One of the aspects that I believe defines the religious liberal is the acknowledgement that we encounter the world and everything in it through our own lenses. These lenses are shaped by years of experience… by the people we meet, what we have read, and the journeys (literal and metaphorical) that we have taken. Religious Liberalism is often spoken of as a “Faith of Meaning Making”. At its best, Religious Liberalism is guided by principles, developed together and shared in covenant. At its worst, Religious Liberalism becomes a formless relativism. In either case, it is a faith practice that requires comfort with uncertainty. As I said in an article a few years ago, Religious Liberalism is the faith practice of living on the shifting sands, because such sands are all there are.
This aspect of Religious Liberalism has distinct implications for our encounters with anything in the world, but perhaps the difference is seen most clearly in how Religious Liberals encounter anything recognized as “scripture”. Such scripture may include the Hebrew or Christian Scriptures, the Buddhist Sutras, the Koran, the Baghavad Gita, the Popul Vuh, or even some of our own “scriptures”, such as the writings of some of our theological forebears (Francis David, Emerson, Parker, Channing, and so many more). The experiences of our lives can be understood as living scripture. It might be poetry or fiction, it might be science or art. What counts as scripture for those of Liberal faith is, unsurprisingly, liberal… and often very individualized. For myself, scripture consists of writings and experiences that have had a profound impact upon my life, or have had a profound impact on the lives of countless others. The philosophical writings of Mark Twain have had a profound impact upon my life, and so I include “What is Man?” and “The War Prayer” in my personal canon. Though I am not much moved by the Gospel of John from the New Testament, I recognize that millions have been so moved, so I also recognize its scriptural authority and seek to dance with it.
As I have encountered it in myself and others, the metaphor of a dance is the best I can find for how I and many other Religious Liberals (though perhaps not all) encounter scripture. In taking classes with non-religious liberals studying scripture of varying kinds (from transcendentalism to Christianity to Buddhism and more) I found the questions they most often asked were: “What meaning can be authentically derived from this scripture (exegesis)?”, “What is the context of this scripture?” and “What does this scripture require of me?”.
In encountering some of these same classes and scriptures with my fellow religious liberals, I found a different set of questions being asked… and I think this difference contrasts how religious liberals and others practice faith. Instead of asking “What meaning can be authentically derived from this scripture?”, I found Religious Liberals far more likely to ask “What meaning is there for me in this scripture, in this moment and in my context?” In other words, I found myself and many of my fellow Religious Liberals called to an eisegetical approach to scripture (reading meaning into the scripture) and not purely an exegetical approach (reading meaning from the scripture).
Now, there is a broad divide between how exegesis and eisegesis are viewed in the academic approach to scriptural reading and interpretation. That divide can be stated clearly… exegesis good… eisegesis bad, bad, BAD! Every class studying scripture I have ever encountered (save the one on Buddhist scriptures) understood the purpose of the class in part as purifying eisegesis out of the student’s engagement with the scripture. Students are required to write exegetical papers, and are chided by professors when they make what are interpreted as eisegetical statements. Papers are graded in part for the amount of eisegetical content that might be found in them.
There are two main problems I wish to highlight with this approach. The first is to ask the post-modernist question… Can we ever achieve objective exegesis? Is it possible to encounter a scripture (or anything for that matter) and leave all of the other experiences of our lives out of the encounter? Does not a poor black woman and a rich white man encounter a certain metaphor about camels and eyes of needles in different ways? How do you decide which of these ways is more valid or objective?
One of the answers to this problem of the variability of exegetical work that has gained traction, not in the academy, but in the encounters with scripture by many Conservative Christians, is the “Common Sense” approach. It is the belief that the biblical scriptures of the Christian tradition can be understood with “common sense”, and that you do not need any particular training or skill at interpretation… because there is no interpretation to be done. The meaning is plain and the same to everyone… and that if you do not agree on a scripture’s meaning that is because either you are being deceived by Satan or you are over-thinking it (or both).
Both the academic search for an exegetical objectivity and the “common sense” answer of many of my Conservative Christian friends share the same problem… they often seek to define the scripture as having one meaning, one interpretation, and one purpose. At least in the Academy they invite dialogue and conversation between different interpretations, however the purpose of that dialogue is often (in my opinion) is to convince others of your position. There is similar variability of interpretation among those who follow the “common sense” approach, with much less dialogue. I do find my “Common Sense” Christian friends to be a bit more strident on what will happen to you if you do not agree with them than my friends in the Academy. Failing a class seems so much less scary after listening to descriptions of hell and damnation.
I highlight these two different approaches to interpreting and finding meaning in scripture not to put them down, but to highlight the difference that I see between these approaches and the one I believe we are called to practice as Religious Liberals. Both the academic exegetical approach and the “common sense” approach have value in that they provide a basis for meaning for those who practice them, and each provides a larger base of thought on the scripture for the Religious Liberal to encounter and dance with. My concern with the academic exegetical approach comes when it does not make room for the validity of any other way of encountering and understanding scripture. My concern with the “common sense” approach comes when it seeks to enforce such an individualized interpretation of scripture upon others (for I believe that the common sense approach is actually a mask for doing eisegesis while pretending it is exegesis).
Let me use a section of Christian scripture as an example of one part of my own personal dance. As a teenager in a Southern Baptist Church, I remember a day when a scripture reading seemed to contrast strongly with the practice of my church. I had long begun to believe that for many of my fellow Church members, they came to church mainly to be seen coming to church. There was always a show of how much each tithed to the church. Some people seemed to want to be noticed in prayer during the service. Some seemed to compete for who could say “AMEN!” first. I had accepted that trying to show your piety publicly was a part of what it meant to be a Christian. We had regularly been told that we should “wear our crosses on our sleeves”, so that we could better witness to others. Everyone we met should know that Jesus had saved us, and that he could save them too.
Then one day the Pastor read to us Matthew, Chapter 6. At first, I thought I had heard him wrong, as he said “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them”. I was flabbergasted when the scripture told us not to pray in the temples and synagogues or on street corners, but rather to “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.”
‘God is in secret?’ I thought. ‘Since when?’
I had been trained in the “Common Sense” school of understanding the Bible, and the common sense meaning of this scripture told me that I should get away from this church as fast as possible… something I eventually did. At that moment in my life, this scripture became part of why I asked my parents to quit making me go to church (there were other reasons, many of them not so religious). It was then that I really began developing the idea of an individual understanding of my relationship to God, and seeking a private understanding of prayer. By twenty, I was a Christian Deist.
Years later, as I was studying with a Zen Buddhist Roshi and practicing Zen meditation, I encountered this scripture again. I remembered how important that verse had been to me in my teens, but now my dance with it had new steps. I had found a way to “pray” behind closed doors, if not always alone in a room then in silence, seated on the floor and facing a wall. I realized that part of my practicing Zen was a public form of piety… I was given credit by many of my fellow Unitarian Universalists for being “pious and spiritual” because I spent some time every day sitting and facing a wall, even though a spiritual piety was not necessarily my internal reality. I used my connection to Zen to foster that image however, because it was useful to be seen that way in seminary. And when I prayed as a minister in public, I found myself at times “heaping up empty phrases”, and realized there was a disconnect between my private prayer life and the public prayers that were a part of my understanding of the role of “minister”.
Encountering Matthew 6 was a part of my re-evaluation of the places that Zen, Unitarian Universalism, and prayer were playing in my life. That evaluation eventually led to my stepping away from Zen (among other reasons), and focusing again on my own personal practices of prayer and meditation. Eventually I will seek a re-encounter with Zen, but at a time when I am not seeking it for reasons of public piety and ministerial formation.
Two very different encounters with the same scripture… what was different? The scripture was the same, but the meanings I found at each time were very different, and in each case they were transformative for me. What was different was me. The scripture spoke to me differently because I had changed. I had different lenses, different needs, and different experiences. The ability for something, anything, to speak in different ways to different people at different times in their lives may be the unifying definition of what is scripture for me.
The dance with scripture is an interplay, across experience and time, between an individual human being and a fixed point of wisdom, story, experience or thought. I do not have to agree with the wisdom for it to be scripture… I do not agree with John 14:6, (I am the way, the truth, and the light. No one comes to the father except through me). Yet each time I encounter that scripture it teaches me something new about myself and what I do believe.
The exegesis, the context of the scripture, the criticism of the scripture and other interpretations, and the meanings the scripture has held for others… these all form the dance floor. To truly be dancing with a scripture, you need to be aware of these… what others have claimed the scripture objectively means, how it relates to other scriptures and to the whole of the religious system, what meanings have been regularly found within the scripture. This is the setting for the dance, and you cannot dance without it. But they are not the dance…
The Dance is the interplay between your sense of self and the life you have lived with this fixed point of wisdom we call scripture. The interplay and interconnection between myself and scripture is one of the places where I see the Holy Spirit within my life. The transformations and inspirations from that dance are primarily for the individual who experiences them. My purpose as a Religious Liberal Minister is not to teach others my dance, but to help others discover their own. Perhaps then I might also be inspired and transformed by how they dance with scripture.
I invite you to dance.
Yours in faith,