Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Semantics of Theism

What do people when they say they believe in God? Are they making an intellectual statement, asserting the correctness of a certain body of Scripture? Are they describing a personal relationship with a spiritual being? Are they making a teleological claim about the meaningfulness of existence? Are they just reciting the beliefs of their parents? Modern society is decidedly secular; in many quarters admitting to belief in God is a serious faux pas, an admission of ignorance and superstition.

At the same time, the foundations of Enlightenment agnosticism and atheism are beginning to show signs of wear and stress. Advances in philosophy and physics in particular have led many to a sort of nihilistic skepticism, not only about God but about all knowledge. While the debate between theists and atheists is generally cast as a polarized battle between two diametrically opposed metaphysical, cultural, and ethical systems, even a cursory glance at the writings from both sides reveals that the terms and ideas used are often muddily vague. How much of the debate is really confusion and miscommunication? Can we really even argue about an idea as abstract and ineffable as God in the first place? What does the word "God" even mean?

At the center of this debate is the separation of a word or concept from what it describes. The word "chair" is not itself a chair. My name is not the same thing as my actual body and my history as a person. So the focus of our attempts to talk about and understand God is an issue of semantics: what do these words mean? And what, perhaps more importantly, do these words not mean? If our debates and discussions about God are going to be fruitful, we have to be clear with our semantics.

Getting back to the "chair" example, if someone asked me to define a chair, I think the most accurate and succinct definition would be "a human-made object with a horizontal surface designed for a single person to sit on and a vertical surface to support the person's back, and that is movable." Other similar objects, like stools and booths, would be excluded--stools have no back, and booths seat more than one person and are normally bolted to the floor or wall.

When we talk about God, though, are we talking about an object like a chair that can be perceived with the senses and then described? I'm not going to give my own answer(s) here, in part because I don't know that I have any good answers to give. But there's no question that considering these questions must be central to any person of faith. Is God a being we can perceive like other beings? Or is God Being itself, the very essence of all existence? Is God a prime mover, a first cause alone? Or is God cause and constant sustainer--transcendent and yet immanent? Can we communicate with God like a sort of super-human? Or does communing with God take radically different forms than we are used to as humans?

Ultimately, what do we mean when we talk about God? I don't think any of us will have any immediate answers. One might say that the practice of a religion is, at least ideally, itself the answer.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Prayers of the People

My parish recently asked its newest members and members-to-be to write our own forms of the Prayers of the people, which is communal prayer offered in Episcopal (and other) liturgies. The Prayers of the People seeks to express the needs, concerns, fears, and questions of all the members of a church an to connect them to the broader Church and world abroad. So here's my crack at it.

With all our heart and soul, let us pray to the Lord for mercy in the ancient Greek in which many of our earliest brothers and sisters spoke:

(The kyrie response could be chanted or sung, and the prayer could be concluded with an extended traditional kyrie chant.)

For Your Church, in all its denominations and divisions, and for all who love Truth within or without the Body of Christ.
Kyrie Eleison.

For this and all nations, for our leaders, for the citizens, for all who find themselves in positions of authority and power.
Kyrie Eleison.

For all who volunteer and work for others and for their communities, who struggle to improve the world as well as themselves.
Kyrie Eleison.

For the whole earth, from which we arose and on which we will always depend, for all of the life with which we share this planet.
Kyrie Eleison.

For all the communities of Richmond, Northside and Southside, Westend and Eastend, downtown and suburban, for that broader community which we often forget or ignore but to which we are intimately tied.
Kyrie Eleison.

For the poor, for the sick, for the oppressed, for the enslaved, for the dying, for all who are powerless in the face of power, who are not only our brothers and sisters, but infact Christ, who is always before us in the least of us.
Kyrie Eleison.

For all who live with the hope of Christ's kingdom and for [St. Andrew and] all who have died in that same hope, who together have and are striving to obediently serve as builders of that kingdom.
Kyrie Eleison.

For each of us here and now, whoever we are, certainly creatures of God and certainly called to the work of redemption.
Kyrie Eleison.

Biblical Signficance in the 21st Century: Criticism & Guidance

This is the third post in a quick series of posts focused on reading the Bible. The first post asked What is the Bible? Some Introductory Questions, and the second followed up, focusing specifically on Inspiration and Literary Genre in the Bible. If you haven't yet, read them first, and then continue on here with a discussion of what significance (if any) the Bible can or should have for Christians today.

Christians' understanding of the Bible began to change in the 18th century when historians and scholars of language began to analyze the texts in the Bible not for their theological, pastoral, and eschatological content, but as historical documents alone. What they slowly began to find was not only a series of texts that were far from inerrant, in a literal way, but also that the texts were heavily influenced by the political, theological, cultural, and personal biases of their authors. These two realities seriously challenged a Church that had become ossified and arrogant. The Bible had become an object of worship in itself, and the challenges that scholars were raising seemed to threaten Christianity itself. This worship of the Bible, or bibliolatry, is the central feature of contemporary fundamentalist Christianity, and is a serious error; in traditional Christian terminology, it's nothing short of a heresy.

The earliest Biblical critics were all practicing Christians themselves, and were not seeking to tear down the faith at all, but rather to build it up with a more complete understanding of the Scriptures. It took more than two centuries, but today, the Roman Catholic Church and all the mainline Protestant churches accept and encourage historical criticism as central for a proper understanding of Christian history and belief. By admitting that the Bible was written by human beings, and is as susceptible to flaw as any other created thing, real Christian faith is strengthened rather than weakened. Bibliolatry, like any other form of idolatry, is mutually exclusive to the actual worship of, understanding of, and relationship with God. God is not contained by any book or creed. Any attempt to limit God in that way must be rejected as awful theology.

So biblical scholars can trace the arc of thought through the Judean prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. They can explain much of the language through historical context rather than resorting to some sort of inbreaking divine voice. Paul's letters are brought into clearer focus. They quickly show themselves to be pragmatic, advising documents with a lot of theological loose ends. They leave a lot of questions unanswered, and they omit ideas and doctrines that will become essential later. The gospels are revealed to be differing accounts of Jesus' life, whose content is drawn not only from oral accounts decades removed from Jesus' death, but also from the theological and ecclesiastic opinions of their writers.

In short, any serious analysis of the Bible reveals imperfections and contradictions galore. Any attempt to hold it up as an inerrant document becomes utterly preposterous. But I've claimed that this strengthens rather than weakens Christianity. How can this be?

I've already talked about how insisting on literal Biblical inerrancy leads to the grave error of bibliolatry. But it also, as I mentioned in a previous post, actually strips the book of most of its meaning. Are we to read Jesus parables literally? When Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, are we supposed to horde mustard in preparation? How are we to read the Song of Solomon, an intensely erotic poem from the Tanakh (the Old Testament)? How do we make sense of the intricate sacrificial demands laid out in the Torah, the first five books of the Tanakh? A literal reading in any of these examples would yield all sorts of madness, and would prevent us from understanding the deeper truths being expressed, truths sublime enough that they cannot be expressed literally. That's not to say that there aren't verses, chapters, and even entire books that can't be read literally. Jesus and Paul both have plenty of direct, pragmatic advice to offer, as do the writers of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. But it's clear that each book and chapter must be read carefully and interpreted according to the sort of writing that it is.

So this recognition that not every book of the Bible can be read literally enriches Christian study by opening up all sorts of avenues of interpretation that were closed before. The fact that the Bible is far from inerrant doesn't detract from its value. It's a record of peoples' struggles with God and attempts to both understand and serve God. It's a messy book because it records a messy history. There are gems of knowledge there, but they have to be sought out. A facile, superficial reading will leave you empty handed if you come to the Bible looking for anything of value.

Recognition of the limited, created nature of the Bible also allows us to step back and see the struggles of its writers as part of a longer narrative of humanity slowly finding its way forward. As Paul understood things, Jesus' resurrection wasn't the end of history at all, but rather the "first fruits" of the coming justification (1 Cor. 15). Christianity is not a reassurance of smug complacency, but rather a call to join in the tearful, confusing work of bringing the rule of heaven to earth. The Bible shows can show is the way in both its truths as well as its errors, reminding us to be humble and thoughtful, and obedient to nothing--not a book, not a church, not a leader--but God alone.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Inspiration and Literary Genre in the Bible

(This post is one in a series of questions I'm asking about how to read the Bible. If you haven't already, please start with What is the Bible? Some Introductory Questions)

Questions around the meaning of the Bible begin (and end) for many Christians with the issue of inspiration; many Christians claim that the Bible is the "inspired Word of God". Therefore, it's prima facie to be accepted as true in a literal sense. Non-Christians, and even many Christians, of course, question this reasoning. What does it mean to say that the Bible in inspired? How can we prove a text is inspired? Isn't there plenty of evidence that the Bible isn't inerrant?

Discussions of these questions could fill (and have filled, in fact!) many volumes, so my goal here is to really outline the nature of the questions rather than to attempt any real substantial answer. I don't think we can begin to make any headway to a valid and useful answer unless we really know what we're asking.

Questions of inspiration could be subdivided into a number of categories. For one thing, we could ask questions about theology--what or Who is God? If we talk about God inspiring something, what does that mean? We would need to really flesh out a set of ideas describing how exactly God interacts with the universe, and that leads us to more in-depth questions about the nature of God--transcendence, immanence, omnipresence. Really, asking questions about how God might inspire a people or a document leads us down a metaphysical rabbit hole. The very fabric of the ideas we are trying to discuss starts to fray.

First off, if we consider God the creator of everything, couldn't we say that everything is "inspired" by God? Claiming a special status for the Bible (or any other book) is an implicit claim that God is more involved in certain actions than others. This leads to all sorts of questions about God's agency--how God "makes decisions" and how God executes God's "will". Some would say that just in framing questions about God's agency, will, or plan, we are anthropomorphizing God--casting God in a human image--and that the very categories we use to discuss these topics lead us to problematic answers. In other words, is God even the sort of "thing" that we can describe like other concepts? Can humans say anything relevant about God?

We might also want to ask how inspiration might work, metaphysically speaking. Even if we step away from some of the really weighty questions above, we might wonder about how inspiration would interact with the personality of a writer, the cultural context they live in, the political and economic events that shaped their life, and so on. Even if we accept that a text can be inspired, do these forces influence the record of that inspiration? All of the major prophets wrote from a perspective that conforms well to our understanding of Jewish cultural, religious, and political norms--norms God certainly must transcend. So even if inspiration can occur in a literal and direct way, to what extent could that inspiration be hidden, or complicated, by all the personal baggage of the writer of a given book?

There are other questions relating to humanity to explore here: did God only speak through the Israelite and Jewish people? If so, why? If not, are there other books of valid scripture? Certainly many Christians would deny that any text outside of the Bible can be considered scripture, so these questions are significant. We might also want to explore that history of the formation of the canon. The Bible didn't drop, completed, from the sky in 200 CE. Some of the texts were likely extant as oral traditions, hundreds of years old, and were first written down in the eight century (the 700s) BCE. The major prophetic books were begun in this time, but not finished for centuries. The New Testament is a compilation of stories and letters written over the course of at least 100 years. Who decided which books to include? And what of books that some communities ultimately decided not to include? Is there evidence that many of these decisions were politically, culturally, or personally motivated? If so, what does that say about the nature of inspiration?

There aren't any easy or obvious answers to these questions; these are the big "what is the meaning of it all" sort of theological questions that have occupied humans since we began writing. So I'm not trying to suggest that we have to have all of these issues ironed out in order to have an understanding of how to read the Bible, but I do think we should have these questions in mind as we consider the nature of inspiration.

There are plenty of more mundane questions to be considered as well. As I mentioned in the previous post, there are plenty of contradictions in the Bible. Some people will simply deny this, but anyone who actually reads the Bible will find them, and pretending they aren't there doesn't change anything. I'm not going to spend much time proving my position on this; if you don't accept that there are contradictions, just open up Genesis. Read chapter 1, and then read chapter 2. In chapter one, humankind is the last form of life created, while in chapter 2 humans come first, and then plant life and animal life is formed. For anyone claiming that the Bible is literally true, this is an irresolvable problem. A-->B is not the same as B-->A. There are, of course, plenty of other examples. But showing one in the first 2 pages of the Bible seems sufficient to me.

It also leads nicely into the obvious solution for Christians who do hold the Bible as scripture--as holy, inspired, as True. The fact that the writers and redactors of Genesis would put two stories, back to back, that gave markedly different accounts of creation makes it absolutely obvious that they didn't hold these stories to be literally, historically true. But does that mean that the Bible is false? This really isn't a question of truth or falsity in the same way that we would ask if a journalist's account of an event is true or false. We expect that a journalist will report facts that they can verify, and that the record of events they present is consistent with historical events.

And there are plenty of books in the Bible that read like, and should be treated as, history. Both first and second Kings, as well as first and second Chronicles, fall into this category. They basically record the history of Israel and Judah from Saul to the Babylonian captivity. They give the names of kings, the places of importance, they talk about military, political, and religious events. But the first few chapters of Genesis are probably not meant as history. They are presented as allegory--a fictional story that captures a deep truth. The focus of the story of Adam and Eve is not the development of life on Earth--Genesis isn't presenting a natural history of our planet that can be contrasted with evolutionary theory. The story illustrates how God--the source of all existence--became estranged from creation, and that it is this estrangement that is the ground of all suffering. Reading Genesis 1 as a narrative about the development of life on Earth is to completely miss the point of the book.

In short, we have to be careful to consider the genre of what we are reading as we read the Bible. Is it history? Is it poetry? Is it a prayer? Is it a lawbook? Is it political polemic? The Bible is all of these and more. Each book, and in fact different sections of each book, need to be carefully read, and not interpreted as something they clearly are not. And of course, there will be plenty of books which may fall into many genre categories. I've picked a pretty easy example with Genesis. Many other books are much more confusing and complex. How do we read Isaiah? Should his writing be seen as a prescient prophecy, warning of future events? Or is he rehashing history to make a theological and ethical point? Or does Isaiah contain both of these genres?

What's important to remember is that there are not just two options--that the Bible is either inerrantly and literally true, or worthless drivel. In fact, limiting our reading of the Bible to either of these polarized perspectives will only guarantee that we miss the truth and beauty of the book. The deepest points made are not made on the surface in literal statements. The real significance can only be teased out by faithful, humble, and open-minded reading. Instead of unquestioningly seeing the Bible as the revealed word of God, what if we understand the Bible as a record of the Israelites' (and later, the Jews' and early Christians') struggle to define, understand, and serve God. In other words, instead of God's monologue, the Bible becomes a dialogue between God and humanity.

As I suggested at the beginning of this post, accepting this approach doesn't line up a set of answers for us, but instead prompts us to ask many new questions, some of them unsettling, many of them fundamental to how we see ourselves and our faith. If the Bible has many genres, how do we read it? Is it easy to misinterpret? Who decides what readings are valid? How do we apply these various texts to our lives? This approach is far more challenging, but also holds the possibility of bearing much more fruit than an insistence on a literal/historical reading of the entirety of the Bible.

The next post deals with the Significance of the Bible in the 21st Century

Monday, November 15, 2010

What is the Bible? Some Introductory Questions

A lot of Christians define themselves as "Bible" Christians. They seem to be contrasting themselves with other Christians, who presumably don't center their faith on the Bible. But what does it meant to place a body of scriptures at the center of a faith? Is being a Christian simply a matter of reading the Bible and obeying whatever is found therein?

Modern American society is dominated by what is generally referred to as the "culture wars". This analysis depends on polarizing society into two camps: conservative Christians and liberal atheists. The former are understood as reactionary, closed-minded fundamentalists and the latter as libertine, nihilist hedonists. As with any simplification of very complex matters, this narrative is wildly inaccurate. But this isn't a post about politics; I want to dig into a specific question: what does the Bible mean? There certainly are fundamentalist Christians, and they would respond simply, saying that the Bible is literally and completely true, utterly inerrant, and that people achieve salvation through obedience to this book, which they often describe as an "owner's manual" to the human soul.

But historians of religion see the Bible differently. Biblical scholars can dissect the text and expose the cultural, political, and economic forces that worked on the writers of the Bible. They can point out contradictions and inaccuracies, which abound: the first chapter of Genesis gives a different account of creation than the second; the major prophets denigrate the sacrificial cult of the Temple while the writer of Deuteronomy makes it a central aspect of Judaism. St Paul and the writer of the Gospel of St Mark seem to understand Jesus as a human being like any other who was elevated or "adopted" by God into divine status at his baptism by John the Baptizer, while the writer of the Gospel of St John describes Christ as the eternal, uncreated Word of God.

If one is honest with oneself, the conclusions to be drawn from Biblical criticism are inescapable. The Bible is a series of documents, written by humans, from their various human perspectives, and is subject to error just like anything else written by humans. Does this realization necessarily mean that Christianity is irrelevant, proven false through modern scholarship? I think to answer this question, we have to ask other questions. What do we mean when we talk about the Bible being "inspired"? How do we understand God as acting in the world? How do writers communicate in their work--is the literal interpretation of a text the only or best one? I'm going to give my own two cents on each of these in posts coming up soon.

Read the first post here: Inspiration and Literary Genre in the Bible
And the second post here: The Significance of the Bible in the 21st Century: Criticism and Guidance