Marcus Borg’s death impressed something about progressive Christianity on me: how easy it is for people who understand the Christian faith differently to be in one church. Or, put another way, how we don’t need to split over different hermeneutical (interpretive) practices. Actually, it was his obituary in the NYTimes that got me to that conclusion. It did so by getting me to remember and reflect on a conversation I had some weeks before with a woman from a different Christian community.
The Times reported that Borg — one of the leading spokesmen for the Jesus Seminar and more broadly for what has become known as progressive Christianity — cordially related to and debated the more orthodox New Testament scholar N.T. Wright about the veracity of the biblical accounts. For example, did Jesus’ birth or resurrection happen as the bible records? And does it really matter? Or can someone who believes Jesus literally turned water to wine or multipled 2 loaves and 5 fishes to feed a multitude worship and serve well alongside someone who believes those stories are, well, stories to graphically illustrate who this man Jesus was, metaphorically, but not literally true?
While Wright maintains there is good historical evidence that the events occurred as reported in the biblical narratives, in the obituary, Wright characterized Borg’s position as accepting biblical stories as metaphors. I think it’s fair to say of Borg’s position that some of the Bible’s details were literary devices or even literary fictions pointing to some greater truth, much as a myths can convey truth even if they are not factual.
The exchange and respect implied between Borg and Wright reminded me of a conversation I had recently. This woman I don’t know very well was positively excised because no one at her church seemed to believe the tenets of the faith the same way. I guessed, with all her energy and passion, the problem wasn’t simply diversity of interpretation or belief. A more accurate description of her consternation might be: the other people at her church didn’t believe what she felt were the necessary teachings of the faith as she did!
She longed for ‘dogmatic correctness’ because she felt it was the mark of true faith and our hope for salvation. She kept throwing out somewhat panicked questions:
“Can someone be a Christian if they don’t think Jesus really walked on water or calmed a storm?
What about the miracles and the healings?
Do you really believe in the Christianity if don’t accept the virgin birth or the resurrection as literally true?”
I didn’t answer her outright at the time, but honestly, my sense would be “yes, yes, and yes” you can and do.
My conversation partner’s position was that one should believe what the Bible says because the Bible says so.
But it doesn’t seem that simple to me. For example, Jesus said, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood,” but all but the most sacramental churches are comfortable with the symbolic interpretation of those claims.
And isn’t much preaching teasing more relevant, contemporary meanings — even everyday, less extraordinary meanings — out of Bible’s stories? Alternative interpretations that often are less than the literal meaning of the story? For example, if I were to preach that Jesus raising Lazarus is a promise of how Christ can lead us out of the shadows of death… bring us forth from so much death in our lives and our world that robs us of truly living so that we may have what he termed “abundant life” …No one would accuse me of apostasy or be upset that I had denied that Jesus really raised Lazarus.
I tried to explain to the woman that I didn’t think it was so important that everyone understood the stories in the same way. I used the Old First faith community as an example. How we don’t use creeds as tests of faith. Instead, we assume from the get that people’s faith is not identical; we don’t believe in exactly the same ways. Because people are people. All of us are different. And ‘theological correctness’ — despite all the bloody fights in church history over it — isn’t what constitutes faith or what gets anyone saved. And the fighting over it probably moves us away from God’s goal of a beloved community.
When I worked at an Episcopal Church in seminary, I was intrigued that everyone worshiped from a common text, The Book of Common Prayer (BCP). I wondered if common and consistent words for worship translated into greater convergence or agreement of religious understandings than we can imagine in the the ever-changing and spontaneous low church worship of the UCC.
But when I asked, every last person began an answer about their understanding and use of the BCP with some qualification — an instance where they were picking and choosing the parts they found meaningful; or overlooking the lines they find difficult to swallow (or wrong!): or interpreting pretty heavily to get to some spiritual synthesis that works for them. In other words, the static text didn’t seem to narrow the interpretive range at all!
The woman I was talking to, she wasn’t buying any of this. In fact, she was beginning to look at me “that way.” …Suddenly both my faith as a Christian and my status as a minister were in question.
I kept trying. Old Firsters value and appreciate the points of the tradition and the teaching of the church. That’s why we use a Statement of Faith in our worship. We don’t get all caught up in arguments about what’s literally true and what’s more symbolic truth, like poetry. Instead, we accept that there are always lots of different ways to read a story. We know we employ different ways of reading as we seek the truth, but we’re Christians because we all find truth to live by in the stories of Jesus (however we read them).
Various understandings. Different interpretive routes. But a common sense – and thanksgiving — that we find deep truths for living in these stories. And by grace, that’s enough for us to be gathered and served and serving in a single community.
I’m not sure that the woman wants to be in church with me! But I can worship and serve next to her. And next to someone who thinks it’s all an ancient myth that speaks to some truth that is still true.
Consider this: the Gospel writers wrote four different stories of Jesus’ life. They differ throughout and sometimes greatly. But we accept them all as true. With all their variances, different theological emphases and individual ways of looking at faith. We even just accept that they present contradictions. Why? How? Because our foreparents in the faith had the wisdom to understand that truth is complex, multi-layered and always a bit beyond us.
I certainly didn’t convert the sister with whom I was talking. But talking with her helped me. Helped remind me that faith calls us towards an ultimate truth that is beyond us all. Helped me thank God for so many different paths so that more people can experience and articulate truth. Helped convince me the paths don’t need to divide us, because the truth is uniting us. That in fact letting the paths turn us against one another is counter to our goal.
Some of us appreciate poetry. Others mythology. Or narrative history. Or hard, literal facts. And most of us work with a mish mash of all of the above. But we’re Christians because, each in our own way, we find that these stories of Jesus, in different ways but not similarly, they open up a truth to us the informs our lives and we can share with others. Despite any and all our differences, it’s the common ground we need and the truth we share. Thanks be to God.
See you in church,