Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Things That You're Liable to Read in the Bible (2/17/13)

The Things That You're Liable to Read in the Bible
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 17, 2014

Some Mistakes of Moses, Robert Ingersoll                             
Too great praise challenges attention, and often brings to light a thousand faults that otherwise the general eye would never see. Were we allowed to read the Bible as we do all other books, we would admire its beauties, treasure its worthy thoughts, and account for all its absurd, grotesque and cruel things, by saying that its authors lived in rude, barbaric times. But we are told that it was written by inspired men; that it contains the will of God; that it is perfect, pure and true in all its parts; the source and standard of all religious truth; that it is the star and anchor of all human hope; the only guide for man, the only torch in Nature's night. These claims are so at variance with every known recorded fact, so palpably absurd, that every free, unbiased soul is forced to raise the standards of revolt. 

Jesus said,
Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. 
When they find, they will be disturbed.
When they are disturbed, they will marvel,
and will reign over all.

For several years I have structured the worship services on the four paths of Creation Spirituality as outlined by theologian Matthew Fox.    His book that I recommend everyone check out is called Original Blessing.   I explain this anew every now and again as new people find us.  The four paths or in the Latin, vias, are these:

The via positiva—the way of awe and wonder
The via negativa—the way of letting go and letting be
The via creativa—the way of creativity and imagination
The via transformativa—the way of justice and compassion

Think of it as ways to be intentional about approaching Life.    You celebrate, you let go, you create, you do good work.   None of that has anything to do with believing in doctrines.  It doesn’t exclude it, but believing in doctrines is not required.   Just live.

Each season of the year corresponds to a path.   During Winter I acknowledge thevia creativa.  That doesn’t mean you can’t be creative in Spring.  It is just that during this season we are intentional about looking at this path in the same way that Christians are intentional about celebrating Resurrection at Easter even though as the Avery and Marsh song says, “every morning is Easter morning.”

None of this is new.   You can have eight paths if you like, or seven or twelve.  These four are easy to understand and they provide hooks upon which we can hang our own portraits of experience.    It is a way of looking at life, particularly our own lives.   We step back at the paintings of our lives and see where we have been and are going.    The four-fold path of celebrating life, letting go, creating anew, and shaping what we create toward compassion and justice is the framework for a life’s journey.    

This four-fold path is not about religion.  It is about life.  But, religion is subject to it.   Religion also goes through periods of awe and celebration, letting go of parts that have died, creating new, and transforming what is created toward goodness.    

If you have been listening to my radio program, Religion For Life, you will notice that I have been speaking with various thinkers who are interested in the changes that are occurring within religion.   There are creative spirits running amok.    Phyllis Tickle says that we are in the midst of a great emergence.  It is a rummage sale in which we let go of stuff we no longer use and in the process find treasures.   Diana Butler Bass talked about Christianity after religion.    There is a great creativity happening, in part, thanks to the internet. 
Historians tell us that Christianity spread in the decades after Jesus because the Romans built roads.  They built roads for the military but the roads allowed for travel and trade and with that the exchange of ideas and customs.   Today, the Roman road is the internet.    Information about anything is available instantly to you on your phone.    

If you are interested in the sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, you don’t have to go to the library or ask your tweedy professor, you can google it and find a number of translations.  Buddha’s eight-fold path?  Google it.   No longer can ministers conceal the things they learned in seminary.   For those who want to know, it is available.  

I am not celebrating or lamenting the internet any more than I celebrate or lament the Roman roads.  It is what it is.    And it may not last.  It is all pretty fragile, really, and powered as is everything, by non-renewable fossil fuels.    Who knows how all that will shake out, but for now, we have reached a level of information sharing that is unprecedented in our history.  

What affect, if any, does this have on Christianity?     I will speak for myself.  The effect has been profound.    I would say that it is a different faith altogether from the faith of my childhood or my faith even as a young adult.   My understanding of the big ticket items, Bible, Jesus, God, and the meaning of life, are quite different.     This change in my understanding is really just a reflection of the change on a larger scale over the past few centuries from say the time of Columbus and Calvin to today.  

It has been within the last few decades and accelerated with the internet, that these changes are reaching a critical point.  It can be unnerving.    As Jesus said in the Gospel of Thomas, “When they find they will be disturbed.”   In my opinion, this disturbance is necessary if Christianity is going to have relevance.  

This season of Winter, I have been taking a risk to be creative and to revisit religion, faith, and beliefs.    For the season of Lent that begins today, I am specific about looking at the big ticket items, Bible, Jesus, God, and Life’s meaning, from the standpoint of living in the 21st century and taking seriously science.    The disclaimer is that this is all experimental.   This is brainstorming.   This is to spark your own creativity.  You can accept and reject whatever you want.   You can embrace whatever faith you want.  I am good with that.  I am good with you.  I am on your team.  

What about the Bible?  It is a major ticket item for Christianity.    As I will tell my confirmation class this afternoon, they need to read it.   A working knowledge of the Bible is required to understand Western culture.   They need to read it critically.   As a help, I even created a website called Bible and Jive, complete with a synopsis of each book and a quiz.    I put this together in 2008 when we read the Bible critically cover to cover.  I put a lot of work into it, so you should check it out!   

In addition to my Bible and Jive blog, I also suggest you pick up John Shelby Spong’sReclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World.    This is an excellent journey through the biblical material.   I am not na├»ve about my confirmation class.  I will tell them to read the Bible, but it is not likely that it will happen.  But they may come back to it when they are 30, or maybe 40 or 50 or 60 or 70.   Sometimes you just have to be kicked around by life a little bit first.

In Calvin’s time, the Bible was considered to be the Word of God.  It was special revelation or communication from God, the sole divine being of the universe.   It told of the creation of the entire universe by God, the history of humankind, the redemption and salvation wrought through Jesus Christ, and the end of time when God would create a new heaven and a new earth.  

Christopher Columbus used the Bible to guide his journey.  He thought the Book of Esdras provided him with Earth’s dimensions, six parts land to one part water.   He thought the globe therefore was much smaller and that he could cross the Atlantic and scoot over to China right quick.    What he read in 2 Esdras 6:42 turned out to be not necessarily so.    

In 1650 at the same time the Presbyterians created the Westminster Confession of Faith, the standard of Presbyterian belief still today, Bishop James Ussher calculated the beginning of creation to be October 23rd, 4004 BC.  At nine in the morning.

I give these pieces of trivia to show that our beliefs need an update.    It isn’t just a tweaking, such as the Confession of 1967, but a major overhaul, including the big items that we treat as taboo: Bible, Jesus, God, Meaning of Life.    The world has changed.   But Christian beliefs are pretty much the same as they were in Columbus’ time.

I don’t go to the Bible to tell me how the universe was formed or how humans came to be.   I don’t go to it for divine messages.    The Bible is a human product as is every other book.    I read it as such.   It is a resource for wisdom.    It contains the creativity of our ancestors.    They tell the story of what they thought given what they knew.   Much of what they thought actually has relevance for today.    But I think it has relevance when it is allowed to be their words as opposed to a word from God.    

The problem is not with the texts of the Bible, but with the theological claims about them.    If we allow these words to be the words of our ancestors, good and bad, wise and ignorant, and make our decisions about what to do with them, I think we actually show our respect for them more than if we just assume that everything they said was God’s word.    

That keeps us from putting halos around texts that are harmful.   Think of the damage that has been done in the name of the Bible, including slavery, the second-class status for women, the oppression of gays and lesbians, creationism, and on and on.   The issue is not with the texts, but with their supposed authority for today.    

That isn’t the sermon for this crowd in this congregation.  You know all of that, of course.   The challenge for you from my point of view is how to shed light on what actually might be helpful and good in the Bible.   How might this resource of human wisdom provide strength for the journey?  How might I encourage you to read it?

Many of the stories and themes touch on the depth of human experience.  

Ever felt like you have been wandering in the wilderness without a sense of purpose or direction?  
There is a story for that.   
Ever been in a position of powerlessness and that the powers of this world were intractable?
There is a story for that.
Ever felt that no one knows the extent of your sorrow or grief and all attempts at comfort were shallow?
There is a story for that.
Ever wonder if there is hope for a new start, a rising sun after a long night?
There is a story for that.
Ever wonder if it is worth standing for principle in an age of cynicism?
There is a story for that.
Ever wonder if the poor and the weak have a chance against the rich and the strong?
There is a story for that.  In fact, a lot of them.

These biblical writers were insightful about many things.   But you have to go there and take the time to hear them out.  That might be the biggest challenge in an age of instant information.  The Bible is a slow-cooker.    It requires critical thinking and it requires that we do some work to understand the background for these stories.  It also requires patience and humility to work through the noise of the text in order to hear its music.

The Bible will have a place in the Christianity that is emerging.   But it won’t be a Bible that is presented as hard and fast rules or as unquestioning dogma.   It won’t be a bullying type of document.  It will be instead a conversation we have with voices from the past who are also in a sense fellow travelers and  have wisdom to share with us should we take time to hear.

Amen.

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