Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Religion without Revelation

Nothing is more devastating to revealed religion than the historical-critical study of its texts. This study brings the texts down to earth. We discover that the Bible is a collection of documents written and revised by human beings.

This hit home when I took the Old Testament survey course in seminary. This collection of texts theologically understood as Word of God were, in actuality, the words of human beings. I searched for "God" in them and the most I could find was what the various authors wrote about their ideas of what they called "God."


This changes things dramatically at least in principle. However, this takes a long time at the personal level for this realization to roost. At the institutional level, it takes much, much longer. The effects of the historical-method on religious texts are far-reaching. Is it even meaningful to speak of "God" with any sense of realism when "God" becomes a literary character in a human drama?


The great 20th century theologian, Karl Barth, knew of this problem. His answer? Keep silence. Gerd Luedemann in his paper,
The Relationship of Biblical Studies to the History of Religions School, with Reference to the Scientific Study of Religion quotes Barth:
“[The Church] will at least require of its servants, even if there are some who personally cannot understand this ordinance, that they treat their private road as a private road and do not make it an object of their proclamation, that if they personally cannot affirm it and so (unfortunately) withhold it from their congregations, they must at least pay the dogma the respect of keeping silence about it.”
Barth was talking about the Virgin Birth.

Even the church has moved beyond Barth on this point. Yet the church is still revelation driven when it comes to other dogmas including the dogma of the Bible itself. I ask this question honestly. Given the historical-critical method, in what sense is saying 'the Bible is the Word of God' meaningful? Or the Qur'an? Or the Book of Mormon?

In the end, any of these collections only can be called Word of God because the people who believe in them say they are. We could be multicultural and say that all of them are the Word of God. After all, who is to say one of these collections isn't?


One could say that my faith tells me that my book is the Word of God. Fine. So what does your faith tell you about the other guy's book? If faith says my text is the Word of God and the others are not, how is that really much more than religious provincialism?


For those who want to use the historical method to show that the other guy's book isn't the Word of God, then that method when applied to your book will bite you in the behind. Historical criticism is the great equalizer. Luedemann writes:
Theology can be a scholarly discipline only when it observes the intellectual protocols of the modern university and bids farewell to deductive epistemological principles of any kind—including the notion of revealed truth and any claims to privileged knowledge of God. Theology becomes a valid academic discipline only insofar as it employs the historical-critical method’s three presuppositions of causality, the potential validity of analogies, and the reciprocal relationship between historical phenomena. Admittedly, such an adoption of the non-theistic methodology of secularism demands that traditional religion undergo a Copernican revolution.
This means religion without revelation. Because the mainline churches and their clergy have hidden behind the robes of Karl Barth and kept silence about historical criticism (except to the extent that it does no damage to our revealed dogmas), we have become irrelevant. No one is particularly interested in the superstitions we keep attempting to peddle.

That is not completely true. The fundamentalists are buying. They are using the Bible as the Word of God to call evolution a farce and to enforce an oppressive social agenda not only within the confines of their sects but within the larger sphere of secular society.


The intellectual community regards the church as a joke. It is a relic from a superstitious past. Who were the intellectual giants of the Middle Ages? The theologians. As revelation gave way to reason, theology could not adapt and from the perspective of the modern university it has gone the way of alchemy and astrology. Once again, Ludemann:
However it may “disenchant” the world, true objectivity means relinquishing the canonicity or sacredness of particular writings, any claims to a “revelation,” and all distinctions between orthodoxy and heresy except as a subject of historical discourse. This same even-handedness outlaws dogmatic and theological judgments unsupported by empirical evidence, and refuses to deal with questions of religious “truth” except to compare different truth claims. The scholar of religion must steer clear of ideologies, and is obliged to use the methods and insights of the sciences and humanities, including those derived from such related disciplines as sociology, psychology and ethnology, for their illumination of historical phenomena is often decisive. His or her assumptions and conclusions must remain open to peer review and revision on the sole basis of best evidence.
While Luedemann is writing about scholars in universities, I am interested in preachers in pulpits. Sunday by Sunday, preachers in mainline churches exegete and pontificate on some passage in the Bible. Why? Granted, it is a classic of Western literature. Don't get me wrong. I am cool with the Bible. I continue to learn new things about it. Other students have helped me use it as a critique of many human problems that are still with us--such as Empire. I have been preaching on it and teaching about it for 17 years. That is a lot of time to spend on one book.

But there are other books. It seems that we could preach about our awe-inspiring cosmological and evolutionary history. That amazing story that we are uncovering day by day is far more fascinating, not to mention far more true, than the various creation fables of any religion, including the Bible's.
Think of all the fields that are open to us from science, psychology, and literature all ripe for the harvest. Yet we continually go back to a two thousand year old collection as if it contains some divine secret we have not yet heard a thousand times already.

Why do we do this? Habit, I suppose. This is a habit worth breaking. It is time for a Copernican revolution. That begins by asking what it means to practice religion without, or perhaps beyond, revelation.

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