Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Idolatry of Our Age - Part III: An Idol of Paper and Ink

I have been writing on the subject of how the concept of idolatry applies in our modern age.  This post is a continuation on this theme - if you have not done so already, you might want to read the beginning of the series:
  • Part I explores the idea that God is not like an idol which can be manipulated to fulfill our desires
  • Part II explores how our limitations prevent us from understanding infinite reality

An Idol of Paper and Ink 
In my last post, I touched on the idea that when we accept finite, unchanging views of God, we have created a conceptual idol.  I touched on the idea that inerrancy is one way this kind of conceptual idol is expressed.  I explored how, even if the Bible is inerrant, this does not guarantee that our understanding of it is.  And to believe that our own understanding of it is not flawed is to ignore two thousand years of history.

Yeah, that's how it works...

Now, one of the problems you’ll find with claiming that the Bible is inerrant is that it raises the question: which one?  You see, what we call “the Bible” is a collection of various writings that were voted on in a council hundreds of years ago.  And if you study your history, you’ll find that in 367 AD, Athanasius came up with a list of books which was later approved by Pope Damascus I in 382 AD and ratified by the Council of Rome the same year.  This canon contained 73 books.  Later on, councils at Hippo in 393 AD and Carthage in 397 AD confirmed this canonization.  In 405 AD, Pope Innocent I wrote a letter to the Bishop of Toulouse affirming this canon, and the Council of Carthage reaffirmed this list in 419 AD (which Pope Boniface agreed upon).  But, the Council of Trent then removed 7 books from this canon in 1546 AD, and now the Protestant Bible holds 66 of the original 73 books!  Additionally, the original King James version of the Bible, published in 1611 AD, held 80 books!  So if you wish to say that the Bible is inerrant, the first question would be: which one?

Next, you’d have to ask the question: which translation of the Bible is inerrant?  It is exceedingly difficult to accurately translate the extinct, ancient languages of Greek and Hebrew into English for a number of different reasons.  One issue that translators have to deal with is that Greek and Hebrew words often had multiple meanings, and the authors would often play on this by choosing words that could work within the text with more than one of the meanings - perhaps indicating that the author wanted us to consider all meanings of the word in the context.  Another problem is that these languages often had more than one word for a concept - for instance, Greek has three different words for “love”, which all have a different nuance to them.  Furthermore, one should always consider this little headache when considering the difficulties of translating from Greek to modern English:


But that’s not all - perhaps the biggest problem with inerrancy is that it claims more about the Bible than the Bible claims for itself.  Actually, the Bible makes specific claims that it is not inerrant.  For example, in I Cor. 7:12, Paul clarifies very specifically that what he is saying comes from himself, not the Lord.  So if we believe that the Bible is the direct words from God dropped down from the sky in whole-cloth, how do we distinguish between this statement which Paul claims did not come from the Lord and every other statement?  Is this the only one that didn’t come directly from the mouth of God without any filter whatsoever?  

Further on in the same chapter, in verse 25, Paul states that he has no commandment from God but that he gives his judgment anyways “as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.”  There’s another one that didn’t come directly from the mouth of God!  Then again, in 2 Corinthians 11:17 Paul says that what he just stated earlier in the chapter was not Paul talking as the Lord would, but as a fool!   Paul deliberately said something foolish in order to prove a point!

And then we have the scientific problems with taking the Bible as inerrant - if you know your history, you know that Martin Luther (who invented the phrase sola scriptura) interpreted Joshua 10:10-15 as indicating that the sun revolved around the earth, not the other way around.  When scientific views began to contradict this view through Coperinicus, Luther said:

There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved. But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must needs invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth.

Well, Luther lost this battle, and now this passage is interpreted metaphorically.  But the question is - would the original authors have understood it this way?  There are plenty of scholars who would say no:

Add to this the problem of dealing with the many contradictions within the Bible - which I have written about at greater length in another post - and you have a massive headache to deal with.

Now, if you ask someone who believes in inerrancy why they believe this, they will most likely point to 2 Tim. 3:16-17 as the “proof” that the Bible is inerrant.  But this passage does not say that the Bible is inerrant.  It says scriptures are “God-breathed” - or in some versions, “inspired by”.  So the first question that is raised is: what is included in the word “scriptures”, since the canon had not been developed at this time?  

(The fact that Christians lived without a canonized Bible for the first 3 centuries is problematic for inerrantists and sola scriptura believers in and of itself.)  

Also, being inspired by God is not the same thing as “coming directly from the mouth of God to us without any filter whatsoever" now, is it?  I've been inspired by many things in my lifetime - art, music, poetry, my wife and children, events in my life - and it meant nothing like that.

This makes people who have been raised to believe in inerrancy very uneasy - they say “if the Bible isn’t inerrant, how can we trust it?”  Easy - do you trust your mother?  Is she inerrant?  No?  Well, have you learned many things from her?  Did she teach you how to live before she sent you off into adulthood?

The way I look at the Bible can be summed up in the phrase: progressive revelation.  I believe that throughout history, God progressively revealed bits and pieces of his character through the various writings, people, and events in Biblical history.  And this reached a culmination in the character of Jesus Christ.  

In John 5:39-40, Jesus says:

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
This verse is saying that the Scriptures themselves are not Truth - they are finite signposts pointing towards infinite truth!  And infinite truth is embodied not in paper and ink, but in a person - the person of Jesus Christ!  If you want to understand Truth, you need to get to know this person!

I like how scholar Marcus Borg puts this in "Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary":

Christians also speak of the Bible as the revelation of God, indeed as the “Word of God.” Yet orthodox Christian theology from ancient times has affirmed that the decisive revelation of God is Jesus. The Bible is “the Word” become words, God’s revelation in human words; Jesus is “the Word ” become flesh, God’s revelation in a human life. Thus Jesus is more decisive than the Bible.
In the Jewish culture, a Rabbi would teach children the Torah starting at a very young age.  And then, when these children reached the age of 15, children would request to be disciples.  This process was somewhat similar to applying to college - the best Rabbi’s would have many applicants and would choose the best of the best, much like Harvard would.  What’s very interesting is that Jesus reversed this by choosing his disciples - he asked them.  And he didn’t go after the richest, best, and brightest - he went for the “dregs” of society.  

The Jews had a phrase they used to describe how a disciple behaved when he was an
apprentice to a Rabbi - "in the dust of the Rabbi."  What this phrase meant was that the disciple would follow his Rabbi so closely that the dust kicked up from the Rabbi’s sandals would scatter all over this disciple - he didn’t want to miss a single beat, but wanted to observe everything his Rabbi did.

This phrase - the dust of the Rabbi - illuminates the hubris of those who claim to be able to understand the scriptures without having ever studied the historical context they are set in.  And it also shows the weakness of claiming to understand them simply by reading, rather than through practicing them - living them out in real life.  When a “Christian” refuses to find understanding of Jesus’ words through living them out, he makes Jesus into a static, dead idol of stone.

In John 15:4, Jesus says that if we abide in him, he will abide in us.  To understand Jesus’ words, we must live the way Jesus lived!  Paul says in Romans 13:14 that we should clothe ourselves in Jesus, and in Galatians 3:27 he repeats this theme.  

To live the Christian life is to enter into dialogue with peoples of all tribes and all statuses in unconditional love, just as Jesus did, and to give with no expectancy of the returns, accepting whatever comes.  This is the surrender of love that Jesus showed on the night that he was betrayed, giving himself as a gift and pouring out God’s love into the world.  In the act of the cross, Jesus showed us the mystery of the paradox of vulnerable power.  To live like Christ is to accept this vulnerability and express it in whatever ways are possible - entering into dialogue with all who are available to us and making ourselves available as a gift, even unto death.

Jesus is the door...but you have to step through to infinity...
Jesus is the living embodiment of the Word, thus the true fulfillment of the scriptures.  And if the Word is infinite, then no understanding of this person fully encapsulates this reality - Jesus is a finite point of reality which opens the door to knowledge of infinite reality, and thus “knowing Jesus” means that one has become fluid and open to infinite change.  Christ is the perfect union between an infinite God and finite creation, and Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane that we would have that same union (see John 17).   

To understand this is to understand that the reality of Christ is not exhausted through Jesus’ historicity - rather, Christ is the center of reality itself which incorporates all.  Christ is the very life of the universe itself in a union with finite creation - infinite expressed through creaturely union.  Through this view, we see that Jesus is not an exception to creation, but the fulfillment of the purpose of Creation.  In him, we find the meaning of what it means to be truly human in its very fullest sense - that is, the union of finite humanity with infinite God.  This transforms the finite, static view of Jesus Christ as an ancient superhero we merely observe from our viewpoint into a fluid, living and present reality - New Creation continually arising and changing and shaping the Universe.  If we solidify our views in rigidity, we enter into death, but even this will not conquer Christ as Christ has conquered death itself.  But by embracing the change of the Holy Spirit working in the world - the act of New Creation - and by accepting the death of our old, rigid selves, we are able to say, with Paul: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)

If God is infinite and eternal, than no understanding we can ever have of this being is ever truly representative of this God, but can only be incomplete and very likely incorrect in some ways.  To understand this is to understand that every understanding of God is an idol, and we must continually strive to destroy our own idols without judging our neighbor, for by judging our neighbor we judge ourselves (Luke 6:37).  This does not mean we cease to try to understand, but rather we should embrace the journey of understanding itself.

In "A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith", Brian McLaren wrote:

...idols freeze one’s understanding of God in stone, as it were. This approach also warns us about the danger of another kind of idolatry to which we today are more susceptible. Although few of us today are tempted to freeze our understanding of God in graven images, we may too quickly freeze our understanding in printed images, rigid conceptual idols not chiseled in wood or stone but printed on paper in books, housed not in temples but in seminaries and denominational headquarters, worshiped not through ancient ceremonies and rituals but through contemporary sermons and songs.
To guard against these conceptual idols, we must understand that an infinite God is a God of eternal mystery.  We must understand that each new day, if we are truly experiencing God, we will be continually evolving our understanding of Him/Her (that's right - God has no sex, but is both sexes and neither sex at the same time, and it's a grave misfortune that English has no sexless pronoun with which to address this being).

In "The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil's Biblical Roots", authors T. J. Wray and Gregory Mobley write:

In the mid-twentieth century, the German theologian Paul Tillich formulated the phrase “the God above (or beyond) God.”  Tillich’s words remind believers that in Jewish terms, at the heart of monotheistic faith is the enigma of “I am who I am,” that in Christian terms, “we see through a glass darkly,” and that in Muslim terms, even the ninety-nine names for Allah do not suffice. The God of the cosmos, a universe eons old and light-years big, is only hinted at in human theologies, however accurately.

This eternal mystery of infinite being is also hinted at in The Tao Te Ching:

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
Likewise, in the Lankavatara Sutra it is written:
These teachings are only a finger pointing to the Noble wisdom.... They are intended for the consideration and guidance of the discriminating minds of all people, but they are not the Truth itself, which can only be self-realized within one’s own deepest consciousness.
In my next post, I would like to explore how infinite reality expresses itself through the model of death and resurrection.

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