Wednesday, May 25, 2005

What the Bible is all About

Implicit in the Bible is a religious and moral vision unsurpassable in excellence. At its heart is the developing story of a Powerful Creative Love at the base of all things whose purpose is to create and to perfect a people and a cosmos. At the end of the drama a community united in the love and praise of God and one another lives in a world free from all suffering and evil, and death is no more.

The Good News is that God loves us and seeks to perfect us in a community of universal justice and joy. The proper human response is to reproduce in our actions toward others the quality (love) and aim (a perfected, evil-free community) of God's action in the whole world. Simply put, the Gospel is this: God loves you. Love God totally and your neighbor as yourself as all together seek a community in which peace and justice reign and all human ills have been abolished allowing the human potential for joy and happiness to be universally and fully realized.

I believe this is the acme of the vision that arises out of the interior logic of the biblical witness as a whole. It took centuries for its fullness to be revealed, and at every stage its purity was obscured by being filtered through cultural understandings that frequently masked and sometimes overpowered its own inner rationale. In the Old Testament, e. g., God is often seen as commanding, approving, and even perpetrating massive violence. Genesis 6, the Book of Joshua, and Esther 9 are prime examples. The text reflects the culture in which it was written, including its prejudices, in ways that often contradict what is highest and best in its own message. The acceptance of slavery, the subordination of women, and the acceptance of the death penalty for a multitude of offenses, some quite trivial (See Leviticus and Deuteronomy) illustrate the adulteration that has to be purged in order to see what is permanently valuable.

The New Testament, including Jesus, teaches an absolute division between the saved and the lost in which the wicked are to be everlastingly punished. Such a rigid separation contradicts the gradations and complexities of human virtue. The same holds for the faith that receives grace, which can be strong or weak, steady or wavering, etc. It is also contrary to the universalism implicit in the logic of the gospel of love that does not rest until all are included. The desire to punish the wicked without limit I suspect originates in the experience of an oppressed people who cannot conceive of a just ending to history that does not involve the utter destruction of their enemies. Making the punishment everlasting is an understandable excess perhaps, but it does not represent the foundational motifs of the Bible itself.

This account of the heart of the Bible is, of course, mine and is viewed through my own set of cultural and personal filters. We have the Gospel only in some version of it. We have the treasure in earthen vessels (2 Cor.4:7). Every presentation will always say as much about us as it does the Bible. All the disputes that rage today are conflicts between different versions of what is obligatory for us today in the message of this ancient document. Moreover, novel filters are added as we confront situations never confronted or imagined in the Bible itself, e. g. stem cell research.

What annoys me most is that some parties claim not to have merely a version but the truth about the matter, the real thing, the genuine article. Catholic and Protestant varieties abound. Disappointment lies in the fact that those who are so sure they have the truth straight from God often propose standards of conduct that seem to me not only to be destructive of human well-being. but also to obscure what is highest and best in the Bible itself.

The standard of judgment for all doctrines and moral views is the supremely excellent vision implicit in the received tradition. When I am critical of some things in the Bible or of some interpretations of the Bible, it is because I am convinced that there is something so much better in its witness that is being missed, ignored, or obscured.

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