Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Three Questions on Faith and Scholarship

The March/April 2007 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review asks four biblical scholars how their scholarship has impacted their faith. I found the article fascinating, and the questions intriguing. Here is my response to each.

What I know about the Bible?

First, the Bible is a human document, reflecting both timeless wisdom and time-bound bias. Second, the Bible speaks in metaphor and should be looked to for wisdom not scientific fact or unchanging sexual mores. Third, the Bible can be read to condone the greatest evil even as it can be read to uphold the greatest good. Hence the Bible is not to be separated from those who read and interpret it; it is a moving target, reflecting what the reader desires rather than what God commands.

How does what I know impact what I believe?

It doesn’t. I try to avoid belief as much as possible, rooting what I know in what I actually experience rather than in some abstract creed or system of belief.

God. There is no one vision of God in the Bible, and I do not take the Bible as theologically binding. My understanding of God is based not on my reading of the Bible, but on my experience of the Divine through contemplative practice. Rather than conforming my understanding to the Bible, my understanding shapes the way I read the Bible.

Chosen People. Scholarship tells me that the idea of chosenness is not unique to Jews. Almost every tribal society feels it is the beloved of one god or another. The fact that the Bible tells me the Jews are God’s Chosen is irrelevant; I don’t believe in a God who choses in this way.

Promised Land. Clearly the Bible claims that there is a Promised Land and it belongs to the Israelites. This is no more surprising that the Book of Mormon supporting the claims of the Mormon faith. What else would it do? I am not convinced by the Bible, and in fact do not believe in a God who values one piece of property over the rest.

So does scholarship influence my faith?

Yes, it frees me of faith altogether. I prefer to investigate What Is rather than what the Bible says there is. I do this through a variety of contemplative practices, and in the end I find the Bible all the more rich once I am free from having to take the Word at its word.

1 comment:

AaronHerschel said...

My scholarship has not been in Bible studies, nor in theology. Instead, it's in literature. Nevertheless, it impacts my faith in similar ways. I'm going to follow you here and write out my responses to each question.

1. What I know about the Bible

Not enough. The biblical scholarship I've read suggests that the bible was written by many authors at many times. This means (as you put it) that the Bible is time-bound, ie subject to the historical context in which it was written. However, as literature the Bible has proven timeless. This means it both compels and resists interpretation--the better to maintain its mystery and its life. I agree that it is a moving target--the day it stops moving (that is, fails to provide multiple interpretations) or the day it is boxed in a faith that fixes its meaning, is the day it dies.

How does what I know impact what I believe?

The Bible, like all literature, is mimetic. Not in terms of mirroring the facts of history or the physics of nature, but in terms of mirroring humanity's meaning making faculty. We live as we read, finding symbols in the play of experience and stringing them together into systems of meaning that overlap and contradict. It is not which system you've imagined that matters (they are all inadequate) but the imagining (and re-imagining)itself. In fact, in my more mystical moods, I tend to imagine that this is our purpose. We are, as the Bible puts it, the image of God. Not God, not truth or reality, but its reflection, its self-consciousness. Through us, as us if you like, the universe comes to know itself.

God. Some postmodernists (which ones I cant recall) suggest that language is paradoxically derived from the absence of meaning. An example might go something like this: the word "brass" is not the thing "brass". Both word and thing exist as seperate entities: a string of sounds, a concrete object. Their equivalence is an imaginary construct: what linguists call the sign. But the sign is empty, it does not really relate anything, and so there is slippage: bold as brass, top brass, a brassy voice. The multiplicity of meanings for the word, and the multiplicity of interpretations of the thing, derive from their radical nonequivalence. Life too, perhaps, falls under this system: we do not know truth, we do not know god, perhaps there is none, but it is precisely this absence that compels us to interperate: to wrest meaning from chaos. Another parity, then, between genesis and humanity: humans too, must face down leviathan, the terrible Is-ness of everything, structuring it largely by a linguistic act. Think of Adam in the Garden: naming the animals to give them identity. That identity is relative (what, for example, would Eve have named them?) but no less important for all that.

Well, I see I've run out of time here and have to head off to work. I'll leave the last two questions unanswered. But I do want to respond briefly to the last question. What I know about literature suggests a problem with this idea of experiencing reality. I can't do it. The act of percpetion changes the thing percieved. But that's its beauty. To survive this knowledge is to live in the constant suspension of disbelief. In that sense,all acts are acts of faith.