I’m going to pose a question here, and hopefully not in the spirit of impertinence, but rather in sparking discussion and illumination.
My question: why would so many liberal Christians and their denominations (very broadly defined to include those Christians who do not acknowledge there being any unified canon of beliefs about God or exactly how God communicates textually: even those Christians that reject the idea of a traditional theistic god entirely), continue to retain and use the Bible in its (relatively) traditional form as a centerpiece of worship?
I’m not asking this rhetorically, quietly snickering at the idea or accusing liberal Christians of being inconsistent. But I do want to present it as something of a challenge, because I think there is a real choice to be made here, and not an easy one. Having the Bible as the Bible remain unchanged and/or at the center of worship inevitably means giving up other spiritual options, other theologies.
Let me try to explain what I mean in more detail, and indeed, make a sort of case for “breaking” the Bible:
The Bible, as it is, is an artificially freeze-framed slice of spiritual speculation. Those texts are, by intrinsic implication, held as superior not only to others that the early Catholic Church rejected or never even knew of, but every single insightful thing that any Christian has thought or felt since. Heck, even the act of writing down what were likely once oral stories told and retold again with each generation is a sort of artificial freeze frame. The use of the Bible, by it’s very nature, is an act favoring routinized text over flexible oral traditions and particular selections of texts over all others. Is that bias (one that seems, in some sense, an arbitrary one amongst all forms of human understanding an expression) something you think your beliefs should support? Does the very existence of a Bible, as a religious practice, really make sense?
If you’re a modern fundamentalist who believes that the Bible is the be-all and end-all, of course, it does. But if not: if you are more inclined to see spiritual searching and inquiry and even God’s temporal expressions as ongoing… if you see scriptures as the works of human searchers like yourself… guideposts but not rigid train tracks…
Well, what do you do with the suggestion that the Bible, as a singular and special guide to human insight on morality, ethics, and so forth, could quite obviously use some improvements and/or updates, small scale or even radical?
As Sam Harris has pointed out, with little serious rebuttal other than the usual mutterings about his impropriety, it’s quite easy to imagine moral or even factual improvements on the Biblical or Koranic texts. If the version of the Bible we all have today was, unbeknownst to us moderns, actually a slightly different version than the true original: if the one today, say, condemned rape more specifically (thanks to a clever female scribe in antiquity)… would anyone then think less of the modern version than they now do of the rape-ambiguous version we actually do have? No: instead, even the literalists in our hypothetical scenario would, unaware, be busy celebrating the phony anti-rape passages as an element of the Bible’s full perfection.
Wouldn’t that be a better state of affairs? So why can’t you have it now, knowingly? Why can’t that be a matter of course? If you are going to hand this tome to children and tell them “here is wisdom,” why not make sure you’ve edited or updated that wisdom to modern standards? If these ancient stories are illustrative of important moral and spiritual points, surely they could be reworked so that their message is clearer, or even more moral period.
Or why not simply add some further chapters of scholarly analysis or liberal theology appended to the end to codify just how your particular sect or creed understands those ancient stories? At the very least, this further codification wouldn’t be any worse than the codification that came before, especially if it opened up the possibility of yet later revisions as needed. And heck: it would add a lot more variety to the “Bible reading” sections of a church service if we could include Schleiermacher amongst the official verses and stanzas available.
So what’s the holdup? Surely not a respect for history, because it is history that tells us just how much more there is beyond what the various 4th and 5th century scribes would allow as canon: why respect their veto and theirs alone for all time on what ancient insights are the ones deserving special place in our special compendium? Why should liberal Christians have more faith in the accuracy of that particular selection of books than they necessarily do in the direct assertions within the text itself?
Indeed, if the Bible is to be the ultimate text of human understanding of a living God’s will, it’s very, very odd that it should be frozen at a very arbitrary time in history, with no further chapters ever to be added, or subtracted, or retold for new generations. Has no theologian since the various missives and letters in the New Testament even had an insight into, say, the Trinity, that measures up to the previous material? I’m not a huge fan of theological work, but even I find that very hard to believe. Do the banal and absurd kvetchings found in many of the more forgettable Epistles really deserve a greater ceremonial place in the Christian corpus than the thoughts of Aquinas or Augustine? Has God really never spoken or acted since in a way that would demand inclusion?
Of course, on hearing these musings, many traditional believers would be shocked at the very idea of changing, updating, or adding to the Bible: making it one part of a much larger collection. Sure sure, they’d argue: many subsequent documents are important (Popes surely have had much to say to Catholics of great religious import). But this is the Bible we’re talking about: it is and ever shall be THE BIBLE. To open things back up, to return to the days in which the various books of the Bible were written individually, where there was a maelstrom of ideas but no definitive, final compendium of THE books… that just feels wrong to many modern believers. Absurd. Presumptuous (though, any less so than the original writers/editors, and why?) Sacreligious.
But what is this feeling based on, exactly? And why should liberal Christians in particular pay it any homage? Really?
Nothing about the the Bible is central or inevitable to any core Christian doctrine. Despite supposedly containing countless prophecies both fulfilled and yet to be, the Bible rather conspicuously does not predict or anticipate itself. It thus does not recognize, let alone celebrate, its own central importance to the Christian faith. As Catholics have long rightly chastised Protestants, the belief that the Bible is in any way special is really a sort of specific faith tradition… and an inherently extra-Biblical one. If that tradition, that insight, can be important, why not further ones? Old ones (like Catholic traditions, many of which pre-date the Bible itself, or those of the countless subsidiary documents in Judaism)? New ones?
Nothing I’m saying here is merely hypothetical of course. The Bible itself has never been quite as set in stone as many believe: some books have rotated in and out of various denominations. Even after the canon was fully formed, scribal errors and translations changed and shuffled the texts. And plenty of religious sects and persuasions take the idea of further revelation and sacred texts to heart. Mormons and Muslims do have post-Biblical texts of claimed equal or greater import. And many liberal Christians and/or Unitarians really are prepared to regard the Bible as simply one text amongst many in a much wider bookshelf of religious devotion and tradition.
But even most of these (aside from perhaps the Koran, which retells many biblical stories in ways that can, I have to say, only be described as more absurd than the originals) still have a Bible on their bookshelves: a “definitive” collection by its very construction. A never updated textbook with no forthcoming editions. Even for someone who views the books of the Bible as purely historical records of what ancient peoples believed, it still seems odd to have so much emphasis on the whole, rather than the individual books and all the rest which were, by historical chance, not bundled into that whole. That these texts are collected in such a way is certainly of historical interest itself, but why should it have any further influence on the issuing of new editions of religious insight?
To a (now) outsider, it all seems profoundly peculiar.
And believe me: I’m not one to simply dismiss tradition or even habit as a reason to respect the state of some social practice or scribal ritual. But at some point we do have to ask how it is that we ever got the traditions we respect at all, if we are to cherish such a strict policy on never inventing new ones. Christianity itself was a decidedly rebellious invention: the product of a major culture clash, theological synthesis, and just the plain working out of new doctrines on the fly as the various letters of Paul demonstrate. And forgive me if I’m wrong: but I don’t see many liberal Christians as people who generally celebrate tradition or routinization or any form of definitive cannon-making in any case.
You might also say that the Bible, as it is, is a symbol. Again, I won’t poo-poo the power of symbols. But there are lots of possible powerful symbols, and some are mutually incompatible. Are you really sure that the symbols you have now fit what you really want to express? Why not break and begin to remake the Bible itself as a symbol of renewal and spiritual innovation? Why not break this symbol of central, canonical control so that one of continual grassroots religious revolution can take its place?
It’s not my call, of course, and I again fully admit that there are many reasons people could give to answer my question that would be perfectly sufficient: perhaps not entirely enough for me, but certainly enough so that I could understand how it would satisfy someone else’s take on things. Even “this just feels right” could easily brush off my objections here.
Still, as a sort of expatriated tourist to Christian thought, it’s something I can’t help but ponder, and I’d be interested in where this sort of musing takes others.