Friday, September 24, 2010

Reading the Bible Again, or Maybe for the First Time

From the very start we have been running across that fundamental word of faith, "believe."  We speak of those who "believe" and those who do not.  We ask of ourselves, or others, "Just what do you believe about God?" Or, "Do you really believe the Bible?"

The Barrett book was all about how the brain "believes" anything at all, that is, how we come to accept certain things as true and real, or false and unreal.  It seems that we are incessantly looking around for "agents" -- the causes of effects in our lives -- and that we are not adverse at all to finding agents we can't see or hear or touch.  That doesn't make those gods real, but he made a good case I thought that our inclination toward believing in gods is part of who we are.

Harris took religionists to task for believing things for which there is no empirical, scientific evidence -- stories that not only defy common sense and experience but, in the hand of the wrong people of which there have been many in every religion, have motivated "believers" to do horrifically evil deeds, in the name of God. Rather than keep on believing stories that are  patently false and provide fodder for hatred, he said, let's do away with them and be reasonable people who will through science find ways of living in peace, caring for each other.

Haught took issue with folks like Harris who, Haught would say, arbitrarily have chosen the scientific method as the only way of knowing.  The scientific naturalist's world is too limited.  And so Haught argues for a multi-layered understanding of  what is real -- the empirical to be sure, but also intuitive, relational, spiritual too.  The strongest evidence for the existence of a "God," he said, is the existence of critical intelligence.  "God" is beckoning to creation, and our longing, our anticipation for something more is a clue to the existence of that something more.

If one is open to the possibility that religion may be on to something -- that there may be a spiritual realm not accessed by scientific, empirical observation but nevertheless still  "real" -- then perhaps it would be good to look into it.  The best place to start is one's own religion -- the prevailing religion of one's culture, one's family.  In our case that would be Christianity.

Thus, Marcus Borg's book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time.

The first three chapters lay the foundation - without which the rest of the book will make little sense.  It is crucial to understanding his starting point, because it is very different from what most of us have thought about the Christian faith.  Our word "believe" is critical to Borg's view of the Christian faith, because he doesn't think "believing" is at the center at all, at least not in the traditional meaning of that word.
Here are my notes on those chapters.

Chapter One: Some history about how Christians have understood the Bible and faith
Re-visioning Christian faith, experience.  A new way of “seeing” the Bible, God, Jesus, what “being a Christian” is about.

We “see” by using different “lenses.”  The old lenses, made by “modernity,” no longer work for many people in this “post modern age.”  The problem is not what we are trying to “see,” but the lenses through which we look at things, like the Bible.

Three foundational questions about the Bible:

1.  Its origin: where did it come from? Who wrote it?  Were they “inspired” by God? 
2.  Its authority: Is the Bible the only source of truth?  Does what the Bible says trump everything else, including science, including texts that others consider to be sacred, “God’s Word?”
3.  Its interpretation: What do the various texts of the Bible mean?  What do they teach?  Before we can apply its “authority” to a situation, we have to know what the Bible is saying - and that requires interpreting the text.

De-literalization of the Bible: especially around issues of the Genesis stories, homosexuality, and the Gospels.

Christian fundamentalism is a relatively recent development, starting in the late 1800s in reaction to Darwin’s theories and to “critical” study of the Bible taking root in seminaries.

The Old Way of “seeing,” of approaching the Bible:
“Natural literalism:” “Of course” what the Bible says to be factual is true – it “really” happened.  Until the advent of the scientific method people had no other choice – there were no alternatives to reading the Bible in any way other than “literally.”

With the coming science, those who wished to retain a literal reading of the Bible had to become “conscious literalists.”  That is, they knew of objections – problems in taking the Bible to be historically and scientifically true – but insisted that to be Christian one needed to keep on believing the Bible, even when that meant taking rather large “leaps of faith.” 

In the last quarter century more and more people within the church, having grown up in a climate of “natural literalism,” have come to a place where they simply cannot believe, literally, many of the biblical stories and teachings.  Their knowledge of science and culture prevents them from saying, “I know it sounds silly to believe this, so I will just turn off my critical thinking, say I believe, and hope for the best.”

“Traditional” Christianity has been founded on a literal understanding of the Bible, and is “doctrinal, moralistic, patriarchal, exclusivistic, and afterlife-oriented.”  Note that this is exactly the way Sam Harris understood Christianity.  Borg is going to argue that yes, this old way of seeing faith is not longer adequate or helpful.  It has proven to be in fact very destructive at times.  But rather than pitch the religion out altogether, Borg offers a new way of faith, one that takes into account what we now know scientifically and culturally, one that is satisfying to individuals and healing for societies.

Modernity: born of the Enlightenment, the “modern” way of viewing the world embraces science as the primarily (only?) way of knowing – epistemology.  Haught’s scientific naturalist has a closed system of cause and effect.

But a exclusively scientific worldview, a materialistic understanding of reality, has caused us to be “preoccupied with factuality – with scientifically verifiable and historically reliable facts.”  (p 16)   Fundamentalists insist that everything in the Bible be “factual,” and that if it is NOT factual, then faith is lost.   Hence, they have to insist, at all cost, that the Bible be factually “true.”

Christianity, in reaction to and to live within modernity, came to prioritize “believing.”  Believing, that is, that certain statements about God are factually, historically true. 

Postmodernity: We are between periods, transitioning into a new way of thinking, of knowing.  Three key elements of postmodernism as it impacts faith are:
1.  Realizing that every culture, including our own, is conditioned and therefore limited.
2.  Turning toward experience of God, rather than mere doctrine about God.
3.  Stories can be “true” without being literally, factually true.  “Metaphor” is more important that history.

Chapter Two: The Bible and God

1.  A Human Response to God: its Origin
    Borg says that there is first the experience of God/Spirit/Sacred that people in various times and places have had.  People today profess to having such experiences.
    The Bible is the record of how some of those people tried to describe that numinous experience in words. “Whatever we say about the sacred is a human creation.”   It is a human construction.  The Bible tells us now “they” saw things, not how God saw things.”
    Borg gives five excellent examples of how seeing the Bible as a human response makes interpreting the Bible a very different matter from the literalist point of view.

2. The Bible as Sacred Scripture
    The Bible is sacred in status, not in origin.  It became “sacred” over a very long period of time.  It became sacred because of its use, over a long period of time, within the Judeo-Christian culture.
    In the old way, the Bible stands over us as a monarch, telling us what to believe and do.  In the new way the Bible is the ground of the world in which Christians live.  (P 30)
    Its authority is in that it is the primary body of writings that shape our world.  We approach it critically, with all the knowledge we can have scientifically and historically and culturally, to listen for God nature and ways as we “dialogue” with the stories.  It provides our “foundational images of reality and life.”

3.  The Bible as Sacrament of the Sacred
    “Sacrament:” a means of grace, a vehicle by which God becomes present, a means through which the Spirit is experienced. – occasions for the experience of God.  Historically many people have encountered God through the stories, the psalms, and other parts of the Bible.  Many today sense God’s presence in meditation using the Bible.

4.  The Bible as “the Word of God”
    It is the “Word” of God, not the “words” of God. Very important distinction.  “Word” means disclosure, revelation – unveiling . . .  A metaphor for God’s self-disclosure, a means of connecting with God.

Concluding Metaphors for the Bible
    A finger pointing to the moon . . .
    A lens through which we see . . .
    Sacrament . . . a means of experiencing God.  But we should not focus on the means, but on God. 
    Additional metaphor: Bible as a window through which we see God.  It is smudged, broken, distorted . . . and so we look not at it, but through it.

Chapter Three: the Historical-Metaphorical Approach of reading the Bible

    The Historical approach brings the findings of historical, cultural, linguistic scholarship to the Bible, asking why a text was written, what it meant in its original context, how the text was used since then.  There are HUGE differences between our world and the worlds of the Bible.  Reading a text as if it were written next door leads to much confusion.
    The historical-critical understanding of the Bible is very complicated and technical.  And scholars within any given field of research disagree with one another.  But still, it is important to bring our knowledge to the text to better understand its meaning for us.
    The metaphorical approach is mutlilayered.  There is always more than one nuance of meaning in every metaphor.  This approach emphasizes “seeing” rather than “believing.”  The point is not to “believe” something about God, but to experience God, or at least an aspect of the sacred.  Metaphors can be profoundly true, but not factual, historical.  It is not less than fact, but more.
    Metaphor can go too far, wandering far from the intention of the text.  Thus the need both for the historical/linguistic study of a text and also the community of faith: the community will discern if an interpretation has missed the mark, going too far from the intention of the story.
    Three stages of encountering a text:
1. Precritical - accepting a story on face value, not questioning its factuality, and accepting the meaning explained to us.
2.  Critical thinking – concerned only with factuality.  Adolescents are big into pointing out the non-factuality of metaphors: “The sun doesn’t really “come up,” you know!  The earth is revolving!”
3.  Postcritical naivete - the ability to hear the biblical stories one again as true stories, knowing that they may not be factual stories.  Truth does not depend upon factuality.