Monday, March 28, 2011

The authority of scripture

It strikes me as interesting that we of the Reformed tradition aren't any better than our fundalmentalist "cousins" we deride for believing that scripture is fully and innerantly authoritative. Like them, we tend to selectively proof text our beliefs for the sake of feeling safe by choosing verses of scripture that make us feel good about ourselves. This is selective authority at its worst. We selectively choose passages that support our beliefs and give us a sense of rightness. The gay and lesbian ordination issue is a great example. We depend on a passage from Paul's letters that is a dubious condemnation set within a particular context that is used to support a stand aginst this issue. Worse yet we pull out an obscure passage from the OT Book of Leviticus that leads to a deadend of selectively giving authority to a line among many that if treated authoritatively would lead us to a lot of Sunday morning stonings of disobedient teenagers. It reminds me of the Monty Python movie The Life of Brian. Maybe we should be selling stones on the church parking lot as a fund raiser for mission. There are probably more than  one of us who have raised teens to attest that we would be among the first to purchase a bag of rocks!

So how authoritative is scipture as our basis of understanding who we are as compassionate, caring, loving examples of those who seek to follow the example of Jesus? Can we even reduce our rpoblem with scripture to being "red ltter Christians?" Perhaps we need to depend less on what is written in the Bible, and more on what is implied. The "What would Jesus do?" wrist band question isn't a bad question at all. It forces the person intent on thinking and doing accordingly to make a decision based on Jesus' life, not simply the words recorded that he supposedly said. How can we be so sure that he really did say what he said exactly as it is written? As best I can tell he lived before the age of tape recording and video crews. I trust verbatim writing and oral memory to a point, but come on, let's get serious about who wrote most of scripture. "Inspired men" inspired by the Holy Ghost? We seem to give a lot of authority to God dictating and a secretary taking good notes.

That's a little more than I can personally ascribe to as a thnking adult who has been at the practice of ministry for about 45 years. God's "words" as recorded in our canon of literature that we call "the Bible" were written many years ago for people living in a particular context and a specific audience. I doubt if we added to the canon by writing new "biblical" literature that this comment would be any less accurate. Our writing and additions would reflect our own times and circumstances.

So what do we do with the matter of "Biblical authority?" We use it to support just about anything to support our biases and to bolster our right beliefs. Some of us are willing to admit that we as individual human beings created the church and that "doing theology" is a natural consequence of our thinking about what holy texts mean to us. But does that make us right?

How does our particular time and context in the movement of history affect our interpretation of "holy writ?" By the way, I would ask these same questions about any "sacred" writings that support the beliefs of any religion. This is the basis for why we fight among ourselves as Presbyterians, or go to war in the name of religion regardless of our brand name. It's enough isn't it to make a secular humanist out of any of us who are reasoning people?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Is God a Verb?

I have a friend with whom I meet most Friday afternoons. We're writing his life story together. It's about his journey from sexual abuse to healing and wholeness. Though he is anything but "churchy," and his language about holy things and a higher power are uniquely his, I'm no longer certain who's the learner and who's the teacher. We "do theology" together in a rare manner that stretches our spirituality beyond the confines of conventionality. For my friend the words "God" and "church" have become synonyms that not only bear the vestiges of part of his childhood abuse, but are too constraining. The God of fundamentalism on which he cut his religious teeth holds nothing but emptiness and negativity. For him his "God" is "Papa Being." When I write that they have regular conversations where God initiates many of the words that flow into his journals, I am understating the degree of depth in his relationship with the Divine. Sometimes he is the supplicant who pleads with "Papa Being" for help, but most of the time he is deeply listening to the still, small voice that comes to him in need.

Is this a form of prayer? It certainly sounds that way in the normal sense of what we mean by "prayer." The uniqueness of my friend's prayers, however, is that God begins to talk before he utters a word. To set the record straight, other than his recovery from various forms of sexual, emotional, and spiritual abuse he is perfectly "normal," whatever normal is. There are no allusions of grandeur, or leaps into a schizophrenic world of detachment from the real world and others. He is as "normal" and "with it" as the rest of us (present company excluded).

In writing his story I've found a fascinating abbreviated way of his journaling with God. His shorthand is often simply "Papa Be." I asked him recently if he had ever considered that "Papa Be" might be both a request for God's presence, and perhaps a verb. He was puzzled by my question, but truly fascinated that maybe he had come up with a characteristic about "the wholly other" that he had never considered. I've spoken with him about Paul Tillich's phrasing that God is "the ground of our being." He fully understands and hangs onto this wording because of how it roots his relationship with a God of caring. That's what love is for my friend: caring. But ponder for a moment the action of "Papa Be." We tend to speak and write of God as though God were a noun. That's a passive form of describing reality, or attempting to explain the unexplainable. After all, who can fully define, or describe God.

What if God is a verb? That seems to turn our understanding of the "bigger than" on its head. Isn't it the actions of God that bring meaning to our feeble understanding? But what if. . . just what if. . . God is a verb - a verb of actual "being?" The possibilities seem limitless if we look in a direction we have not looked before and began to relate to a God of perpeptual motion. "To be" is action. To quote a bit from Shakespeare: "To be, or not to be. That is the question."

"Papa Be." I like that!