UCC pastor Kent Siladi has been commenting on the preamble to the UCC constitution in his blog. As I read this statement from the UCC, I find myself reacting to it in a lot of complex ways. Part of me finds some of the language in the statement a little too orthodox for my comfort level, which initially suggests that perhaps I am drawn to the UCC despite, rather than because of, what it says it stands for. But part of me recognizes that a statement like this is often theologically ambiguous and can be interpreted in a lot of different ways, thus making it broad enough to encompass the theological diversity that characterizes an organization like the UCC. I know that the UCC is a congregational body, and that this diversity manifests itself in various ways; some churches are more progressive than others, for example. I then can't help but wonder, as I sit comfortably in the pews of my little progressive Christian church, if I am more on the theological fringe of this denomination than I realize.
What got me thinking about this in particular was what the statement said about revelation: "It looks to the Word of God in the Scriptures, and to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, to prosper its creative and redemptive work in the world." Any time I hear the "Word of God" and either "the Scriptures" or "the Bible" used in the same sentence, a little alarm bell goes off in my head. Fundamentalists often refer to the Bible as the Word of God--even though the Bible itself (or at least the Gospel of John) makes it clear that God's word revealed itself in the form of a person (Jesus), rather than some book or collection of writings. One of the hallmarks of fundamentalism is a slavish devotion to the Bible that goes beyond mere appreciation for it as a normative, foundational document of the faith. This is dangerous territory, because it can lead to an intellectually bankrupt set of views on, among other things, science and biblical criticism.
When I read Kent's commentary on this, I was also given pause. He wrote, "The Scriptures are formative for the United Church of Christ. We are a people of the Word of God. We take the Bible seriously as God's Word to us as God's very own people. The Word occupies a central place in our life together. It is through the Word that we come to know God better and to deepen our relationship to God through the study of that Word." In response to a comment I left, he made it clear that he was not suggesting that we should take the Bible literally or that we should fall into the trap of bibliolatry; instead, he was saying that the Bible should be taken seriously, which makes sense to me, at least in principle.
As I reread that preamble, I noticed something. It actually did not say that the Bible is the Word of God. Instead, it simply referred to the Word of God "in" the Scriptures. In other words, it suggests that the Word of God can be found within the Bible, but it does not equate the Bible with the Word of God. This is an important distinction. I see the Bible, quite frankly, as a human document (or, more accurately, a collection of human documents). It is not God's word per se, but rather a historical record of human attempts at understanding God. It is useful and instructive on that basis, not because it is an infallible record of God's own words, but because it shows us how others have related to God and in the process it has offered inspiring literature. God's word shines through the Bible, just as God's word shines through nature, through poetry, and through human acts of loving kindness. The Bible is a flawed work because it is a human work; but it is also an important foundational document for Christianity and Christian-derived spirituality.
One of the interesting realizations that comes from reading Thus Saith the Lord by Richard Rubenstein is that it indicates quite clearly the progressive nature of the prophetic imagination as depicted in the Bible. Early Biblical prophets, like Elijah and Elisha, could be tribalistic, fundamentalist, and even (in the case of Elisha) obscenely violent in their theology. Over time, especially in the face of Babylonian exile, the great prophets expanded their theological horizons. God became less tribalistic and more universal; all nations, even those who did not worship YHVH, were seen as part of God's plan. The prophet whom scholars call Second Isaiah, who wrote during the time of exile, and whose prophetic words were appended to those of the "first" Isaiah as a later part of the biblical book of that name, took this universal theology to its ultimate expression. Rubenstein writes:
In a breathtaking act of imagination, the poet [Second Isaiah] pictures God in space, looking down from a great distance on his handiwork:Rubenstein summarizes the importance of Second Isaiah in this way: "Understanding that the One God implies the oneness of humanity, he opened the door of monotheistic faith to all..." Rubenstein continues:
He lives above the circle of the earth
its inhabitants look like grasshoppers.
He has stretched out the heavens like a cloth,
spread them like a tent for men to live in.
Then he delivers the punch line:
He reduces princes to nothing,
he annihilates the rulers of the world.
No previous prophet had raised the Holy One of Israel to such stratospheric heights. In the work of the first Isaiah and Jeremiah, YHVH talks about what he will do, not about who he is. He does not say things like "I am YHVH unrivaled, I form the light and create the dark"; or "the heavens are as high above earth as my ways are above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts."
Rhetorically, Isaiah sometimes spoke as if the restored Israel would be a great imperial power--a "master of the nations" as well as a "witness to the peoples"--but it was clear that her authority would be spiritual and ethical rather than military or political. The earth's peoples would turn to YHVH spontaneously, out of the conviction that his teachings were just and true, not because they had been forced to accept them. The idea of a voluntary spiritual consensus is the ultimate response of classical prophecy to the enterprise of empire-building. Implicitly, it annihilates the legitimacy of power-based imperial systems. For great empires generate goals and expectations that coercive methods cannot satisfy--hopes for human solidarity and world order, international standards of justice, national liberation, and the peaceful resolution of disputes. Isaiah's vision of a just, harmonious world was not some sort of religious supplement to existing imperial practices; it represented a frontal challenge to any system of governance that dashes these expectations by subordinating them to the preservation of violent, unjust authority.This is a long, long way from the prophecies of Elijah and, in particular, the violent tribalism of Elisha.
I focus on Second Isaiah here because it raises a point about the nature of revelation. Prophets were those who have heard what they believe to be the word of God, who then told the world about what they've heard, and whose messages manage to inspire us. The Bible shows us that divine revelation in the ancient history of Israel and Judah was progressive in nature. It never dropped out of the sky in whole form--it evolved, over time, in the face of new circumstances and as human theological judgments matured.
The preamble to the UCC constitution says that it looks "to the Word of God in the Scriptures, and to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit." This word is "in" those Scriptures. The same divine Spirit that gave words to, and which inspired, those ancient prophets is still calling out to us today. Trinitarian Christians assign that role of Divine inspiration to what they consider one of the three persons they define as comprising the Holy One. (But you don't have to subscribe to a Trinitarian notion of the "Holy Spirit" to appreciate the concept of God speaking to us.) We can turn to the record of others--like Second Isaiah--who were inspired by God and in turn who inspire us today. And we can also listen to God ourselves, who is always speaking to us. That is the message that I can take away from that statement by the UCC.