Permission to Ask The Hard Questions (Scripture for the 21st Century)

What role does scripture play in relation to our faith and practice? How is Progressive Christianity helping to reclaim scripture for the 21st Century?

This is the general question that has been put to us, and this week, many leaders within progressive Christianity will be weighing in with their answers as part of the Patheos Public Square summer series. You’ll be hearing from friends like Brian McLaren, James McGrath, Marcus Borg, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Carol Howard Merritt, among others. I haven’t read their responses to the question yet, but once they do I’ll turn their names into live links so that you can click through and hear what they have to say.

The issue of scripture is a critical question for everyone in Christianity, regardless of what tribe they tend to run with or which label they prefer. How do we read the Bible? How do we interpret the Bible? How do we apply the Bible?

These are universal questions within the Christian tradition, and questions that Christians have been wrestling with throughout history.

As I thought about the issue and unique contributions from the perspective of Progressive Christianity, I ran into a slight roadblock: the term “Progressive” is so broad that to speak for “Progressive Christianity” would be impossible for myself or any of my colleagues who are participating in this series. As I’ve said to many before, “progressive” is a great secondary quantifier but makes for a horrible primary designator. One is never simply a “progressive”, they are most often a progressive “something”. Progressive Christianity includes a wide range of people of diverse thought (we often disagree with each other) from progressive evangelicals (historically called “emergents”) all the way to liberal theology from a mainline foundation. As such, I don’t know how to comment on reclaiming scripture for the 21st century apart from my history (and baggage) along with my current convictions as a….  well, progressive emergent Anabaptist.

I think perhaps where I can contribute to the discussion is by looking at two sides of the question. First, I will look at what I believe are the key contributions Progressive Christianity is making towards how we approach and use scripture. Additionally, I will also briefly discuss what I see as potential downfalls of how  (some within) Progressive Christianity approach scripture.

 The key area where I believe Progressive Christianity is helping to reclaim scripture for the 21st Century is that it is giving people permission to ask hard questions.

Permission to ask the hard questions about scripture is what I think is perhaps the greatest contribution Progressive Christianity is making within the current Christian landscape. There are a growing number of people who are exiting more conservative expressions of the Christian faith for this simple reason- they don’t feel the permission to ask hard questions.

Did Jonah really get swallowed by that whale?

Did God really command the murder of thousands of Canaanite babies?

Does the concept of eternal, conscious torment really seem consistent with the God revealed in Jesus?

There are some tough questions that must be asked and openly wrestled with in an intellectually honest way—and Progressive Christianity is one of the primary areas where these discussions are happening (but not the only area– i.e. See Peter Enns or Scott McKnight). Many individuals walking from conservative expressions of Christianity perhaps would walk away from Christianity entirely if they did not have a safe place to ask hard questions.  We must continue to encourage and welcome the asking of these hard questions, and continue embracing a God who is big enough to handle it. By continuing to host a broad discussion, I believe we will actually encourage people to interact with scripture instead of push people away from it, as is often the case when such questions are immediately rebuffed.

Uncovering a deeper meaning of the text

A second area where I see unique contribution is in the realm of hermeneutics—what does the text mean? This contribution flows out of permission to ask the hard questions, which leads to a new inquiry into the text itself. Whereas some conservative expressions of Christian thought believe the meaning of the text is always the straightforward surface of the text, Progressive Christianity (including progressive evangelicals) open the inquiry to deeper meaning. Now, this is not new—in hermeneutics there is long debate over what the meaning of “text” is. Is the meaning the surface of the text? Is the meaning behind the text? This is one area where I have previously attempted to contribute by encouraging people to reconsider that the truth of some passages (such as Gen 1) might not be the text itself but a deeper meaning behind the text (see Literal vs. Metaphoric and It Doesn’t Have to be True to Still be True).

If God is as big as we claim he is, we need to consider that the truth of some passages might be bigger than the surface of the passage itself. Honest, truth-seeking inquiries must always be encouraged and embraced—and this permission to ask hard questions and to explore possible deeper meanings of the text itself, remain the two key contributions of Progressive Christianity I am most thankful for.

That said, when we consider scripture, the 21st century, and Progressive Christianity, I also think there are some challenges that we simply cannot ignore:

Dismissiveness without a better explanation.

Dismissiveness without a better explanation is perhaps one of my biggest pet peeves that I frequently see in some areas of Progressive Christianity. Simply writing off one part of scripture by saying “clearly that didn’t happen” or “Paul was just a bigot” leads to an à la carte approach to scripture that seems to lack intellectual integrity, and encourages arriving at conclusions without doing the hard work. Combine that with the fact that anyone with access to the internet thinks they’re a theologian (while bypassing years of inconvenient things like studying Greek verbs while you’re in the checkout line at the grocery store), and you’ve got a free-for-all mess on your hands. Too often, this approach leads people to cling to their own completely relative and typically misinformed understanding of the text. Yes, there are legitimate alternative understandings of various biblical texts, but no, the Bible is not a “choose your own adventure” story. My fear for Progressive Christianity is the potential for it to spiral into a giant theological mosh pit.

In order for Progressive Christianity to show a better way forward, it must continue to learn  how to arrive at a position because of the text not in spite of the text. Instead of lackadaisical dismissing of text it must put forth more compelling understandings of meaning, literary genre, authorial intent, and historical context, without resorting to intellectually weak propositions such as “clearly this is outdated”. I think Progressive Christianity can win the discussion and put forth better interpretations of text, but that it must not succumb to dismissing text without providing a better alternative to viewing the text.

The big question: what is the role of scripture in the life of a Christian?

This final question is perhaps the most important question—what role does scripture play in my own life? One of the drawbacks of Progressive Christianity is that I have not heard this question answered in a clear and unified way—but perhaps that’s simply because the tent is so big that one answer will not accurately represent everyone under the tent.

However, it is a question that must be answered because it plays a crucial role in the praxis of our faith.

In the book I’m currently writing for release in the fall of 2015 (now tentatively titled, Beyond The Tribe: Reclaiming a Better Christianity), I argue that when we reject Christian tribalism, we are free to embrace the good in the “other”, and this is one of those areas where that principle plays an important role in my life as I still share the evangelical “high-view” of scripture. This simply means I believe that scripture plays a crucial role in the life of a believer, and that whatever the text means, is ultimately true. The real debate for me then becomes, what does this specific text actually mean? What would be the best way to apply the truth of this text into this culture and this time?

By believing that the message of scripture is fundamentally true, I have been invited into a never-ending quest for truth. By having permission to ask the hard questions, I am able to explore and grow from the diverse thoughts and insights of others.

And by rejecting Christian tribalism, I am able to hold these two principles– truth and questions– in complete harmony with another.

My hope for the future of Progressive Christianity is that we will embrace the role and authority of scripture as has been for centuries of Christian tradition, that we will continue to encourage the tough questions, and that we will keep walking down the path of open-ended inquiry into the meaning and application of scripture itself.

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  • http://faithlikeaman.blogspot.com/ Ryan Blanchard

    A question for the progressive Christian: why do you take the canon seriously? As in, knowing what you know about church history, why do you (if you do) accept that the 66 books in the Bible are the only authoritative books? (I’ll not be arguing with anyone, just curious. Thanks)

  • Guest2

    Phew ! I imagine that an answer to this Q requires another book from Ben !

  • gimpi1

    “There are some tough questions that must be asked and openly wrestled with in an intellectually honest way—and Progressive Christianity is one of the primary areas where these discussions are happening (but not the only area– i.e. See Peter Enns or Scott McKnight). Many individuals walking from conservative expressions of Christianity perhaps would walk away from Christianity entirely if they did not have a safe place to ask hard questions.”

    Personally, I think people who are willing to ask hard questions and not accept pat answers are truly being more faithful than those that just go with the status quo. I can’t accept an idea that simply expresses itself in “Believe what we tell you.” To reach those of us on the outside, you have to be brave enough to search for answers to the questions we have. If Christianity can’t do that, eventually, it will find itself just preaching to the choir.

  • Brian P.

    Um, eventually? We’re already there except in the most isolated circles.

  • gimpi1

    Many folks are. I consider Ben someone who isn’t.

  • Brian P.

    Soon, nobody’s really going to give all that much heed to those proclaiming from the rooftops, “Believe what we tell you.” With the Internet, it’s easy for all to be exposed to many rooftops with many varying voices with their isolated monologues. Until those with the megaphones sit down and reason together, expect most of the folks in the street to ignore them as they proceed down a perfectly reasonable middle way of Spiritual but Not Religious.

  • $105158253

    Oh good grief. Scripture doesn’t need to be reclaimed. It’s already claimed by God as a message to humanity.

    And do you really believe that until “progressive” Christianity came along no one asked hard questions?

  • BT

    From my experience, I wouldn’t say that no one was asking. I would say that such questions were not welcome in most of the churches I attended. That only changed when we finally began going to a more centrist church. It would be an exaggeration to say “no one” asked. It would be accurate to say that the number of questions were both few and not appreciated.

  • $105158253

    I am sure there are some churches that frown of questions but the Christian church since its beginning had people asking hard questions. But modern fools would like us to believe that they have something new to offer when it’s not new and not a revelation. Hubris is a terribly destructive trait.

  • BT

    Sometimes. Other times us modern fools reach back into history in order to steer the rest of us modern fools back on road. In that sense, it’s not new but it can be new to some.
    Personally, I think there’s a large body of evangelicals who have forgotten how to read the bible with history, literary genre, and a redemptive trajectory in mind.

  • Jennifer Gorman

    Thank you for this. As the mother of a 17 year old new Mennonite son who is definitely interested in scripture and has never been afraid to ask a hard question in in his life I appreciate your viewpoint. I, myself, on my fourth journey through the Bible have never found a time when it wasn’t challenging me, creating me, and building me, and I simply live by what it says the best that I can. But as I age, at 48 in a few weeks, I find myself braver and more clear that my own understanding of the words in this Book lead me to believe and stand for the way of peace, and the way of love to all people, the way of grace and healing and understanding, of not judging, and above all else, love. If this way is not politically correct to my Christian friends and relatives, I lovingly stand my ground and explain myself, and it is important to keep reading the Word to keep my stand based on that.

  • Tracy

    I am really excited to see what you and these theologians come up with. It is hard finding a safe place to ask those questions that no one seems to want to answer for fear of somehow dissing the bible and God. Thank you for sharing with us the chance to see what you all come up with. May God’s wisdom be with you all.

  • Brian P.

    Yes, yes. The fora are now present online. In real life though, few pastors and small group leaders (never mind family members) are prepared for the world in which they now reside. Soon though, we’ll have more and more of the connecting of deep friendship–“that’s what I was thinking too!” These walls of isolation will come down soon. The present age of spiritual change is bigger than the Reformation.

  • Guest2

    > The present age of spiritual change is bigger than the Reformation.
    Yes, and YES again ! It’s so exciting !

  • http://limpingtowardsgrace.com/ James Jarvis

    For me asking the hard questions is part of process of becoming a more faithful follower of Jesus. Jesus often asked questions of his disciples and when they answered his questions they often gave an answer that was different from the answer that Jesus was looking for. I can imagine there were times when Jesus just rolled his eyes, shook his head and thought to himself Peter, Peter, Peter sometimes you just don’t get it do you. Yet Peter was the rock on which he built his church. Faith is and should be hard work.

  • Guest2

    Thank you for this much-needed posting, Ben. I am your typical classic case of being afraid to ask even one further Q in my “Evangelical Alliance” Church of England church in the UK.
    A few months back after reading the BioLogos statements of belief on Patheos I began asking questions at our home group Bible study regarding Genesis & evolution (we were doing a study on Moses and Exodus + what led up to that)
    Since that time I’ve been totally ostracized as though I am now the poison apple who will surely poison the entire barrel of apples. I have been avoided and sidelined and unbefriended in church & feel so lonely in what was my spiritual home.
    My homegroup leader must have ‘reported’ my waywardness in querying the standard fundamentalist interpretation of scriptures to the church leaders.
    It’s a dark hole to enter, to dare to ask questions in some evangelical churches.

  • Brian P.

    Soon, few will see such fear as on the path toward spiritual freedom. Rather than being the poisoned apple, consider yourself the yeast. Leaven’s symbolism in Scripture is much more interesting.

  • Guest2

    Thank you. I feel better hearing that :-)

  • sharon peters

    it seems to me that you have been exposed to a toxic situation that invites you to be a cow in a herd & that maybe that isn’t what you want to be.

    i myself have been in this situation over and over in the last 40+ years in trying to find christian fellowship. similar rejection scenario as you except that depression has done me the favor of seeking fellowship w/ god.

    years ago in college i heard about ‘the cloud of unknowing.’ the title intrigued me, stayed w/me, rode my spirit piggyback all these years, was a cultural meme that carried an idea i was going to embrace eventually. i leave it to you as a possibility to encounter liberation from exploitation.

    from wikipedia;

    The Cloude of Unknowyng) is an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the latter half of the 14th century. The text is a spiritual guide oncontemplative prayer in the late Middle Ages. The underlying message of this work proposes that the only way to truly “know” God is to abandon all preconceived notions and beliefs or “knowledge” about God and be courageous enough to surrender your mind and ego to the realm of “unknowingness,” at which point, you begin to glimpse the true nature of God.

    here is a translation and bigger pieces of the work;

    ‘Some of the beauty and wonder of the Cloud of Unknowing…
    (chosen and translated by (Dr.) Kerrie Hide)’

    http://www.uiltexas.org/files/capitalconference/Twelve_Character_Archetypes.pdf

    …when I say “darkness” I mean a lack of knowing, just as whatever you do know or have forgotten is dark to you, because you do not see it in your spiritual eyes. For this reason, that which is between you and your God is termed, not a cloud of the air, but a cloud of unknowing. 4: 410-419

    The Cloud of Forgetting

    And if ever you come to this cloud, and make a home there and take up the work of love as I urge you, there is something else you must do as this cloud is above you, and between you and your God, you must put a cloud of forgetting beneath you, between you and all the creatures that have ever been made.
    The cloud of unknowing will perhaps leave you with a feeling that you are far from God. But I assure you, if it is authentic, only the absence of a cloud of forgetting between you and all creatures keeps you from God. 5 421-427.

  • Brian P.

    If I may ask, who is prohibiting the asking of hard questions and who gave them the authority to do this?