Last night’s Saving Jesus DVD was titled “What can we know about Jesus and how?” but the real topic was the unreliability of the Bible. I found myself in the peculiar position of defending the authority of Scripture, just hours after a conversation with a local evangelical pastor where I took the role of theological liberal. If my theology were put on a T-shirt, it would say “BUT…” Whence my compulsion to provide the missing vitamin in every discussion? I may have to give up disagreeing with people for Lent.
Anyhow, so Marcus Borg (yes, I’m going to hell for that — correct link here) opens the presentation by saying that the Bible doesn’t tell us how God sees things, only how the early Christians saw things. When we read the Bible, we should not ask “Why is God saying to me through this story?” but “Why did the writers of the Bible tell this story this way?”
(pause here for the sound of me spluttering incoherently, channeling the spirit of Frank Costanza — “Serenity now, dammit!”)
Number one: How the @#$%! does Borg know that the Bible does not express God’s message to humanity? God is God — who am I to say He couldn’t work this way if He wanted to? And since millions of people claim to have received His guidance through reading the Bible, it would be unreasonable and presumptuous for a Christian theologian, of all people, not to give some credence to their own interpretation of their experience.
Number two: If the Bible is purely a historical document, and the Holy Spirit is not at work in it, why should we bother with it? This class constantly puts the canonical and non-canonical “gospels” on an equal footing, and scoffs at the whole idea of orthodoxy versus heresy, because either these theologians don’t honestly believe there is any reasonable way to evaluate the merits of different doctrines, or they’re more afraid of sectarian strife than they are of falsehood. But if we’re not allowed to debate which version of the gospel best explains our shared reality, why should I care about anyone’s experience of Jesus except my own?
Number three: The above question not only makes it pointless to read the Bible, but also makes it pointless to share our personal experiences of God here and now.
The deeper problem with this series, and the school of liberal theology it represents, is its hidden assumptions about what constitutes true knowledge — assumptions that postmodernism blew out of the water a long time ago.
Take this (unattributed) quote from the handout: “The literary genre of ‘gospel’ is anything but objective biography. The best that can be expected from these sources is a subjective representation of Jesus aimed at a particular community of believers. Gospels are not divine dictation of what happened or even ‘history’ as we understand it today.” Elsewhere on the DVD, pastor Bill Nelson asserts that the gospels are “not biography but propaganda.”
Right here we have a post-Enlightenment, scientistic (as opposed to scientific) assumption that knowledge is only reliable to the extent that it is divorced from personal commitment and emotion. The false ideal of “objective biography” implies that the person who views Jesus as a detached object of study will understand him better than someone who has staked her life on knowing and doing Jesus’ will.
Contrast this with the insights of Fr. Luigi Giussani in The Religious Sense. Here, the founder of the Catholic renewal movement Communion & Liberation considers how we can avoid bias and wishful thinking, without denying our personal stake in the quest for spiritual knowledge:
The more something interests an individual, that is to say, the more value it has (worth for a person’s life), the more vital it is (that is, interests life), the more powerfully will it generate a state of soul, a reaction of antipathy or sympathy — “feeling” — and the more forcefully will reasoning, in the act of knowing that value in relation to our lives, be conditioned by this feeling. Thus our rationalistic culture can say: “It is clear that objective certainty cannot be reached when dealing with these types of phenomena because the factor of feeling plays too large a role. All questions concerning destiny, love, social, and political life and its ideals are a matter of opinion because one’s personal position in its mechanical aspect as a state of soul and feeling plays too large a role…. (p.26)
It may seem correct from a purely abstract point of view that man, when he judges something, should be absolutely neutral or altogether indifferent toward the object he judges. However, this cannot work well when vital values are involved. It is truly a mystification — not a utopia — to imagine that a judgment (the attempt to reach the truth of the object) made when one’s state of soul is perfectly untouched and completely indifferent is more worthy and valid. First of all, making such “indifferent” judgments is, above all, impossible, due to the very structure of human dynamism. The impact of feeling does not diminish, but increases where the object becomes more filled with meaning. Besides, judging a proposal regarding the meaning of our lives with absolute indifference would be like treating the problem as one would treat a rock…. (pp.28-29)
It seems evident to me…that the heart of the problem of human knowledge does not lie in a particular intellectual capacity….The center of the problem is really a proper position of the heart, a correct attitude, a feeling in its place, a morality….
[I]n order to give an object my attention, I must make some sort of judgment about it, I must take it into consideration and, to do so, I insist, I must possess a certain interest in it. What does this interest mean? It means I must have a desire to know what the object truly is….
Applying this to the field of knowledge, this is the moral rule: Love the truth of an object more than your attachment to the opinions you have already formed about it. More concisely, one could say, “love the truth more than yourself.” (pp.30-31)
This submission to the object of knowledge (Jesus or the Bible) seems alien to the hyper-individualism of “Saving Jesus”. Perhaps that’s why the program’s leadership is so wedded to a hermeneutic of suspicion. When discussing a discrepancy in the Bible, such as the fact that only one gospel contains the story of Peter receiving the keys of the church, my minister immediately looks for an ulterior motive: this must have been added later to bolster Peter’s claim of authority during a power struggle in the particular community for whom Matthew’s gospel was written. Similarly, last week he dismissed original sin as the product of St. Augustine’s guilt about his own sexuality, and the week before that, the divinity of Christ as the result of the Roman Empire co-opting the church. It’s inconceivable to him that the content of the doctrines or stories had anything to do with their acceptance into the canon, because that would mean we had to consider their truth-claims.
It breaks my heart to see my fellow parishioners being led around in circles, wasting their energy on endless intellectual debates, and whipped up into paranoia about the Bible and the church. Learning begins with an act of trust. I don’t understand how to read most of the Bible, but some of the parts I do understand saved my life, and so I’m going to keep at it. There’s no way I can do that unless I listen to others who have read it before me. I’m a firm believer in the “Anglican synthesis” of scripture, tradition, reason and experience. It seems to me that my church has cut the first two legs off the stool, while some of the more conservative churches have cut off the other two (or at least made them a lot shorter and more wobbly). To paraphrase Martin Luther, Here I sit — I can do no other!