Thursday, October 15, 2009

What Does the Bible Mean for Quakers Today?: Part II of the Pagan Chronicles

Note: While this blog is evidence of a continuing conversation about the role of the Christian and Jewish scriptures in contemporary religious belief among Quakers, the opinions expressed on this blog are not meant to be representative of the Religious Society of Friends.


I've had an interest in bible study since I was a kid. It was cool to see Sunday sermons and the selected biblical passages get researched, analyzed, and discussed. I remember conversations about the relative merits of various translations and hearing about archaeological discoveries and historical research "that could change everything!!" about how we interpret the text.

Today as a grown-up, I'm interested in that stuff because I study the history of religions within an academic context. Given how difficult it is to get people to show an interest in most historical documents and ancient histories, it surprises me that so many other people show an interest in (or feel an obligation toward) study of the bible. Sure, it is a lot of fun if you're into exegesis, but who apart from dorks like me is into that kind of thing? Those who think the bible has the power of perpetual revelation serving as a direct link between God and the reader (like Tom Riddle's Diary in The Prisoner of Azkaban), clearly have reason to study it in depth. But what of people who do not view the bible as inerrant? Why are liberal Christians and non-Christian Friends drawn to figure out "what it means to us today." The answers are varied and diverse.

What follows is only my own approach to the role of the bible and its meaning.

The first question I ask is: Does it have to mean anything in particular? Why should this ancient text have any more power to speak to me than any other? Of course, one can easily and appropriately argue that the bible has had such a long history of strong influence on my culture that it is sensible to continue to study its meaning, agenda, and influence. I agree with this. However, I do not understand why we feel that there is a spiritual significance that resides in the text apart from its cultural significance.

I do not think we can ignore the bible's influences, both positive and negative, on our cultural history. I do not, however, believe that the bible continues to speak to us today apart from our entanglements with its ancient proscriptions, most of which are no longer appropriate for our own situations. The biblical texts were not written for us therefore attempts to make the book speak to us today corrupt the original meaning and motivation of the authors and prevent us from engaging in rational exegesis. I make an assumption that when viewing an ancient text my job is to ascertain, as closely as I am able, what sense it made within the context of the community that produced it. I cannot expect it to speak to my situation for the simple reason that it was not written to address my situation. At times there may be resonance. Human beings are human beings after all. But largely, the socio-cultural differences between 2nd Century Rome and 21st century New York are too profound to warrant expectation of continued relevance. Are we so arrogant that we think that they were all wrong about their own beliefs and context and that God was really using them as a conduit to speak to us? Or are we so silly as to believe that the Bible just keeps changing its meaning with each generation so that a text that condones patriarchy in one generation suddenly means marital equality in another?

So why continue to study the bible if

A) we don't believe the bible was an Inspired-with-a-big-"I"


B) there are so many deeply spiritual texts written in our own time and context that we can understand without outrageous amounts of cultural compromise and apology?

I do not advocate against the attempt to find useful material for social change in the bible or in any religious text. The bible has tremendous poetic and metaphorical authority in our culture. That I can't deny. Simply because it has been used to promote spiritual equality so frequently in the past is reason enough to continue to employ its language so long as that language is useful. Perhaps my attitude here will seem opportunistic. Here is the point where I must disclose that I continue to quote from the New Testament books with particular emphasis on things Jesus said about mercy, compassion, and basically not being a prick to the poor and powerless. I'll also quote from Thomas Jefferson, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Gandhi as well although I certainly do not accept any of them as ideal representations of human virtue. Likewise, while the idea of the Christ is a concept I accept as a sacred archetype, the historical Jesus is not. After studying primitive Christianity, I am convinced that I would not have joined the movement. Still, I am spiritually bound to the idea of Agape whether or not Jesus preached it. The concept of such love existed independently of his particular articulation of it. While I accept that the writers of the canon were inspired, I do not accept that the inspiration was from "God" or that it was somehow more inspired than the latest clever or lovely thing I might hear from my grandmother. (Don't scoff. My grandmother is effing brilliant.)

Now don't get me wrong. I do believe that Friends should study the bible and that they should have a very strong foundation in biblical and religious history. When I went to seminary, I met a woman who wanted to be a Unitarian minister who couldn't find the New Testament if you set it on fire in her hands. That was sad. Let's not be that way. We need to know about the bible if only so we won't look like damn fools when the Methodists and Episcopalians call us out to play.

I do suggest that we study the bible in an attempt to understand what the original Christian communities felt about God. Here's my selfish motivation: I think it is important for people to understand historical texts in their own context so they don't say stupid things about them in front of me. When my students talk to me about the Shakers or the Oneida Community Utopians as if those folks were 21st century people with 21st century problems, resources, and solutions, it makes me crazy. You can imagine how much more crazy it makes me feel when someone suggests a biblical solution for a contemporary problem or expresses a belief that somehow biblical authors were writing for us. They weren't. They not only weren't writing for us and our time, they didn't think we would ever exist.

Now it does seem to me that in order to understand what it means to be a Quaker, we have to understand how past Friends understood the bible. For the earliest Friends, Christian language and tradition was the only show in town. The bible was therefore the most important document although I would maintain that this was not by choice. They didn't have any choice in the matter. Go try finding a New Age bookstore in 17th century England. So as it turns out, much to my disappointment, one cannot understand Friends without understanding both their general historical context and the prevailing biblical interpretations available to them. As history drags on, they'll start to comment on Buddhism, Hinduism,and indigenous spirituality as they would relatively early into their development as a religious body. (Have you read the Letters of Paul and Amicus? I nearly peed myself with delight when I saw "Amicus" talking so positively about Native American and Hindu spirituality.) But apart from fleeting glimpses of awareness and experimentation of cross-cultural spirituality among Friends and their contemporaries, it took the general Western world a long-ass time to discover that other people had more to offer than servitude and woe. Even for the open-minded Quakers, the bible was pretty much it. We have to understand them within their spiritually limited Sitz im Leben. We must be mindful that they didn't have the archaeological and historical research that "could change everything!!!" and they didn't live in the fertile multi-cultural intellectual world in which we live. So we have to cut them some slack when they seem intolerably ignorant. Maybe I'm deluding myself but I personally very strongly doubt that if they were blessed with the wealth of spiritual literature available to us today, they would not have ignored it back in the day. I don't think we should either.

So, as much as I hate to say it, we need to understand the bible because it is a foundational document in our history as a religious people. In fact, Quakers don't make any kind of sense without it. (And this is a Pagan saying this!) But I'm not convinced that contemporary non-Christian Friends need to understand "what the bible means to us today." It doesn't have to mean anything to us today. We have to understand what it meant to our ancestors and how our ancestors' legacy affects us. We need to be able to mature into the finest of their expectations and deliver ourselves from their failings.

They had the bible and they had themselves. We owe much to our ancestors but we are given our own calling in our own context. Our spiritual wellsprings are more numerous and I pray, just as deep.

Study all things for the good we might find there but accept no other Source of Authority than the Divine Source. We are children of Love. Don't underestimate the power of the Divine to find us wherever we may be and do not doubt that Love will speak clearly in the languages we know best. We will find no truth in any book that is not already written on the tender parchment of our hearts.

See also
Part I


Mary Ellen said...

This is a loaded issue for me (and forgive my nattering on at length). I was raised up Presbyterian (then sojourned a bit through non-Western and eclectic stuff before Quakerism), and something important about the Gospel story imprinted itself on me. Not so much Hebrew Scriptures, though seminary study of the Prophets was exciting - because I learned that their deep roots were back in an earlier shamanistic layer of Semitic spirituality. I find myself really curious about the human Jesus and what can be known of his messages and their roots in Jewish spiritual understanding, and amazed by the vitality and rapid growth of the early Christian movement. Stripped of doctrinal overlays, that's pretty exciting stuff. I am drawn to the stories and writings from the first Quakers in the same way.

So - what authority do Bible texts have? For me, the first task has been to detoxify them. I've found some value in reading them both through mythical/archetypal lenses and through mystical lenses. From time to time, I buy a new text - most recently a NRVS Oxford edition from Half-Priced Books. (Some Quakers were blogging about the Bible, and I thought I might open it up again.) A year or so ago, I copied a favorite psalm from an internet NRSV compilation (to do an exercise with others in using _lectio divina_) and was surprised at how strongly it affected me - challenged, intrigued, I don't know, even terrified me, with the vision of a REAL consciousness intimately bound to my own. (Psalm 139.) So I thought reading other materials in the NRSV could be intriguing. Most Psalms, though, in any translation, do seem addressed to a war-god. And I admit that I haven't found myself picking up this new NRSV copy that now lies on the floor near my bed.

A small factoid: every fall on campus, the Gideons hand out little green mini-Bibles with psalms and gospels - and I always take one. It's an icon, a comfort, I guess. Also, it makes them happy to have people take them.

One more thing: I was probably MOST imprinted spiritually by singing in the First Presbyterian church choir for years, and I find I still have strong emotions stirred up by those powerfully set Biblical and liturgical lyrics. (Plus I've had lots of years of sporadically joining my spouse at his liberal Catholic church with a good music director.)

For Quakers in general? It's part of the legacy, part of the common trust fund, part of our social and cultural location. It connects us to our peers in other liberal Western religious groups. It's a necessary backdrop to entering into the Western mystical tradition - Juliana, Teresa, St. John of the Cross, etc. - which stands in witness to an enduring and vitalizing experiment in dialogue with That which wells up from / is encountered in / the depths of the human heart.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Hystery,

Is a dork related to an aardvark? Probably not but I love the consonance. And besides, they both burrow, the former into huge tomes.

Since I am so into exegesis of the text, I am now reading Alter's literal translation of the psalms for fun and prophet;-)

and oohing and aahing when he points out all the complex Hebrew puns, alliteration...does this mean I am a dork too:-)

So, yes, I am interested in Bible study because of an academic fascination with language, culture, and religion.

>> those who think the bible has power of perpetual >>revelation

Unlike you, this definitely describes me.

>>view the bible as >>inerrant?

Definitely not me. I don't actually see how anyone who has studied the texts could ever come away thinking the Bible is inerrant. I guess inerrancy shows how powerful religious belief, even delusional belief, can be.

>>Nor do I think the Bible is "infallible" as some mainline >>denominations say.

But I take the Bible very seriously. Living by it has helped me avoid some very bad choices that my friends made:-(.

And Scripture has done so much for me, I must admit, I struggled with your somewhat negative view of the Bible in this blog.

>> However, I do not understand why we feel that there is a spiritual significance that resides in the text apart from its cultural significance.

I think I do understand. Even if I speak in solely academic terms: Spiritual writing like Job, Second Isaiah, Jonah, the Sermon on the Mount, 1 Corinthians 13, Revelation, etc. is the result of peak experiences of humans where in the linguistic symbols are far more than simple prose.

I used to teach the Great Books seminar to our students here. One of the key beliefs of the G.B. is that deep literary texts are filled with far more than the average individual or group will discover even in many viewings.

A text such as a verse from Scripture is not only denotative, but is connotative and its symbols and mythic images reach sometimes to the core of our being.

To be continued

Nate said...

"We have to understand what it meant to our ancestors and how our ancestors' legacy affects us. We need to be able to mature into the finest of their expectations and deliver ourselves from their failings."
Yes, indeed!
This is not really different for those of us who see Jesus as the embodiment of the Word, though we may have a slightly different basis for that additional task of understanding how the Bible was created and transmitted.
There is a relatively short period of time involved in the creation and transmission of the New Testament, though quite a dynamic period in terms of a developing faith system. The Hebrew texts were made over a much longer time, though the cultural changes might not have been so dynamic.
I think the main point is not to make the book a "holy grail," but a useful tool.

Carrie said...

I do not have anything constructive to add to this excellent conversation, other than to say that I appreciate this space and what is shared here.


natcase said...

Great commentary. Thank you, Hystery!

I think there is something of value in having a text so deeply embedded in the past that there is virtually no "factual" history there to argue with it—not that that's stopped people from trying. Having the author not only dead, but so far removed that there are no biographies, notebooks, letters to lovers, laundry lists — nothing — leaves us nothing but the text itself.

And that is something no contemporary writer or speaker can offer.

Stori Lundi said...

“However, I do not understand why we feel that there is a spiritual significance that resides in the text apart from its cultural significance.”

The simple answer is that while you might not find spiritual significance, other people do. As Quakers, we believe that the Bible is a continuing revelation, not the ONLY revelation, and that the revelation certainly didn’t stop when the last word was penned. Quakers don’t limit their spirituality to “traditional” sources but to many modern Quakers, those traditional sources still hold meaning. In studying the Bible, we not only discover the roots of historical Quakerism but also connect with contemporary Quakers and others of the Christian faith even if we don’t believe in the Bible ourselves.

I would also be hesitant to state “I do not, however, believe that the bible continues to speak to us today apart from our entanglements with its ancient proscriptions, most of which are no longer appropriate for our own situations.” The central belief of Quakerism is “there is that of God in everyone”. I’d even extend that to “there is that of God in everything” as well. Thus I think it is wrong to say that anything or anyone will or will not speak us. I am constantly surprised as what “speaks” to me as well as things that I would think would “speak” to me but don’t. We should be open to the possibility that any and anyone can speak to us, even from the most unlikely of sources.

Hystery said...

Thank you for commenting.

I would agree that one can find "that of God in everything" but what I'm saying is that because there is that of God in everyone, all things, including the bible (and tea leaves, and historical texts, and dreams, and cute things little kids say) can be interpreted through the divine element within us toward the Good. The magic is not in the tool. It was never in the bible any more than it was in any other available text. The magic was within us. That we get the bible says far more about historical fate than spiritual destiny.

And that's all well and good but I'm also saying that with any cultural product, we have a responsibility to understand the text within its context. Because the Bible has been interpreted throughout history, that task becomes more difficult because we then must understand not only what it meant to its creators but to each new generation (including ours). So I strongly agree with your point regarding continuing revelation. I do have a problem with elevating this text above others *apart* from the historical reasons (it was the text most used by our spiritual ancestors). Should Friends survive another hundred years, it will be important for us to understand not only the influences of the Bible but also of the wide range of spiritual, scientific, and philosophical ideas that are currently invigorating our collective perspective.

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