Saturday, April 16, 2005

Tradition is the living faith of the dead-Jarislav Pelican

Every year, my local church has a symposium in the spring called At the Table and in Conversation. A topic is selected of relevance to our community at the time and we explore together our understanding of in the context of a worshipping community. The first such symposium concerned homosexuality and the church, so these are not issues such as how the roofing fund is being spent. These issues are ones that go to the heart of how we see ourselves, how we understand our calling as Christians and how we are in relationship within our community and with the world. We’ve addressed issues such as institutional and individual racism, Christians and the political process, war, and covenential relationships. This year, the topic is "The Good Book," and the subject is the use and abuse of Scripture. More specifically, it concerns our understanding of ourselves as a church that is "bible believing," what that is, and how it is enacted.

We are pretty liberal on the scale of United Methodist Churches, but there is a wide range of individual thought and belief within our church family. One year, we explored our faith in light of personal belief, using the "Belief-O-Matic," found at, to ascertain where each of us stand personally in our beliefs on a continuum that ranged from extremely fundamentalist to atheistic. Only one person from our entire group had no problems with the resurrection and virgin birth. We are a congregation of, well, liberal elitists, and damn proud of it, as a general rule.

I’ve found it interesting that this year’s topic has generated more interest and response than any since our first on homosexuality in the church. To a participant, they are pissed off at how they see Scripture being highjacked and are interested in "reclaiming," them from those who would use them as a weapon of exclusion or oppression. I maintain, of course, that we have nothing to reclaim. We’ve had it all along and just didn't see the necessity of screaming about it.

The first session examined in some detail what authority is, and how the bible can be seen, or should be seen as an "authority." We determined that there are several questions that must be asked of anyone who says that they "believe" in the bible: 1) What kind of authority does the bible have? 2) For what is this authority used? 3) How is this authority used? 4) Why is this authority used? We broke into small groups to consider these questions, as well as to discuss which aspect of authority the bible should hold for Christians, or, at least, held for us.

There are two types of authority mainly associated with the bible. The one most commonly articulated is that of executive authority, that the bible has the capacity to guide us or direct us because of some inherent understanding that deepens our own. This is also known as canonical or normative authority. The other authority is causative authority, that the bible makes things happen to us and in us by some virtue of bringing us beyond the text and leading to a new understanding.

The dangers of considering the bible to have authority lie in understanding the authority to be a property of the text, or that the bible personifies authority in some way. This effectively eliminates an entire tradition of biblical interpretation and study. It is a sacred text, but one that is accessible to reason and open to examination. "Bible believing" churches claim to be returning to an earlier (therefore meaning closer to Jesus’ intent) tradition of understanding the bible as the literal word of God, or, at the very least, that the writers of these texts were divinely inspired to the point of being stenographers to the Deity. In fact, there has never been a period prior to the 1800’s wherein the tradition of biblical scholarship assumed any inherent innerrancy in the text, or that some sort of authority was attached without question to any literal understanding of the text. It’s just not there for them to "re-discover."

The bible is more a library than a book. It is an unruly collection of writings representing many different voices. The texts live when they are interpreted within the context of community and tradition, bearing in mind the quote form Jarislav Pelican used in my header. For Christians, the bible has authority when God is involved in the life long process of understanding and celebrating it. God uses our uses of the bible.
To say that there is a definitive understanding of the bible that everyone can and should know makes as much sense as saying everyone should know God in exactly the same way. Those who claim it to be so should consider the other quote Jarislav Pelican was want to throw around:

"Conventional wisdom is the dead faith of the living."

No comments:

Post a Comment