THE CRITICAL SPIRIT IN THE BIBLE

What do fundamentalists and atheists have in common? Fundamentalists sometimes quote the Bible and say, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Atheists assume this attitude is taught in the Bible itself. Both groups assume the Bible is an authority to be accepted by blind faith whether it makes sense or not. Both groups assume that the meaning and interpretation of the Bible is simple. Both ignore the historical aspect of the Bible and its interpretation.

Apart from a few passages, such as the Ten Commandments, the Bible does not claim to be dictated by God. The Bible portrays the complex interaction between God and humans over long periods of time. The interaction includes presence and absence, revelation and mystery on the part of God. It includes human seeking, groping, and grasping for God along with human resistance, dullness, and stubborn refusal to accept God’s will. It includes a process of learning and growth, punctuated by periods of regression.

Does the Bible stifle critical thinking or encourage it?

People who have a fundamentalist attitude toward the Bible, whether they are believers or atheists, have never read the Hebrew wisdom literature–or at least they have never read it with any literary sensitivity. The book of Job deals with the problem of suffering; but it does not solve the problem or answer the question why. Rather, the book invites the reader to enter the debate. The book of Ecclesiastes raises questions about the meaning of life and avoids giving easy pious answers.

Jesus challenged people to think. He taught that the commandments of God are not to be enforced in an irrational or inhuman way: A farmer would pull a lost sheep out of a ditch on the Sabbath day; in the same way followers of Jesus are allowed to do good on the Sabbath day, to heal, to save life.

The rabbis likewise interpreted the commandments in a way that is intended to preserve life rather than to harm. The Mishnah teaches that the commandments must be interpreted in ways that repair the damage in the world. (See Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ article at http://www.zeek.net/706tohu/).

Those who ignore the historical nature of the Bible assume it endorses slavery and capital punishment for trivial crimes. Both are untrue. The Bible recognized the existence of slavery and gave laws to mitigate its abuses and provide protection for slaves. For example, the fugitive slave law of the Torah forbids returning a runaway slave to his master and commands providing sanctuary. Those who ignore the type of rhetoric used in the Middle East assume that the ancient Hebrews actually stoned rebellious sons; yet Jewish sources record no record of that law actually being carried out.

The Bible encourages critical thinking on several levels. Biblical texts criticize theological traditions. In the ancient world the sun, moon, and stars were worshiped as deities. In Babylon the sun is Shamash the god of justice. The moon was the favorite deity of Abraham’s one-time home of Haran.

When the creation of the heavenly bodies is reported in the Bible, they are not even given names; the sun and moon are simply the big light and the small light. The stars are almost an afterthought, “moreover, God made the stars.”

The prophets challenged the religious practice of their times. God is not impressed with loud praises and sacrifices. He desires justice.

The Bible is also critical of nationalism and military pride. The whole critique of idolatry is not only about the theological question of who is the true god. Idols are symbols and instruments of oppression.

The writers of the Bible never tell us to turn off our brains. Instead they challenge us to think through the implications of faith in an unseen God who sides with slaves, refugees, immigrants, the poor, and the crucified.

NEXT WEEK: The Historical Interpretation of the Bible

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3 Responses

  1. Professor,

    Thanks for this. I am still grappling with such an uncritical attitude towards the Bible. Many times i struggle with guilt b/c of my inability to accept the what the word says (at least on the surface). I am learning to be okay with wrestling with it.

    I am hopeful that the Bible can become more dynamic in my life, and not a stale, ethical treatise.

    Thanks again for this. It encourages me when people i resepct for their acumen and devotion (like yourself) show me that it is possible to struggle with scripture, use their brains, and above all remain faithful to the nature of the Bible.

  2. Regarding the upcoming conference, is there any information you can send to put into my professors hands? I would love to plug the conference at Friends, mainly because i would like to see academic excellence continue to be an area of growth at MCC. Also, i would love to present a paper at the conference! I think it would be fun. I would like to get some details from you, but lets tentatively plan on it at this point.

  3. Derek–email me about the upcoming conference. I am going to send out an email announcement today or tomorrow.

    My email is just my last name at the college email service. (no first initial)

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