The Relief of Being Able to Take the Bible Seriously—and Not Conservatively

Not that long ago I read a Bonhoeffer quote about the relief Bultmann provided, and the renewed faith he enabled, basically by allowing Moderns to be critical of scripture without calling them unfaithful for it. And this morning over at Women in Theology, Maria McDowell provides a must-read reflection on Marcus Borg with similar effect:
I cannot possibly count the number of times I have heard someone in this parish say, “Marcus allowed me to be a Christian again,” or “Marcus’s work was such a relief to me,” or “Marcus helped me find my faith.”

[...]

I wanted to understand what was so appealing about his work. More than understand his work, I wanted to understand the love for him and by him that is so tangible among those who heard him speak, who attended his classes. When someone says, “this person helped me reclaim my faith,” I think we should pay attention. The fruits of the Spirit are precious and beautiful, and in my experience, sometimes too easy to ignore when they are not accompanied by the ‘right’ liturgy, the ‘right’ practice, the ‘right’ theology, the ‘right’ body, the ‘right’ belief. This man and his work was clearly, evidently, and abundantly fruitful.
This is a profoundly important thing to realize about critical scholarship, and one that is so rarely spoken: it serves the faith, and it does good for the faithful!

The standard line goes significantly in the other direction, on the idea that critical scholarship that raises significant doubts about the historicity and therefore literal veracity of the texts is detrimental to faith. And Maria had heard that line, as had I growing up, about the Jesus Seminar in particular. It was said of Borg, just as of Bultmann, that he denied the resurrection. (It still is!) Of course, it's slightly truer of Borg, to the extent that he denied that Jesus, who was raised and appeared to many, lived again in his old dead body, made newly alive. Bultmann simply acknowledged that resuscitation wasn't such a useful miracle for Moderns; Borg didn't think it necessary to affirm that the dead body was part of the miracle of the newly living Lord.

These were not scholars whose hearts were set against the faith. These were not scholars for whom the Bible was not to be taken seriously. They were, however, scholars for whom centuries of what I call "compendium orthodoxy," a conservative dogmatic insistence bound up in and with the text of scripture and usually expounded in propositional forms, did not serve to improve the faith. They were scholars for whom, like so many people around them, the confidence of authoritatively-asserted scriptural dogmatism rang disappointingly hollow. When the church tells you not to ask certain questions, and calls your incredulity disbelief, the church has done something terribly wrong.

It should not be a surprise that scholars like Bultmann and Borg provided relief for so many people, provided a way for them to keep their faith or find it again, precisely by giving them a way to take the Bible seriously—but not conservatively. And the question here isn't even whether what Bultmann or Borg taught is itself worthy and correct; they weren't substituting their own authorities for traditionalist authorities. One can disagree with Bultmann, as for example Barth did, on how to take the texts seriously, on what approach was preferable, without denying that it is necessary that we read these texts critically in order to read them faithfully. The ground-clearing efforts are what provides the most relief, by giving real space to questions and directing those questions back to a text that has no easy answers. So much of that relief comes from giving authority back to the reader, which is an old, old Reformation idea!

At rock bottom, the Modern approach represented by these 20th-century figures isn't about shaking peoples' faith in scripture; that had already been done, as much by the normal activity of conservatives as by the oft-cited extremes of Liberal scholarship. Both sides, in their infighting, managed to significantly damage their own credibility. But out of the postwar periods there developed something of a pastoral concern for Moderns—not truly novel, as Schleiermacher was engaged in a similar enterprise, but relatively unprecedented on the exegetical front. There arose the question of believing the Bible, not propositionally, not as doctrinal or dogmatic assent, not as the basis for authoritative teaching, but in its own terms. And of disbelieving parts of the Bible on its own terms, and arguing with it, and bringing out its internal issues for genuine and faithful critical study. This doesn't remove authority from the Bible; it insists that the Bible is authoritative and also problematic, and that we have every right to say so, and dig deeply in it, and bring out those problems, and let them be a problem for the church as well.

That we also frequently disbelieve these texts and their ancient approaches to their subject matter on our own terms is another matter, of course, and not without problem, but we simply must allow this and embrace it. It happens regardless, because we are who and when and where we are. No amount of assertion that the text is right will make a Modern believe it. Only freedom before the text, and responsibility to it, will let us come to grips with its real distance from us and its real difference from how we believe. We cannot believe exactly as they did. We must come to believe as we can, today.

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