Response to Undercover Heretic Review
My thanks to Undercover Heretic for his careful and insightful engagement with my book. In the second part of his review, Undercover Heretic raises a number of questions about the implications of my argument and posits what he thinks my answers might be. He contributes to a sharp clarification of my position by identifying it, in contrast to the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, as a prima scriptura hermeneutic. In other words, though the Bible is not our only resource, it is unique in that it stands as our first resource, or our starting point for moral and theological reflection. I think this is a great way of articulating my position.
UH goes on, then, to ask, “Does God speak through other texts to the same degree, or in the same way? If so, what would that mean? Is there anything more than its first-off-the-shelf nature that makes scripture different? Could it also be that its uniqueness consists in the fact that the church has turned to this resource for the last 1500 years? Are these even important questions to ask?”
Last question first. Yes, I think they are very important questions to ask. Penultimate question second. Yes, a large part of its uniqueness is that the church has turned to it throughout its long history. This may seem silly to some. If the Bible is so problematic, why should we take seriously the long tradition of the Bible’s authority in the life of the church? Hasn’t the church just been duped? But my response is that to casually dispense with such a longstanding tradition is to do no justice to our constitution as traditioned beings. The Bible has so shaped us, that to just disregard it based on our understanding of its problems would be to hide from our view the sources of our worldview. If we were to cut ourselves off from those sources, we would be blinding ourselves. Our traditions are so intertwined with the biblical narratives and teachings that to cut the Bible out of our purview would be tantamount to denying that our traditions and institutions require self-critical engagement. Thus, to hold the Bible in close proximity and to critically engage it is to be committed to a critical engagement with ourselves. Leaving the Bible behind would just be a massive dishonesty.
It’s like the son who realizes how screwed up his father is. To disown his father would be to blind himself to the traits and inclinations he has inherited (genetically, behaviorally) from his father—it would be to doom himself to repeat his father’s mistakes. We cannot deny that we are children of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures without dooming ourselves to repeat history. The son who, realizing his father’s problems, chooses rather to confront them, both in his father and in himself, will grow, have a better shot at conquering those weaknesses, and perhaps even learn to recognize his father’s strengths as well. Only by remaining committed to engaging our sources can we find the courage not to duplicate their failures as well as the courage to be inspired by their successes. Finally, the Bible certainly isn’t a total failure. There is much to glean positively from its pages, and if we can get over ourselves for a minute, if we can get over our sense of betrayal, we’ll be able to appropriate its best insights constructively. There is foolishness and wisdom in the Bible, and it would be a tragedy to miss the wisdom because we’ve reacted so strongly against the foolishness.
So in that sense, the Bible is “unique” for us in the same way that a father is unique to a son. There are many fathers in this world, but only one or two of them are mine.
That said, the Bible is unique in a number of ways, and its prophetic tradition of socio-political critique and its visions of the just society, while not perfect and not wholly unique, contain particularly profound insights that we would be damned fools to ignore. So the Bible is valuable, both for what is has to tell us through its failures and its successes. But we have infinite sources to branch out into for wisdom and insight. And because we’re Christians, we begin with the Bible. Now, other sources can help us to find weaknesses in our traditional sources, but it’s also true that our traditional sources can help us to identify weaknesses in new sources. No source is perfect, none infallible or inerrant. The best process we have for figuring out what’s true and good is a critical conversation between sources, a pooling of humanity’s best insights and worst blunders. We’re all in this together, and the sooner we realize that, the sooner we can make real progress together.
UH also raises another important question about the content of my book—the practical one:
as a pastor, how in the world do I begin to move people’s thinking in this direction, especially in a particular culture that has such a strong docetic view of the Bible? I can see it now: on Sunday I preach about David and Goliath; in the midst of the sermon I pause to make the historical and exegetical case that such a story probably didn’t actually occur; I then urge my listeners to rise above the boiling anger in their heart that is tempting them to erupt from their seats and strangle me on the spot and to instead creatively consider what God might be teaching them through this story of propaganda. Yeah, that clearly isn’t going to work. I realize this is a different type of question altogether, and that the answer probably involves something like a long, slow process of baby steps that will take the passing of a generation before one witnesses any noticeable results.
Yeah, I certainly don’t have the answers here, but this is the right question. While I’m hopeful that many Christians have been waiting to have just this kind of discussion, the reality is that many are mortified by such a discussion, and many will react with hostility to it. This is not because they are necessarily hostile people, but because these critical questions cut right to the heart of Christians’ sense of identity and challenge the sources that have been solely responsible for giving meaning to our lives. This is no small matter, and all sorts of demons will begin to manifest as we attempt to shed light on our assumptions and institutions. I have to be honest: there are some contexts and some churches where critical questions like this will never be able to gain a hearing. In a scary real sense, fundamentalism is not an aberration but is grounded in our very constitution as human beings. It’s not just ideological; it’s also biological. So I don’t think it’s going anywhere. Our brains need answers and our psyche needs to defend those answers to the death. We’re biologically conditioned to be afraid of anything that looks or sounds different from us.
But I don’t think that’s the whole story, thank God. While human beings are fundamentalists by nature, we also have an extraordinary capacity for empathy (also part of our biological makeup), and I think empathy is the key to overcoming fundamentalism. The ability to empathize with others can lead us to a place where we are able to live together in ambiguity. If fundamentalism is a human condition, it’s a human condition that developed as a response to a more basic human condition: uncertainty. Like the Bible, the human being is an argument with itself. And I think our species’ capacity for empathy is the key that opens the cage of fundamentalism allowing us to enter our more basic human condition. Fundamentalism developed as a survival mechanism, and it’s here to stay. It’s in our constitution. But we can overcome it because while we are fearful creatures, we are also empathetic creatures, who have the capacity to be rational. Fear is an emotion which militates against our rationality, while empathy is an emotion which frees up rationality to do its work. When we’re rational we recognize that we don’t know why we’re here. Actually, it begins with “I.” (Sorry postmodernists.) I don’t know why I’m here, and if that’s true, then it follows that nobody does. So we’re all in the same boat. And if we can come to see that, then we can put our imaginations together and try to figure out how best to live together given the brute fact of our existence.
So, while I don’t have a systematic answer to offer a pastor who wants to figure out how to teach this stuff to his church, I do think the most practical place to begin is to teach empathy—to develop empathy as a virtue in our congregations. We’re fighting a war against fundamentalism, which is a war against ourselves, and empathy is our best, and probably our only, weapon.