In a recent piece for the Washington Post E. J. Dionne beautifully wrote of our imperfect quest for the truth. Christians need to humbly acknowledge, wrote Dionne, how “imperfectly human beings understand the divine” and how, “over the history of faith, there have been occasions when ‘a supposedly changeless truth has changed.’”
Truth exists, but our experience of it is limited and fallible. Christians would do well to humbly acknowledge that our sacred texts are also limited and fallible. Jesus did.
According to the Gospels, Jesus had no problem dismissing, rejecting, and reinterpreting the sacred texts within his Jewish tradition.
For example, some religious authorities in Jesus’ day abusively used Deut. 24:1 to justify divorcing a wife for any reason whatsoever, very much the same way religious authorities today abusively use Scripture to condemn the LGBT community, condone violence, and subjugate women in the home and in the church.
Jesus dismissed Deut. 24:1 by offering a critical reading of it. Jesus said that this law did not come from God (as the Scripture claimed), but from Moses himself, who made the concession due to the hardness of their hearts (Mark 10:2-5).
Or consider how Joseph decided to disobey Deut. 22:21 by deciding to divorce Mary quietly without bringing public shame upon her (Matt. 1:18-19). Matthew wrote that Joseph did this because he was a “righteous man.” Obviously from Matthew’s perspective, being “righteous” may involve refusing to do what the Bible says.
When it comes to the Christian’s sacred texts the critical question is not: What does the Bible say? The key question is: What would Jesus say about what the Bible says? Would Jesus give it a critical reading and dismiss it? Would Jesus offer a new reading and fresh interpretation?
I advise asking three questions of a biblical text to determine its redemptive value. These are questions I think Jesus might ask.
One, does the text make God look good? My assumption here is that God is good; that God is always better than our best. If the God depicted in a text is not as loving, just, good, reliable, forgiving, compassionate, etc. as the best person you know, then that text cannot possibly be giving us an authentic depiction of God.
Two, does it make me want to be good? Does the text in some way offer a vision of God or human possibility that inspires me to deal with my false attachments and strive through God’s grace to be a better person?
Third, is it reasonable? I do not mean, “Is it provable?” or “Is it without inconsistencies?” Often, authentic spiritual truth is filled with paradox and on-the- surface contradictions. What I mean is, “Does it make sense and does it reflect common sense?” Does it align with the deepest truth I intuitively know in my heart about what is good and true?
The Bible, while central to Christian faith, argues with itself on almost every issue of any importance. The biblical writers and communities that gave us our sacred texts brought their biases, cultural conditioning, beliefs, worldviews, and presuppositions into the process of discovering God’s will just as we do.
While not literally the Word of God, the Bible can become a medium through which we encounter a living Word from God when, in our imperfect quest for truth, we read it critically, discerningly, and spiritually the way Jesus did.
Those interested in reading more on this subject are invited to check out my new book, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith (click on book at right for more information). .