THE DIVINE AND THE HUMAN SOURCES OF RELIGIOUS SCRIPTURES

A common teaching of at least three religious traditions is that their scriptures were written down under direct, divine inspiration.

The important word here is “direct.” Its primary purpose is to minimize the role of the human scribe(s) in the process. “Minimize,” however, does not mean “eliminate.”

There is a lot of confusion about this in each tradition. What each says, in its own language(s), is that God or a ministering angel spoke the original words, then human beings — Moses, the Prophets, Jesus, Muhammad — said them to others, and finally their followers put them into written form.

This is a more subtle understanding than the one many people today latch onto, to wit: God wrote it; I believe it; that settles it.”

In my own tradition, the latching-onto has been greatly facilitated by the King James Bible’s misreading of a New Testament passage, 2 Timothy 3:16 — All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. A more accurate rendering is Every inspired scripture is profitable for…

Either way, the ensuing misreading is of two sorts. The first consists of taking “scripture” as referring to the Old and New Testaments as a whole. The second consists of ascribing their sources to God and God alone.

The writer of 2 Timothy cannot possibly have meant either. With respect to the first misreading, what he had in mind were primarily the “sacred writings” known to his letter’s recipients from their childhood (3:15): materials that would only later become the Jewish canon.

He surely had Christian materials available to him also, e.g., some early letters of Paul. But at least three of the four Gospels, along with the letters attributed to Peter and John, and the books of Hebrews and Revelation did not exist yet.

As for the second misreading, first century Christians, as did their Jewish predecessors, exhibited a remarkable sensitivity to the fallible human element in the formation of their respective messages. They were far less preoccupied than their successors became with getting into place a single body of writings whose source they could claim to be God alone.

Their point was something like this: There are a lot of humanly crafted scriptures (=writings) out there. And which of them are inspired and which are not is a decision that human beings must make.

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FAITH CRISES: WHEN THE QUESTIONS OUTWEIGH THE COMFORT

Her seven year old son had just died of brain cancer, and his mother was in a state of near collapse. Even so, she was desperate to talk.

She told me that she didn’t know what to pray for anymore, that God had not listened to her for a long time, that she was no longer sure that God would ever listen again, or even that there was any God out there at all.

Later in our conversation that dreadful evening, she told me what her best friend’s first reaction was to her cry that God had abandoned her son. It went like this: Carolyn (not her real name), blaming God can only make matters worse for your soul than they already are. You have to ask God’s forgiveness and pray harder to find his will for you.

I hope it made a difference that I did not react the way Carolyn’s friend did. But it was not easy to resist the impulse to do something — anything — to make her feel better immediately. In fact, it was very, very hard “just” to listen, ask questions, listen to the answers, ask more questions, and then listen even more.

No matter how well intended, in times like these admonitions to be less contentious, to trust God no matter what, and to pray even more usually make a crisis of faith even worse.

Before she and her husband had to move on to deal with all of the other painful things that accompany a death, Carolyn expressed poignantly her awareness of how much more there is to her faith than what she was “fixating on” at the moment. Her parting word was a hope that the best that was in it would be enough to get her through what lay ahead.

In her searing loss, Carolyn had fixated on a God who promises that we have only to ask in order to receive (Matthew 7:7; Luke 11:9), and then fails to deliver on the promise. The God of this promise had momentarily become for her that universally wished for deity whose primary tasks are to take orders and fulfill them promptly or risk his followers’ permanent disaffection.

Eventually, Carolyn rediscovered that God is in fact greater than this. Not every grief-stricken person does. And that is the real tragedy in loss.

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HOW CHRISTIAN SHOULD AMERICA STRIVE TO BE?

Many Americans strongly believe that ours is a Christian nation, now and forever. One implication of this belief is that on matters of social policy, Christians’ views should be accorded a privileged position. Those who disagree are threats to religious freedom.

Evangelical Protestants continue to fume over the exclusion of prayer and Bible indoctrination from the public schools. The Roman Catholic hierarchy looks to the courts to strike down government-mandated birth control coverage in its institutions’ health care plans.

The first group claims that our religious freedom is under attack, and that reaffirming Christian norms as the basis of our laws is the only proper response. The second group acknowledges the religiously pluralistic character of American society. It restricts its polemic to demanding the freedom to express its own religious understanding in its own way.

It has long seemed to me that evangelical Protestants have a point regarding prayer and the Bible in the public schools. Declaring that required prayer violates the non-establishment clause in the First Amendment, the Supreme Court went on to encourage in very strong terms the study of religions in the schools, Christianity included. What has happened is that prayer is “out” everywhere, but serious religious study is “in” almost nowhere.

The current birth control practices of American Catholics have for all practical purposes rendered official church teachings on the subject moot. Nevertheless, their leaders are raising an important issue regarding their freedom to guide Catholic institutions toward conformity with Catholic norms, birth control included.

Infringement upon First Amendment guarantees are justifiable only when there is a demonstrably sufficient “compelling interest” on the part of the federal government to consider doing so. This is a good thing. Catholic leaders have the right to call the government to account over infringing the right of their institutions not to have birth control measures — or abortions — covered by any health insurance providers with whom they may be doing business.

But calling the government to account on any matter of religious freedom is a serious matter. Along with it should come reaffirmation of a crucial responsibility of government: to ensure that the religious beliefs of some will not become the coerced standard for the beliefs and practices of all. Evangelical Protestants and Catholic leaders must come to terms with this First Amendment principle, just as everyone else in our society must.

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EXCOMMUNICATION AND OTHER CRIMES AGAINST THE SOUL

One thing that religions do well is to create bonds between people. They “bind” us together.

Sometimes, though, the bindings become too tight.

When they do, people whose thinking does not conform to the letter of their religious communities’ doctrines can get treated with malignant doses of shaming and shunning, before and after being kicked out for good. Never mind that the communities doing the kicking, according to their own belief-systems, are putting those peoples’ very salvation in jeopardy.

The rationale for such institutional malfeasance is two-fold. First, naïve believers need to be protected from the questioners and doubters among them. Second, the threat of expulsion is a powerful aid to enforcing conformity, because outside the religion that promotes it there can be no redemptive connection with Sacred Reality.

It’s hard for a thinking person to take either of these rationales seriously. With regard to the first: faith cannot grow unless those seeking it are free to think for themselves. And to the second: there is a vast difference between what is truly sacred and the tribal deities of exclusivist sects.

Happily, in most civilized areas of the world at least, expulsion from a religious community is no longer accompanied by stripping people of property and even life itself. The ostracism is enough.

But the threat of ostracism is just as insidious as Inquisitions once were, and just as inimical to life in the Spirit.

By the second generation in every religion’s history, religious leaders typically become churlish toward anything blowing in the wind that they cannot control. New ideas and new visions get dismissed as dangerous gusts of teaching set in motion by “crafty rogues and their deceitful schemes.” (Ephesians 4:14)

The writer of this text could have gone on to insist that true believers must counter these challenges by clinging tightly to a set of unquestionable doctrines and moral rules, while extinguishing the last vestige of curiosity within themselves. But he did not.

What he did instead was to propose a very different way of sharing the truth about God, the world, and human destiny. His proposal was that we speak the truth lovingly, not obsessively.

The love that he had in mind is a love of God’s goodness as much as of God’s truth, of responsibility as much as of rules, and of unity even more than uniformity.

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FAITH COMMUNITIES: IS BIGGER BETTER?

All across the country, small churches are struggling with a dogma inflicted upon them by America’s corporate culture: grow or die. Applied to faith communities, the dogma is simplistic and its effects malignant.

Consider, for example, the situation of Protestant Christian congregations today. Their average membership is around 75. But the largest 10% of them draw half of all Protestant churchgoers. Obviously, many believe, the 10% ought to strive to win all the churchgoers to them.

Mergers and acquisitions are where it’s at; ignore them at your peril. Really?

The travail of small congregations is well known. Agribusiness, along with urbanization and suburbanization, have made rural and small town life increasingly difficult to sustain and decreasingly attractive on their own merits.

With no ability to achieve the economies of scale open to their larger counterparts, small congregations are being overwhelmed with the difficulties not only of developing innovative programs, but of simply staying open. Faced with these unpleasant facts, many religious leaders abandon ecclesiology for euthanasia.

My own ecclesiology, that is, my understanding of the purpose of the church and its ministry, puts the emphasis not on how different large congregations are from small ones, but on what they share in common.

In both, there remain people — the numbers are wholly irrelevant — who need and deserve a lifting of the darkness in which they all too often feel themselves to be shrouded. These members are no different from those whom churches like to think are “outside” their embrace.

What all churches’ message finally comes down to, whether it is offered to 5 or 6, or to 5 or 6 thousand or million at a time, is that there is light in every dark situation which the darkness cannot extinguish.

I sometimes think that making this message clear may be more difficult in larger churches than in smaller ones. The former are encumbered by too many programs designed to titillate and scintillate, obscuring what the faith community sponsoring them is really all about. It’s easier to stick with the basics of spiritual care when the resources are lacking for doing anything else.

For me, it was a cherished seminary professor, H. Richard Niebuhr, who defined the basics best: the increase of the love of God and neighbor. Churches, large and small, come and go. But that kind of love never ends.

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GROWING UP SPIRITUALLY

One of literature’s most famous opening lines is Dante’s, in The Divine Comedy: Midway on life’s journey I found myself in a dark forest, the straight path ahead lost.

Dante’s was an explicitly Christian world whose truths, even when expressed allegorically, remained wholly revealed in the Bible and church dogma. By contrast, ours’ is a religiously and philosophically uncertain world whose spiritual dimensions are revealed more in myths and dreams.

In today’s dream life, a forest frequently symbolizes the unconscious psyche, a dark and uncertain place where threatening wishes and thoughts run rampant. Some of them — especially those about domination, destruction, and death — are like tangled underbrush which obscures the path forward.

But the trees themselves symbolize connectedness between the most consuming (earth) and the most liberating (heaven) realms of human experience.

Finding oneself in a dark forest is not, as Dante believed, the result of straying from the only right path. It is the result of being guided by the unconscious toward unfamiliar and even dangerous paths, but paths that can lead to wholeness and completeness.

What makes them dangerous is that at every step we must confront previously unacknowledged and unintegrated parts of our own psyche.

Spiritual growth is like seeking a clear path through deep woods whose magnificent trees both point toward and obscure the light of a transcendent reality. It is for neither the faint of heart nor the very young.

Early in life, the process consists largely in subordinating expectations that we have for ourselves to expectations that others have for us. Self-assertion rarely gets beyond rebelling against others’ expectations without changing them.

These years represent a time of slumbering and smoldering, and then stumbling groggily on a path heading into darkness. Once in it, everything will depend upon paying close attention both to the dangers and the possibilities which lie beyond it.

The greatest temptation will be to turn our gaze backward instead of forward. The cleared, sun-lit fields of our lives to date, no matter how uneven and rocky they may have seemed while growing up on them, can appear far safer than the dark wood in front of us, and the as yet unknown creatures to be encountered in it.

But the fear and sadness which must be endured in passing through it can never be as perilous as the failure to enter it at all.

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WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO SPEAK IN “TONGUES

If Paul’s letters are any indication, it can mean a lot of things.

Sometimes, he referred to tongue-speaking as the uttering of merely unintelligible sounds. At other times his references are to a language, but one whose meaning is either unknown by anyone, or known only to angels.

His own idea seemed to be that speaking in tongues can convey a divine message, but only when what is spoken is subjected to interpretation. Just as the original speaking is a gift from above, so is the power to interpret it.

Some people think that the interpretation of something said in tongues is directly inspired by God’s Spirit in the same way that the tongue-speaking itself is. By contrast, Paul seemed to believe that the interpreter has both the freedom and responsibility to bring the meaning to light on his or her own terms.

In saying this, though, Paul left many questions unanswered. For instance: if interpretation is a human and not merely a divine act, how can those who listen to it be certain that the interpretation is correct? How can we know for sure that the interpreter is not merely substituting his or her own ideas for God’s?

And what if the tongue-speaker himself or herself does not concur with the interpretation?

What especially interests me about the gift of interpretation is the wide range of similarities there seem to be between its exercise on tongue-speaking and on other human expressions of meaning. The God I know is continuing to bestow the gift of interpretation, in ways beyond mere human comprehending to be sure, but upon very human seekers after meaning and truth in and beyond the Bible everywhere.

I still remember vividly meandering through a stunning exhibition of paintings by a Mexican Surrealist painter, Enrique Chaverria. A little knowledge of Jungian archetypes helped me to get at least some of his meaning, but without input from the exhibit’s director and without scanning quite a lot of literature about Echavarria, I would not have gotten much further.

It was exciting to keep on discovering meaning while encountering others’ interpretations as I was forming my own. Interpretation, whether of tongues, or of our dreams, our Bibles, and even of our preacher’s most God-inspired sermons — is in the final analysis a communal venture, and that is what makes it so interesting.

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MUST WE FORGIVE OUR ENEMIES?

There is nothing particularly spiritual about forgiving a friend who hurts us by accident. But what about forgiving a sworn enemy whose intent is to cause us as much harm as possible? Where is the spirituality in doing something like this?

Recently, I had this question put to me by a reader stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, who in his words is still “obsessed” with the actions of a fellow soldier, Major Nidal Hasan. The major, you will recall, was convicted last August for committing mass murders and inflicting even more injuries on the base. My reader is struggling with our legal system’s delay in giving Hasan “what he deserves.”

What interested me especially about the e-mail was its insistence that we look upon this terrible crime as a test case for the credibility of Christian ethical principles. The specific principle it questions comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.” (Matthew 5:44)

I don’t understand these words as testing the credibility of Christian ethics. I do understand them as testing the integrity of everyone who tries to live by them.

No conscientious Christian can possibly deny that people should be held accountable for their actions. To forgive a wrongdoer is not to dismiss the wrong(s) done. But it is to withhold judging his or her worthiness as a human being solely in terms of particular actions done and specific punishments deserved.

And this does put us to a test. The test is not to come up with reasons for loving an enemy, but with reasons for believing that we are capable of such a love.

If we are ever to love our enemies, we will have to let go the idea of holding back forgiving them until they satisfy their debts to us. That idea will have to be replaced with — and here is where the test becomes almost overwhelming — compassion.

It isn’t possible to pass this test without bringing to it a sense of gratitude for the good that there is in a world that also contains genuine evil. As I see it, the logic goes something like this:

Forgiveness is the means to becoming more loving. Compassion is the means to becoming more forgiving. And gratitude is the means to becoming more compassionate.

Maybe we can love our enemies after all.

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CAN THERE BE ANYTHING SPIRITUAL ABOUT ANGER?

Many spiritually-minded people struggle with the idea that anger is unspiritual. Believing that it is can lead to guilt feelings about having any angry feelings at all.

My own thinking about anger has been influenced most by the rendering of Matthew 5:22 in the old King James Bible: whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause is in danger of the judgment. Only rarely does the KJV offer the better translation available of ancient biblical texts. Here, however, it most definitely does.

Most modern translations of the New Testament leave out of Matthew 5:22 the without a cause exception which the KJV includes. In doing so, they make the verse appear to condemn any expression of anger. One translation, The New English Bible, acknowledges the exception, but only backhandedly by way of a footnote: “Some witnesses insert without good cause.”

Unlike the New English Bible’s translators, those witnesses had it right, especially with the word “good” inserted as a modifier of the word “cause.” There are indeed good causes for anger, and working hard on never getting angry is not a good thing at all.

Jesus himself could not have condemned unconditionally any and all forms of anger. The very scriptures that say he did also report his becoming angry enough himself to call people fools, whited sepulchers, serpents and vipers (Matthew 23:19,27,33). Toward the end of his ministry he drove commercial activities off the Temple grounds in a veritable fit of righteous rage. Unlike much of ours, however, Jesus’ anger was for cause.

There is in fact a lot of anger expressed throughout the Bible. The God who inspired it comes across in it as very angry very often, as do the prophets who speak for Him. To many, myself included, not all of their anger seems justified.

But a lot of it does. It does because it is about peoples’ failures to live as they say they are going to live. More importantly, it is about peoples’ failures to treat others respectfully and fairly. Most importantly of all, it is about peoples’ failures to offer mercy and love in God’s name to everyone they meet.

Getting angry about moral failings, our own and others’, is spiritual in its very essence. It provides the energy needed for working on the condition not only of our own souls but that of the communities which nurture them.

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FAMILIES, FANTASIES, AND FAITH

Everyone knows that family structures are changing rapidly and radically in our society. Perhaps this is why we still cling to so many unrealistic fantasies of what family life should be like. We may need them to stave off even further erosion of hope for the institution’s future.

I have three fantasies especially in mind. The first is that families are islands of safety and security in the bleak and barren, threatening and violent world that exists outside their doors. In this fantasy, home is an always welcoming, always peaceful place of return from weary workaday life and dangerously irrelevant schools.

The second fantasy is that families are everlastingly renewable sources of energy for approaching life with boundless confidence that the good things in life will only get better. In this fantasy, the family that plays together stays together, and the waves that some members make never capsize other members’ boats.

Finally, there is the fantasy that families are open systems of honest feed-back between warm and loving kin who care about each other and always have each other’s back. Neglect and abuse contaminate only other peoples’ families.

Far from being islands of safety and security, however, many families are seething cauldrons of self-loathing, blaming, and despair. Far from being rollicking playgrounds, many families are joyless wastelands of indifference or rage. And far from being loops of never-ending positive feed-back, many families are static-filled conduits for perpetual misunderstanding and mistrust.

Most fantasies about family life are best seen for what they are: products of wishful yearning for a kind of world whose foundations our society is not yet committed to putting in place. For instance, we are showing little willingness to bear the costs of creating a truly opportunity-driven economy.

More importantly, however, fantasies like these are the products of a too narrow vision of human beings’ proper relationship with the Sacred. From the perspective of faith, all of us are part of a larger whole, larger than either nuclear or extended families: the human family itself. Judaism and Christianity speak of this Family as a household. Islam speaks of it as a universal fellowship.

For as long as a family’s interests remain self-centered only, its quality of life will continue to deteriorate. For as long as family members look beyond their own interests to others’ needs, however, their own bonds will become healthier and stronger.

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