A few emails have asked if I think "falling away" is an appropriate term for what has happened to me and others. I used that phrase because of what it means to those who are still in the more traditional formulations of the faith. It's often confusing to create new terms and then define them. What I've gone through fits the typical "idea" of "falling away" yet it also challenges it on some levels. So by using that title, I've given a signal about what kind of discussion this series will be, but I also hope I've challenged some of the assumptions of what falling away ultimately means or looks like.
I used to say that I had lost faith but never lost interest. That's still a workable distinction related to how I've changed in my relationship to Christianity. Still, we'll look at the word and idea of "faith" in another installment because the meaning of it has changed a bit for me as well.
Now for the next installment proper.
When I threw out the "Hail Mary" to Dr. Dewey about my concerns regarding the Pentateuch, I did so because I could tell that my thinking was still limited by how I'd been trained to think about the Bible. I didn't expect a response from Dr. Dewey, yet he sent one and it was at the time, completely surprising to me. I've excerpted the parts I thought would be useful here. The bits from my original email are in blue, Dewey's response is in black, my new comments are in red.
Anyway, we got into whether there is enough credible evidence for the exodus to verify it as a historical event. Clearly there isn't enough evidence to prove it happened. But there is also an absence of disproving evidence as well (which in the circles I come from is some sort of validation for the historical fact of the exodus event...).
If someone makes an assertion then one must deliver an argument; one cannot simply argue from the negative.
I haven't forgotten this comment. When I read now, I ask myself what the argument for something is. If there is no argument to be made, I resist drawing categoric conclusions.
...But then Dr. Melcher went further to say that we can glean spiritual truth from the story regardless of its historical veracity. The discussion even went so far as to affirm that God delivers spiritual truth through it whether or not the exodus actually happened.
Remember when we talked about "true fiction"?
I remembered the discussion about the Gospels and Paul's letters. It's not that the writers were lying, it's that they were shaping the narratives to deliver a message. I could relate to this a bit as a writer, since I find myself doing it all the time, never with the intent of lying or misrepresentation, but with an eye to delivering the message with as much power and insight as possible.
...Something that did not happen but the insight was what was at stake.
Remember the word "insight" because it changed everything for me.
Remember the ancient oral tradition wants to generate meaning -- not fact. At the same time the story tellers come from a time and place. There is an historical and social location for these "true fictions."
There is some evidence of covenantal formulae in the ancient east 14th to 12th centuries BCE; such treaties appear again around the 7th. So, the older argument is that one can link the covenantal formula with these artifacts. What does this mean? That some sort of covenantal treaty was possible, when during the period formerly known as the time of the judges. In the pre-monarchic times the hill peoples and some incoming nomadic tribes gathered in a federation against the urban Canaanite culture. This incipient revolt is possibly mirrored in the exodus tales.
This calm discussion of what might have happened in the historical context that mirrored the texts felt strangely soothing. It felt neither defensive nor destructive. Just curiously interesting.
This is when I started to get muddled. I asked her if the Jews and Christians of history didn't in fact believe that God actually did those miracles and saved the Jews from the Egyptians in that way. She said that they did but that that wasn't the primary point of the story.
The ancient people were "naive literalists" but be careful - for the term literalist only works truly with early 20th century Americans who read the printed Bible with modern scientific empirical eyes. What I mean is that the ancients took the stories and used them in their present and if the stories had meaning in the present --they would modify them if necessary --they would continue to use them.
The truth is, we do this still today, even with the Bible. We avoid certain stories and texts that make us uncomfortable and embrace others based on the meanings we generate from them.
...And what good is that "truth" anyway? Are these "beautiful ideas" sort of like the Greek ideals? Or is redemption (by God?) real? If it's real, how would we know it? Weren't these "miracles of old" God's evidence of his redeeming power for another age? And aren't we now stumped as to how to know or prove anything about God? And what good is redemption metaphorically anyway? What am I being redeemed of? from?
...Don't get caught up in the behavior implied in the overarching metaphor without discovering the way in which the metaphor plays out. You sense this in the story of Abraham and Isaac. This is a story that masks the culture's move from sacrifice of children (evidently a Canaanite ritual) to a substitution model. The tradition keeps the story going, but the horror is somewhat muted. It is good to feel the horror again, to see what sort of breakthrough the story was gesturing at.
...It's times like these that I'm convinced I've lost all faith in God or contact with anything invisible or spiritual. I feel like a material girl in a material world. If I can see the bible as ancient literature that is both beautiful and horrifying, interesting and revealing (about peoples and times and religion from another era), I'm okay with it.
The Holy = fear + fascination according to R. Otto. There need not be any morality attached.
This was a brand new concept to me and it explained a lot of what I hadn't understood about the God of the Hebrew Scriptures.
e.g., an automobile for many Americans is a sign of the holy - for the vehicle both attracts and causes caution --throw in a sexy babe or hunk and the fear/fascination is multiplied. But nothing moral just a sense of power running along the nerves. This is very close to much ancient sense of the holy. The Jewish prophets started connecting the story about a God who cares for slaves, for the no bodies, the throwaways, to the sense of the holy and a new chapter comes about...Buddha is making startling connections in his own way around that time too. Hmmmm.
For the first time, I got chills. Connecting a holy, amoral God to a God who cares for the nobodies brings about a crisis for the nature of God. The narratives cause us to reevaluate what we thought we knew about God and to redefine what holy means to us today.
...But the moment someone tells me that there is rich spiritual truth in a story for me today that probably doesn't represent historical reality, and the metaphor I'm supposed to appreciate means I'm endorsing partiality on God's side with a capital P, well, I'm lost. The bible becomes a source of real angst, anger and disappointment.
You are detecting the underside of the Bible. It is there and there is even more.... If God is only what we have in the Bible then you will want to get clear of such a beast. But the Bible itself is complicated with starts and stops about what the divine can be. The Hebrew scriptures already contain rebellious moments where the humans enter into the divine without leaving the earth. A poor way of putting it... Another way. God was real for them because God was there, present to them. Can we say that today? God is not in any book but in the Reality of our lives. Trouble is we tend to lead virtual lives. Wouldn't know Reality if it knocked...yet when it does well, it does. When the baby decides to come, when the water breaks, when the contractions start, you have to face Reality and go with the waves... The stories are told to help people identify the waves in their lives...the beauty and the horror...
I stopped cold when I read "God was real for them because God was there, present to them. Can we say that today? God is not in any book but in the Reality of our lives..." I knew that what I had been shedding was "virtuality."
And then to think of the stories in the Bible as helping people to identify the waves in their own lives, not just beauty, but horror too...
Is this all because I used to be a literalist? :-(
YES, you are taking things, words seriously. But look around for the context. It is probably more fluid and more complicated. But it still comes from human beings who are trying to make sense of things within their limits...
Something clicked back in 2004. I saw for the first time that the Bible might be a resource for exploring what humans understood to be the nature of the divine at any given point in time rather than a word-perfect for all time description of how God was, is and will be (that also needed to be harmonized and reconciled within itself).
Additionally, the idea that the biblical writers were moved to communicate insight (more than convey history) profoundly impacted how I read all texts. It's not enough to give a thumbs' up or a thumbs' down as to whether the writings represented 20th century standards of historical veracity. Rather, an author's intention in most instances is to describe an experience (a vision, a belief, an event) while delivering meaning. Even if the insight is one with which we ultimately disagree, finding out what that insight addresses is useful for theological reflection rather than merely validating it historically or scientifically.
In Part 10, I'll look at other ways to read Scripture that help us get at the "insight" layer.