As Clear As Mud
When it comes to religious truth, we often think in black and white terms. Either God's truth is thought to be clear and uncomplicated, or too ineffable and ever-changing to hold to any one notion of it. For some, Christian truth is as easy and obvious as the nose on your face. For others, it is forever beyond our grasp, too mystical and elusive to ever be known with any degree of certainty.
For those who think Christian truth is obvious, there often is the appeal to scripture. You turn to page such-and-such and - presto! - there's your answer; case closed. Now I would be last person to make light of scriptural authority. Then again, clarity about complex life issues isn't always as simple as "cherry-picking" isolated biblical passages. Many of today's social, moral and spiritual issues require a considered perspective, one that employs not just scriptural authority but tradition, reason and experience as well.
In a mock 'letter to the editor' that appeared in one of the theological journals I read, the author uses humor to highlight the inadequacies of arbitrary, subjective quoting of scripture to justify one's own theological position. Here's a sample, with tongue firmly planted in cheek:
I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?
During the Reformation, the idea of Sola Scriptura was born - 'scripture alone.' At the time, it seemed to make sense. After all, the Reformation was a reaction against the perceived errors of a Catholic tradition which, among other things, held that scripture could not be trusted in the hands of the laity, that only the church hierarchy and its priests could read and rightly interpret the Word. The Reformation, in fact, came about precisely because Protestants thought the traditions of the church had moved away from scriptural authority. The church, or so the argument went, had become an entity unto itself, immune to biblical truth.
The problem with Sola Scriptura, though, is that it makes a false assumption: that we can read scripture without interpretation.
Sola Scriptura is in reality a thoroughly modern idea, a product of the Enlightenment. It assumes that human beings are objective, rational creatures capable of understanding words in the same way one might understand facts born of scientific inquiry.
The weakness of this position was brought home to me years ago in the aftermath of the Tate/LoBianca murders in Los Angeles. As all of America learned of the twisted mind and soul of Charles Manson, the ringleader of the California cult, we discovered, among other things, that he had been an avid reader of the Bible and, in fact, had believed that certain scriptural passages were instructing him to commit certain heinous crimes. Clearly, the way he read scripture and the way you or I might read it might best be described as light years apart.
And yet, if we accept the idea of Sola Scriptura, we are faced with a logical impossibility - that of reading a given scriptural passage with wildly different interpretations. If all we need is scripture, what happens when there is no agreement on what it means? In reading Exodus 35:2, for example, I doubt any of us here today would consider it our moral duty to physically harm someone who has broken the Sabbath laws. Why? Because we moderns interpret the verse differently than those living years ago in Old Testament times.
Of course, having said this, one might conclude that scripture is of little or no value in discerning God's truth. If all scripture must first be interpreted in order to be made true, how can any one interpretation ever be said to be more true than another, much less function as a guide to living? If the words on the page require interpretation - and cannot stand on their own - what's to stop us from interpreting them any-old-which-way? After all, there are probably as many interpretations as there are people, each with his or her own particular point of view.
This, in some sense, is the modern predicament. For we moderns generally don't believe in objective truth. What passes for truth is either arbitrary or at the service of vested interests. Philosophers and intellectuals decided long ago that values and morals are arbitrary, merely the means by which the ruling class or dominant culture maintains its authority, power and control. Truth, in other words, as with history, is written by the winners.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness revealed to Victorian society the hypocrisy and falsehood behind European colonialism. Scandalously, he showed how the lofty rhetoric of, among other things, bringing religion to the "heathen" was really nothing more than a thinly veiled grab for Africa's riches, nothing more than the subjugation of the weak by the strong pursued under the guise of lofty-sounding principles and ideals.
Intellectuals such as Conrad had become convinced that values and mores no longer held objective meaning. Truth was simply self-interest all prettied up. Friedrich Nietzsche, the great 19th century philosopher, famously declared that, since all truth is arbitrary and subjective, self-will is the only capable of defining truth. Tragically, this cleared the way for the Hitlers of the world to brutally enforce the notion that only might makes right, that only sheer force and human will-to-power produce anything approximating truth.
Yet in our collective glee at discovering the hypocrisy behind some claims to objectivity, we ended up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In discovering the absurdity of any biblical mandate that even faintly suggests that it's ok, say, to kill those who work on Sundays, we risk a world where no truth claims can ever be made. Often we do this in accord with modernity's latest, most fashionable theories, believing, incredulously, that if it's new, it somehow must be true - or truer at least.
Back in divinity school, I must tell you, I was so terribly smart! In fact, I knew just about everything! I knew, for one thing, that many of the traditional beliefs of the ancient church were simply archaic holdovers from a distant and decidedly unenlightened past. As I have grown older, I think I've grown a little less smart, but hopefully a bit wiser.
During the 1960's, a distinguished Eastern Orthodox scholar came to lecture at Yale Divinity School. As he lectured on the Nicene Creed, one of the students in the class kept interrupting him by saying, 'I don't really accept that part of it,' while offering, time and again, various and sundry reasons why.
At one point, exasperated by this series of seemingly unending interruptions and personalized opinions, the kindly scholar looked up at the earnest young student and said, 'Well, with all due respect, young man, it's not your creed. It's the church's creed.'
Years ago on the original Candid Camera television show a group of students were given a vocational aptitude test. Afterward, as each student met individually with the test's administrator, the audience watched gleefully as each student was told, straight-faced, that he or she was cut out to be, of all things, a shepherd. Disappointment and confusion were written all over their faces.
Even worse, in this morning's gospel reading from John's, Jesus calls us to be not shepherds, but sheep! And sheep, if you know anything at all about them, are clearly not among the brightest of God's living creatures! At the sound of their master's voice, sheep will obediently do pretty much anything. That Jesus requires his followers instinctively to be as obedient to his Word is surely, to Western sensibilities, about as counter-cultural as anything I can think of. For in our post-modern age, we tend to question the very idea of objective truth. Why, then, would we submit obediently to any one version of it? Our patron saint today, in fact, might well be Pilate, who once famously asked, "What is truth?"
Yet Jesus speaks of truth. Perhaps that truth can't always be found simply by turning to a particular chapter and verse. Then again, perhaps more often than we'd like to think, it can.
Theological discussions today often center on the intellectual difficulties of understanding Scripture. The more we look at the text, the more confused we get. And while Scripture is, to be sure, full of textual oddities and outmoded cultural norms, I often wonder if the real reason we cannot accept certain truths as truths has less to do with any theological or philosophical interpretative problems we are having than our sheer discomfort with truths that are, for the most part, simply too hard for us to accept. In other words, our problem may be less an intellectual one than a spiritual and ascetical one, a problem having more to do with commitment and trust than mere rational comprehension.
In speaking with an old friend the other day, he suggested reading Jesus' Sermon on the Mount to understand clearly just what it is Jesus requires of us. It's all there, he said, in all its bold and often discomfiting clarity - and it doesn't require the Jesus Seminar to unpack it for us. Yet our age would rather debate the issues than face simple truths, which, as truths, require obedience. Thus we hesitate and do not act. We fiddle while Rome burns.
It may surprise you to hear that both fundamentalism and modern scholarship's 'quest the historical Jesus' commit the same basic error. Both assume that what's most important in reading the Bible is how the words got on the page. Fundamentalism argues that God put them there directly, like dictation, while modern scholarship accepts only what it believes should be there.
But in truth, it's not so much how the words got on the page, but how they get off the page, in the lives of faithful believers. It's more about how willing we are to trust in the authority of the Gospel, defined as it is within the bounds of an ongoing faith tradition that encompasses more than just our own modern sensibilities, an age-old community of the faithful formed and shaped through space and time by the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.
The Reformer John Calvin once argued that the Word of God is not found by means of a few words on a page, but is experienced by us as an event, as an encounter, when the same Spirit present in writer is found present in reader. Scripture and God's Spirit thus connect in the listening and in the hearing, transforming the words on the page in life-changing ways.
To those who think God's truth is on the page to be grasped, this age-old community, having encountered the Spirit dynamically throughout space and time, would warn against modernity's wayward "tyranny of the self," that idiosyncratic, individualistic attempt, liberal or conservative, to make Scripture say what we contemporaries would wish it to say.
To those who would remain aloof amid unending intellectual uncertainty, that same community hears the Good Shepherd's clarion call to action, urging today's followers to be active participants in the ongoing Christian story, with its unique and complex system of rituals, words, signs, symbols and practices. Faith is not to be a lonely spectator sport contemplated endlessly from the sidelines.
In the end, I suppose you could say, simply, with respect to God's Word, that it's not so much what we believe, but whom we trust. Amen.