More than the Bible, and also less


Many liberal Christians have sought to reclaim the Bible from fundamentalism. They have sought to achieve this by rescuing it from a literalistic interpretation, and instead appreciating the deeper truths to be found in its stories, myths, and symbols contained within. Thus one is able to, for example, appreciate the four gospels of the New Testament without believing literally in the stories of the virgin birth or the resurrection.

I agree with this perspective, but I don't think it goes far enough. The Bible certainly contains valuable and inspirational stories and myths that can serve as an inspiration to postmodern believers. But, as Bart Ehrman has pointed out so well in his book Lost Christianities, the ultimate composition of books that made it into the Christian canon was the result of a series of internecine battles between different factions of early Christianity. Before the canon was finally settled, these different factions, all of whom called themselves "Christian", often laid claim to different scriptures. The Bible, thus, reflects only those scriptures that the winning faction (the ones who got to call themselves "orthodox") decided should be canonical. The losing sides were suppressed, along with their scriptures. In many cases, these various scriptures that were once revered in the early history of Christianity have been lost forever, but many others have been preserved or discovered.

I believe that a true liberal religious sensibility would not restrict itself to just those scriptures that a winning faction chose to impose on the religious community. By revering the Bible without taking into account other scriptural writings, or by placing the Bible above those other scriptures, liberal Christians are siding themselves with the winning faction of a theological dispute within early Christianity. Yet, I believe that a postmodern religious sensibility realizes that this necessarily restricts one's spiritual reverence of scripture to one particular kind of orthodoxy. It allows the winners in a prior theological dispute to determine what we, now, should consider spiritually valuable. This is despite the fact that we now know that not only is there is nothing inherently superior about early Christian orthodoxy to the so-called "heresies" that they suppressed, but in fact this orthodoxy has created certain dogmas that have been handed down through the ages that many of us--or at least I--may now reject; these include dogmas about the nature of Jesus the man and about the nature of God, to name two.

It makes much more sense to me for us to recognize that the Bible was a flawed attempt at understanding God, that there is nothing fixed and immutable about it as a canon, and that many works that are not part of the canon can be just as much a source of reverential awe as the Bible itself. Thus, to me, one can read and find inspiration in not just the Gospel of Mark, but also the Gospel of Thomas. One is not "better" than another; these simply represent two different ways of mediating our relationship with God. They express myths and symbols, words through which our limited attempts at understanding God can be shared. The greatness of a scripture lies not necessarily in whether it happened to make the cut at some religious council a millennium and a half ago, but whether it inspires us today. Similarly, some of the books that did make the cut back then may have words that do not inspire us today--some of the apocalyptic language of Revelation, for example, may not necessarily inspire everyone today.

And who knows--maybe what someone writes today will be considered "scripture" a thousand years in the future. Perhaps it is time to stop thinking of a canon as a closed collection. By closing a canon, you shut off the evolving process of revelation. Closing a canon is part of the process of fixing a dogma. Instead of fixing a dogma, scriptures should be about the process of seeking and understanding the nature of God, and by returning to scriptures we can see how others went about that process. In that way, we realize that we are building on our understanding of God, but that we are not creating a theology out of whole cloth. From the experiences of the past, we can learn, and create new understandings of God.


Stephen (aka Q) said...

I don't believe the Church has much to fear from the non-canonical books. I also don't think Christians have much to gain from them.

The Gospel of Thomas arguably has some value. But most of the non-canonical books don't say anything worth dwelling on. That's why I don't think the Church has much to fear from them — people should be invited to read them and see for themselves how little enlightenment they provide.

I think Christians would gain more by reading Buddhist texts, for example. The Eastern religions approach things from such a radically different worldview, they can really cause you to reexamine things.

Mystical Seeker said...

I have no doubt that Christian orthdoxy has little to gain from noncanonical scriptures. That is sort of the point--the canonical scriptures are canonical precisely because the orthodoxy decreed them consistent with its dogma. For those who are not restricted to the old dogmas, however, it is another story altogether. In that case, for those who are open to different and pluralistic ways of experiencing the Divine, there is simply no reason to accept a direct one-to-one correspondence between the Bible and scriptures that can serve of value. Some of the Bible may be of little value to religious liberals, while some non-biblical scriptures may also be of value to them. There is no reason for people who are modern religious seekers to allow the decisions of an orthordox leadership from centuries ago decree exactly which books within the multiplicity of early Christian literature should be appreciated. Given that many of those early scriptures were rejected from the final cut because they didn't conform to orthodox dogma, and given that one rejects orthodox dogma, then we are free to explore the multiplicity of early Christian literature with an open mind and an open heart.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I don't think I said anything different. If I was overly concerned about orthodoxy, I wouldn't advise people to read Buddhist texts. Similarly, I agree, people should be free to read the non-canonical books.

But their spiritual value is virtually nil, in my opinion — that's all.

The problem is, people hear about the non-canonical books, but they don't actually read them, and yet they think the Church has kept something wonderful hidden from them. Please, everyone, I invite you to read them. See for yourself how wonderful they really are!

Mystical Seeker said...

The wonderful thing about a pluralistic approach to religion is a recognition that not everyone will feel inspired by the same thing. That means that the same scriptures won't have the same spiritual value for everyone, and also the same worship practices also won't appeal to everyone. Some people might be into singing, some into silence, some into drumming. Some might find spiritual value in the noncanonical Christian sriptures, while others may not. Once we liberate ourselves from a canon, the possibilities open up.

Steve Petermann said...

I think humanity needs an entirely different view of scripture. In the past scripture has been viewed as some sort of supernatural transmission of information directly from God. This has led to so much devisiveness and conflict. This is no longer a viable representation of revelation.

Instead, it is my view, that all forms of human experience can be viewed as revelatory. The explorations of science, mathematics, sociology, pyschology, etc. can all be, as Paul Tillich put it, transparent to the divine.

While scripture (Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, etc.) certainly represents an enormously important transparency into the divine, when a particular one is absolutized it becomes not only idolatrous but destructive.

The constructive think about pluralism is that it exposes people who have otherwise been religiously isolated to devote, reasonable people who find there religious source in something different. This can create a crisis of faith but in the long run it may also moderate dogmaticism and exclusivity.

I think there is no question that pluralism in society can lead either to a religious relativism or inspire new formulations that are based on what I call a "faithing fallibilism".