Monday, February 24, 2014

Misinterpreting the Bible?

I was raised, nominally, as a Christian. I never really doubted the existence of God or Jesus as the Son of God. I was puzzled by those who did doubt it or claim otherwise. Even as an adult it didn't occur to me that the nonbelievers might have a point. But between Christian fundamentalism and a growing skepticism over certain logical problems that kept cropping up even in mainline Christianity, I gradually started losing my faith until, eventually, I started calling myself an atheist.

That was a tough decision for me to make. I always preferred being called agnostic. But when it was pointed out to me the actual meanings of those terms, I had to acknowledge that, indeed, I had become atheist, meaning "without a belief in a god." But that doesn't mean that my claim is that there is no god at all. I can't make that claim, because I don't know whether a god exists or not. I only know the specific God of the bible (or any other holy book) does not exist. Therefore, I am agnostic. So the best description for people like me would have to be an agnostic atheist. But that term confuses a lot of people.

My daughter decided that she was also uncomfortable with the label, atheist. So she has decided to be a progressive Christian. Now, the way I understand it, a progressive Christian is a person who tries to emulate the way Jesus lived his life. They do not believe in the bible as literal history. They believe the bible contains metaphorical meaning. They do not believe in the magic and miracles claimed in the bible. They do not believe that the world is only 6,000 years old. They believe in science. And they believe that Jesus, as philosopher, had some really good ideas on social justice. And I guess, by that definition, I'm also a progressive Christian. But since Jesus did not have to be divine to be good and to lead a just and decent life, nor to be a preacher, does that mean it's also possible to be a progressive Christian while also being an agnostic atheist, or any kind of atheist for that matter?

On a more esoteric note, since most progressive Christians believe that the bible stories are all largely allegorical and that metaphor is it's means of communication, how does that comport with the original intent of the writers, especially of the Old Testament? I'm no historian, so I don't know what the general level of literary progress was 2,800 years ago. But were the authors of the Old Testament going for allegory? Did they not realize that some people might take their stories as literal? I mean, if some people take it literally today, in the 21st century, how many of the backwater, semi-literate goat herders would take it literally in that day and age? And if progressive Christians in the 21st century can look at these ancient writings as having spiritual meaning delivered in metaphor, we must also believe that these early writers were sophisticated enough to tell their stories in a way that still has meaning 2,800 years later. Could it be that progressive Christians are reading more into these stories than were originally intended? And if so, aren't progressive Christians guilty of the same thing that evangelicals are guilty of, namely misinterpreting the bible?


Unknown said...

Jerry, I'm writing fast cause I have to get on the road, but miscellaneous thoughts:
1. Check out "The Christian Agnostic" by Leslie Weatherhead. An old classic.
2. Be careful of confusing the worldview of the biblical writers with our modernistic worldview. I don't think the biblical writers drew a clear line between literal and figurative writing. John, for instance, clearly knows that Jesus was executed on the day after Passover, but to make a symbolic point he has him executed on Passover. He knows, and he knows that we know, but it's not a big deal to his worldview to change the day. The writer of Jonah would be appalled that someone would take his (or her) over the top satire as literally having happened. There is an anthropology book somewhere called "Did the Greeks Believe in Their Gods" which suggests that even in that time educated Greeks held the stories of the Greek gods allegorically. I think the same could be said for at least educated Jews. The thing is that the quest for accuracy or factuality is a modern idea. Prior to the age of science, a foot was as long as my personal foot, and that was good enough. And a story was as true as it rang true in my heart.
3. That being said, as a guy who believes in God - but as a cosmic creator-conciousness more than an old guy with a white beard, but still I believe in God - I think the biblical name of God given to Moses is helpful. God's name is YHWH, or "I am/will be whoever I am/will be". To me this says that it is sinful to place any kind of specific image to whatever it is we imply by that word God. By definition "God" is indefinable to finite minds. Thus, in some sense, agnosticism is almost necessary to faith. And yet, strangely, one can believe in that God which one holds agnostically?

Jerry Wilson said...

Your comment was anonymous, but I assume it's Steve. At any rate, thanks for your reply.

James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for posting on this. I think that most progressive Christians would (or should!) adopt the stance that they embrace scholarly approaches to knowledge. And so considering the literary genres is relevant, but so too are historical and scientific modes of inquiry and the results they produce. And so, for a progressive Christian, whether something is viewed as history, legend, myth, or something else might depend on what Biblical scholars conclude.