Sunday, May 13, 2012

Truth & Facts

The following is a Q&A from my weekly contemplative theology group. The Q is from Aaron Garrett to the entire group, and this is my A.

How factually accurate do you believe the Bible is? How much does factual accuracy matter to you? Are there any parts that, if they weren't factually accurate, would be debilitating for your faith? Is it possible to be a Christian without believing in the inerrancy of the Bible? What about just the inerrancy of the gospels? What about just the inerrancy of the crucifixion/resurrection? How much can be subtracted while still remaining a Christian in your estimation of what that means?

Confusing truth and fact is a common misconception of some who hold the Bible in high regard. Subjecting mystery to rationalism has led to a bizarre understanding of the gospel not unlike that of the Queen in Wonderland who at times could believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.  The scripture inerrancy yardstick for faith has been one of the most divisive concepts of the past decades. In fact, when the word “inerrancy” pops up in discussion, it generally means that an “us” or “them” designation is on its way.

So, to begin by addressing the last question first, we might ask… Subtracted from what? There are different Christian Bibles for Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Ethiopic, Syriac, and Samaritan Churches. There is no universally agreed upon canon. But hair-splitting aside, I think nothing should be subtracted. The whole confusing conglomeration of God’s interaction with humanity has value for revealing God’s nature to us. I personally believe that Biblical information in presented through a mix of literary devices used in some unknown proportion and I’m not particularly bothered by which truths are literally factual. Was the prodigal son a real guy? Was Jonah swallowed by a real fish?  The truths remain the same either way.  The Orthodox consider scripture as “divinely inspired and humanly expressed” and do not take literally any reference to God as angry, jealous, or repentant. St. Issac the Syrian wrote,

“Just because the terms wrath, anger, hatred and the rest are used of the Creator in the Bible, we should not imagine that He actually does anything in anger, hatred, or zeal. Many figurative terms are used of God in the Scriptures, terms which are far removed from His true nature.”

Some stories just can’t be told with facts. As Will Bloom describes his father in Big Fish, In telling the story of my father's life, it's impossible to separate fact from fiction, the man from the myth. The best I can do is to tell it the way he told me. It doesn't always make sense and most of it never happened... but that's what kind of story this is.

I believe that there is a spiritual reality that supercedes the reality that we know.  Just like Einstein’s physical theory includes and adds to Newton’s, there is spiritual truth that includes and expands upon what we can see and know.  Unfortunately, we generally only think in the context of what we can see and know.  But by his very nature, God is He-who-can’t-be-known and so the Bible is an attempt to express the Inexpressible.  For the sake of argument, say God did take the initiative to reveal himself to us. What if we experienced the impossible? How could that be communicated? Could we write it down in a book or a poem or sing it or tell it through a symphony or a painting? If not, why have people been trying to do that for as long as we have records of people trying to do anything?  I believe that God reveals spiritual truth to us --- sometimes when we’re seeking it and sometimes when we least expect it --- and it’s not necessarily a simple matter of relaying the information. 

The New Testament accounts of the Resurrection seem to indicate an event, not a parable, but the details are far from consistent. Jesus is alive and Rome’s military representatives are “like dead men.” There were anomalies in the natural world --- darkness from noon to 3 pm and earthquakes.  Graves opened up and dead people walked out and visited people in town. The temple curtain ripped itself in two.  From Roman soldiers to some peasant who got to talk to a dead relative, there was a new, updated version of reality.  God revealed himself to people in a way that they could understand but had trouble explaining. Matthew 28:17 says of the 11 remaining disciples, “When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.” Doubted? Even as they were looking at him?  The Biblical record of God’s earthly interventions culminates in the Resurrection, and in my opinion, there is no version of Christianity that makes sense without it. I think the gospels also clearly indicate that it wasn’t just the people who had believed all the correct facts who were impacted by an encounter with God. Indeed, there appears to have been no effort at all put into making the facts line up.

The Orthodox Church perspective is that the spiritual truth of the Bible is to be found in its non-literal meaning. The crucifixion and resurrection are central to the church with 7 weeks of Lent and 40 days of Pascha (Easter), but I’ve never heard the question, “How much of this literally happened in a way that can fit into human reason?”  But that’s not to say that they don’t have a lot to say about the resurrection. There are comparisons with Genesis (tree of life/cross with paradise lost/gained,  the garden setting, rib/pierced side, etc.) and other Old Testament passages to explain redemption and a multitude of other observances surrounding the gospel accounts, but setting down a literal timeline or fact list is not emphasized.  The same reasoning applies to exactly how Christ’s death saved us.  

“The question isn’t whether Christ’s death was a ransom to the devil or a sacrifice to the Father. Christ did not die on the Cross to “pay off” the evil one, or to quiet the Father’s rage. The sacrifice was for our sake and as an offering for our sins. We must not go any further than this. We cannot know how Christ’s death grants us communion with God. We do not need to know. But one thing is certain. God’s love, not legal negotiations, has saved us.” (Anthony Coniaris)

The words we read in the Bible are not lifeless rules and interesting stories, but insights into a world beyond expression. We are to value both the divine aspect and the human element in Scripture. So, in response to the original questions, inerrancy or factual accuracy matters little to me if “factual” is defined as being verifiable by human reasoning. In a larger sense, inerrancy defined this way would represent not a condition for, but a detriment to spiritual truth.  There is no fact that we have to believe to be a Christian, and there is unlimited truth that we can receive through God’s grace. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Forgiveness and Holy Icons

This is the third year that I've participated in Lent with St. Luke's Orthodox Church, but the first year that I've attended the Sunday services. The services during the week are beautiful, but Sundays are the deal. The Sunday before Lent begins on Monday is Forgiveness Day, and each person present asks everyone else for forgiveness even if the people are speaking to each other for the very first time. I've enjoyed all the aspects of worship in the Orthodox church that are new to me -- incense, candles, icons, chants --- but for some reason I froze to the spot instead of taking my place in the circle of forgiveness. Everyone else asked me for forgiveness, but I stood there mute. Why did I do that? The last person who asked my forgiveness whispered, "I'm new to this too" so I guess it was blatantly obvious that I was a fish out of water. I love the idea of starting Lent with a spirit of humility and realizing that we often do wrong people that we don't even know. Maybe next year I'll get over my paralysis. The first Sunday of Lent commemorates the Triumph of Orthodoxy and celebrates a church council decision from 843 A.D. that settled a century long dispute over whether it was ok to have icons in church. Oddly enough, the icons were more offensive to the local Muslims than the other Christians so modern day churches that forbid icons are following an Islamic tradition. Anyway, the service ends with an actual parade around the church with members carrying icons to honor the ancient Christians who joyfully carried the icons back into their church. St. Luke's members had extras so that no one had to walk around empty handed, but had I known, I could have brought my own. A longtime Baptist friend gave me one titled "the handmaidens of the Lord" years before I became interested in Orthodoxy. How strange.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Interior Castle

This year in my observance of Lent I’m reading The Interior Castle written by Teresa of Avila, a mother of the church, in the 16th Century.  It’s strangely blog-like, with numbered posts within chapter headings. Teresa was a Spanish mystic and poet who described the capacity of the soul as a castle made of diamond and containing many chambers. Through a spirit of unceasing prayer, she describes how progress can be made toward the center of our soul where The King of Glory dwells. As she describes moving through the different dwelling places in the soul, it reminds me of a dream I have where I suddenly realize that my house has rooms that I’ve never noticed before. I’m always so pleasantly surprised at the previously unnoticed potential of my home.  I’m hoping the same thing is true of my soul. 

Sunday, January 29, 2012


I like the word “serendipity.” I even like just saying it. Happily, I experienced a bit of it this week, so I can use the word without having to contrive a context for it. Here’s what happened. I meet each Sunday evening with a group whose focus is “contemplative theology” for lack of a better phrase. We discuss living our faith, which sometimes takes a scholarly and Biblical tack, and sometimes involves practical application. Lately, we’ve been discussing food. We read The China Study and watched the documentary “Forks over Knives” both of which stress the health and environmental benefits of a whole foods, plant based diet. To complete this topic, we have an assignment to find a Biblical passage that references food, and present our understanding of how the food we put in our bodies is related to our spiritual condition. Also this week, I read Seven, by Jen Hatmaker, a book recommended by my daughter and several friends. Wisely, since she wanted to sell this book, Jen didn’t put the word “fasting” in the title, but that’s what the book is about --- her experience in denying herself personal comforts (including food) for a spiritual purpose.  I’ve read other books about fasting, but while the others might’ve stimulated my brain, Seven kicked me right in the head with its keen observations of the absurd excesses of wealthy nations like America. Not only that, but I laughed to the point of sometimes having to put the book down to regain composure. I hate it when reviews describe books as “laugh out loud funny” but that’s what this one was – a scolding that was humorous and inspiring.  You’ll just have to read it for yourself.  So, all week, I’ve been thinking about physical existence and its maintenance as well as something that I love about the Orthodox Church, its liturgical calendar of fasting and feasting. Some weeks, all roads do lead to Rome (or Constantinople as the case may be).

For my assignment scripture passage, I selected Peter’s food vision recorded in Acts 10. Here’s how it sounds in the Message:

            Peter went out on the balcony to pray. It was about noon. Peter got hungry and started thinking about lunch. While lunch was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the skies open up. Something that looked like a huge blanket lowered by ropes at its four corners settled on the ground. Every kind of animal and reptile and bird you could think of was on it. Then a voice came, “Go to it, Peter – kill and eat.” Peter said, “Oh no, Lord. I’ve never so much as tasted food that was not kosher.” The voice came a second time, “If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.”

Now, this story is part of a bigger story involving a Gentile named Cornelius and the Jewish notion of the day that certain people could be unclean and unworthy of the faith in much the same way that food could be unclean and unworthy of consumption.  It’s a beautiful illustration of the magnitude of God’s grace, but for the moment, let’s put that aside and just look at the passage literally. (I’m trying to be less critical of people who refuse to look beyond the literal interpretation of the Bible, so bear with me while I search for insight within literal readings.)  First, I love the fact that Peter is trying to pray but gets distracted and starts wondering what’s for lunch. He’s thinking about literally eating, so maybe the vision also has a message regarding literal eating. (See how literally I’m thinking?) Peter doesn’t seem to interpret the vision as urging him toward gluttony, but rather that the menu limitations that he has been observing are not ultimate laws of living. Laws regarding food can be held too rigidly or too loosely, and either way comes with less than optimal consequences. As with any law, Biblical or otherwise, the spirit has more value than the letter.

It’s a lot easier to follow a law than it is to find balance within two extremes --- for a while anyway. Then any law that’s too restrictive sends us barreling toward the other end. Just ask anyone who has ever been on the grapefruit diet. The very existence of a law makes us want to break it. Most of us drive at least slightly over the speed limit, no matter what the limit is. We can seek food balance on our own, and some folks are quite disciplined here while others fall into anorexia or obesity. The early church offered a food structure for the congregation --- sort of like an early version of Weight Watchers. The liturgical calendar involved a rotation of periods of fasting interrupted with feasts. The fasts were not total abstinence from food, but merely restrictions on meat and other rich foods.  The purpose might’ve been spiritual, but it had practical benefits as well. People who were eating together were eating similar food, so a built-in support system was in place. The feasts involved emotionally healthy fellowship as well as bodily nourishment. With an abundance of inexpensive food, our present experience is to keep the feasts and eliminate the fasts.  We frequently eat calorie laden rich foods all by ourselves in the car. What a poor substitute for a feast.

Personally, I feel that diet is a stewardship issue. I am aware of my impending death and the return of my body to ashes. However, I believe that God entrusted me with my body and meant for me to take care of it, but not get crazy about it. Being full of delicious food is good, but sometimes restricting food intake is more conducive to both physical health and spiritual awareness. So, what to do? Disregarding the fad diet of the week and the most recent update in the FDA food group/pyramid/plate, common sense indicates that vegetables, fruit, and whole grains are healthy food. If we eat mostly plants most of the time with small amounts of other foods and occasionally sit down with the people we love and pull out all the stops, then, well, “God says it’s okay.”

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Rating the Bible NC-17

Actually NC-17 is probably generous. Much of the Bible deserves a definite R rating. I love the grand Old Testament stories, but every time I re-read them, the tales of sexual misconduct startle me. There's Abraham and Sarah and the housekeeper, Hagar, who had a triangle even more scandalous than Arnold and Maria. In the OT, Sarah was involved in the scheme, but later got jealous and kicked Hagar and her baby out into the wilderness where they were saved only by the grace of God administered through an angel.  Abraham probably didn't feel like he had too much say in the matter since earlier in the marriage he had passed his wife off as his sister to save his own skin. He'd rather let his own beautiful wife sleep with the king than face danger to himself. Prince of a guy, huh? Then of course there's Sodom and Gomorrah and the men who want to rape the visiting angels. And later the incest incident between Lot and his daughters. Whew. I'm not even halfway through Genesis! Just like Disney cleaned up all the blood and gore from Grimm's Fairy Tales, we often sanitize the stories in the Bible to give them a little more respectability.  I wonder what would happen if people read the Bible for the subversive shocking treatise that it actually is.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Case Studies 3.0

This is the saga of my evolving blog. I started it as a journal for Lent, then afterwards I used it as a place to store lesson plans for my Bible study class. At the moment, I am in transition. I'm not teaching a class or singing in a choir and I'm in a quandary over what to do with myself on Sunday mornings. So at least for now, this forum will serve as a grasscatcher for my oddball thoughts. I read a hodgepodge of different topics -- a classic jill of all trades and master of none ---- so I suppose the title is still appropriate, but I'm making no plans for any kind of theme. If the Mayans are right, it won't matter anyway, but I'd hate to think the world ended and I wasn't at a good stopping place. If my family doesn't follow my wishes for cremation upon my demise, I hope they at least use my desired  epitaph... "This was the last thing on my list."  It's taken me three tries before I'm comfortable blogging like so many others are able to do --- just saying whatever. I like order and planning. It's the same trait that causes me to clean before I leave town. In case something bad happens before I get back, I don't want the ladies who bring casseroles to see my house a mess. So, this is an experiment in my resolution to be less organized this year. We'll see what happens.