Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Falling away from faith Pt. 9

I'll be completing this series under this title with Part 10, but I'll continue to discuss issues drawn from this series and will change the title to reflect those changes.

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...

Grrrrrr.

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.

12 comments:

Bilbo said...

Hi Julie,

While reading this particular blog entry it reminded of something I read yesterday regarding Jung and the relationship between archetypes and the Biblical narratives. I quote, "Jung often said archetypes can never be known but only glimpsed. The purpose in glimpsing them is not to explain them away and then have control over them, but rather to be guided by them toward our own distinctive way of life, to feel the very roots of our identity, and so be able to live in intimate relationship to our own soul...and...a certain kind of storytelling can be an education in the archetypal foundations of our own experiences and is especially important in modern life, where we get the impression that we live from the surfaces and are left to suffer the depths in our emotional turbulence."...As I read these words I can see why the ancient people embraced the text as sacred and why some of our modern efforts to uncover or explain "all" the layers of the text may actually be counterproductive to the relationship between the text and the archetypal foundations of our experiences.

Jon said...

"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."

Very helpful idea. Makes me want to revisit books I've dismessed such as the Quran of the Book of Moromon.

jon

Ampersand said...

Thanks for this, Julie. It connects some dots for me. I have had such notions of interpretaion (meaning making) myself but without the depth and breadth of understanding that Dr. Dewey brings to it. It is nice to read it all layed out here so coherently and in response to your thoughts at the time.

Elleann said...

Hi Julie

Thanks for this post. It certainly is an interesting way of looking at some of the OT writings ... however, I'm reminded of the words of C.S. Lewis, where he talked about understanding Christianity as a myth, but as a 'true myth'.

"Now the story of Christ," he wrote, "is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened."

I'm not sure if he was a literalist or not, so I'm wondering if what he meant was the same as what your Prof is saying here (true fiction) OR if he is saying directly the opposite: ie - yes, the central story of Jesus seems to be mythical, but actually it's really true. Any thoughts on that?

And .. ahem .. will you be talking about reading in the NT at any stage? Apart from the gospels and Acts, there are all those Pauline letters to get one's head around... :-)

Bilbo said...

Regarding C.S. Lewis comment about the relationship between myth and Christianity. I too am wondering what Lewis really meant...His comment seems to imply a more literalist interpretation...but...if the Christian narrative, is in fact, literal history, than it is no longer a myth....or am I missing something?????

julieunplugged said...

Elleann, Lewis's idea of "true myth" is not the same as "true fiction." The "true myth" idea is built on the idea that the Christian story of fall, sacrifice, redemption and lift is found in literature, other myths, other faiths, but none is the "true" version but Christianity. I do think he sees myth as not necessarily meaning fiction.

Dewey's idea of "true fiction" has to do with the fact that every narrative is a construction (even if we are reading a newspaper report of an event). The choices made of what to include or exclude, what to exaggerate or minimize, how to depict and interpret the observation or experience... all of these are choices made to construct a story with beginning, middle and often even end.

A "true" fiction is one that resonates on some level. Those that don't are eventually lost or discounted.

Jon's point that the Qu'ran and the Book of Mormon both may have insights that they are pointing to (whether or not we agree with them) is what makes them interesting to read today. Agreement and disagreement is such a "first blush" kind of reaction. There is generally another level to consider even with abhorred texts like Hitler's biography.

Elleann said...

Julie, thanks, that makes sense now - Lewis's 'true myth' comment often puzzled me just a little. :)

One more question: A "true" fiction is one that resonates on some level. Those that don't are eventually lost or discounted.

Wouldn't the fact that a story resonated with the reader have more to do with the reader's cultural /spiritual/ etc background rather than with the absoluteness or universality of the 'truth' in question? I used to read Christian inspirational novels (which strove to impart eternal truths through fiction) and remember being reduced to tears by skilfully written passages that resonated with my core beliefs at the time ie abandonment to God and God coming through for one, etc. Nowadays, such a novel would be more likely to induce an attack of cynical weariness than emotional resonance.

Any thoughts?

julieunplugged said...

Elleann, very insightful thought and deeper reading of my comments. I don't think of "universal truth" when I think of "true fictions." I think of resonance. So what resonated for you at the time in the Christian writer's work had to do with the way you understood reality and that author did a pretty good job of helping you find a point of connection. But I'll bet now that those same books have "lost" their resonance and you don't read them any more.

Likewise, it isn't that a "true fiction" will resonate for everyone for all time, but rather that the writer successfully captured an insight, experience, point of view, belief, perspective, attitude etc. that resonates with readers (and possibly does not at all with others).

I think sometimes of Buddha's writings (those attributed to Buddha). Sometimes I think "Brilliant" and other times I'm like "huh?" But that doesn't diminish the fact that Buddha's writings have generally created a treasury of useful insights and descriptions of the world from his vantage point that were surprising in their point of view and a breakthrough in imagination that continue to speak to readers even today.

Christianity is so deeply woven into our culture that even without explicitly believing in the "facts" associated with faith, most of us are still moved by Neo in the Matrix dying and raising to life, or Les Mis, or the Harry Potter series, or LOTR because in these epics, we have an echo of the redemption story that *is* profoundly a part of the shared value or insight related to sacrificial love.

I'll try to write more about this in the next installment because you raise great points. Hope this helps to further some reflection for you.

R. Michael said...

Julie,

Am looking forward to the next installment further explaining your comment

"we have an echo of the redemption story that *is* profoundly a part of the shared value or insight related to sacrificial love."

the power of a redemption narrative is not to be underestimated be it thru Jesus or otherwise. I am not sure why this resonates with us, nor do I understand the psychology behind it, but it is nonetheless powerful.

Getting back to our discussion about experience, I think most Christians would say that the redemption story of Christianity played an important part of their conversion. I think this is what the biblical writers were hoping to ellicit from readers not to serve as an explanation of historical facts (although the facts were used to support the intended meaning).

Maybe this discussion of redemption is a little out of scope here but still I think it is important to examine when we talk about falling away from faith.

bottom line is...why do we find redemption narratives so moving and such powerful motivaters? Is it longing for our own redemption? and where does that come from?

James F. McGrath said...

The Biblical authors make assumptions about the way the world works, what God does, morality, and other subjects that are typical of their age and seem antiquated, inaccurate, offensive and/or many other things in our time.

For me it has been helpful to realize that if the Biblical authors had lived today, they would not have written many of the things they did, and what they did write they would have written differently.

Paul takes for granted some of the best 'science' of his day. The world is not just a three-tiered place, but as knowledge progressed the Ptolemaic worldview (with a spherical Earth at the center) came to dominate. Paul expresses himself in those terms. He also makes assumptions about the roles of the brain and the heart. I've reposted an old blog entry of mine on this subject on my new blog at http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/2007/08/when-paul-gets-it-wrong.html to make it easier to refer to it here.

When we are rooted in literalism, it becomes hard to take the text seriously as what it is, namely the arguments of fallible human beings, many of whom had experiences of God that changed their lives. A kindergarten faith comes to them expecting to be handed all the answers on a silver platter. A mature, adult faith wrestles, argues, and disagrees with Paul (even as Paul, had he lived today, would have disagreed with his ancient self), and in the process manages to encounter afresh just those places where the Scriptures are, even as we read them today, still insightful, meaningful, challenging, provocative and inspiring.

mariam said...

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.


When I read the Bible as a whole what I see, as I mentioned in another comment, is an evolution of how people in various times viewed God – our God, the God of Jesus. The earliest God of the Bible, the God of Abraham is a god among many gods, but he is THE god for the Israelites. He has made a deal with Abraham and his descendents and he guides their journeys, provides them with advice, and runs interference for them. The most important sort of god to have, especially if you are a somewhat ragtag, no-account nomadic tribe, is one that can beat up the other gods. This god demands our utmost loyalty in return for his protection, often testing our obedience with demands that seem cruel, eg. asking Abraham to make a sacrifice Jacob, the torment of Job, etc. God doesn’t have to make nice or be fair or be kind because He is, after all, God and God can do whatever he wants. We may love this God, but we also very much fear him. I think of him as the "godfather" god. There are still people who believe primarily in this this view of God. I remember, when I was a teenager, arguing with an elder about the many instances of appalling cruelty in the OT, seemingly condoned or even commanded by the God of Israel and the elder thundering at me “but these people were the ENEMIES of God. You do not question God or you may find yourself in the same boat as them.” My, my when I think back on those times, how fortunate I was to have a heathen family in which I could take refuge.

Fortunately, this is NOT the only God the Bible presents. As you mention we observe the God paradigm shifting in the Bible and sometimes those paradigms overlap. When I look at the Bible I see a God who evolves from a small, capricious, amoral god who wanders with his tribe to an mighty and fearsome King God, to a God of Law and Justice (and retribution), to a God of mercy to a God of redemption and love and enlightenment. With Jesus we see a paradigm shift again. Some of his ideas were radical for Judaism - not just "do unto others" and "do no harm" - but love your enemy; do good to those who hate you; turn the other cheek; share everything you have with the poor; nothing, not wealth, not family, not success matters as much as our relationship with God.

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

I’m sure you have heard the poem The Blind Men and the Elephant. . The Bible is like that. Our understanding of God can only ever be a tiny glimpse of the eternal. God presents many contradictory faces in the Bible: creator and destroyer, lawgiver and rulebreaker, jealous and forgiving, cruel and compassionate, intensely personal and yet incomprehensible. But always he is a God who wants a relationship with us and offers, in one way or another, redemption.

julieunplugged said...

One of the interesting things about the Old Testament is that it is arranged differently than the Hebrew Bible (Torah). Our Bibles end with the prophets which gives the impression of a "build-up" to Jesus, as though there was a climax in the story coming.

The Christian churches tended to follow the arrangement of Old Testament books within the third century BC Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint. These were basically arranged topically, with the so-called "law" books first, followed by historical books, and ending with the prophetic collection. This arrangement fit well not only with the categorical thinking influenced by Greek philosophy, it also fit theologically with the role of prophets understood in the early church. Ending the Old Testament canon with the prophets, understood as predictors of the future, set the backdrop for the New Testament writings..

However, the Jewish tradition chose a more theological organization for the Old Testament canon. There is debate as to whether this was the retention of an older arrangement or was a deliberate attempt to distance itself from the Christian canon. In any case, the arrangement reflected the relative status of the three major divisions of the Hebrew canon. The Torah was the primary foundation of the community. The Prophets both Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) and Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Book of the Twelve), were the practical outworking of those foundational tenets. The Writings were the reflective and liturgical dimensions of the tradition. This difference in approaches to the canon explains the different order of books between the Jewish and Christian versions of the Hebrew Bible.


For more information, read here.

One of the pts. my professor made is that the arrangement of the Hebrew Bible shows a changing view of God as one who is less active and consequently, less interventionist by the end of the HB.