Thursday, March 09, 2006

more on revelation

(Ha, ha, say that title 10x fast and you'll probably get close to the truth... =)

OK, I said I'd talk about the Bible as revelation. This is a hard topic, one which has been the main source of division among Friends over the years, from what I can tell. So I don't expect a lot of you Quakes out there to agree with me necessarily, but here's my opinion.

To me, the Bible is a book that recounts the story of a particular community's experience with God across time. It isn't an easy book to read--there are things attributed to God that I wouldn't want my God to say or do. There are things which challenge me out of my complacency, things I don't want to follow because they're too hard. There are things that don't seem to make sense, and I wonder why they were incldued. There are contradictions. It is an incredibly patriarchal text. Much of its historical accuracy is still debated. We don't have the original manuscripts of ANY of the books in the Bible. Most books in the Bible were edited by several people before being handed down in their current form as "holy scripture" that can't be changed because it's the "word of God." The Hebrew Scriptures were not formed into a specific canon until about 90 CE (AD), and the Christian New Testament wasn't canonized until the mid-fourth century. The Bible as Protestants use it was not finalized until the sixteenth century, when the Reformers took out the Apocrypha from the Catholic Bible.

So why do so many people around the world, Jews and Christians, view many of these books as Holy Scripture, the word of God in written form (see quote from my last post)?

I have to walk a fine line here, because I do believe the Bible is incredibly important in helping us to know God, but I also think we can't take it literally, and that it is only a partial reflection of God's Word. The Bible isn't God. It's a witness to people's interaction with God over time, and it helps us to recognize what is and isn't God. But I think it's naive and sells ourselves short to think that the people who wrote down these things understood God completely accurately when we're not able to.

We can't take everything in it literally. For example, the creation story: first of all, there are two accounts of creation (Genesis 1 & 2); secondly, how would anyone have gotten such a story? Did God dictate it, or was it handed down from generation to generation? I think neither. But it is still a story which is helpful in showing us how God relates to us. It is a myth with spiritual power which God chooses to use to help us know God better. Another example: the stories of the Israelites taking over the Promised Land are recounted in Joshua and Judges, and sometimes the same city is taken twice in different ways. So which way was it? Obviously we can't take both literally (although some try!). And in the New Testament, Jesus is shown performing simliar miracles in different ways, or a different disciple makes the same comment in different Gospels, or that sort of thing. But the main idea is there in all the Gospels, and a similar picture of who Jesus was is painted by them all. There are accounts of his life, death and resurrection in all four, and all have him performing miracles and teaching people.

So to me, the Bible shows us important concepts about the character of God, and the way people have learned to interact with God over the course of history. The very fact that the Bible isn't an easy book draws me to it--these writers weren't trying to give us a sugar-coated God who was easy to understand and would just do whatever we wanted. No, this God has many faces. This God is confusing and scary at times, jealous, just, merciful, a still small voice, the one who created everything, the one who can part the waters of the Sea of Reeds and bring the downfall of Jerusalem. This God can become human and suffer, show us how to live, speak in parables so we can only catch a glimmer of the truth sparkling beneath the surface, bring people back to life spiritually and physically, and so many other things. If God was shown as a God who made sense and acted in ways that were predictable and understandable, what kind of God would that be? I am so much more drawn to a God who is hidden and mysterious, continuously being revealed and concealed, than to a god that was like me.

The Bible shows me a community of people who from ancient times have struggled and loved and lived and died, passionately pursuing understanding of this amazing God, learning and being angry and being in awe and fearing this God who loves them without reason.

As I read the Bible I also notice that God speaks to me in ways that I can't (or at least don't) hear elsewhere. I think for whatever reason God has chosen to use this text to speak to us, even with all its faults and human inconsistencies. In this text I can find the grounding to be able to better recognize God in other areas of my life. In this way I think the Bible is the word of God written, it is a word helping us hear God, it is a word without parallel (again, see quote from previous post). It is a witness of prophetic words spoken through the ages, it is a pastoral piece entreating us to see and follow God.

The only thing is, why do we feel like the Bible has to be closed? The Jewish Talmud is still an open text: it is still added to, and people still interact with it in a living way because they still believe God will talk to them in ways similar to the way God spoke to their ancestors. This makes much more sense to me. I know this gets a little scary for Christians--once you start saying the Bible could be added to, how do we know stuff wouldn't be added that was incorrect? Think about the history of the church--what if corrupt popes had added stuff? What if weird cults had included their own "revelations"? What if the Book of Mormon had been included?

I agree--it's kind of scary. But at the same time, why couldn't those same kinds of things have happened in the past? Were generations prior to Jesus so much more adept at keeping heresy out of their communities? I don't think so.

So I think what it comes down to is trust. Do we trust God to put things into the Bible that are true, in whatever sense God conceives of as "true"? Do we trust that God has the power to get the necessary stuff into the Bible and keep other stuff out?

I don't think we need to literally open up the Christian canon, because 1) that will never happen, and 2) I think the Bible has been formed as it is for a reason that only God can know. But I do think we need to be open to believing that God will still speak to us today, that we are still called to be God's prophets and apostles to the world. Otherwise Quakers waiting for a word from God in each meeting is ludicrous, unless we just sit around reading the Bible to one another. Perhaps we should do more of that (reading the Bible together), but at the same time, I think we should also trust ourselves enough to believe God will still speak through us just as God spoke to and through those in the stories and writings of the Bible.


Paul said...

You wrote: But I think it's naive and sells ourselves short to think that the people who wrote down these things understood God completely accurately when we're not able to.

Is the issue here the level of understanding of God the people had who wrote the Bible or the ability of God to communicate what he wanted to communicate and to guide people to get that down in writing? God used humans who have limited understanding and inaccurate perseptions of reality to communicate God’s understanding of reality. Was it within God’s power to use an imperfect means to perfectly communicate? Is the Bible a book written by God or humans?

You wrote: (The Bible is) a witness to people's interaction with God over time, and it helps us to recognize what is and isn't God.

Is this all it is?

You wrote: It is a myth with spiritual power which God chooses to use to help us know God better.

Can you say more about the Bible being a myth?
Here’s my question again, who is teling the story in the Bible, people or God? And if your answer is “yes,” or both, what is the role of each?

For me, I like II Tim 3:16….yeah, yeah, yeah, the ol’ stand by…All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man (woman ) of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
I like the idea that all scripture is God-breathed. (I’m not even going to the place of talking about how we got what we got and if we should add more. I agree with you, not going to happen and not an issue for me. God is still speaking and I’m still listening.) God was present and involved in all of the writing, and I guess I figure that scripture can accomplish exactly what God wants it to accomplish. Which is? Communicating God’s desire to be in a deeply loving, transforming relationship with all humanity and all creation.
That’s how I experience Scripture. When I go to Scripture I encounter God. When I go to Scripture, I find that Scripture (God) is coming after me. Scripture is a meeting place for me. A place I meet God and God speaks to me. And when I’m open to it, God uses Scripture exactly how God intended it to be used. The purpose of scripture is perfectly accomplished.


cherice said...

I'm up in Massachusetts at the minute so I don't have time for a real post, but here's a quick response to Paul's comments.

Yes, the issue is whether or not God could communicate what God wanted to be in the Bible to those who wrote it down, which I think is the case. And I think it should be an example to us that we also can hear God, although imperfectly, an dwe should trust that hearing and allow our communities to work together to hear God together, as those who formed the biblical works did. (Although apparently what we have in the Bible is what is suppsoed to be there and is enough of a starting place for us to know God from.)

You asked me to explain about the Bible being a myth. What I meant was that the creation story is a myth, in that it is a story whose exact details probably are not real accurate, but which contains truth all the same.

Regarding "all scripture is God-breathed," I too like that imagery, although it's interesting to think about the idea of scripture that was being used there. It probably referred mainly to the Hebrew Scriptures, and I was reading about the Greek word for "scripture" used in the Bible, and it referred in New Testament times to any writing that the authors saw as "spiritual." This is not to say that it couldn't mean what we mean as "scripture" now, but it's something interesting to think about...

OK, I have to go so I'll write more some other time