A couple of years back, I had a revealing moment in my World Literature class. I had required the students to read a series of essays by George Orwell. Orwell, who you probably know as the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, was, in addition to these books, the author of essays that shed light on the brutal injustices of colonialism. When I offered them this history as a context for what they’d read, some of the students pushed back. If Orwell was such a champion for colonized peoples, why did he use such painfully degrading language to describe Asian and African people.
When the students brought these concerns into our discussion, I doubled down on the fact that Orwell was instrumental in dismantling the bloody legacy of colonialism… but I also asked them if, in spite of all this, they thought his writing revealed him to be a racist.
A handful of the students maintained that he was racist… but the surprising majority of them let Orwell off the hook.
They all gave the same reason for absolving him: Orwell wasn’t a racist, they said, because, essentially, he was a product of his time. His use of degrading language to describe Asians and Africans could be excused, they said, because that was what “everyone did back then.” Some went on to say that calling him a “racist” would be unfair because that would be holding him accountable to modern ways of thinking that he could not have known about.
I was familiar with these arguments, indeed, I recall using them myself. But as I listened to the students, it was clear to me that, as compelling as these arguments were, I simply didn’t agree with them anymore.
Somewhere along the way I ‘ve become more uncompromising when it comes to ethics. It seems clear to me now that if something is wrong now, it is because it has always been wrong – and that people who lived in other times and places must’ve recognized that it was wrong, regardless of the prevailing culture of their day.
Just because slavery was the norm in the antebellum American South, doesn’t make holding enslaved people acceptable.
This uncompromising ethical thinking, though, presents a thorny problem to people of faith – particularly Jews, Christians and Muslims – who depend heavily on scripture.
I admit, much to my shame, that I know next to nothing about the Koran, but I do know a little bit about the Bible, that vast collection of material which includes the Hebrew Bible, the Gospels and the Epistles, and I can tell you that a Sunday doesn’t go by that I am not morally challenged by the problem I have just described.
There are many stories in the Bible that reveal attitudes and describe actions that might have been OK at the time, but feel morally abhorrent in today’s context.
A famously extreme example of what I’m talking about occurs in the 15th chapter of the book of Numbers when the Israelites bring a man before Moses and Aaron to be judged.
He had been found gathering firewood on the Sabbath.
Unsure what to do about this seemingly innocuous infraction, Moses consults with God, and God replies:
“The man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.”
The next verse reports that they did so, and he died – a chillingly abrupt report for a gruesome and unjust murder.
So you see the problem. If I apply my conviction – previously stated – that if something is wrong today, it was also wrong in the past – then I find myself compelled to conclude that much of what I find in the Bible is ethically wrong.
Not only that, but as the story from Numbers clearly shows, the actions of the God I worship can also be said to be immoral.
What is a poor UCC minister to do?
I will say this:
The Bible is a bit like the weather in New England.
There is an old saying about the weather in New England – all of you, being good New Hampshire folks, have probably all heard it… it goes like this:
“If you don’t like the weather in New England, don’t worry, just wait ten minutes.”
The same logic, I suggest, applies to the Bible… The saying might go something like this:
If you don’t like what you read in the Bible, don’t worry, just keep reading…
Of course, the folks who insist on Biblical inerrancy – the view that every word of the Bible was dictated by God, and so must be understood, and adhered to as literal truth – those folks would be shocked by my cavalier approach to following the Bible.
But the Conservative Evangelicals who regard the Bible as literal truth – my my, how they must perform feats of contortionism in order to somehow justify God’s horrifying judgment against the man collecting sticks on the sabbath. God, they insist, must be all good, all the time – so they run around in circles trying to prove how unforgivably evil it was to collect sticks on the sabbath.
I have found my own way around this problem, and I think that today’s scripture passages that Deb just read for us, offer us some new ways to deepen my approach.
I hope so.
When I say: If you don’t like what you read in the Bible, don’t worry, just keep reading… I am admitting that you are inevitably going to find horrible, unredeemable stories in the Bible – and if you keep reading, you will also find the most wonderful and affirming material.
Both are there, and must be there.
Because I insist that the Bible does not define God, it describes God.
God cannot be defined – to do so would be to limit God, and if you limit God, you are no longer talking about God.
God can only be described. The Bible, then, is our clumsy attempt to describe how we (in our limited humanness) understand God’s actions in history.
We make gestures at describing God – we do so over the centuries, with poems and songs and stories and parables, and prophecies, and histories – and when we gather this wealth of literature and put it together in one place, we call it the Bible.
A number of those stories are inevitably going to be ugly, and immoral, because many of the events that result from the friction of human life are ugly and immoral. Some people, over the centuries, have chosen to explain these immoral tales by bringing God into the mix. Our job, as interpreters of the Bible, is to try to figure out how both the good stories and the bad stories do the work of pointing us toward a glancing understanding of how the eternal –the divine – interacts with the momentary – the human.
If you’ve ever wondered why the Bible is so long – this, I say, is why. You can define God in a dictionary with one sentence. But the Bible is not a dictionary. It is a treatise that describes God’s actions in human history, and as such it is thousands of pages long.
The work of human hands, the Bible, like every other human work, is sometimes – often – puzzling, wrong, even immoral. But if we let it be this — our earnest but confused attempt to reach toward the divine – we may – just may be able to learn as much from the Bible’s errors, as we can from the Bible’s when it gets it right.
These sweeping judgments about the nature of the Bible, though, lead us to an important practical question: if, as I have suggested, the Bible sometimes gets it wrong, and sometimes gets it right – how do we discern the difference?
Saint Augustine – one of the most influential of the early Christian theologians – had a practical answer to this question. In chapter 36 of his treatise “On Christian Doctrine” Augustine wrote the following:
Whoever thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures,
but puts such an interpretation upon them
that does not build up the twofold love of God and neighbor,
does not yet understand the scriptures as he ought.
I like this. Augustine makes the “twofold love of God and neighbor” the central interpretive measure for all of the Holy Scriptures. So when I consider at the story of the Man picking up sticks on the Sabbath with this ruler, I can say, in a rather practical way, that the story does not illustrate the “twofold love of God and neighbor” and so, if it is to have value for us, it must be as a cautionary tale. A tale that says: this is what happens when absolute power is wielded.
I have been content with Saint Augustine’s method – it has worked for me… but this morning I suspect that our scripture readings may give us some more ways of thinking.
The first story, from the 1st Book of Kings, tells us how young Solomon became wise.
The story tells us that Solomon’s request for wisdom “pleased the Lord.” God was impressed that Solomon did not treat God like a Genie in a bottle and ask for wealth and comfort.
I notice, also, that, while he was making his request, Solomon was humble. He recognized his own limitations, saying: “I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.”
So can Solomon and Saint Augustine offer us another way to discern what is divine in the Bible? Can we use this – the acknowledgement that our limitations are part of our wisdom – help us to find the truth in the Bible?
Whoever thinks that they understand the Holy Scriptures,
but puts such an interpretation upon them
that does not acknowledge our humility
does not yet understand the scriptures as he ought.
The words of Saint Augustine and Solomon lead us, finally, to the Apostle Paul who penned these beautiful words in his Epistle to the Romans:
…the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
A sigh – which comes from deep within the body – is an intimate expression, meaningless, in itself, yet filled with meaning.
The Holy Spirit, Paul says, gives us this – this pure, elemental knowledge.
This, to me, is suggestive of the mystery that is within us – the wisdom that is not a wisdom of things, but a wisdom of being.
The sighs too deep for words are, perhaps, what we know, not with our intellects, but with the marrow of our bones.
This is not the logic of one-plus-one-equals-two.
This is that part of us that trembles in sympathy with the rhythms of time and the universe.
The sighs too deep for words are, perhaps, the certainties that abide within,
the things we know in our guts,
the instincts of the soul that we follow when our paths lead into the mist.
The sighs too deep for words – could this is the spiritual knowledge that helps us all to know that what is wrong today, was also wrong yesterday?
And perhaps… perhaps this too, is a spiritual wisdom that we can bring to the Bible, as we follow its long and winding description of the mystery of the eternal.