As we continue our review of Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity, by David M. Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy, we’ll be focusing on the next few chapters.
Chapter 3: Thinking Theologically
In this chapter, Felten and Procter-Murphy state,
To think theologically is to ask the questions of how the Divine is intertwined with the world: How do we understand the unfathomable mystery that we’ve come to call God? Is there a God who character and ways of relating to the world can be explained in ways that make sense (pp. 22-23)?
They go on to claim that thinking theologically is “a practice in which we all engage, whether we know it or not” (pg. 23). The point is that if we wrestle with the questions, as opposed to settling for the simple answers, we are thinking theologically. And I concur. If I know the answer to, say, a math problem (9-6=3) then I don’t really think a lot about it any more. Likewise, if I “know” the answer to a biblical problem, I don’t really think a lot about it, either.
On the other hand, if there’s a whopper of a biblical problem, and the simple answer I got from my priest or pastor or close friend is not setting with me very well, you can bet I’m thinking about it. I’m going over it in my head. I’m reading different books on it. And I’m doing a whole lot of praying about. I keep struggling with it until I get an answer, a response, that satisfies me. I may not like the answer — heck, it might even be the simple answer I was originally given! — but now the answer’s mine. I did the hard work because the question took me on a journey of discovery that led me to a deeper understanding about G‑d. And that’s never a bad thing.
To sharpen this point, Felten and Procter-Murphy talk about the “many images and ideas to express the Divine.” They write:
The biblical writers use a rich pallet of metaphors and poetic language to point toward what is ultimately a mystery. They Divine is described as a potter, a cup (of cool water), a path, a safe place, a rock, a burning bush, an eagle, and a whirlwind — all wonderful metaphors that help us assign a variety of attributes to the Divine without being the exclusive last word.
One of the most common ways of imaging God is a father...However, God is also imaged as a mother in Deuteronomy 32:18: “You forgot the God who gave you birth”; as a woman in labor in Isaiah 42:14; and as a comforting mother in Isaiah 66:13 (pp. 24-25).
This was one of the hardest lessons for me to get my head around when I started on my journey. I hadn’t really thought about G‑d as anything other than “Father.” I mean, I understood that G‑d was called a “rock,” and a “fortress,” and what not, but the idea of G‑d as anything other than “Father” never really entered my mind. But when I found the Lindisfarne Community, one of the things I noticed (and how could one not) was they referred to G‑d as “Father-Mother.” And, I was just at the right place in my walk to not be too taken aback by that. It was just something I wasn’t used to. I mean, I get it, if we think the Divine is “male” — or even “female” — we’ve missed something. And, because of this journey I was on, I started to see the truth that Felten and Procer-Murphy are saying. All of those images, even the image of G‑d a parent, are “metaphors and poetic language to point toward what is ultimately a mystery.”
They go on to state,
The Bible offers a multitude of images and ideas about the Divine. On their own, not one of them is right. Taken all together, they testify to the liveliness of theological thinking over the ages and the wisdom of the biblical compilers in including them all (pg. 28).
I certainly agree with this...to a point. This is certainly true of the Divine found in the Hebrew Scriptures. However, I think G‑d’s still a mystery that can be grasped or comprehended in a way that transcends poetic imagery. That’s a point I think Jesus was making — that G‑d can be intimate; can be real in a personal way. And, taking the early Christian witness of Jesus being the “visible image of the invisible G‑d” (Colossians 1.15; NLT), this G‑d can be known. The New Testament writers seem clear on this point — if you want to know what G‑d is like, look at Jesus.
Chapter 4: Stories of Creation
In this chapter, as can be surmised, Felten and Procter-Murphy deal with the creation story in Genesis. And, as can be further deduced, they hold that there’s more than one story! They make a very important distinction right from the beginning. On page 31, they state,
The ancient Hebrews who composed what we now know as Genesis were brilliant storytellers — and although their writings have for generations been thought to explain the “how” of what happened historically, their stories are much deeper and richer when they are properly understood metaphorically as wrestling with the “whys” of human life” (emphasis added).
They go on to state:
The two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis grew out of different eras and reflect the purpose of two different “schools” or authors. Genesis 1 is the product of authors that scholars have dubbed the “Priestly” writers. Their rhythmic liturgical order of creation grew out of their experience in Babylonian exile some time after 586 BCE. As as product of the exile and the apparent defeat of Yahweh by the Babylonian Marduk, it has even been suggest that Genesis 1 is a kind of “resistance literature” created to claim Yahweh’s superiority over all of creation. The second story, beginning with Genesis 2:4, is believed to have its roots in much older folk stories of creation. The editors of this story refer to the creator with the name “Yahweh,” the distinctive Hebrew name for the Divine. As such they have since come to be known collectively as the “Yahwist” (pg. 33).
Then they explain the different emphases of these different stories:
[The] Priestly author is interested in how things are organized and presents the origin of all things with a structured list, [while] the Yahwist is a wonderful storyteller, often emphasizing humor and relationships as a vehicle for making theological points. Overall, the authors never intended to answer the analytical Greco-Roman question of How? but instead, in typical rabbinic fashion, set out to address the much more important question of Why? (pp. 33-34).
Finally, they spend a couple of pages each to examine the different stories (although they do muddle it up a bit in the section on Genesis 2 by referring to extra biblical folklore that has no real bearing on the text and would have been better as an endnote). Their reasoning for this is spot on — too often people use one’s understanding of the creation story(ies) as a litmus test for “true” Christianity. That is, one will be asked the question, “Do you believe that God created the world in six, literal, 24-hour days?” And, if one says she doesn’t, then, by some accounts, one isn’t a “real” Christian.
I like that they emphasise this. It’s important. Too often in our (church) culture, a war is waged about how one understands creation. Just recently, there was a debate between Bill Nye, “The Science Guy,” and Ken Ham, from the Creation Museum (one can watch the debate here, if one is so inclined). For Ham, the idea that the Divine created the world through an evolutionary process (a point that many, many followers of Jesus espouse), is absurd and contrary to his view of the creation story. For Ham, it seems, science is trying to disprove the Divine.
What Felten and Procter-Murphy do in this chapter is show that one can, with a clear conscience, believe that G‑d created “all that is seen and unseen” and that it happened through ways explained by science. As they say on page 38,
Reading the Bible metaphorically opens one to meanings that go deeper than literal interpretations allow. Unbending readings of the text have led to the alleged biblical endorsement of all kinds of social ills from slavery to the subjugation of women to the demonization of gays and lesbians. But reading the text in a way that is alert to meanings that transcend the literal paves the way for deeper understandings — including an appreciation of scientific advancement.
And that’s the key — allowing for other views of understanding the Bible can help one find a deeper meaning in the text. Further still, it opens up one’s view of others. We shouldn’t limit what G‑d is doing in the lives of others because it doesn’t fit within our own understanding. And that goes both ways, not only for “conservatives” or “literalists,” but also “progressives” or “metaphoricalists.” We all need to realize that we are just trying to be as honest as we can with the Bible and how we understand it. A little grace, kindness, and tolerance towards others goes a long way.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.