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The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Friday, December 28, 2007

On the Bible and the Role of Tradition in Religion

This is a response to the conversation by Erin and others in "People Often Talk About 'God As Love'" below, but due to sheer length I decided to start a new post rather than extend the comments.


When I consider the myriad of statements in the Bible about life after death or what salvation could mean or what it takes to achieve salvation and/or life after death (which are not the same, who says we need to be “saved” in the first place? Saved from what, exactly?), its hard to see how anyone could come away with a definitive answer for what "the Bible says." Faith traditions have certainly come to an understanding of what they believe in this regard, but to say that "the Bible says" and have one solid answer would not be reading the Bible accurately.

James says it takes "faith and works", Matthew 25 says its about loving the poorest of the poor, John 3:16 talks about the necessity of belief in Jesus, the first letter of John goes back and forth talking about belief in Jesus and then it talks about how God is really love and the extent to which we love is the extent to which we are close to God (or something to that affect). And the list goes on and on. Paul suggest further journeys after death, I believe.

A lot of people have worked really hard to reconcile all of these together into one definitive statement, but they are really irreconcilable.

Religion is all about human limitation--trying to see the Divine through a foggy glass, as Paul says. The Bible is included in that--it is a foggy glass, trying to show you something, but it is hard to put into words. It is trying to point to something, over there, just beyond the horizon. As a reader, you are asked to do your fair share of the workload, because it won’t spoon-feed.

Religion is important in my opinion because it is a collective experience of God, passed down through the centuries. It is not just my own experience of God and my own interpretation, but it is the experience and interpretations of countless people through the centuries. Together, a living and always-evolving portrait of God is developing.

You can see this evolution in thought in the Bible. In the Old Testament, God is more vengeful. Moving on through Isaiah and the New Testament, God is much more loving. However, you can see the loving nature of God in the OT, as well. I really am undecided as to whether God changes much or not, as Process Theologians would say. But I do believe that what we are seeing in the Bible is more of the evolution in human understanding of God than the evolution of God.

So much of what we believe as Christians today is considered "later theology." In other words, there are ideas in the Bible that after thinking and meditating on for centuries we have taken them to a level possibly never even intended by the Bible authors. Did the early apostles really understand Jesus as God incarnate? I think they took his statements and actions and put them together, and 2 + 2 got them 4, but that was after going home and thinking on it a spell.

There is nothing wrong with this. Religious thought has always been in evolution. All too often, we have an assumption that there is something wrong with religion because it does not give us a static answer, but if you consider that we are meditating on great mysteries of the Divine, then how we know anything at all is the biggest mystery of them all!

The Bible is a not a book of answers. It is a book of questions, suggestions, stories, observations, and some advice of some very good people who have come before us. It includes some of their answers, as well, but for us to read that looking for answers for ourselves would be the wrong approach, in my opinion. It is a living document that demands our own interpretation today and which we have to come to an understanding about. It is important to consider the conclusions of past generations, though, but not to rely on them exclusively.

I don't think God appeared to Moses and had a conversation and gave clear indicators about what he's all about or hard fast rules to follow. Those people who hold onto that seem to base their faith on the testimony of past generations. That is not what faith in God is all about, in my opinion. That is faith in Moses. Faith that Moses was telling the truth and that the truth is recorded in the Bible. The people during the Bible times didn't have any more "experience" of God (probably) than we do. They were all trying to make sense of this world with sometimes faint, sometimes powerful, sometimes mysterious experiences of something beyond themselves that they tried to put a framework around to help later generations understand what they themselves were trying like hell to understand. Its all of us fumbling about in the dark. However, as Dr. Finan says at ODU, the basic assumption of theology is that we believe there is a God and that we can actually know something about this God.

We’re all in the dark, but if we form a human chain then I can feel this wall and you can feel that wall back there and we can communicate our “findings” to each other and somehow or another we can put a picture together that we otherwise would have a hard time doing by ourselves. It is like “the blind men with the elephant” story characterized so well in the blog of mysticalseeker . . . Religion is truly the “blind leading the blind”, but we are still better off together than by ourselves!

6 comments:

  1. The problem, though, is that many Christians see the Bible as the unerring word of God. They DO use it to seek answers. To them, it is a book of answers. They believe that the books that appear in the current Bible (and they are mostly talking about the Protestant Bible) are "divinely inspired" and therefore also the truth of God.

    I don't debate you at all. I agree with your approach to the Bible and the study of it. What worries me are those Christians who would think even what you are saying is heresy and maybe even become frightened by that. These same Christians are often fearful of the aprocrypha for the same reason (even though some of these "apocrypha" appear in the Catholic Bible).

    What I always want to know is why works today are no longer viewed as "divinely inspired." Do these same Christians believe that no one is divinely inspired anymore? I would definitely beg to differ with that. I think there are times when I write where I feel divinely inspired...

    I mean, I guess we cant add any more to the Bible and I can't even begin the imagine the red tape that that would involve. It just feels to me often that the Bible is "cut off" at some point in history. I know there's a lot to study there now... but wouldn't be nice if every couple of centuries or so another book was added to the Bible for us to ponder, something more updated and moving with the lessons learned from our current time... Wouldnt it be better representative of humanity if the Bible continued to grow with the rest of us?

    Okay, that's a can of worms and a half... Maybe we should forget I asked that.

    Still... as I keep saying, if more Christians had a more liberal bent (as you're expressing here) to the religion and the Bible, I really think I'd have no problem at all being Christian...

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  2. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but not all opinions are equally informed. Biblical Fundamentalism has very little credibility in scholarly circles, anymore. It has been basically denounced by the mainline Catholic, Orthodox and many Protestant churches. It is still shouted from the rooftops, and fundamentalism can be a real stumbling block for someone who is not educated in modern Biblical studies, but as a whole it is not even on the discussion table anymore in academic circles.

    Just look at the quick examples I gave about salvation in my post. With more study, it becomes even more clear how distinct the voice of each Biblical author is.

    As Ray Brown says in "Community of the beloved Disciple" (I have a post about it called Four Gospels Are Better Than One) the people of the Church past knew that there were inconsistencies and vastly different portraits of Jesus, for example, in what came to be known as the New Testament. They chose to live with that tension rather than reconcile it.

    Funny, the Catholic Church, with all of its rules and regulations, rarely makes a statement about what a Bible passage means. The Bible is used continually as the inspiration for virtually all Church rules, but rarely does the church say that "verse X means Y."

    The Bible is a well that the Church goes to drink out of--when used "well", that is . . .

    Let me also correct myself: I think the Bible is a good place to go for answers, just don't expect ready-made answers or checklists. You may get your answers, but they will come after meditation, prayer, study and service (see my post about Matthew 25). The Bible isn't set up to give you easy answers.

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  3. Okay, I think I've been hanging around too many hardcore, traditional Bible thumpers... It seems to be what this particular church in Akron I have attended professes... I wish they would urge people to take a more scholarly approach to some of these things...

    Scary, too, that the website for my dad's minister friend also professes to believe that the Bible is quote, "the Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the inerrant Word of God. And that God is a Trinity - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory."

    I think that is the credo of a bunch of the non-demonimational mega churches in the area, too...

    Maybe I need to revisit Catholicism...

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  4. Every religious tradition out there is gonna have its share of scholars and mystics, saints and sinners, libs, conservatives and their own brand of "fundamentalism". There will be people who fall into black and white thinking and those who are more holistic, and some who don't think much about it at all.

    What makes the Protestant Fundamentalist churches unique is the absence of a credible scholarly branch, but there are still plenty of amazing people and wisdom there.

    All things considered, I think the Catholic Church stands up well, but the average church-goer may be completely obvlivious to what we're talking about in this post, so if you go there looking for a community of people actively talking about this stuff, you may be disappointed at first glance.

    And the views of the Bible I'm talking about would be welcome by many in the Orthodox and mainline Protestant traditions, as well (non-evangelical Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, etc.) and not just Catholic.

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  5. I don't think God appeared to Moses and had a conversation and gave clear indicators about what he's all about or hard fast rules to follow. Those people who hold onto that seem to base their faith on the testimony of past generations. That is not what faith in God is all about, in my opinion. That is faith in Moses. Faith that Moses was telling the truth and that the truth is recorded in the Bible. The people during the Bible times didn't have any more "experience" of God (probably) than we do. They were all trying to make sense of this world with sometimes faint, sometimes powerful, sometimes mysterious experiences of something beyond themselves that they tried to put a framework around to help later generations understand what they themselves were trying like hell to understand. Its all of us fumbling about in the dark. However, as Dr. Finan says at ODU, the basic assumption of theology is that we believe there is a God and that we can actually know something about this God.

    That was very well stated. I agree.

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  6. The problem, though, is that many Christians see the Bible as the unerring word of God. They DO use it to seek answers. To them, it is a book of answers

    There are indeed a lot of people like that. They just happen to be wrong.

    Unfortunately, in a lot of people's imaginations, that brand of Christian is equated with Christianity per se. But that is not the case. Christianity is, in my view, a broad stream of traditions, and it has fundamentalist varieties and progressive varieties.

    I think an important real task for modern Christianity is to project a more sophisticated understanding of revelation and the Bible. I view the Bible as a record of people's attempts at understanding God. It shows an evolution in thinking over time.

    It just feels to me often that the Bible is "cut off" at some point in history. I know there's a lot to study there now... but wouldn't be nice if every couple of centuries or so another book was added to the Bible for us to ponder, something more updated and moving with the lessons learned from our current time...

    I tend to agree. I think that there is a bit of a tension between the honoring of traditions and the need for understanding continuing revelation. When the Bible got frozen into a canon, it helped to create a bibliolatry that saw that document as a fixed revelation from above, instead of a record of ongoing conversations within a community of faith and between that community and God. I do think there is value in honoring ancient texts, but on the other hand I can't help but think that the idea of a fixed canon is a mistake.

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