Process Theology and the Folly of a Closed Canon

Process Theology and the Folly of a Closed Canon May 18, 2019

“Process Theology and the Folly of the Closed Canon”

Every person needs to discover their identity, unique gifts and perspectives. The same is true of institutions and religions that provide myths to live by and values to shape our policies, priorities, and ethical decision-making. Identity is essential for healthy emotional development, but a healthy identity is never static and always grows in relationship to new insights and experiences. Scripture proclaims that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature. Jesus’ own theology, spirituality, and understanding of God was not fixed or finished, but evolved in relationship with those persons and situations he encountered. Jesus went into the wilderness to discover and refine his vocation. He grew in stature – spiritual size and insight – as he faced the temptations of security, power, and comfort. Jesus saw new aspects of his faith as he embraced the experiences of foreigners, strangers, unclean persons, and social outcasts. As one of his followers, the apostle Paul noted, we see in a mirror dimly. Our experiences of the holy are finite and need constant updating and enlarging to be faithful to breadth and height of divinity.

Faith traditions define their identities by their holy scriptures. These scriptures serve as guideposts for our faith journey, rituals, theologies, and understandings of the church and its mission. Yet, woe unto the tradition that sees the living revelations of its founders, enshrined on the written page, as final and definitive of the Holy.

I grew up with the Bible and it has shaped my life as a preacher, teacher, spiritual guide, parent, and citizen. I write a weekly lectionary commentary “The Adventurous Lectionary” for Patheos.com and write several weeks of lectionary commentaries for Process and Faith. I have written several books on texts from the Old and New Testaments. I can still affirm the words, “The B-I-B-L-E, oh that’ the book for me.” But I can no longer recite the following line “I stand alone on the word of God, the B-I-B-L-E.”

To live solely informed by the Bible, and to enshrine its words with inerrant status is to fall into the world of abstraction, ideology, and intolerance. This is equally true for an inerrant and infallible Qur’an or Gita, or any other book elevated to divine status. As a Christian theologian and spiritual leader, I am guided by the Bible, but the Bible that guides me is Living and Concrete. I believe that the formation of the Christian scriptures was inspired by God, just as the reading of the scriptures can be inspired by God, but the formation of our scriptures was both a gain and loss. Yes, the canon, or authorized scriptures, shaped our traditions and provided an identity of faith. But that formation was concrete and historical, the result of political machinations, exclusion of diverse viewpoints (both inspirational and diabolical), congregational power plays, and, as some suggest, male privilege. Some sort of canon is inevitable and necessary for the formation and perpetuation of our faith tradition, just as certain values shape a healthy life, and there are certain lines we don’t cross if we are to be faithful to God, family, vocation, nation, and planet. Still, a living faith recognizes that its treasures, as the apostle Paul says, are found in earthen vessels. We cannot substitute paper infallibility for papal infallibility if we are to be faithful to the Living God and cognizant of our own limitations.

Closing the canon achieved the positive benefit of creating a stream of faith that could call itself “Christian.” It also sadly excluded other inspiring voices (for example, the Gospel of Thomas) and privileged a type of biblical orthodoxy whose inflexibility has led to war and persecution as well as promoting abstractions and ideologies at the expense of concrete experiences of God and real-life ethical decision-making. It has also led to persons devaluating their own spiritual experiences as well as the spiritual experiences of those with whom we differ.

We need to take scripture seriously. We also need, as the United Church of Christ says, to remember that “God is still speaking.” Pierre de Caussade asserted that Gods “generates fresh activities every moment” and that we are part of the “the book the Holy Spirit is still writing.” A hundred years later, Ralph Waldo Emerson charged the graduates of Harvard Divinity School to be “bards of the Holy Ghost” and that applies to us today.

A living Bible builds on tradition, wrestles with the relationship of scripture to the current world of quantum physics, evolutionary theory, global climate change, sexual fluidity, women’s rights, and political decision-making. A living Bible faces the many voices of scripture, recognizing that scripture is more of a library, with varying degrees of inspiration and insight, than one homogenous text, repeating the same viewpoint on every page. Ruth, the Moabite foreigner, great grandmother of King David, challenges the ideologies of Ezra and Nehemiah who compelled followers of God to divorce their non-Jewish wives. Jonah, the reluctant prophet, learns God loves the enemy as well as the fellow citizen, and that nation-first and religion-first ideologies go against God’s vision of humanity. In wrestling with the text, we discover that hundreds of verses relate to income inequality and rampant profit-making, and but few ambiguous verses relate to hot button political issues such as homosexuality and abortion.

Reading the Bible is intended to shake us up and challenge our complicity with the evils of our time. We are, as Thomas Merton notes, guilty bystanders of the evils we deplore, and scripture unmasks our pretense to be scot-free. A living Bible reaches beyond itself, inspiring us to open the canon of our own experience, to look for holiness in unexpected places, and go beyond easy ethical and political answers to face the implications of a God with skin who dwells among us seeking Shalom and Healing.

Our faith is always “in the making,” unfinished and evolving and guiding us to face the local and global challenges of life with grace, courage, and openness to more light shed on our scriptures and ethics. Go forth, write the scriptures of our time, become a bard of the Holy Ghost.

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Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of 50 books, including “Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed” (T&T Clark) and “Praying with Process Theology: Spiritual Practices for Personal and Global Transformation,” and the six volume series on Process Theology from Energion Publications: “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God,” “Process Spirituality: Practicing Holy Adventure,” “One World: The Lord’s Prayer from a Process Perspective,” “Process and Process Care,” “Process and Ministry,” and “Process Theology and Celtic Wisdom.”

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