defending the factual accuracy and uniqueness of the Bible, or reducing the Bible to what makes sense within the modern world-view. And this has had a further result. Christianity in the modern period has been preoccupied with the dynamic of believing or not believing. Believing iffy things to be factually true became the definition of being a Christian, and if you can’t believe, then you’re not a Christian.
I turn now to my second statement in Part 2: We live on the boundary of post-modernity. By this I mean we live on the frontier-land of a new age, a new period of cultural history that is dawning. We don’t know what to call it yet, so we simply call it post-modernity, meaning it’s what comes next. And post-modernity is marked by a number of things. I will mention only three that are of importance for our theme.
First, a realization that modernity itself is a relative historical construction: that someday the Newtonian world-view, and that material image of reality, will seem as quaint as the Ptolemaic world-view does to us, as it already does amongst theoretical physicists, that reality undermines modernity’s skepticism about God.
Secondly, post-modernity is marked by the turn to experience. In a time when traditional teachings have become suspect, we are learning to trust that which can be known in our own experience, and hence, for example, that remarkable resurgence of interest in spirituality that I mentioned in my introduction. Spirituality, as I said, is the experiential side of religion.
And thirdly, post-modernity is marked by the movement beyond fact-fundamentalism, to the realization that stories can be true without being factually true. This movement is reflected in contemporary theology’s emphasis on metaphorical theology. To say the obvious (but it has so often been lost during the period of modernity) metaphors can be profoundly true, even if they aren’t literally or factually true. This realization is foundational for the re-visioning I will be suggesting.
Part 3 – Seeing God and the Bible again
So I turn to Part 3, the first foundational element in the re-visioning, seeing God and the Bible again. In the rest of this talk, I focus on the Bible, in part because the Bible is foundational to how we see Christianity, and because I think confusion and conflict about the Bible is the central issue in the church today.
There are three main points that I will develop. The first concerns seeing God again. And here I have two statements I will make.
The first has to do with how we conceptualize God, how we think of God’s being and of God’s relation to the world. For many people, the supernatural, interventionist God is dead. It is for me. I simply don’t believe in that God. I can’t believe in that God. It is not even an act of will. I cannot! Now let me add immediately, that I have no problem with personifying God, and speaking of God as if God were a person. That is the natural language of worship and devotion. But when we literalize or semi-literalize those personifications, then we get the God of supernatural theism, and vis-a-vis that God, I am an atheist. But I’m also utterly convinced that God is real. In my own journey, I have been led from supernatural theism to seeing God as the encompassing Spirit, from seeing God as another being out there, to seeing God, or the Sacred, or the Spirit (terms which I use synonymously and interchangeably) as a nonmaterial layer or level of reality all around us, more real than the world of our ordinary, visible experience. Seeing the sacred as right here, as well as more than right here, a movement from supernatural theism to what a number of theologians, including myself in my book on God, call panentheism. Now, seeing God as the encompassing Spirit, instead of as a person-like being out there, is actually the recovery of something very ancient. It goes all the way back to the beginnings of the biblical tradition. Karen Armstrong very helpfully points out in her book, A History of God, that these two ways of thinking about God – God as another being and God as the encompassing Spirit in which everything that is, is, – run side by side throughout the long histories of the three Western religious traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This is not something new. This is something very old.
Secondly, about God. I have become convinced that God, or the sacred, can be experienced. I take very seriously the history, and varieties, of human religious experience. People in every culture known to us have had experiences that seem overwhelmingly to them to be experiences of the Sacred. God can be known, not just believed in.
This leads me to my second statement. I see religion, in general, and the Bible, in particular, as human cultural responses to the experience of the Sacred. I see each of the enduring religions as emerging as a human response to the experience of God. The immediate implication of this, which is really my second statement in shorthand form, is that the Bible is thus a human product, namely, the response of two ancient communities to their experience of the Sacred. Now when I say it’s a human product, of course I have a contrast in mind, and to make that contrast explicit, I mean, not a divine product. Rather, the Bible is a product of two ancient communities – the Hebrew Bible being the product of ancient Israel, the Christian Testament the product of the early Christian movement. As a human product, the Bible tells us about their experiences of the Sacred, about how these two communities saw things. It tells us about how they told their stories, and what they thought life with God was about. When we are not completely clear and candid about the Bible being a human product, we create the possibility of enormous confusion. I want to provide you with two quick illustrations of the difference this makes. My point is not to try to convince you of these two positions. I think you are already there. Rather, my purpose is to illustrate the difference it makes to see the Bible as a human product rather than as a divine product.
The first illustration concerns the Genesis stories of creation. If we think of the Bible as a divine product, then these are God’s stories of creation. And if they are God’s stories of creation, they can’t possibly be wrong. You don’t have to go very far down that road before you start thinking about creation science or scientific creationism, or get involved in school board squabbles about whether Genesis should be taught alongside of evolution in high school biology courses. I mean, why would you ever dream of thinking that? Only if you’re thinking that the Bible is a divine product, and therefore these stories can’t be wrong. But if you see the Bible as a human product, then the Genesis stories of creation are ancient Israel’s stories of creation. We realize that ancient Israel, like virtually every culture known to us, had its stories of creation. If we ask, “What are the chances that ancient Israel’s stories of creation contain valid scientific information?” The answer is about zip! And if they did, it would be pure coincidence. Now I don’t want to be misunderstood here. I think these stories are profoundly true, but I hear them as, profoundly true as metaphorical narratives, as symbolic narratives, not as factual reports.
A second illustration is about the difference it makes. This concerns the laws of the Bible. Now if we think of the Bible as a divine product, then the laws of the Bible are God’s laws. This is certainly the way I was taught the ten commandments. These are the laws of God. Let me illustrate the difference it makes with one of the hot-button issues in the contemporary church, this is the single law, and there is only one, in the Hebrew Bible prohibiting homosexual behavior amongst men. The law is found in Leviticus 18:22. I think most of you know it pretty well: “If a man lies with another man as with a woman, it is an abomination.” Then two chapters later in Leviticus 20:13, the penalty is specified, and of course the penalty is death. Now, if we think of the Bible as a divine product, then the ethical question becomes: “How can one justify setting aside one of the laws of God?” Of course, this is exactly how our conservative brothers and sisters see it. Some of them will even say, “I’m not against homosexuality, but its one of the laws of God.” Bullshit – that they’re not against homosexuality! Now, I think there are some who can genuinely be in that place. I can grant that. But if we think of the Bible as a human product, then this is not one of the laws of God, but one of the laws of ancient Israel. And it tells us that within ancient Israel, homosexual behavior was considered unacceptable.
Then the ethical question becomes: “What would be the justification for continuing to see things as ancient Israel saw things?” – especially when, as most of you would know, the law prohibiting homosexual behavior is imbedded in a context in Leviticus in the holiness code, the purity code, as it’s sometimes called, which also prohibits the planting of two kinds of seed in the same field, or the wearing of garments made of two kinds of cloth. Now how many of you have blends on this morning? I mean, why aren’t we bent out of shape about that? So, anyway, the Bible is a human product. We need to be utterly candid about that, and not out of a misplaced sense of reverence or respect say, “Well, I really think it comes from God somehow.” We just make it enormously confusing when we say that. The Bible is the response to the experience of God, but as the response to the experience of God, it is a human product.
This leads me then to my third point, which is how we might hear the Bible again. Hearing the Bible again. I am going to speak about a historical-metaphorical-sacramental approach to scripture. That’s a mouthful so let me repeat it. A historical-metaphorical-sacramental approach to scripture. I need all three adjectives. By historical approach, I mean, the historical-critical approach. By metaphorical, I mean, recognizing and affirming the richness of metaphor and metaphorical narratives in scripture. And by sacramental, I refer to a primary function of the Bible in the Christian life. I will develop this last section with four statements.
The first: The Bible is a combination of history and metaphor. To say the same thing only slightly differently, a combination of history remembered and history metaphorized. Or one more time, a combination of historical memory and metaphorical narrative. By history remembered, I mean simply, some of the things recorded in the Bible really happened. By history metaphorized, I mean that the way the story of those things having happened is told, often gives them a metaphorical meaning as well. I also think there are some narratives that are purely metaphorical narratives, with no particular historical event behind them, such as walking on the water, the virgin birth, and so forth. It’s a very important distinction. It’s also really illuminating, I think, to realize that very early on our ancestors, meaning the people who created scripture, metaphorized their history, and we have often then historicized their metaphors. Or to make the same point, our ancestors mythologized their history (nothing wrong with that; that’s the way you spell out its meaning), and then we have very often literalized their mythology.
Second statement: The Bible has stories about the divine-human relationship. Now of course the Bible contains more than story, but a surprisingly large amount of the Bible is stories about the divine-human relationship. I mean not just stories about the relationship in the past, though that’s of course where the stories originate. There are stories about Israel’s perception of her relationship with God and the early Christian movement’s perception of her relationship with God as known in Jesus. They are also stories about the divine-human relationship in the present, in our present. My favorite way of illustrating that is with the way the story of the Exodus is told in the context of the Jewish celebration of Passover each year. Those of you who have been to a Passover Seder will recall that there are words that go along with the eating of the meal, a liturgy, if you will. At one point in the evening, the following words are spoken (a close paraphrase, not direct quotation): “It was not our Fathers and our Mothers who were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt but we, all of us gathered here tonight, were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And it was not just our Fathers and our Mothers whom God led out of Egypt with a great and mighty hand, but we, all of us gathered here tonight, were led out of Egypt by the great and mighty hand of God.” The Exodus story is understood to be true in every generation. It’s not simply that we were in the loins of our ancestors, that we have their DNA or something like that, but rather, a perennial feature of the human condition is that we are in bondage to one pharaoh, one lord or another, and we stand in need of liberation. And it is the will of God that we be liberated from that which holds us in bondage. It’s a story that is true about us.
Third statement: A major need within the church today, for ourselves, and those we teach and those we talk to is (and the sentence contains some semi-technical language that can sound jargony, but it’s illuminating, so stay with me): to help people move from pre-critical naivete, through critical thinking, to post-critical naivety. A great sermon title to put on your bulletin board on Sunday morning. But they are very illuminating notions. Let me briefly explain each.
Pre-critical naivete is that early childhood stage in which we take it for granted that whatever the significant authority figures in our lives tell us to be true, is indeed true. I think, for example, of how I heard the Christmas stories as a child. I took it for granted they really happened that way, that there really was a magic star, that the holy family really did journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, that Jesus really was born in a stable and laid in a manger, that wise men came to visit, that angels sang to the shepherds in the night sky. And, very importantly, it took no effort on my part. It didn’t take faith. I had no reason to think otherwise. It never occurred to me to say, “Now are these historically factual reports? Or is this a metaphorical narrative?” It didn’t take faith! (I want to underline that.) Critical thinking begins in late childhood and continues through adolescence, of course, and into adulthood. And you don’t have to be an intellectual to get into critical thinking. You don’t have to go to college. Everybody enters this stage unless there is something seriously wrong with them, and there aren’t many people for whom that’s true. Critical thinking is simply that stage where we make decisions about how much of what we were taught as children we are going to carry with us. Is there a tooth fairy? Are babies really brought by storks? Does anybody say that anymore, by the way? In the modern period with its emphasis on factuality, critical thinking is deeply corrosive of religion in general, Christianity and the Bible in particular. When we first enter critical thinking, it can seem like a liberating stage, though it is often attended by epistemological anxiety. But when I say a liberating stage, I mean, realizing that all that stuff we learned as kids is up for grabs can be wonderfully liberating. But if you remain within the framework of critical thinking decade after decade after decade, and you can stay in it your whole life, it becomes a very arid place in which to live when it’s wedded to the framework of modernity, and it becomes a desolate place, T.S. Eliot’s wasteland.
So what’s post-critical naivete? Post-critical naivety is the ability to hear these stories. I’m thinking of the biblical stories in particular here. It’s the ability to hear these stories once again as true stories, even as you know that they may not be factually true. Their truth does not depend upon their factuality. Post-critical naivete is not a return to pre-critical naivete. It brings the critical with it, but integrates it into a larger paradigm. So it can bring the historical critical method with it. Post-critical naivete is the ability to hear the Christmas stories once again as true stories, even though you’re pretty sure that Jesus was born in Nazareth and not in Bethlehem, even as you’re pretty sure that the magic star and the wise men themselves come from an exegesis of Isaiah 60, rather than reflecting historical memory. You know all of that, but you’re still able to hear these as true stories, as metaphorical narratives using ancient archetypal language to make, among other affirmations, that Jesus is the light coming into the darkness, to make the affirmation that the Herods of this world constantly seek to destroy that which is born of God. The struggle between the kingdom of Herod and the kingdom of God as known in the Lordship of Christ goes way back to the beginning. You hear all of that as true. My favorite shorthand way of speaking about what post-critical naivete is with a single line from a Native American storyteller, which I quote in a footnote at the end of Chapter 1 of Meeting Jesus Again for The First Time, so you may be familiar with it. This Native American storyteller is in charge of telling his tribe’s story of creation. Each time he begins that story, he says, “Now I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.” That’s post-critical naivete. That is being able to hear metaphorical narratives as truthful stories.
My fourth and final statement under historical-metaphorical-sacramental approach to scripture also leads to my conclusion, seeing the Bible as sacrament of the sacred. I move into this by very briefly contrasting Bible as sacrament, with two ways of seeing the Bible that dominated modernity. I’ve spoken about these. The first is that the Bible is a divine product, and that is why it matters. The second option within modernity was, it’s a human product, and thus, nothing special. And this is what I think many fundangelicals fear: that if one lets go of the Bible as a divine product, the Bible then becomes just another ancient text. There is a third option, and that is the one I want to conclude with: the Bible as sacrament of the sacred. I’m going to illustrate this with a story, which then leads to my conclusion.
Each year at Oregon State, part of my teaching load is an introductory level course on the Bible. It’s mostly lower division students who take it. From teaching that course for about twenty years at Oregon State, I know that roughly twenty percent of the students who sign up for it, come from a conservative Christian background. The reason they sign up for it (probably not true of all of them, but for many of them) is they think it is just wonderful that you can get academic credit for reading the Bible. Of course they’re horrified before they’ve been in there very long. Because I know that, I take the whole of the first class period each term that I teach that course (a one hundred minute class period) to tell them about the perspective from which the course will be taught. I explain that it’s taught from the vantage-point of the academic discipline of biblical scholarship. I talk about the birth of the discipline in the enlightenment. I talk about how it sees scripture as a human product, just as I’ve spoken about that to you today. I do the best dog-and-pony show I know how to do, not only to make that point of view as clear as I can but exciting with vignettes from the history of biblical scholarship, the conflicts, and so forth. I tell them that I’m spending all this time doing this the first day of class, so that they can drop the course if they want to because it doesn’t sound like their cup of tea. By the way, to their credit, over the years I don’t know of a single conservative student who has dropped out. I admire them for that. I also tell them they don’t have to change the way they see scripture, but they have to be willing to enter into this way of looking at it for the sake of the course. In spite of all that careful explanation, the first two weeks of every term typically involve a lot of squabbling back and forth between me and the more articulate and bold of the conservative students. One year, I happened to have in the class a senior engineering student, a Muslim from the Middle East (not a North American Muslim) and a really nice guy, a really bright guy. He was taking the course because he needed one more humanities course for graduation, and it met at the right time. One day, about two weeks into the course, after having observed all of this squabbling going on back and forth, he came up to me after class and said, “I think I’m beginning to understand what is going on here.” And he continued, “You’re saying (meaning me) that the Bible is like a lens through which we see God. And they’re saying (meaning the conservative students) that it’s important to believe in the lens.” I said to him, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying.” Now, obviously I liked the metaphor very much, and of course it’s like that famous Buddhist metaphor, which is also great in this context. This Buddhist metaphor speaks about Buddhist teachings being the finger pointing to the moon, meaning, by extension, all religions of the world are as fingers pointing to the moon. Some people make the mistake of thinking it’s about believing in the finger.
I used that story in one of my classes at O.S.U. this year. The students got the point. There were about ten seconds of silence, and then a hushed voice said, and I could tell it was being said with the flush of discovery, “And even the moon is only reflected light.”
But to go back to the lens and the finger, metaphor – finally, those metaphors aren’t wholly adequate for me. For I see the Bible not simply as a lens through which I see God, but I also see it as a sacrament. Here I’m using the word sacrament in the broad meaning that it has in religious studies. A sacrament is a mediator of the sacred, a means whereby the Spirit comes to us. In this broad sense of the word sacrament, virtually anything from time to time can become a sacrament. Nature can become a sacrament. Another person can be a sacrament. A sacrament is a mediator of the sacred. I see the Bible as a means whereby the Spirit of God continues to address us, to speak to us in this day most obviously in the devotional and meditative use of scripture, but also sometimes in the use of scripture in public worship. To relate this to seeing the Bible as the “Word of God”, I don’t think Word of God refers to the origin of scripture. If we meant that scripture comes from God, we would speak of scripture as the Words of God. We’ve always said it was the Word of God, so I don’t think Word of God refers to the origin of scripture, but it refers to the function of scripture – the sacramental function of scripture whereby scripture becomes the means whereby God addresses us to this day. I’ll make a whimsical contrast, and then I’ll close.
You know how we say at the end of a lectionary reading in some churches, “The Word of the Lord”? When I speak about the Bible as a human product, I have sometimes thought we should say at the end of a lectionary reading, “Some thoughts from ancient Israel.” But perfectly expressing the sacramental view of scripture is what is said after the lectionary reading in the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer: “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.”
My suggestion as I close is a vision of the Christian life that is not very much about believing at all. (I’ll say more about that tomorrow.) But rather, the Christian life is about a relationship with God, as mediated to us by the Christian tradition as a whole. The Bible, of course, is foundational to that tradition. But the Christian life is not about believing. It’s about living within this tradition and letting it be a mediator of the sacred – letting this tradition, critically, have its way with us, shaping our identity, shaping our sense of what is real, shaping our sense of what life is about. It is a relational, a sacramental vision of the Christian life. Ultimately, to me, it is both very simple and very orthodox.