This month’s reflection is from Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally by Marcus Borg. I have read another of Borg’s books before, and this one is similar yet different. In both books, Borg sets out to show two very different ways of seeing. In this book, his focus is on seeing the Bible in a new way (but it could very easily be shown to be an “ancient” way).
I have to say that I really enjoy this book! It is very engaging and empowering. It helps pour fuel on the fire of the Holy Spirit as she guides us in a new direction. I could probably write something on every page of this book! But I won’t. Instead I’m going to focus on the idea of two different ways of seeing.
The “old” way of seeing, according to Borg, is one that is “literalistic,” “doctrinal,” “moralistic,” “patriarchal,” and “afterlife-oriented” (pg. 11-12). This was all based on “believing” -- believing all of the events and stories to be factually, literally true. He goes on to say:
It is important to note that this older vision is often seen as traditional Christianity by both Christians and non-Christians, and by both conservatives (who defend it) and liberals (who reject it). But this older way of seeing the Bible and Christianity is not “the Christian tradition.” Rather, it is a historically conditioned way of seeing the tradition (including the Bible) that has been shaped by the circumstances of the past few centuries. This the issue is not whether to keep or abandon the Christian tradition, but a transition from one way of seeing it to another. The question concerns the lenses through which we see and read the Bible and the Christian tradition as a whole...Given who we have become, one of the imperative needs of our time is a re-visioning of the Bible and Christianity...[The] older form of Christianity is not “traditional Christianity” but was an earlier way of seeing the Bible and the Christian tradition’ (pg 11-12, 18).
There are a couple of great things in this paragraph that I want to focus on. The first is the idea of “transition[ing] from one way of seeing to another.” It’s been my experience that this transitional phase can be very painful. I remember, quite vividly, when my old way of seeing was no longer working for me.
For me, the old way of seeing included the “literal” reading of John 14.6, where Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This meant that Christianity was the only “true” religion and that a person could only “go to heaven” by believing in Jesus. The problem was that my wife was being led onto a different path and it scared me. I thought, if she has abandoned Jesus, the she isn’t “going to heaven” when she dies. She will go to “hell.” As one can imagine, this troubled me deeply. I struggled with this for quite awhile. I couldn’t reconcile the way things had been with the way things were happening. Furthermore, I couldn’t see G-d taking someone down a path that led one away from G-d. That didn’t (and still doesn’t) seem too loving.
Further, why would this loving G-d bring two people together in this life if they were to be separated in eternal life? That wasn’t loving either. It was downright cruel. The anguish I was experiencing was almost more than I could bear. So, I was desperate for a new way of seeing. However, I didn’t even know there was another way of seeing and still be a follower of Jesus. I only knew of one way of seeing the Bible, and that was the literal way (even though I already had been studying for several years by this time). Perhaps a diagram would be useful at this point (I owe these to Brian McLaren from his book Finding Faith, I think, and they were tremendously helpful).
In this diagram, the circle represents G-d or Christianity and the dots represent people. In this old way of seeing, it was very clear who was “in” and who was “out” and those “out” were on their way to “hell.” And I was taught, and Borg would say that most of Western Christianity held (and many still hold) to this way of seeing. But, what happens if we add some direction to the dots?
Now, what are we to do? It appears that some are getting closer to G-d or deeper in the faith while others are moving further and further away. I realized that I couldn’t see into the hearts of people. I was deceiving myself if I thought I could ever know who was “in” and who was “out.” I didn’t know their stories or their journeys.
But the next diagram was even better. And it forever changed the way I see things.
The big circle here represents “truth.” And if we think that we have all truth, then we are sadly mistaken. And I was sadly mistaken. The little circles represents those of other traditions or they could even be people within the same parish or temple or synagogue. The point is that we all have things that are within the realm of “truth” and a lot that is not. Furthermore, we have things that overlap with others around us. This, I believe, is the “new way” of seeing that Borg is talking about. And it brings me to my next point.
In discussing religious pluralism, Borg wrote, “We are aware of religious pluralism. We are aware of the world’s religions in a way that most people have not been for most of human history, even as recently as a century ago.” I disagree with this in a general way. Even while seeing the Bible in a new way, one is quite aware of religious pluralism in the stories presented there. The Jewish Scriptures state quite clearly that YHWH was to be seen as the true god and the gods of the other nations were nothing more than idols. Take a look at the confrontation between Moses and the magicians of Pharaoh in Exodus 7. Or the confrontation between Elijah and the Baal prophets in 1Kings 18. In the New Testament, we need to look no further than St. Paul’s sermon in Acts 17 where he referred to the many “gods” of the Greeks. My point is that all religions have known of other religions. We have all known religious pluralism. For the longest time, however, most religions saw their religion as the only true religion -- similar to the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal.
Now, I say all of that to say this, while I disagree with his general premise, I do agree with his assessment that we are aware of religious pluralism “in a way that most people have not been for the most of human history.” The reason for this is because, we are at a different place than the rest of human history! No one has been we we are in the whole process. I think that what he is getting at is what is shown in the third diagram. We are recognizing that there are some differences, yes, but similarities and even some “truth” in other religious traditions. It is because of this that we can actually meet together with those of other faiths and have a conversation with them and even learn from them without trying to “convert” the other to our way of seeing things.
Therefore, how do we do this? That is, how do we address the different ways of seeing that Borg talks about? How do we have a conversation with those in the Christian family that view things the “traditional” way? In a men’s group I led, I explained that we would no longer be debating between if something happened or not. One person in particular got a little upset! “You mean this [event] didn’t really happen?!” “Well,” I responded, “some people don’t think so. And smarter people than us have been debating ‘facts’ of the Bible for a long time. Instead, we’re going to discuss a couple of questions, ‘What was the writer’s purpose in telling this story?’ and ‘Why did the writer tell it this way?’ In other words, we’re going to ask what is the story telling us.” I have to say, this has lead to an overall better conversation and group study.
So, the “two ways of seeing” can work together to find common ground. However, I think that the issue will continue to be a tense one. One of the reasons for this is because of the pain of transition, like I stated earlier. People may not be able (or willing) to let go of their old way of seeing. It’s comfortable and G-d may still be guiding them and teaching them in that way. For others of us, however, that way just will no longer work. G-d is moving us to discover this “new/ancient” way of seeing. We sense that G-d is doing something deep within all creation. And because of this “We hold our convictions (which are few) without wavering, but hold our opinions (which are many) lightly” (A Way of Living, Understanding 15 of the Lindisfarne Community).
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC