Saturday, November 16, 2013

"...ALL things necessary for salvation..."? I think not.

Many of you know that I entered college with the intention of going into the Episcopal priesthood, and even pursued Psychology as a pre-seminary undergraduate major, with Classics as a minor. My spiritual mentor was (many, especially Episcopalians, won't be at all surprised to learn) the late Rt. Rev. James A. Pike, Bishop of the Diocese of California. 

When a person is admitted to Holy Orders in the Episcopal Church, one of the first pledges he or she makes (back then, it would definitely have been "he") is to uphold the discipline and doctrine of the Church. While the whole subject of the "discipline" of the Church is pretty fuzzy for me, I know very well that the Church has an official "doctrine," and I do not embrace two of the foundational articles of that doctrine or faith. As a layperson, I don't have to pretend to agree with something a priest or bishop or even the whole Church teaches; of course, it's expected that I have legitimate reasons to disagree with official Church doctrine, but I don't have to pretend to believe in something that I do not. And it has always seemed intellectually and spiritually dishonest to me to jump through linguistic hoops to explain that when I used certain words or phrases, what I really meant was something other than what I said; while I have known Episcopal clergypersons who were able to do exactly that, I just couldn't do it. So, I didn't go into the priesthood.

I'm going to deal with only one of those basic doctrines in this post. The other will probably require a whole series of posts; I don't think that I or anyone else can explore it quickly and lightly. That doctrine, by the way, is probably THE most basic of all Episcopal Church doctrines, the idea of the Trinity. For a whole host of reasons that I will not even start to get into here and now, I do not embrace that idea (I believe that I'm in pretty good intellectual company; Sir Isaac Newton and Thomas Jefferson, Anglicans both, were non-trinitarian). But, we'll deal with that weighty subject in later posts.

The other, probably only slightly less important of the basic doctrines of the Church --- and the one which we will tackle now --- is the idea of the all-sufficiency of the Bible. In various basic documents of our tradition, from the 39 Articles of our Mother Church, the Church of England, right down to and including contemporary statements of belief, it is suggested that the Bible contains "all things necessary for salvation." I simply do not believe that. Frankly, despite what you may say, or even think you believe, neither do you. 

I'll explain: First of all, we're not even going to get into the fact that the word "salvation" means something utterly different to 21st Century Christians from what it meant to First Century Palestinian Jews. But no matter what a person means when he or she uses the word "salvation" or "saved" or whatever, I do not believe that the Bible contains "all things necessary" for it. Again I say, and neither do you.

The perfect example of this for me is the subject of slavery, or even the more basic subject of racism or ethnic prejudice. If you have read this far in this piece, I'm willing to bet that your IQ is high enough that you consider racism to be wrong or sinful --- at least whenever it's aimed toward your ethnic group. Well, show me one place in the Bible where that is stated. Even one. You can't, because there is nothing in the Bible to suggest such a thing. Nor that the institution of slavery is wrong. In fact, the People of God in the Old Testament HAD slaves; and a couple of New Testament writers counseled Christian slaves to obey their earthly masters --- one of those writers, a leader of the early Church, even insisted that Christian slaves must obey especially those masters who treat them harshly (Col.3:22; Eph. 6:5; 1 Tim. 6:1,2; Tit. 2:9, 10). Not one word, not a single syllable, suggesting that slaves should "rise up against" their earthly masters, or "declare their freedom from slavery"; no, but they should "obey" --- OBEY! --- their earthly masters. So, going by "what the Bible says," I should probably be down in Mississippi or Alabama or somewhere, just a-grinnin' and a-singin' away while picking cotton in the hot sun --- not sitting here in Los Angeles on a cool, cloudy day, pecking on a computer keyboard. One whole letter or book of the Bible --- the New Testament, in fact --- is, in effect, a letter of safe passage for a Christian slave's return to the home and household --- and servitude --- of his Christian owner, in which the writer implores the owner to receive this recently converted Christian slave back into his household (and, presumably, not report him to the authorities and have him executed; being a runaway slave, as this new Christian was, was a capitol offense in that time and place). That book, incidentally, is Paul's Letter to Philemon, located near the end of the New Testament.

Most all of us today recognize racism as sinful, and slavery as a monstrous evil. But there is not one word in the Bible against the institution of slavery. That truth --- and I fervently believe that it is a Truth --- has been revealed in the centuries after the last book of the Bible was written. 

Let me pause here for a second to describe an aspect of the home life of a well-known, hyper-wealthy, European family. I remember reading once that, while it was an inviolable practice of the family to have dinner together, the father and his children never spoke directly to each other. The children were expected to write a report of their day, which they'd give to their father, and he also relayed his instructions for the children in writing. If either of the children had what he or she considered to be a crisis that the dad had to deal with immediately, then the child was expected to have one of the household servants, or the mother, appeal to the father, who would respond through that servant or mother.

Wow! Can you believe that? How cold is that? Where's what most of would see as an expression of love? It's not at all what I happily experienced as a child --- when we, too, gathered around the dinner table each evening, and each of us shared his or her day with the others, including Father.

That's a rough analogy of the way I see my Christian faith. My God, my Father, didn't stop speaking 2,000 years ago when the last book of the Bible was written. My God is a Living God Who still speaks. And, among the things that my God has revealed since the Bible books were written and canonized is that racism is wrong, and that slavery is an evil institution. There's not even a hint of that in the Bible. So, how can I in all intellectual and spiritual honesty, say that I believe that the Bible "contains all things necessary for salvation"? I can't, and I don't.

I won't here get into the fact that the idea that God speaks only or even primarily through A Book is not a Christian idea, but more an Islamic one. All I'll say is that the fundamentalist, evangelical idea of the all-sufficiency of Scripture, and a very literal interpretation of such Scripture ---  was one which took hold mainly here in the United States during only the last couple of hundred years, and for some reason that idea has taken on a life of its own. But the fact remains, it was NOT the dominant idea in Christendom until fairly recently in the grand scheme of things. 

The word Bible itself is from a plural Greek word, τὰ βιβλία, tà biblía, meaning "the books." While the First Century Palestinian Jews certainly were "people of the Book," and studied the Bible (what we call the Old Testament) thoroughly and carefully, they never regarded it as "a Book," to be quoted as what "the Bible says." They saw it as a collection of writings or books, inspired and written over a long period of their history, and when they quoted something, they almost always said that "the Prophet said" this, or "the Psalmist said" that; and they rarely if ever used proof-texts to support their arguments. Many of them probably accepted what was recorded as historically true, but that wasn't the point of it for most of them. One of the things that the institutional religionists hated about Jesus was that He loved and worshipped a LIVING God, a God Who still spoke, and Who showed that the older understanding of what had been said just might not be the correct understanding. They, on the other hand, had come to view any idea that challenged their interpretation of What Was Written as heretical; kind of like many today, huh?

If I lived near a stream of pure, crystal-clear water, but the bucket that I used to get that water was rusty, when I poured that water from that pure, clear stream into another container in my cabin, would it still be clear and pure? No; the vessel into which it had flowed and from which I poured it was rusty, so the water I poured from that bucket would also be rusty. That's kind of like how I see Scripture. God's Word may be perfect, but by the time that Word is filtered through a faulty, imperfect human mind, it may be expressed with human imperfection. And often is. That's why my view of the Bible, as I've expressed it in my Facebook Profile, suggests that, while I fervently believe that my grasp of Truth is unfolding and continuing, and that I value the Bible, I prefer to seek and rely on fresh guidance from the Spirit of the living God which inspired the Bible rather than to follow only what may have be revealed through and recorded by others.

Yes, I "pick and choose" what I believe and accept in the Bible. So do you.