Monday, September 29, 2014

Fighting Biblical Literalism with Literalism?

I'm not a fan of literalistic readings of the Bible in general. There's just no argument from any worldview, in my opinion, that supports this exegetical method. Even if every word was spoken by God and transcribed by humanity, that doesn't mean every word is literally true, as no one (even Jesus) spoke that literally all the time. And even Jesus' words were obviously highly contextualized, so "plain meaning" in our time just doesn't make any sense.

When taken too far, there are some extra special absurdities derived from literal interpretations of biblical text. Therefore, some people like to argue against a universally literal reading of the Bible by pointing out inconsistencies generated by such a reading. I can find this humorous (and appropriate) at times, as it helps keep all of us honest. As an example, one could argue against requiring a belief in a 7 day creation period by showing what else we would have to believe by the same interpretive methodology. The point of the argument is not to promote a particular interpretation necessarily, but to argue against a particular interpretive methodology.

However, then there's other times when I see people fighting conclusions made by literal interpretations by making another literal interpretation after criticizing this exegetical method. This is different than what I described above, as the methodology is undermined, but then the same methodology is used to come to a different conclusion.

Let me give an example. In our Sunday school class, we're exploring Borg and Crossan's The First Paul, discussing authorship and interpretation of the Pauline letters. For those who don't know, Borg and Crossan are squarely liberal scholars. They do not ascribe to literal readings of the Bible. In fact, a central component of their thesis is that only some of the letters attributed to Paul were authentically written by Paul. The rest, Borg and Crossan argue, were attributed to him in a way that often happened at the time. This argument alone helps undermine a literal reading of Paul.

However, part of the way they argue for different authorship is through a literal reading of the texts. They have several examples, but one is the topic slavery, as they see Philemon advocating for abolition (perhaps only of Christian slaves), while reading Colossians 3:22-4:1 and Ephesians 6:5-9 as advocating for the maintenance of slavery. However, the latter verses never explicitly support slavery. They could definitely be read that way (and have been in the past, of course). However, I see both of these as very superficial, literalistic, non-contextual interpretations.

Borg and Crossan's conclusions may be absolutely correct, but methodology matters. At least in this context, I do not find they have a rigorous explanation for their exegesis, as they are relying on a plain meaning of the text, which they clearly do not support themselves.

I find it interesting that some liberal scholars seem to do this. They clearly reject biblical literalism (and have changed their belief structure often in reaction to it, sometimes to the point of rejecting Christianity, like Bart Ehrman), but then use literal interpretations to make their arguments. I wonder if they seem to believe that the Christian community only values literal interpretations and in order to be heard, they have to use that methodology. Obviously, that's not true.

Historically and currently, a significant portion (perhaps even the majority, although they tend to be quieter) of Christians appreciate and value good non-literal exegesis. In fact, demonstrating that faithful Christians can interpret the Bible non-literally and still value it is critical to maintaining the faith of many and even evangelizing to many. So personally, I find it detrimental to the community of faith when those who have rejected literalism primarily use a literal interpretation to get to their points. Biblical literalism has already been effectively discredited for decades, if not longer. Rather than continuing to use it to make our arguments, lets show how good, faithful scholarship can actually be done.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Meaning Without Transcendence?

This is the third in a series on meaning. A conversation I've had with others and is central to a universal concept of meaning is whether transcendence is needed for meaning. Viktor Frankl and others have argued that meaning is a central human need, and I'm inclined to agree.

There are many people who argue that transcendence is not at all necessary for meaning. They explain that they find meaning in simply enjoying the world around them, from sunsets to close relationships. However, nothing more than that is needed.

Others argue that such situations are insufficient. I'm in this camp. One way I'd phrase it is that survival for the sake the survival is not compelling nor meaningful. For me, there necessarily needs to be something more, something inherent, something transcendent to find meaning. That's where faith becomes central to me.

From the first perspective, having kids is important and meaningful only because that's just part of human nature, and we've evolutionarily been wired to have those drives. There's not necessarily anything transcendent about it, so just enjoy what biology has given us.

In the second perspective (using Christian language), God has used evolution to give us a desire for family because there is something inherently, transcendently meaningful about building life and relationships, and guiding little lives and character. Adoption is meaningful and relevant in this second context for me. I think it's harder to argue for in the first.

There's so much pain and destruction caused by humans that if there's nothing transcendent about them, then I find it hard to argue for our continued existence, frankly. But if there's something transcendent and valuable about all life, then we should continue on (and be good neighbors to our non-human friends).

What keeps me going is the faith that transcendence gives life and struggle meaning. I really have trouble understanding finding meaning without that. How about you? Do you find that meaning requires transcendence?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Meaning in Tradition

Continuing my series on reflections on meaning, I want to consider the idea of tradition. Last week, I talked about the limited value I've increasingly seen in church services. I've reflected before that I have trouble understanding why people continue singing songs that sound like funeral dirges with affect that matches. Extreme structure and routine that is devoid of passion just doesn't strike me as compelling.

However, what seems to be a driving force for many is tradition. In various settings, I've heard people talk about being motivated to engage in an activity that others have done for decades, centuries, or millennia. Sometimes it's about doing the same thing others are doing at the same time around the globe. I find the latter more compelling because it emphasizes global unity, which is significant in many ways.

For one reason or another, I just have never been able to experience meaning or emotion connected to tradition. I've come to really appreciate some of the more historical images and processes, but not because of tradition; because of knowing that each element of an icon is intentionally placed and means something. But structuring a service or singing a particular song because others have done it before us just isn't compelling to me.

Maybe it goes back to my sense of meaning needing a relational and/or transformational quality. I just don't see either happening attached to tradition for the sake of tradition. That doesn't mean tradition is bad, but sometimes we can get too rigidly attached to it because that's how we've always done it. Perhaps there's a more effective or meaningful way...


Got a question, struggle, or doubt you'd like to see addressed here? Contact me, and I'll try to discuss it (and may even help you get an answer).