Monday, March 19, 2007

Some thoughts from Michael Pitts

A great meeting was held in Montreal yesterday evening. We are aiming to solidify a voice in this diocese, representing those whose theology is critical, liberal, progressive, call it what you will. A fuller report, with some plans for action will be published here in a few days. Meanwhile, a few personal thoughts from me.

In a recent post in his blog, one of our members, David Ore wrote:

“But even more essential, is the need for, and availability of critical scriptural study and commentary which is not afraid of including historical contexts and the events which resulted in the current scriptural cannon.Equally, concerned people of faith need to make scriptural texts, including both the Apocrypha and the Gnostic Gospels their own, through thoughtful reading and study. If the mouth-pieces of the frightened patriarchy quote scripture at us, we need to respond in an articulate informed manner.”

I think David is absolutely right. But I also think it is important not to respond in a way that buys into their view of scripture. Here are a few radical thoughts of my own.

When I am in discussion with more right wing Christians, I frequently get the feeling that we live on different planets. Scripture for them, as I understand it, consists of fixed and inalterable words dictated by God in ancient times, and to be used to delineate all moral and theological discourse ever after. This view of scripture, I believe, arose in an historical context, where the knowledge of reading and writing was confined to a very small number of people (mostly male). Scripture (=what was written) was therefore considered set apart (=holy). Aside from the religious context writing also occurred in the context of commerce and the royal palace. It was therefore part of what Walter Wink calls “the domination system”.

The view I have always held is that Biblical scholarship of the past two centuries has given us a different appreciation of Scripture. The written texts arose as part of a living tradition of faith within the Jewish and later the Christian community. They form a collection of material, some mythical, some legendary, some historical, some legal, some didactic, some poetic, which form a background narrative of the faith of the communities, and a treasury of spiritual material of universal value, mixed with other material of ephemeral importance only to the context in which it was first written. The texts in themselves show the development of faith, and the continual discovery of new meanings for new contexts. Through ongoing critical study, the work of interpretation (hermeneutics) is to discover anew in each generation and social context what is of beauty and value for that time. This is undertaken within the context of a continued living tradition, expressed in the church, in the academy, and increasingly today, more generally in society through literature film and television. Unfortunately some of this interpretative work continues to be based on the pre-critical understanding of scripture.

So, when we are faced with those seeking to impose moral, theological and even legal constraints based on particular Biblical passages, we must avoid their magical view of scripture, which we would fail to do if we tried to answer with other passages of Scripture. I think we should also avoid trying to show how the passages they throw at us really have another meaning. This may be true, but to take this line is to buy into their presuppositions.

Instead, I think we need to disseminate widely the post critical view of scripture (which also takes into account not only non-canonical scripture as David points out, but also the scriptures of other religious traditions.) This is to see scripture, both in its historic and present context as a wrestling between inherited spiritual truths on the one side and living in our current matrix of contexts on the other. Such an approach does not make for good ten second sound byte material, which is perhaps why more conservative Christians have the edge on us. But I hope our initiatives in Montreal, together this blog and website will join with other initiatives to form some counterweight to prevalence of pre-critical discourse.


Beth said...

Church-based "Bible study" has always been something I've avoided; probably because of the connotations it had in my small town, growing up among conservative, literal-minded Protestants of other denominations. In mid-life now, reading books like Marcus Borg's "Jesus," I find I've missed a great deal that is actually vitally interesting, from scholarly, literary, AND religious points of view. As progressives, we may be battling two obstacles here - a built-in aversion to scriptural study for those of us who simply can't (and never could) accept the Bible at face value, as well as the more recent claims about scripture from the fundamentalists. We have to overcome these issues, but I've also found that the study is fascinating, and populated by some very astute minds.

David said...

I couldn't have said it better Beth!