Now Featured in the Patheos Book Club
A Life of Faith
By Ronald Ragotzy
Book Excerpt: Chapter One
The Bible is a book that has been read more and examined less than any book that ever existed.—Thomas Paine (1737–1809)
Faith is the highest creation of the universe, and we are its keepers. I must have been born with this idea imprinted on my brain. I cannot remember a time when I cared more about anything. Even as I prepared for my wedding day, I was more interested in talking to the priest about what faith really was and how I could express it than I was in reciting my marriage vows. At the time I was told that getting married was an act of keeping faith and that I should be satisfied with that, but I was not. I wanted to do more—much more.
One of the things I felt I needed to do to learn more about faith was to reconcile my thinking about faith with the Bible with which I grew up. For most of my adult life, I had felt that I could not keep reading Genesis 1–11 as a literal history of the world. The stories of creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah's ark, and the Tower of Babel—also known as the primeval history—had become an ineffective reflection of faith for me. Reading them literally was not helping me experience faith. Because it lost its impact on me, I put the Bible aside for many years. During that time in my life, I was a husband, a father, and even a doctor; but I was not a keeper of faith. I felt empty and did not know what to do. I may have had a thread of faith that I was trying to cling to, but I did not have the faith I wanted. I knew that if I were to return to the Bible, I would need to go deeper into the text to find the faith I was looking for—much deeper.
By deeper I mean that I knew I must use all the tools at my disposal to understand the messages in Genesis 1–11. One very powerful way to deepen my understanding of Scripture was to read the stories as metaphors for faith. This way of reading the Bible is called an anagogical interpretation. To read Genesis 1–11 anagogically, all I needed to do was ask myself how the images presented in the stories related to faith.
Let me give an example with the story of Cain and Abel. Cain and Abel were brothers, but metaphorically they can also represent two different aspects of a person. Since Abel was the brother who was accepted by God, it is easy to see that he is a metaphor for the faith that resides in each of us. Cain, on the other hand, is a metaphor for the self-will side of us, since he did everything on his own. He certainly did not listen to what God told him to do. Cain did not even answer when God asked him why he was so angry. Instead, Cain unleashed his anger on Abel and killed him. Even when God tried to engage Cain a second time by asking him where his brother was, he replied back with a question: 'Am I my brother's keeper?' Cain showed that he was more than willing to go through life not listening to anyone but himself, and therefore he was the embodiment of a life based on self-will and not on faith.
Reading the Cain and Abel story with the brothers representing the two sides of each of us gives a much deeper insight into how faith relates to self-will. With this metaphor, we can see that faith and self-will are like brothers. The Bible is telling us that the role of our self-will is to be the big brother and keeper of our faith, protecting it from a sometimes-cruel world. But if our self-will rejects the job of keeper, then our faith side will surely perish.
Genesis 1–11 contains dozens of metaphors that explain and connect the individual stories so we can better understand faith. We will explore many of them in the following chapters, but we must be careful with this kind of interpretation. We can learn a lot from seeing the Genesis stories through a metaphoric lens, but we must also know the limits of the metaphors. Inherent in the use of metaphors in understanding any text is that they must be only temporary images. The metaphors deepen our understanding of the stories but are not meant to be included in the original written text. We must not change the text permanently. If we insist that a given metaphor is the only true way to read the text, then we severely limit the Bible's potential for speaking to all people in all times. One example of a metaphor that has changed the original meaning of the text for many is found in one common interpretation of Genesis 3. Many people view the serpent in the story of the garden of Eden as the actual Devil. I think everyone can understand that the serpent can be a metaphor for the Devil or the incarnation of evil, but if we limit the metaphor, it can prevent us from understanding all the possibilities in the story. Seeing the serpent as the Devil prevents us from using the serpent as a metaphor for Eve's own self-will or even recognizing that the serpent might represent a force that may have been attempting to help Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If we do not use metaphors as temporary images, then we destroy any chance the Bible has to help everyone experience a deeper faith. Preserving the original images in the stories allows us a multitude of other readings and metaphors, permitting a deepening and evolving understanding of faith. They are not meant to alter the original text, but it is in discovering and working with the metaphors that we grow in faith. Metaphors are the words in the language of faith.