There are some Christians who give the Bible godlike homage. It might as well have come floating down from heaven on the wings of angels. Should we ascribe to the Bible divine status?
In Nazi Germany a Jewish fugitive fleeing for his life came to a small town. He sought out the house of the Christian pastor, hoping to find refuge. He knocked on the door and when the pastor opened it, he told his story and asked if he could stay a few days until it was safe to travel again. The pastor invited him to step inside and wait. The pastor knew that if this young man was caught hiding there the whole town would be held accountable and suffer greatly. So immediately he withdrew to his prayer room and closed the door. He asked God for guidance and then opened his Bible. He happened to come upon the verse in John’s Gospel that says, “It is better for one man to die, than for the whole people to parish.” He knew he had his answer. So he sent the man away. Later that night an angel appeared and asked, “Where is the fugitive?” The pastor said, “I sent him away as the Holy Book instructed me.” The angel said, “Did you not know that he was the Christ? If you would have looked into his eyes, instead of first running to the Book, you would have known.”
Right now all across Christendom, many Christian leaders are running straight to the Book to decide on whether or not to accept same-sex marriage or to welcome and affirm LGBT persons into the life of the church. If they would first look into the eyes and hearts of their LGBT sisters and brothers and listen to their stories, then they would know what to do and how better to interpret and apply the Book.
Because the Bible was written by flawed and fallible human beings, the Bible gets the will of God wrong about as often as it gets it right. No matter what one’s theory of inspiration, nothing can compensate for the fact that limited, error-prone, biased human beings wrote the sacred documents that constitute our Bible.
I did indeed use the word “biased.” This is not a bad thing or a good thing – it’s just the way it is. No one can escape their biases. We each have biases that we are aware of and biases deeply embedded in our psyches which are often hidden from us. They can be constructive or destructive. We can be biased toward retaliation or forgiveness, retribution or redemption, exclusion or inclusion, etc. There are scriptures that are clearly regressive, that lean more toward the petty and punitive side of life, and scriptures that are clearly enlightened and enlightening – breakthroughs in spiritual consciousness.
For Christians I don’t know anything more important than the search and struggle to discern and do God’s will. And for that very reason it is vital that we understand the Bible’s place in that process. I suggest giving the following three sources equal authority:
1. Sacred Tradition. At the heart of this stands our Christian scriptures, but included also are our Christian traditions (interpretations, liturgies, hymns, prayers, litanies, and Christian praxis in various historical and cultural contexts). Included also to a lesser extent are the sacred texts and traditions of other religious faiths. Truth is truth wherever truth is found, and there is perennial truth that spans time, culture, and historical religious expressions and forms. However, as a Christian I believe that all sacred texts, stories, and traditions should be read and interpreted through the sacred story of Jesus. For Christ-followers all decisions about scriptural authority and how the scriptures should be applied need to be filtered through the life of Jesus and the unconditional love he taught and embodied.
2. Mystical Encounter. The heart of mystical encounter is our own personal communion and experience of the Divine (the Really Real, the Christ, Spirit, God, etc.) both individually and communally. Included also are the accounts of mystical experience we read and hear about from others. I have no doubt that Jesus’ understanding of “Abba” (his compassionate, divine father/mother/friend) was largely shaped by his own personal experience of God.
3. Rational Experience. By rational experience I am referring to understanding, wisdom, and insight gained from science and other branches of human knowledge. Depth psychology, for example, has much to teach us about the ways we hide from our true self where God abides. By rational experience, I am also referring to wisdom and understanding gained from reason, common sense, and our best intuitive sense of what is right, good, loving, and just.
If all we do is go straight to the Book, and the Book takes priority over everything else, it’s quite probable that we will use the Book to justify our beliefs and prejudices for good or ill. We most likely will find what we want to find, even though we think we are being objective.
There is a great need for many Christians to be honest about the scriptures and admit that we do not have a perfect revelation. Our sacred writings are just as broken as we are. And until we can accept the brokenness and fragmentation of the Bible, we will continue to use the Bible to justify harmful biases, and in particular it will continue to be used to spread homophobia that is deeply rooted in fear and insecurity.
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr likes to say that how we deal with the Bible is how we deal with reality and how we deal with reality is how we deal with the Bible. Maybe some of us have a difficult time accepting a flawed Bible because we have a difficult time accepting our own flaws or those of our particular group. If we could just let the Bible be what it is without trying to project impossible demands and claims upon it, we would be better able to do the same with our own flaws and failures. Perhaps, then, we would be more honest and humble and confessional about our own struggles as fractured and fragmented human beings.
The purpose of scripture is to prompt the struggle, to get us asking the questions, to evoke prayer, study, self-reflection, introspection, and reliance upon Spirit. It is in the struggle that we meet God and are changed by God.
Thomas Merton has said that unconverted persons will use scripture in unconverted ways. Unloving people will use scripture in unloving ways. Converted people whose hearts are right and in tune with God will use even the most oppressive texts in positive, transformative ways. Unconverted people whose hearts are cold, closed, unloving, self-absorbed, and egocentric will misuse even the most enlightened texts.
I have invested a large part of my life reading and studying the Bible, and trying to discern how to apply it in life-enhancing and liberating ways. I am well-aware of how I have misused it in the past to justify beliefs and biases into which I was indoctrinated and socialized. By way of personal experience I can say rather confidently that Christians will continue to propagate hurtful teachings and practices and use the Bible in detrimental ways unless they dethrone its god-like status and give the Bible its rightful place in discovering and doing God’s will.
Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective, and is also a contributor to the Unfundamentalist Christians blog on this website.