Two recent conversations (frustrating each in their own way) set me to thinking about the current landscape of Biblical and theological dialogue, debate, argument, and discussion (choose what works best for you). In my opinion, we are spread across a spectrum of four main perspectives:
At the left side of the spectrum, thinking tends to be binary — yes/no, good/bad, right/wrong, in/out. It is the “one right way” line of reasoning. There must be an absolute truth. There must be a single right answer. And many in this sphere extend their reasoning thusly — I am a reasonable, rational person who would never commit knowingly to something wrong or stupid, therefore I know what I am talking about and those who disagree with me are a problem, regardless of the form of their disagreement (ignorance, incompetence, stupidity, evil, liberal sloppiness, etc.). Disagreement is therefore a problem. It is unacceptable to allow wrong thinking to challenge right thinking. It is abhorrent to allow error to coexist with truth as equally valid opinions or interpretations. In this sphere, right thinking, divinely revealed is not an “opinion.” It is truth!
Moving along the spectrum, there are those who hold a strong confidence in the truth and rightness of what they believe, but they allow that “belief” is more about faith than certainty, and that others do have the right to disagree — even if they are wrong. The fact that there are competing interpretations of scripture and understanding of God’s will is deeply troubling. It means that many are being led astray and some are influential enough to lead others astray, as well. These differing opinions — well represented and powerfully spoken — pose a serious threat to sound doctrine and universal truth. Disunity and disagreement over God’s plan and purpose for humankind is a toxic energy dissolving the foundation of our Christian witness. Those who disagree with us do violence to all of us.
A greater degree of openness and tolerance emerges as we shift to “isn’t this interesting?” Differences are not threats or problems, but a conundrum. In this sphere, the concept of absolute truth still exists, but the idea that any individual might fully possess and understand it is in question. There is room for engagement and exploration that is anathema to the first two spheres. The ability to say “I don’t know” is evident in this sphere. The definition of faith is belief rather than certainty or knowledge. The “what if/what’s possible” nature of this sphere is incredibly problematic to those who seek definite answers and clear guidance. To allow that there is more than one right answer is to lack true faith. But, this line of reasoning is closest (for Methodists) to that of John Wesley. It is the worldview that Albert Outler described as the Wesleyan quadrilateral. Scripture, as primary authority, is always interpreted and conditioned through our shared tradition, our capacity for reason, and our cumulative experience. When individuals create space for shared experience, absolutism is rejected. The faith of “a people” is always richer, fuller, greater and finer than the faith of any one “person.” This drives the first two spheres crazy!
But crazier still comes when this level of ambiguity and evolution is seen as a positive value. When it is good to disagree, to wonder, to question and to challenge, the “one, true faith” is an endangered species. Who is okay with this? Well, Jesus for one (check out the gospels). No religious leader challenged the status quo more than JC. He had no question about absolute truth, he merely pointed out that in our limited human condition, we are not likely to ever completely grasp it. We can seek perfection, truth, wisdom and revelation — and in community we shall truly catch glimpses — but those of us who possess the mind of Christ shall never fully attain the mind of God. (You see, God is greater than we are…). The “isn’t it great” folks see the exchange of ideas, beliefs, opinions and worldviews as a gift from God. This is the philosophical approach that says we learn, grow, evolve and progress through the testing of our values, principles, knowledge and beliefs. This is the perfection of our wisdom. To disagree is to grow; to work through difference is the path to true unity and maturity.
Obviously, I am not unbiased in this assessment. I am a fourth sphere person. I think the free and open exchanges of ideas is the ultimate expression of a mature faith. The ability to engage in meaningful and respectful conversation, even with those with whom we vehemently disagree, is an outward and visible sign of a God-given inward and spiritual grace. I know and respect those who hold very different opinions, but I do believe that where there is capacity to allow difference, there is the promise of experiencing God’s realm on earth. The whole debate of splitting the church over one issue or another are heartbreaking to me. Those who seek separation are a simple indication that human determination is more important to us than seeking and doing the will of God.
My two conversations: the first with a woman who claimed the inerrancy of scripture. I was talking about the vagaries of translation and scribal transference and the hundreds of questionable passages from Hebrew and Christian scripture. This woman was extremely unhappy with me and emphatically stated that she didn’t care about “ancient scripture,” that her Bible told her everything she needed to know and that there was no room at all for “interpretation.” She claimed that the Bible isn’t about scholarship or study. For her, the Bible is God’s word, pure and simple, and there is no ambiguity or confusion about its meaning. Her Bible? The Message (congratulations, Eugene! You are the word of God!)
The second conversation, with a retired pastor claiming that “religious snobs” insisting on what the Greek and Hebrew versions of scripture are “prostituting” the gospel by refuting modern interpretations of the English Bible, indicates that we should not be bothered by understanding what the Bible means, but only what our English translations say. This is an incredibly convenient way of avoiding trouble by making scripture say what we want it to. It doesn’t matter what the original authors intend (including God, if we opt for divine inspiration), only what modern translators decide. Take ten minutes and compare almost anything in The Message with the Greek New Testament. First, you will note that most often they have nothing in common. Next, you will realize that the latter is more challenging and rich than the former. Last, you are faced with the choice of which one to accept and adopt. Anyone saying they want to understand God’s will or message chooses the Greek; anyone wanting something simple and generic will choose The Message. But no one should ever confuse the two.
In our biblical and theological conversations there will be much disagreement — I believe it is well explained by my four spheres. The farther left we find ourselves on the spectrum, the harder it will be to engage in productive conversation. However, if we are too far right we throw out the baby with the bath water — we are as dogmatic about our openness as we accuse others to be of their narrowness. Our hope lies in our ability to back down from absolutism and to say “we believe” rather than “we know.” Defending a belief is different from fighting for “truth,” when truth is a commodity we don’t actually possess. It takes a stronger faith to “believe” than to “know,” and it takes a greater maturity to disagree with respect than to demand one’s own way.