Shuck and Jive

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.

63 comments:

  1. When I was about 20 years old, I was living in England. I had just been prepared for confirmation in the Church of England by a wonderful ex-pat American woman who was a vicar at my university's ecumenical chaplaincy. She helped me to replace the literalism of my youth with a richer understanding of God and Christian tradition, including no longer seeing the Bible as "the inerrant, infallible Word of God." (I was getting there on my own, anyway, but she made the process much less agonizing by always having an alternative vision for wahtever dogmas I found myself casting off). What's more, she occasionally (but not always) referred to God as "She," and insisted that other religions were also revelations of God. One of my favorite memories was being asked to read a passage from the Tao Te Ching during our Pentecost service that year. For Christians to acknowledge the depth of divine revelation found in that wonderful work shouldn't be shocking - it said many of the same things you'd read in Proverbs or Ecclesiastes - but it was for me, coming out of a very closed off Reformed milieu.

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  2. I wouldn't say it's only the fundamentalists that are buying, John.

    As a scientist I have absolutely no problem stating that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. ;)

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  3. Great post! I know I have complained about how so many "progressive" churches have been silent on these issues--essentially following, as you point out, Barth's advice. Jack Good wrote a book about this a few years ago. I have to admit, though, I don't think anyone has put the problem quite as eloquently and passionately as you have here.

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  4. By the way, I think that John Hick offered an interesting a way out of this quandary. His theology of religious pluralism saw all the major religions, not as revelations from on high down to us humans, but rather as human attempts at understanding what he called the Ultimate, with each religion being the product of given historical and cultural circumstances. In that way, we can respect what religion seeks to do without having any problem whatsoever openly criticizing the flaws in the "sacred" religious texts, because we acknowledge that religion is a human product.

    I think that preaching from the lectionary is truly problematic, as you point out. A few months ago, I attended a progressive Presbyterian church when the lectionary readings included the passage in Exodus where Yahweh killed a hungry people with poisonous snakes because they complained about having no food. The pastor, to her credit, at least acknowledged in her sermon, very briefly, that this was problematic. In general, my experience has been that most pastors pretty much gloss over or ignore the problematic nature of these sorts of passages, and the fact that many of these stories are not historically true is often just ignored.

    I think most pastors try to find positive messages from the lectionary, but I also think that the Bible can be instructive in a negative sense--where it goes WRONG as well as in where it goes right. The flaws in the Bible can teach us about the human process of understanding the Ultimate, as a long and arduous historical journey in which people are continually trying to discover the deeper nature of the divine. Along the way, they sometimes get things wrong, and we can learn from that.

    The noted theologians of the first few centuries of Christianity studied the Greek philosophers, and were no doubt influenced by them. Great ideas about religion and life are not restricted to the Bible, which after all is just a collection of writings that was canonized by Christian authority a few centuries after Christ. Why be frozen in time like that? A Taizé service that I sometimes attend includes readings from secular and even non-Christian writers in its readings. I think this is a great idea. We can and should honor the classics, but all of theological thinking did not stop with the "closing of the canon". The filtering of how these passages are understood, through later theologies (such as the Nicene creed) makes a bit of a mockery of this slavish adherence to the Bible as canonical text anyway, in my view.

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  5. In the chapter "The end is near, nearer, nearest", in her book, "Take the Cannoli", Sarah Vowell writes:

    "Christianity is no different from any other cult -- it isn't about faith, it's about agreement, about like-minded people sitting together in the same room at the same time believing the same thing. That unity is its appeal."

    These words come as part of an personal essay on Vowell's Pentecostal upbringing. She continues, "Once someone, even a little six-year-old someone wearing patent leather May Janes, starts asking questions that can't be answered, the whole congregation's fun is spoiled."

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  6. I am not sure that the host of "critical" methods of looking at the scriptures negate their relevance and potential to speak to the human spirit and condition. They are "sacred" because of the community that holds them to be such, and the narratives are more important than their historical accuracy, in my opinion.

    I like what Marcus Borg said in the video series, Invitation to the Journey (while dealing with the idea of post critical naivete), "I don't think for a minute that it happened that way, but I believe it nonetheless." We have allot more ways of looking at the bible than simply through the lens of historical criticism.

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  7. I think the church was behind the historical eight ball with the scientific revolution and the rise of the Historical-critical methods. Though I think the rise of historical critical methods is also now behind the the times as well. We have to start by understanding the language of the Christianity or any other religion, and not try to place it within another language game such as science. While Dawkins and the rest of the New Atheists are trying to revive modernity, they fail to acknowledge Wittgenstein and linguistics revolution. Modernity fail of its own accord in an amazing display of horror in the early part of the 20th century. Nothing is more devastating to the historical-critical study of texts than modern linguistics. God can only be talk about meaningfully within texts. As Wittgenstein famously said, "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

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  8. "His theology of religious pluralism saw all the major religions, not as revelations from on high down to us humans, but rather as human attempts at understanding what he called the Ultimate, with each religion being the product of given historical and cultural circumstances. In that way, we can respect what religion seeks to do without having any problem whatsoever openly criticizing the flaws in the "sacred" religious texts, because we acknowledge that religion is a human product."BINGO!

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  9. "While you're there check out this thread about ethics and homosexuality."

    Feh. I'd rather chew glass.

    "We have to start by understanding the language of the Christianity or any other religion, and not try to place it within another language game such as science. "

    Indeed, Tito. Particularly when science has nothing to do with historical-critical methods, or rather historical-critical methods have nothing to do with science.

    I guess I don't really understand the desire to replace one "mythology" for another, if the point is to get rid of mythology altogether.

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  10. Thank you all for these thoughtful comments. I, too, like Hick's approach to religion. I certainly too think there are more things in "heaven and earth" than what we know from science, history, literature or religion. I think literary or narrative criticism is of immense value to studying the Bible. And I agree that the Bible has some insightful stuff in it and speaks at least in part to the human condition. I think you all make great points.

    Yet I also think there is more to life than the Bible and that if "revelation" has any meaning for us, we will discover it in many places. This is why I think the church might be better served by looking more broadly than claiming that its book is the only or best source of knowledge, beauty, and truth--"Word of God."

    There is nothing wrong with the church being a bible club, I just think we can think bigger.

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  11. Aric,

    Thanks for the heads up and thanks for the discussion at your place regarding ethics. I have learned a great deal. Now if I could only retain it! :)

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  12. Alan,

    "I'd rather chew glass."

    :)

    I learned yesterday that everything goes down better when fried in bacon grease.

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  13. I learned yesterday that everything goes down better when fried in bacon grease.Don't forget the buttermilk!

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  14. "I learned yesterday that everything goes down better when fried in bacon grease."

    Well, we've found our common ground, John. :)

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  15. @Alan: I knew we belonged in the same denomination!

    @Snad: Ah, yes, buttermilk.

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  16. What a wonderful thoughtprovoking post!

    I would slightly disagree with Hick. I think religions are the human attempt to understand the divine, but I think they begin with real interactions with the divine.

    I don't think it's an either/or thing. I think that God seeks to communicate love in whatever way the culture of the prophet can understand/recognize/realize. With contradictory cultures, we have contradictory pictures of God. It's oversimplified, but it's a slightly different thing to think about.

    Also, is a literary figure of God mutually exclusive of real life?

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  17. I don't know for sure that Hick would disagree that the Ultimate (his term for it) is involved in communication with us. I may be superimposing my own take on this rather than Hick's, but I think a way to look at it is that humans, in their limited and finite way, are only capable of a limited grasp of the Ultimate and what the Ultimate speaks to us. This is a classic case of the blind man and the elephant at work here; if the Ultimate communicates with us, we filter our perceptions through our own limited understanding, which is informed by our cultural and historical context.

    That's my take on it, anyway.

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  18. @David

    Thanks for the good words!

    "Also, is a literary figure of God mutually exclusive of real life?"

    Great question. I would say certainly not. Literature is one of my favorite ways of approaching what is real. This can be the case for all kinds of literature, including that which we consider sacred or about "God."

    Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath is a profound, truthful, real book about life, which is also fiction.

    I am advocating for an "opening up" to recognize what is real and truthful (or Divine) from many sources.

    Someone wrote me a private email in comment on this post and said, "I also think we've been working beyond our holy books all along, but we're only now admitting it."

    I concur. My post isn't really anything new except that I am trying to admit what we are already doing and that we might affirm it.

    For fun, here is an opposite view.

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  19. "If the Ultimate communicates with us, we filter our perceptions through our own limited understanding, which is informed by our cultural and historical context."

    Me, too, Mystical. :)

    I am advocating for an "opening up" to recognize what is real and truthful (or Divine) from many sources.

    Will you move to California and start a church so I can go to it?

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  20. David,

    Actually, I already live in California. :)

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  21. "Given the historical-critical method, in what sense is saying 'the Bible is the Word of God' meaningful?"

    The historical-critical method has absolutely nothing to say about whether the Bible is the word of God. Such conclusions don't come into its method, and to read them in is to misunderstand its aims.

    It's not that this is new stuff; it's been around for over a century. The problem isn't that it's irreverent. The problem is that it's fruitless. Look at, say, the portrait of Jesus from the Jesus Seminar. By their lights this is the "historically verifiable" Jesus, and the guy is dull as dishwater.

    I have always seen the theological significance of the embrace of the method as a continuation of Reformed Theology. The arc of the Magisterial Reformation was to cut away all tradition other than the earlier written tradition: sola scriptura. The proponents of H-C methods wished to go further, cut away the "later accretions" to the scriptures, get to the "real Jesus" behind the gospels, the "authentic letters" of Paul, the J-author and the E-author of the Pentateuch, on the assumption that these endeavors would get us closer to the real kernel of things.

    But in fact they just take us toward where you want to go: less and less revelation, to no revelation. The limit is zero.

    I think the problem is the negation of natural theology in Reformed Theology, a problem from Calvin to Barth. Look, I love the Tao Te Ching, not because it is revelation, but because it shows how the imago Dei is indeed universal, and intimations of divinity are everywhere. If everything is revelation, nothing is. If something is revelation, I have some standard by which to judge the relative merits of the Tao Te Ching and the 120 Days of Sodom.

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  22. "If everything is revelation, nothing is."

    I'm OK with that ... In Buddhism the words of the Buddha are not seen as divine revelation. The Buddha said to test everything he said for yourself and find what is good, what is true. That seems to work well for Buddhists, because their path is experiential, rather than faith-based. A Buddhist is never asked to believe in anything in particular about the nature of reality, they are told to use a specific method to see it for themselves.

    What Christians too often miss is that Jesus said the same thing: "You will know them by their fruits." Being in relationship with the divine is not about believing in a certain set of things. You can believe in those things and, for instance, be a white supremacist. That's not a fruit I'm interested in biting into, thank you. All "revelation" is, as Mystical Seeker points out, mediated through a finite human perspective. To hold the Bible up as "the Word of God" misses the point. I would go a step further, even, and suggest that anyone who holds to an "inerrant, infallible Word of God" position is guilty of idolatry. Jesus is "the Word." Words about Jesus are just arrows that point us toward him. Once we are in relationship with God - an experiential reality - words become inadequate.

    And, if you really think that the Jesus Seminar's version of Jesus is "dull as dishwater," I feel sorry for you. I find the historical "pre-Easter jesus," as Borg refers to him, to be a fascinating, compelling figure who captures my imagination not only as much as, but more so, than the Jesus I believed in when I was younger. In fact, I'd argue that the church's traditional teachings about who Jesus was, and what his message and significance are, are pale and sterile in comparison.

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  23. John, I appreciate all the things people have written, but I still can't believe you all aren't laughing at this:

    "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." [emphasis mine]

    Well, I can't believe the author wrote it either, but I'm more surprised that anyone is taking such an enterprise seriously.

    True objectivity? He's joking, right? Even we scientists no longer believe that myth. And objectivity in something as non-scientific (un-scientific?) as work done in theology, history, sociology, or psychology, and what amounts to literature criticism? Come on. Again, why replace one myth with another? I'm not sure what that gets you. You're simply trading the phony certainty of fundamentalist interpretations of revelation for phony certainty of another type.

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  24. I think it is fair to say that there is no such thing as "the" portrait of Jesus from the Jesus Seminar. The Jesus Seminar is not a monolithic body, but rather a collection of scholars who often have different views about Jesus. If they all had the same ideas about Jesus, they wouldn't need to to take votes with those colored beads, because the outcomes would always be unanimous.

    I agree that Marcus Borg's portrayal of Jesus is anything but "dull as dishwater." Instead, I find it to be magnificent, and much more credible than that of orthodoxy. I like very much the idea of Jesus as a "spirit person", for example.

    One of the problems, perhaps, with the word "revelation" is that it suggests that certain infallible truths have been "revealed" to us from God. It sees religion as a one-way process: God reveals, and we listen. But what if God is always revealing to us, all the time? What if theology derives not so much from what God reveals, but rather from what we discover about God's ever-present revelation? Maybe "discovery" is a better term for the religious process than "revelation". Maybe we are all on the road to discovery together, maybe this process of discovery is an ongoing historical process, and maybe (instead of a one-way communication from God) it is really a continuing dialogue with God and with each other.

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  25. Hey Alan,

    Thanks for the push. I agree that "total objectivity" is a strange choice of words.

    I think what he means (at least what I mean) is "approaching consistency."

    In science, consistency is a pragmatic naturalism. We don't 'insert miracle here' or say 'God did it' when we don't know how how data fit.

    This approach toward consistency works as well in the study of human language. Just because we find a text that tells us that some guy rose from the dead or that another one flew off to heaven on a horse doesn't mean we take all of these stories at face value, or (which is the point Ludemann is making) that our guy really did rise from the dead but that other story? It is just a myth.

    If we are going to be consistent, we evaluate the literature as best we can with a consistent method and to treat special revelatory pleading with suspicion.

    That is all that is.

    The other option is credulity. In this case we just believe every text (or every person) who claims a special revelation from God at face value.

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  26. "The other option is credulity. In this case we just believe every text (or every person) who claims a special revelation from God at face value."

    This gets us back to "My fairy tale is true; your fairy tale is false", where people of a certain faith take the most fantastical claims as being true about their own religion while dismissing as utter hogwash similarly fantastical claims made by proponents of other religions. Someone who believes that a certain historical figure named Jesus was physically resuscitated from the dead will turn around and reject the suggestion that the archangel Gabriel visited Muhammed or that the archangel Moroni gave the book of Mormon to Joseph Smith. This is a case of selective incredulity that is often found among true believers.

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  27. I misquoted "total objectivity" when he wrote "true objectivity." In either case, a questionable word choice. "Consistency" is a better choice, in my opinion.

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  28. "The other option is credulity. In this case we just believe every text (or every person) who claims a special revelation from God at face value."

    I think you're creating a false dichotomy. It doesn't seem to me that the only options are believing in everything or a science-like evidence-based analysis (I was going to write "faith" instead of analysis, but that's obviously wrong, as was my second choice "religion" I'm not even sure "analysis" is the correct term).

    Every academic specialty has its own standards of what constitutes evidence in that field. Most fields cannot and do not require a standard of evidence that we require in chemistry, for example. At the same time, the art critic uses a different standard for what constitutes evidence than the historian than the psychologist, etc.

    So why should we require the the theologian, unlike any of the rest of the humanities, to require a standard of evidence that none of them can produce, ie. naive realism? (Particularly when even scientists have given up naive realism.)

    And what about faith? I guess that's right out all together as outdated and silly, as it is evidence of things unseen.

    It seems to me though that a third way between naive realism and unquestioned credulity is that our spiritual lives, no more and no less than our emotional lives, may require a different standard of evidence. I can't prove that I love my husband but I know it to be true, and so does he. Based on what I've read here, I have no reason to believe that because people apply an inappropriate standard of evidence for other areas of knowledge such as emotional knowledge or spiritual knowledge.

    I think people would generally be better served by science if they participated in it for some period of time and understood that their encomiums to the reason and "objectivity" they think we've mastered are misplaced, at best.

    Consistency, BTW, isn't all it's made out to be either. To assume consistency in a particular chemical system is a pleasant tale we tell middle schoolers, but it requires knowing each variable in the system. Even in the simplest systems that's often next to impossible. But consistency for humans and human activity and the records of those activities?? Have you ever actually met people? ;)

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  29. "It seems to me though that a third way between naive realism and unquestioned credulity is that our spiritual lives, no more and no less than our emotional lives, may require a different standard of evidence. I can't prove that I love my husband but I know it to be true, and so does he."

    That sounds great. I am with you.
    Love is a fine standard.

    MLK Jr. said that "the arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice."

    That is about as much faith as I can muster. I don't know if that statement is true or not. Much of the time I am inclined to say that it is probably not true. But nevertheless, it is as good as a faith statement I have heard and trusting in it helps me to keep plodding along with my various losing causes without running, screaming into the darkness. I am often reminded that I may not be on the side of justice either.

    Stories and music (both sacred and secular and all created by human beings) I find touch my heart and give me the language to talk about love, hope, justice, peace etc.

    For those who have spent time with this blog, they can probably see that is where I am. I don't think I am a naive realist, but I could be.

    I actually love human beings. I am proud of them. I am proud of their accomplishments, great literature, religion, mythology, science, music, art. I despair over their wars and their shortsightedness. We learn what it means to be human by fits and starts.

    The fact is I am so impressed with humanity and their works (such as the Bible) that taking it away from them as if it were too good for them to produce and saying only "God" could produce it, I find discouraging.

    I have a positive view of humanity because I have a positive view of nature of which humans are a part. I am not interested in taking all that is good about humanity and projecting it onto a supernatural being (also a creation of human beings).

    The creation of a supernatural being is one of the interesting inventions of humanity. I think this invention has served its purpose and now I think it is time for something new.

    I don't think I am the only person on the planet who has problems with believing in a supernatural being, or who questions the usefulness of the concept in the first place.

    As far as I am concerned the Universe is a big enough 'God' for me. It contains more mystery than I will ever know.

    The Universe (as far as I know) is life. It is what is. I would like to see a theology of the Universe, an exploration of the meaning of what is and what might make my existence in it more blessed.

    The sources for this theology are all around us. They certainly don't seem to me to be limited to one collection of writings from one culture at one narrow window of time.

    You find them in our evolutionary history, our cosmology, in human relationships, everywhere.

    If someone tells me they have extra special revelation--secret doings with the divine that are revealed in their special unique book or creed that cannot be evaluated (only affirmed and enforced) well, rather than argue, I guess I should just smile and nod.

    As long as their views are harmless to others, I don't mind. But when their revealed God starts commanding them to do destructive things (like claiming control of others by divine right) then I tend to speak out.

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  30. Way back to Rick:

    Welcome and thanks for the comment. I too am happy with "if everything is revelation, nothing is." I wonder if the only difference between an atheist and a pantheist is that a pantheist sounds more spiritual. :)

    I really don't understand the point of revelation. In fact I don't see any good in it. I do see its harm.

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  31. 'I wonder if the only difference between an atheist and a pantheist is that a pantheist sounds more spiritual. '

    I wouldnt be too sure about that . If you examine , for example , Stoic Pantheism , you'll find that in actuality it's probably more spititual than most classical Theism .

    Love the blog BTW . Always find it interesting even on the (rare ) occassions that I disagree with it . :)

    Regards ...

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  32. Interesting post and conversation. Thanks for linking to one of my posts as well! Strangely enough I've been posting on the bible over the past few days because of a conversation over one of my status messages on Facebook:

    Ben Currin apparently has been told to think biblically...whatever that means. No I'd rather think Christocentrically as Christ is the center and driving force of Christianity not the bible.
    T B at 10:36am May 21
    What? You would rather worship the risen, exalted, and incarnate Word of God instead of worshipping the Bible? That's just crazy Ben.
    K B at 10:40am May 21
    unfortunately you can't separate the two, no matter how much you might want to. Beyond our personal experience with Him, the Bible is how we know God. And if our personal experience doesn't mesh with how He reveals Himself in the Word (both Jesus and the Bible) we should take a second look. N T at 12:00pm May 21
    No, you can totally separate the two. The Bible is a part of the Church tradition that together communicates the teachings of the apostles regarding Christ. But we all live with a faith in the active unveiling of the Holy Spirit. That unveiling applies to the Scripture writers as much as it does to us.

    Remember, it was the spirit which was to lead us into all truth. Not scripture or even the church.
    K B at 12:08pm May 21
    The Holy Spirit will always lead us back to the God of scripture, not to some god of our own design.
    N T at 12:10pm May 21
    Yes, but we have to acknowledge that God is both bigger than the bible and much bigger than our interpretations of it. Therefore, we can use scripture just like all Church teachings to help us better understand God, but our ultimate experience of him is the closest we'll get to an "objective" truth about the nature of God. And of course, that experience is a private one.
    K B at 12:48pm May 21
    OK, I agree the private relationship transcends all other revelations of God to the believer.....but it will not contradict the revelation of God in scripture, in creation, or in Jesus. Otherwise, we are in danger of creating our own god to fit our own agenda. Why would God give us the scriptures if we are to dismiss them in favor of elevating our own thoughts about the Lord?

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  33. R S at 6:21pm May 21
    Grace and Peace be multiplied unto you Ben from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. I just had to get in on this conversation (if you don't mind, it is public) since my husband is a Bishop and we do Pastor a church (people of God) here in NC. Yes I am one of your classmates dude.

    Kevin I tend to agree with your statements you made and just desired to give you some encouragement as you stick with your faith.... Read More
    St John 1:1, 14 (King James Version) 1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Verse 14 says And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. This proves that the Word (the bible) and God are one and the same and then shows that Jesus and the Word (the bible) are the same and can't be separate. 1 John 1:1-3 (King James Version)
    R S at 6:22pm May 21
    1 John 1:1-3 (King James Version) 1That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life (PLEASE read John 1:3,4); 2(For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with ... Read Morethe Father, and was manifested unto us;) 3 That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. Ps. 119:89 says That the Word is forever settled in Heaven. This is true because Jesus and the Word (which are the same) abide in heaven. For you see when Jesus left earth he became his original form The Word, and The Holy Spirit took his place on earth as a mediator. Understanding this we see John 16:12-13 (King James Version) 12 I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now.
    R S at 6:23pm May 21
    13Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. 1 John 5:7-8 (King James Version) 7For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are... Read More one. 8And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one. So you see in these two scriptures the Holy Ghost/Spirit bears witness from heaven (from the Word) right here on earth. The Word in heaven ALWAYS matches the Word that is in our hands (the BIBLE) for they are ONE and the SAME.
    No matter if there is some of the word that we do not like, we still have to align our lives to fit the Word of God. We cannot change the Word to fit our situations, but must and always live up to the Word of God (PLEASE read 2nd Timothy 2:15-16; 2nd Timothy 3:15-17). R S at 6:24pm May 21
    The bible teaches far beyond the Apostles because Genesis through Malachi was written first and was a preamble of Jesus Christ. Galatians 3:23-25 (King James Version) says 23But before faith came, we were kept under the law (old testament), shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed (in the New Testament). 24Wherefore the law was ... Read Moreour schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. 25But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster (Please read John 1:16-18).
    Finally always be cautious when conversing with others and they start using phrases like: they way I feel, well the way I see it, in my heart I feel, or this is the way I interpreted it. For you see God is almighty and all knowing, simply put He is smart enough to make the Word understandable using His interpretation and not the watered down versions of man.

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  34. R S at 6:25pm May 21
    These phrases show that one is walking in vain philosophies and the Word says in Colossians 2:8 (King James Version) 8Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. Also PLEASE read 1st Corinthians 1:26-31 which will show that the wisdom of God (... Read MoreWord of God) is far beyond man’s wisdom (interpretation). For the Word is meant to be read and taken very literally. Also Proverbs 3:5-7 (King James Version) 5Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. 6In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. 7Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the LORD, and depart from evil. For the Lord tells us here to not to trust in our own understanding which comes out of the heart of man void of the influence of God for Proverbs 28:26 tells us what kind of person trust in his/her heart void of the understanding of God. R S at 6:26pm May 21
    It says 26 He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool: but whoso walketh wisely, he shall be delivered. So you continue to walk as a wise man which means you will be delivered from all the snares that this world and the enemy tries to set for you.

    Ben Currin at 9:44pm May 21
    I know Todd how dare I use such clear and traditional Southern Baptist language: The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ. Baptist Faith And Message 1963. Ben Currin at 10:07pm May 21
    Kevin thanks for commenting. I don't totally disagree with your thoughts. However that said I don't believe that fits in all cases say such as far off places in China where it's illegal to own a printed bible so in this case the kerygma or proclamation of the scriptures function as a part of revelation though no revelation happens apart from the movement of the Holy Spirit. Also the center of all forms of revelation are centered on Christ in whom God is truly revealed.
    Ben Currin at 10:12pm May 21
    Nick glad to see you are up on your Barth. I lean towards Barth's view of the Scriptures as well. Christ then should be reaffirmed as the standard criterion of solid Biblical exegesis and hermeneutics: as the person, life and work of Jesus are the full revelation of God. (Baptist Faith And Message, 1963 [1998]-Article I; Matthew 28:18).
    The Bible ... Read Morethen should not be affirmed as the Word of God, but Jesus Himself is the True Word of God. (John 1:1).
    The Bible should be affirmed as a faithful and accurate witness to Jesus, who is the True and Actual Word of God---so that as the Holy Spirit incarnates us, when Jesus’ Truth is made known through the kerygma (proclamation) of bible exposition or preaching---then and only then does the bible become the “word of God” for believers (meaning a reflective incarnation of God’s revealed Truth as found fully and totally in Christ and as illuminated by the Holy Spirit). Ben Currin at 10:13pm May 21
    Just as God, in the Incarnation/Jesus, has two natures: human and divine---the bible then as an image and icon of God... Read More’s Incarnation, in Christ, should be viewed as a product of both humanity and the Divine/Deity.
    The Bible despite having errors (mainly in unimportant things) in the copies of the manuscripts we have today---which has been made known throughout the bible’s history through the science of textual and biblical criticism---should still be affirmed as both divinely inspired and authoritative for the life of believers. (II Timothy 3:16).
    Ben Currin at 10:22pm May 21
    Also, Jesus is Lord of the bible not the other way around as the bible was made for man not man for the bible.

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  35. Ben Currin at 10:43pm May 21
    Kevin and how do we know that God gave us the bible---because of the church not the bible itself. This is why the Methodists have it right with the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.
    R S at 10:58pm May 21
    The bible is neither Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Catholic, Or any other denomination, moreover denominational guidelines and codes does not and should not define the bible. For when one reads the Word of God they will never see denominations mentioned within the context of the bible. Next when a preacher is preaching they preach from the ... Read Morebible (or should) which is the word of God (Jesus) this is why the hearers of the preach Word can get a divine revelation of who Jesus is. For we are actually reading him. Go back and read 2nd Timothy 3:15-17 and Matthew 4:4 which will let us know that no matter how many words we use to sound smart, well diverse, and educated that if we do not simply live according to the Word of God (Jesus) than our lives truely have no meaning. Finally the Word of God says in Proverbs 26:4 to answer not a Fool according to his folly and it says in Proverbs 14:1 the fool has said in his heart, there is no God, they are currupt.
    R S at 11:06pm May 21
    Knowing and understanding this if a person denies the Word of God which is the same as God then that person is simply a fool. Also 2nd Corinthians 4:3-4 says 3 But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: 4 In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, ... Read Morewho is the image of God, should shine unto them. So Kevin as I said earlier HOLD TO YOUR FAITH and the tricks of satan will not have you thinking, talking, and acting like a educated fool. God Bless. P R S

    L C R at 12:04pm May 22
    Interesting conversation.....

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  36. Anyways, sorry for the rambling comments but I just thought I'd throw that into the conversation. You just can't argue with people who actually believe the bible is Jesus/God. Here's some more food for thought---Luther paved the way for biblical criticism and Neo-Orthodoxy: TheoPoetic Musings: Luther, The Biblical/Textual Critic and TheoPoetic Musings: Luther, The First Neo-Orthodox?.

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  37. "I really don't understand the point of revelation. In fact I don't see any good in it. I do see its harm."

    John, I don't see what's not to understand.

    Revelation means the communication of God to humanity. That's all that it means, really.

    So, if there's no God, yeah, no revelation.

    Or if God keeps his metaphorical mouth shut, again no revelation.

    But if it exists, the point is to communicate with us, which seems to make some amount of sense.

    Again, that alone doesn't make the Bible or the Church or Nature God's revelation. But if we are to think that God is telling us something, somehow, I don't see how we do without the concept of revelation.

    What you're saying strikes me as kind of like saying you don't understand the point in using words when writing or performing poetry. You can do mime all day, and can be pretty good at it, but it ain't poetry.

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  38. Hey Rick, thanks for the push. Maybe the distinction should be between "public" and "private" revelation.

    Public revelation is a way of using God or Mystery language to describe what we are learning about the Universe.

    Private revelation is what specific religions claim in sacred texts. Michael Dowd makes that distinction.

    One of the major planks of Dowd's thesis is that God's revelation comes through Nature and its unfolding evolution as discovered by modern science, which he sees as a vehicle of God's revelation. Here we may recall that for St.Thomas Aquinas the first revelation of God is found in the book of Nature, and later in the book of the Bible. Now we know it is an on-going process, not a static one; and our understanding of it is also open to change and revision. Science is quintessentially falsifiable and revisable. Dowd calls this revelation through Nature and science, public revelation, namely a revelation open to all irrespective of religious or ideological persuasions. In his view, revelations enshrined in some religious traditions - the Scriptures-are private revelations As such they are (1) meaningful only to the respective believers and (2) as Scriptures, namely as the written Word, not that amenable to change. These scriptural traditions, pre-dating a Copernican understanding of the cosmos, fall under the category of what he calls "flat-earth faiths". "A distinction must be made at this point between flat-earth faith and evolutionary faith....What I mean by flat-earth faith is not people believing the world is flat. Rather it refers to any perspective in which the metaphors and theology still in use came into being at a time when peoples really did believe the world was flat - that is when there was no reliable way for humans to comprehend the world around them by means of science-based public revelation. Religious traditions that are scripturally based, and whose texts have not changed substantially since the time of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Hubble, Crick, Dawkins, and Hawking become, necessarily, flat-earth faiths when interpreted literally". Dowd goes onto say, very consistently, that the same applies to eastern religions and their scriptures - Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism - as well; they came into being in a "flat-earth epoch", and if they are interpreted literally today, they are flat-earth faiths.

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  39. "But if it exists, the point is to communicate with us, which seems to make some amount of sense."

    If that is true, then God is one lousy communicator.

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  40. "Maybe the distinction should be between "public" and "private" revelation."

    My understanding is that that distinction has always referred to the difference between revelation proposed for all and revelation to an individual which may or may not be accepted by others. For example, the doctrine of the Trinity is a subject of public revelation, a part of the doctrine of the faith, affirmed in the creeds and the public worship of Christians. By contrast, an example of private revelation would be, say, the "shewings" of God to Blessed Julian of Norwich. We need not accept her assertions that God revealed certain things to her, but we may, because they are consistent with the public revelvation which constitutes the substantive content of the faith.

    What you and Dowd call "public revelation" is, I think, what has long been recognized as "natural theology," the sense that "The heavens declare the glory of God." This is consistent with the doctrinal assertion that the imago Dei is in every man and woman, that we are made by God and for God and each other. This is indeed manifest in the striving that we see in all cultures and at all times for the transcendental.

    But there are limitations as well. Science gives us knowledge and power, but it cannot tell us which course of action to take. And I do not see how the shape of the earth or the shape of space itself under the equations of general relativity modify the precept to love one's neighbor as oneself or the dogma that God condescended to empty himself and take the form of a slave to reconcile us.

    Just as it doesn't jive with my own experience to say that, say, Philip Larkin was a better poet that Homer, because Larkin lived in the age of Einstein, so I balk at the implicit assertion that we are somehow closer to the truth of God than St. Francis of Asissi, since he lived in the age of an Aristotelian cosmology. Those seem to me colossal category errors.

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  41. Hi Rick,

    You wrote:

    "Just as it doesn't jive with my own experience to say that, say, Philip Larkin was a better poet that Homer, because Larkin lived in the age of Einstein, so I balk at the implicit assertion that we are somehow closer to the truth of God than St. Francis of Asissi, since he lived in the age of an Aristotelian cosmology. Those seem to me colossal category errors."

    OK, but of course I am not saying that. Larkin and Homer and the author of Mark's Gospel are all creative human writers. I wouldn't say any is closer to God than any other, as that terms doesn't make sense to me.

    Perhaps "Ida" who we just found as a 47 million year old fossil was 'closer to God' than any of us.

    The Trinity under my understanding of the terms would be private revelation, in fact all of the religious doctrines would be private revelations as they are only meaningful to the different sects who affirm them.

    The Trinity and all the doctrines are creative human expressions and products of their own time and place.

    The point I am trying to make is that there is more to the world than these dogmas--much more. The Bible, Qur'an, Book of Mormon, Bhagavad Gita, and so forth, are books on my shelf. All are human creative products. None is imbued with special divine authority due to special revelation. Any authority these works have in whole or in part is from people who give them authority.

    I am not putting them down. I am just equalizing them. It isn't me doing that. I am just saying what we have been doing for the past several hundred years.

    I think these works are great human achievements. I wouldn't cheapen them by taking their authorship away from them and giving it to "God" even as the authors themselves might have done so.

    Good parts, bad parts, beautiful parts, ugly parts, all human works. Each day the universe unfolds new mysteries. You could call our discovery of them revelation if you like.

    You could call reading Shakespeare a revelation, although I think that is more of a poetic way to praise the insights and talents of a real human being. The same for the Bible.

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  42. Hi Rick,

    You wrote:

    "Just as it doesn't jive with my own experience to say that, say, Philip Larkin was a better poet that Homer, because Larkin lived in the age of Einstein, so I balk at the implicit assertion that we are somehow closer to the truth of God than St. Francis of Asissi, since he lived in the age of an Aristotelian cosmology. Those seem to me colossal category errors."

    OK, but of course I am not saying that. Larkin and Homer and the author of Mark's Gospel are all creative human writers. I wouldn't say any is closer to God than any other, as that terms doesn't make sense to me.

    Perhaps "Ida" who we just found as a 47 million year old fossil was 'closer to God' than any of us.

    The Trinity under my understanding of the terms would be private revelation, in fact all of the religious doctrines would be private revelations as they are only meaningful to the different sects who affirm them.

    The Trinity and all the doctrines are creative human expressions and products of their own time and place.

    The point I am trying to make is that there is more to the world than these dogmas--much more. The Bible, Qur'an, Book of Mormon, Bhagavad Gita, and so forth, are books on my shelf. All are human creative products. None is imbued with special divine authority due to special revelation. Any authority these works have in whole or in part is from people who give them authority.

    I am not putting them down. I am just equalizing them. It isn't me doing that. I am just saying what we have been doing for the past several hundred years.

    I think these works are great human achievements. I wouldn't cheapen them by taking their authorship away from them and giving it to "God" even as the authors themselves might have done so.

    Good parts, bad parts, beautiful parts, ugly parts, all human works. Each day the universe unfolds new mysteries. You could call our discovery of them revelation if you like.

    You could call reading Shakespeare a revelation, although I think that is more of a poetic way to praise the insights and talents of a real human being. The same for the Bible.

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  43. "None is imbued with special divine authority due to special revelation. Any authority these works have in whole or in part is from people who give them authority."

    That's why I don't believe that there is any such thing as "special revelation". One of the reasons that I am drawn to process theology, aside from the fact that it integrates with what we know about the evolutionary history of the universe, is that is sees Divine communication as ongoing and involved in everything that happens and everyone who acts int he world. In this view, God speaks to us all, all the time. The idea that God comes out of the sky from time to time to impart some kind of special communication to special people seems to hearken back to a more simplistic and outdated image of God as a powerful being "out there" on his throne somewhere who deigns to intervene in special ways from time to time to give out a message. But I don't see God as acting in that way. Process theology sees God as participating in the creative unfolding of the universe at each moment, which means that God is speaking to all of us, without exception, at each moment.

    Now obviously some people, with unique qualities, are able to channel what God has to say to us in such a way that they offer creative interpretations of the mysteries of the universe, interpretations that we deem insightful and inspirational. But that represents a creative human interpretation of a revelation that I think is ongoing and provided to all of us at each moment. According to process theology, God offers creative possibilities to us with each passing instant, and the choices we make reflect in some sense the "revelation" of creative possibility.

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  44. Seeker,

    Thanks. As you can see I keep waffling back and forth regarding this term. Probably that comes from the attempt to retain the language yet define it in different ways.

    I like revelation as creative possibility.

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  45. I read most of the comments, or tried to (there sure are a lot), and I'm not sure I'm being offered any options that I want.

    On the one hand, I can pretend I have secret knowledge, and that everyone else's secret knowledge is crap, and pretend that is consistent and reassuring rather than setting me up to live in constant fear.

    On the other hand, I can pretend that I am rational, that human beings are primarily rational, and that a "rational" or "objective" or "analytica" view of the world actually provides meaning...and pretend that this isn't a well-disguised plunge into nihilism.

    I don't want blind faith, and I don't want blind reason, because neither one is anything near satisfactory, and I can't help but think that both are inventions of the modern age and both miss the point entirely. They are both falsehoods, and both make me queasy.

    I also don't have much that is constructive to say. I'm working on it. But waiting for God's voice in my ear didn't work out, and picking through writings with the h-c method didn't work either. I wouldn't recommend either one as a path to find meaning.

    If I have to have religion without revelation, I also want religion without supposed "academic objectivity".

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  46. Doug! I liked your comment.

    I don't think higher criticism gives us "meaning" either. It helps us deconstruct however and gives some insight into the texts in their time and place.

    Sometimes I wonder if, like you have done, the best thing we can do is say, "No, not that and not that either."

    No to those who claim to have private revelation and use it as authority for their actions.

    No to those who have reduced life's complexity to facts and reason.

    It is the via negativa.

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  47. One of the reasons I keep turning to Christian churches, instead of (for example the UUs) is that I keep hoping for something more than merely an intellectualized deconstruction of religion. I want something to inspire my sense of awe and mystery, but without checking my brain at the door. The problem is that the via positiva that I find in Christian chruches often carries with it its own sources of dissatisfaction. Caught between a rock and a hard place, as always.

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  48. I think there is a position in the middle of religious fundamentalism on one hand and modernist secular fundamentalism on the other, and it's one that is meaningful for me, and I suspect for several other posters on this thread, too. That's the "historical-metaphorical" approach recommended by Marcus Borg and other Biblical non-literalists who, despite being open to the modernist historical criticism of the Bible, still manage to live a life of vibrant faith based on its message. It's based on the idea that something doesn't have to be literally true to be spiritually true.

    For instance, I don't believe Adam and Eve actually existed, were tempted by forbidden fruit, and cast out of the Garden of Eden. That story is not literally true. But, in my own life, I can see how it is metaphorically true that my actions often serve to alienate me from others and, by extension, God. I can see how giving into the temptations of my baser nature severs me from intimacy with God. So, even though that story isn't factual, it's still True. Its message resonates i my own life.

    I could think of dozens of other examples ... I don't believe a man named Jonah was literally swallowed by a big fish for disobeying God. But, in my own life, I can recognize how, when I harden my heart in anger and hatred toward others, I usually find myself in a very cold, dark, lonely place (much like the belly of a big fish). So, even though, from a factual standpoint, the Book of Jonah is utter nonsense, spiritually speaking, it contains deep Truths that can speak to us today.

    I think taking it literally actually strips away the material's viability to speak to us in a changing world (which is what I think Rev. Shuck was getting at by bringing up Copernicus). Someone who encounters the Bible this way - as a koan to be wrestled with, like Jacob's angel, rather than as a literal memo from God - needn't be threatened by historical criticism.

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  49. We had an interfaith conference on Saturday. I spoke about Christianity, particularly Jesus. I realized that I like Jesus, or at least I like my interpretation of Jesus (my ishta devata) my private revelation, my own private Idaho.

    I also realized that I couldn't insist regarding anything about him or about any "truth" I might discover by using my Jesus symbol.

    I learned a lot from the conference. It was great to get insights from Buddhists and Hindus and UUs and to think about how to incorporate their insights into my theology.

    The problem in our culture is that we are saturated with Jesus. He's everywhere. Most of the time he is pretty insistent, exclusive, and kind of crazy.

    So when you give up the crazy Jesus is it best to give him up altogether or find another Jesus?

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  50. Hey jm,

    Our posts passed in cyberland. I think Borg has been helpful for a lot of people (including me) in making that transition from literalism to an appreciation of the poetic/metaphorical.

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  51. Hi John,
    Yeah, I missed your post about the interfaith event while I was typing my last comment. Sounds like a cool experience. I hate to keep bringing up Buddhism (OK, not really), but I think Buddhists navigate this literalism issue quite well. Few western Buddhists would claim that Lord Buddha was really conceived from the tusk of a white elephant, born out of his mother's side and, upon being born, pranced around in circles declaring "I alone am the World Honored One." Most western Buddhists don't literally believe in reincarnation, hungry ghosts, Bodhisattva figures like Jizo or Kannon, or, in Zen, that the names of the people in the various lineages who are used to illustrate mind-to-mind transmission all the way back to the historical Buddha were all actually real people, and not fictionalizations to fill in historical gaps. It doesn't matter that these aren't literal truths, they're still truths that enrich people's spiritual lives.

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  52. “Larkin and Homer and the author of Mark's Gospel are all creative human writers. I wouldn't say any is closer to God than any other, as that term doesn't make sense to me.”

    Herein, I suppose, is the crux of the disagreement, the willingness or unwillingness to attach meaning to “closeness to God” or to exercise judgment regarding truth or obligation.

    “The Bible, Qur'an, Book of Mormon, Bhagavad Gita, and so forth, are books on my shelf.”

    Well, barring the Book of Mormon, they on are my shelf as well, along with a number of others I suspect you are familiar with—the Dhammapada, the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law, the Iron Flute, the Analects, the Book of Mencius, the Tao Te Ching, the Chuang Tzu, the Mishnah, selections from the Avesta and Hadith. They have much in common, but they do not agree entirely. How does one judge between them? Perhaps we needn’t judge—except that there are other books on my shelf: The Prince, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Hitler’s Table Talk. They, too, make claims to truth, but with an increasing distance from those advanced by the works listed above, and I suppose they also have the advantage of modernity.

    How do we know which to accept and which to reject, which to praise and which to shun? When an Alfred Rosenberg declares that “On the altars there must be nothing but Mein Kampf…and to the left of the altar a sword,” should we then accept an “equalization” all claims, or try to discriminate between what is of God and what is not?

    Perhaps there is no God, or perhaps God remains silent. I understand those positions. Atheism and nihilism make perfect sense to me. What I do not understand is how one can deny any validity to Christian claims and still claim to have any relationship to Christianity--unless religion really is just a matter of arbitrary “taste,” and one’s religion has as much relationship to truth as one’s choice of a sports team to root for.

    And after all, even Buddhism, very far from many Western definitions of “religion,” still has a content, a proclamation, even if the result of its founder’s insight rather than divine revelation. State the four noble truths and you can easily articulate their contraries, which all Buddhism denies.

    Seems to me that, far from being radical or progressive, the insistence on the equality of all claims, or their entire subjectivity, renders them all meaningless, and turns contemplation into solipsism. It is another terminus for our all-pervading individualism.

    “I wouldn't cheapen them by taking their authorship away from them and giving it to "God."”

    This strikes me as assuming the Nietzschean premise, that to be fully human we must kill God. Does it take away from human achievement that what is right and good and beautiful is done in and through God? With the possible exception of the Qur’an, none of the above works, certainly not the Bible, claim to be divine dictation. Surely we don’t become less human by participating in the divine?

    [Good discussion here, by the way. Always pleased to occasionally see these things go stratospheric.]

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  53. "What I do not understand is how one can deny any validity to Christian claims and still claim to have any relationship to Christianity--unless religion really is just a matter of arbitrary “taste,” and one’s religion has as much relationship to truth as one’s choice of a sports team to root for."

    Marcus Borg came close to saying something like that in one of his books, where he compared loyalty to one's faith with loyalty to one's wife.

    I would argue, however, that it isn't a simply binary proposition of accepting Christianity or rejecting it. This is the fundamentalist outlook, but religion is more complicated than that. One can be drawn to the traditions and practices of a faith without accepting all the claims that are asserted by that faith; and furthermore, in the case of Christianity anyway, its faith traditions (going back to the very beginning) showed considerable diversity in which a variety of propositions have been held concerning the nature of the faith. There is not a rigid and impenetrable border wall that defines the boundary between Christianness and non-Christianness; I would suggest that the boundary is fundamentally a fuzzy zone that cannot be so clearly defined. And if you accept John Hick's position on religious pluralism, then committing yourself to a given faith tradition doesn't simply means that you have chosen a means of mediating your relationship to the ultimate, that the "truth claims" are simply a means of participating in this mediating process, and that by no means means that other religions are excluded from their own ways of mediating one's relationship with the Ultimate. Borg believes that in order to do this you should not dabble in superficial syncretism, but rather commit yourself fully to the faith tradition of your choice or inclination. (That last part is easier said than done in my case, I might add.)

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  54. I think you're right JM that "there is a position in the middle of religious fundamentalism on one hand and modernist secular fundamentalism on the other" as there definitely is a balance between the two extremes. The problem is where our faith is centered---whether it is centered on manmade inkblots or the One whom those manmade inkblots point to. I believe this is how idolatry comes about---people often confuse the means or vehicle of communicating God's self-revelation with God's self-revelation itself. For instance, the bible is just the record of humanity's interactions with God's self-revelation itself as fully revealed in Christ but the bible is not God's revelation itself---it can only point us to God's self-revelation in Christ. In the same way, nature tells us something about God's self-revelation but is not that revelation itself. When we mistake these things, we begin to believe the bible and nature are God.

    I also like how you said "I think taking it literally actually strips away the material's viability to speak to us in a changing world"---exactly. This is why Borg is right on the money with his approach to scripture.

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  55. "Herein, I suppose, is the crux of the disagreement, the willingness or unwillingness to attach meaning to “closeness to God” or to exercise judgment regarding truth or obligation."

    I am all for being willing to exercise judgment regarding truth or obligation. Together, maybe we can work toward both truth and obligation.

    My objection is to those who wish to short-circuit discernment by appealing to a final authority.

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  56. @ Rick
    Denying that any one faith tradition’s sacred writings are specifically “revelation” in the sense of being God’s actual, undiluted message is not the same thing as affirming that all worldviews are equally valid.

    Yes, all of the great religions of the world say different, albeit similar, things. The thing is, it’s only in the details where they really differ. All of the major religions of the world – and many of the minor ones – have the same basic message. That message is that there is something bigger than each of us – or even the sum total of all of us – that we are all a part of. That “something” imbues each of us with the capacity for both wisdom and compassion, and for intimacy with one another and with itself. However, we often fail to perceive that intimacy and therefore succumb to the desire to increase our own material happiness at the expense of others (greed), and to cause physical or emotional violence to those we dislike (hatred). Once we do those things, our intimacy with one another and with the “something” – God, the Absolute, the Ground of all Being, our Buddha nature, whatever you want to call it – is shattered. We are living East of Eden, we are asleep, we are trapped in the grave, etc. Religion offers us a way to renew that intimacy by “dying” to our habitual ways of thinking – being crucified and resurrected with Christ, experiencing the dissolution of the conditioned Self and “waking up,” rising up from slavery and wandering in the desert to enter the Promised Land, etc. Religions, because they come from different cultures, differ on the metaphors they use for this process, and they differ on the requirements and the specific moral and ritual obligations for adherents, but all point to the need for compassion, selflessness, moderation, and a life spent open to the presence of the divine, through prayer, meditation, communal ceremonies, etc.

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  57. The point isn’t which of these sets of metaphors and practices one adopts, the point is the openness that results. Unfortunately, adherents to just about every one of them – because they are flawed human beings – too often miss the point and get stuck on the externals. This is why we have holy wars and terrorism and people murdering other people in cold blood over ideological differences.

    I suspect you’ll argue that my statement proves your point – after all the message of wisdom and compassion and intimacy with the Absolute had to come from somewhere, right? Yes and no … I believe those ideals come from God, yes, but not because God “revealed” them. I believe people who were open to God’s presence – people like Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Ghandi, Lao Tzu, Tolstoy, Martin Luther King, Julian of Norwich, Martin Luther, etc. – were able to tap into God’s wisdom inside themselves and share it with us. Whether or not they had it completely right, and whether or not their cultural worldviews and personal foibles distorted some of it, is beside the point. The point is, there is a very rich place where they overlap, and that place is the yardstick by which we can judge not only other ideologies, but also details within their own ideologies. So, does the massacre of the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua, for instance, jibe with a message of intimacy, selflessness, and compassion? Hmm … not in my book. Mein Kampf? Certainly not. Nietzsche’s Ubermensch? Not really, though it has its moments. What about Sartre’s idea that the morality of an action should be judged based on what would happen if everyone in the world took that action? Well, it’s not perfect, but it does provide a good starting point for reflecting on what a life of compassion might look like.

    Why call oneself a Christian, then? Because the person in question finds that Jesus’ teachings resonate more for him or her than the teachings of Buddha or Mohammed. Because Christian symbolism and metaphor permeate our culture and, therefore, the version of Divinity that one’s spirit craves communion with resembles the Christian version. Because it’s a valid way to encounter the Divine, and probably the most accessible for most of us.

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  58. I enjoyed your post on religion without revelation. We are learning despite Barth that religion is a human activity. We humans have feelings and experiences that we name religious. We are often passionately convinced of the truth of our religion because our feelings about it are so strong. Such strong feelings must make right, yes? However, feelings are unreliable. They are fleeting; they are often gone before we can bring them fully to consciousness; they change; we can’t reproduce them at will. So we try to find a way to hold on to them, to preserve them. We are much like Peter in the story of the Transfiguration wanting to build booths to preserve the moment. Our booths are the institution, the doctrines, and the supernatural. These are all designed to hold on to and reproduce the feelings at the core of all religions. However, as Jesus pointed out to him, we must move on, even to death. Life and its feelings can’t be stored but must always be poured out until we too pass away.
    So, far from there being no revelation, our religious feelings give us a sense of the Spirit moving in us. They are our revelation. Some feelings can lead us to “Delight in the law of the Lord” and “Conform our lives to his.” Of course, these feelings are sometimes there, sometimes not and they can be overwhelmed by other more self-serving feelings. Regular worship can on occasion summon forth those feelings that, it is hoped, are more in keeping with a God of love, and we can leave worship remembering these feelings with the aim of acting upon them.
    In “Radicals and the Future of the Church” (1989), Don Cupitt still thought that the church was needed because “It is a theatre in which we solemnly enact our deepest feelings.” With the publication of “The Meaning of the West” in 2008, he announced that he has left the church, because, in the West, Christianity lives on most vitally in secular society, while the churches have become weak or irrational. Although I agree this assessment, I think that it is possible to imagine churches that can be useful to people. Most importantly, churches must embrace their role as vehicles for managing feelings.
    I write more about this in my post of March 17, 2009, “The Church of the Afterlife,” on my blog, “Worshipping at the Church of Non-Realism,” (http://churchofnon-realism.blogspot.com). I would appreciate your comments

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  59. Pete,

    Welcome and good point regarding the role of the church.

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  60. "My objection is to those who wish to short-circuit discernment by appealing to a final authority."

    Here, too, I think you make an important point.

    Look, I love the Tao Te Ching, think there is great and profound truth in it, have much studied it...but I am not a Taoist. I have not, so to speak, given myself to it.

    There is a difference between religion and appreciation. I think it has to do with going beyond oneself. And that raises the difficult question of authority.

    Both God and the Church, to put it bluntly, are not myself. (Unless God is just my projection and I am a member of a church of one.) To me, their value is very much in their standing outside of myself, in their providing a check to my selfishness, waywardness, rationalizations.

    Of course, I could still ignore them, did they not have that quality called authority, that thing which gives them some claim to my attention. It is not easy. "All authority in heaven and earth is given to me," says Jesus. Why God didn't give it to me, I'll never know, but he didn't.

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