My relationship with our Christian scripture over the years has been an interesting evolution. Early in my life, I became a “scriptural skeptic” because I refused to believe much of the Bible because “it just didn’t make sense”. How could a loving God send his “only son” to be crucified for what others, before and after him, did? How could a loving God send flames and plagues on people that didn’t “believe” even if they were kind, loving people? And how could an always-existent God be vengeful at one point and a loving Father at another. And “inerrant”? What did that mean when some of scripture obviously conflicts with itself — compare Jesus’ teachings and the book of Leviticus, for ample examples. The evolution of my objections is, frankly, difficult to put into a timeline since some of these conclusions were intuitively sensed early and my study of scripture during seminary brought these objections front and center. Add to this the many different writers from the many different periods of history, each with unique motivations for their message, that contributed commentary based upon their then-present circumstances to what we now call “the Bible”… I recall saying to the Chair of our Biblical Studies department one day after class, “I think I am learning too much about the Bible to believe in it.”
As I gained a greater understanding of the allegorical inclinations of the Hebrew writers, I began to appreciate the depth of scripture. I’ve come to appreciate, like the appearance of the surface of the lake, that literal interpretation of scripture hides the truth hidden deep within it — truth represented by the hidden valleys and outcroppings of the bottom of the lake. As we look back on the intentions of the many writers of the various books, we must consider the cultural embrace and the prevailing worldview in which they were ensconced to extract the truth of their message. To illustrate that limited worldview, I use the example that in the time of the writing and editing of the Bible, spanning some 1300 years, the stars in the night sky were regarded as tiny holes in the dome of heaven through which the light of God shown. The twinkling of the stars was caused, so it was said, by angels in heaven dancing behind those holes. Their culture allowed slavery — as long as the slaves were not of the Hebrew nation. Accepting that cultural bias today would present us with the conundrum, “just which nationalities are acceptable slaves?” We have obviously moved beyond that question — at least mostof us have.
Bishop John Shelby Spong grew up in the literalist tradition. As an Episcopal priest, he began his career with an inclination to interpret scripture literally. But as his understanding of scripture and his relationship with God evolved, he also came to view the cultural biases and limited worldview of Biblical authors as obstructions to his understanding of the truth of their messages. Much to the chagrin of the conservative Episcopalians, his evolving perspectives on scripture became a powerful influence on that tradition. As he rose in ecclesiastical rank, he was an ardent supporter of gay rights, the advancement of women in church leadership, and a strong liberal advocate within the church. So strong was his influence that his theologically liberal bias was a significant cause of the conservative Episcopalians breaking away to join Anglican Communions holding more conservative views (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglican_realignment). He has also been a prolific author of books interpreting scripture with a consideration of the worldview/cultural biases held by the various authors. See http://johnshelbyspong.com/. His newly released (and perhaps last) book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, continues in his insightful and clear reorientation of our reading of the book of the gospels.
While Unity has long taught that John is the most mystical of the four gospels, Spong gives us an extensive commentary of the cultural/worldview perspectives out of which it grew. My study of Spong’s writing continues during my sabbatical; I’m guessing our community will hear more about this in September (and perhaps a few “trailers” appearing in Drop by Drop).
Yesterday I read a critique of an earlier work of Spong by a seminarian still entrapped by the literalists’ views. I found his analysis of Spong’s work to be accurate and his biases to be evident. As he made his points, one by one, my response was consistently, “yes, you’re right — and I agree with Spong”. Recognizing that we each have biases based upon our experience, our worldview and our culture, we also need to recognize that we choose our biases, consciously or not. So which biases do you choose — those that enhance your life or those that limit your life; those that bring joy to your experience or those that imprison you in fear and loathing? Isn’t it a magnificent feature of the Divine Design that we can choose?