Scripture Is More Like A Beach Than A Path

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Progressive Christian community here.

I spent last week on the North Carolina coast with friends and family, on our annual beach vacation. I spent hours sitting in my chair, right on the edge of the surf, watching the waves come in and out over the sand, and, more slowly, watching the tide go in and out. This is mesmerizing and intoxicating, if you let it be: the back-and-forth of land and sea, played out across a few dozen yards of territory that is sometimes one, sometimes the other, all depending, improbably, on the position of the moon.

My vacation wasn't all just sitting, though. On a few occasions I managed to rouse my body into a run—a jog, really—along the sea. Sometimes this was on the beach, right along the waterside, where the sand is firm enough to support a lumbering thirty-something vacationer at an embarrassingly slow pace. Other times my runs were on a running and biking path, built further inland right by the main road, but still parallel to the coastline. One day, after one of my seaside runs, I noticed something: the smartphone app I use to track my runs had produced a map that put me as running about twenty yards out into the surf! I compared that run to one that I had completed on the inland path. That run was mapped out just as it should be: my route was superimposed right over top of the path. I realized what had happened. My phone was not malfunctioning; it was just that I had completed my beachside run at low tide, and the spot where I was running would later be underwater. The mapmakers, of course, facing the task of making a map, had to make a decision about where to put the coastline, and I assume they followed some industry standard for how to do so. But at the moment I took my run, the reality of where the coastline lay was at odds with where the map said it should be.

What does all this have to do with scripture, and progressive Christian views of it? Quite a lot, I think. For years and years, Christians—and especially Protestant Christians—have treated scripture like a path. They (we) have assumed that the Bible was a discrete, knowable, definable thing, and that the thing itself would always overlay neatly with our expectations of it. We had in our minds a notion of scripture: as inerrant, or inspired by God, or internally consistent, or always pointing toward some Christian end. And because we assumed all these things (and other things too) about the Bible, because we assumed that the Bible was part of a static landscape of eternal consistency that never changed, we sometimes found that our map was inaccurate. Or shifting, or unreliable, or just plain confusing.

It turns out that reading (and living by) the Bible is much more like running by the sea than running on a path. Running by the sea is like running in a giant grey zone, where waves can dart up the shore and nip your shoes, where an unusually low tide might have you running in crumbling sand where the water would normally be neck-deep, and where any maps are strictly provisional and advisory.

Progressive Christians have, by and large, come to terms with this state of affairs. They (we) have recognized that the strict maps, the ones that say that scripture is absolutely this or that, are not wholly truthful. The real world is much more complicated than that. Progressive Christians have become acclimated to the gray area, and have learned to live and thrive where the space is sometimes one thing, and sometimes another. The maps don't lie, exactly; they just have limited usefulness, and they sometimes can mislead you with a confidence that doesn't always correspond with the real world.

This is not to say that progressive Christians live in some kind of relative world, while other, more faithful Christians live in a purer, more absolute world. Rather, this is to say that progressive Christians recognize that the Bible is more messy, imperfect, and complicated than we used to think it was, and now we live accordingly.

It's a matter of seeing the real thing, not the idealized map of it. It's a matter of following the ever-changing contours of God's every new day, and not sticking to some arbitrary and abstract line, just because someone drew it there. In this way of living, knowledge is good and more knowledge is better, and there is nothing to fear from having your assumptions overturned.

The Bible is, after all, a complicated thing. Its history and translation and use can fill lifetimes of study. Most of the time, that study contributes to the uncertainly rather than alleviates it. Progressive Christians, in my opinion, have considered that state of affairs, and have said "so be it." They (we) have chosen to follow the moving shape of the water and sand rather than some clear line on a map, and our lives are messier but richer for it—or at least we think so. Others will disagree, and the mapmakers will protest and defend their meticulous methods. Those who prefer a predictable path will insist on walking that path's never-changing routes.

But having walked the shifting shoreline, we prefer the beach to the path. We like the way it's never the same twice, and we find truth in the change and interplay. And when we open up our Bibles, which we do as faithfully as anyone, we see not absolutes but the traces of journeys taken before us, the tracks of loyal servants and runagates and wandering wondering saints and sinners. And a wave nips our heels and we change course subtly, and the sand gets too soft and we drift back down to the water, all the while dancing between the sea and sand.