Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Wrestling with the Bible


The last time I went to a school that taught me to read the bible as a conservative was in my elementary school, which was run by a conservative baptist church.  Between that and growing up deeply rooted in a pentecostal church, I assumed that the bible had to be read strictly and literally.  If I ever came across an inconsistency in the bible, it was obviously a problem with our human understandings rather than with the text itself.  We assumed the bible was without error, that it was literally dictated by God to the authors of the bible.

But when I turned sixteen, I started taking some classes at a community college and learned about how mainstream biblical scholars read the bible.  As it turned out, Genesis wasn't written by Moses, it was stitched together from multiple sources, and Adam and Eve weren't historical individuals.  Seeing this 'secular' reading of the bible was rather shocking for me, to say the least.  I wasn't really sure what to do with it, so I started reading conservative apologetics like Ravi Zacharias and Josh McDowell to defend my faith from 'liberal attacks.'  This didn't work very well.  I gave up biblical inerrancy, but remained basically conservative in most ways.  But curiosity sent me further down the rabbit hole...

I ended up going to another university a few years later as a religious studies major where we learned about the quest for the historical Jesus, reading works from the Jesus Seminar and other critical scholarship.  Between a deeper reading of biblical scholarship and learning about other religions, I lost my confidence in conservative beliefs.  I then started engaging philosophical questions like the problem of evil at a whole new level.  To make a long story short, this process sent me drifting in and out of faith - never actually leaving church, but rarely sure what 'faith' meant to me anymore.  The rug had been pulled out from under my feet and I often felt lost in a sea of relativity.

At some point, I found myself able to embrace faith again, largely due to discovering the rich tradition of progressive Christian thought.  While it was always there, I just didn't take it very seriously - after all, conservatives often despise liberal Christians more than non-Christians.  But now I'm finishing a master's degree in theology and philosophy of religion at a liberal Protestant seminary where mainstream biblical scholarship is taken for granted.  So things have changed a lot for me as a 'biblical' Christian over the past twelve years or so.

What do I think of the bible, twelve years into this slow and sometimes painful journey out of conservative Christianity?  While for years I sometimes lost sleep over questions of biblical interpretation to know precisely how to believe and act as a pious evangelical, today that's thankfully no longer as much of dilemma.  I love the bible, I read it often and also want to know what the best scholars say about it - but it is not an inerrant or infallible book, in my view.  Few things are more obvious to me than that the bible is a human product, filled with a variety of voices that sometimes do not agree.  That does not mean it is not inspired as well - indeed I really believe it is as a witness to the Christ event that continues to be of central importance to me.

But sometimes the bible is wrong, not simply on external grounds like modern science, but (as my Hebrew Bible professor at CST often said) on internal grounds of other voices in the text and the approach to such a multi-voiced text should thus be dialogic.  Sometimes the very things that one voice in the text criticizes as wicked are upheld as righteous by a competing voice - and this is not about the New Testament vs. the Old Testament!  Take for example one famous feminist reading of the bible.  It is difficult to deny the patriarchal/androcentric aspects of the text, but as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has pointed out, one also finds alternative, more redemptive and affirming views of the full humanity of women in the text upon critical examination.  Rosemary Radford Reuther thus argues for the 'critical principle of feminist theology': "The critical principle of feminist theology is the promotion of the full humanity of women. Whatever denies, diminishes, or distorts the full humanity of women is, therefore, appraised as not redemptive...presumed not to reflect the divine..." (Sexism and God-Talk, 19)  Similarly, one can also point to postcolonial readings of the bible that "operate with more troubling ambivalence, tracing decolonizing and colonizing themes within scripture."  While they "mine the bible for liberative strands" they also point out that the same bible "contains elements of bondage and disenfranchisement." (Postcolonial Theologies, 10)

All of that goes to say that the diversity of voices in the text refuse to be watered down into an easy, harmonious whole to extract a neat set of logical propositions.  And I really thank God for that.  Seriously, the idea of having an inerrant book dropped from heaven (so to speak) creates far more problems than it solves.  We really don't want that kind of omnipotent God who could arrange such an unquestionably inerrant situation. 

Maybe a truly 'biblical' Christianity, then, is one that boldly enters in to a surprisingly dynamic conversation in the text, forfeiting the dogmatic certainties of conservatism for a more lively approach to biblical faith.  As Christians, we need not drop our primary commitment in the text to the Christ event to see the bible in this more critical way.  In fact, to follow the way of Jesus, taking seriously his prophetic critique of injustice, may actually mean bringing a similar critique against parts of the text.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Suchocki's Eschatology: Resurrection & the Justice of God

In this second post on Marjorie Suchocki’s excellent book God-Christ-Church, I want to show how she develops her eschatology.  We have discussed process eschatology before on the blog, but Suchocki argues for probably the most famous version of such a doctrine through a slight modification of process metaphysics - which gets very technical, so we will not concern ourselves with the fine details that philosophers argue about.  Here I just want to show the basics of Suchocki's approach.  For those interested in a deeper discussion, see her book The End of Evil.   

Is it possible to go beyond the minimalist eschatology of Whitehead and Hartshorne within a credible, coherent process philosophical system?  Suchocki believes that we can and most definitely should if we truly believe in the justice of God.  Only resurrection can bring justice to history's victims.  Suchocki's views are obviously speculative - but from a perspective shaped by Christian faith, they are nevertheless highly significant for many believers. Suchocki sees her form of process eschatology as answering questions of justice in history that other process eschatologies are unable to do.

Suchocki points out that Christian faith affirms two eschatological realities when it speaks of the ‘reign of God’: “to participate richly and deeply in this life through personal and social structures of love, and to participate everlastingly in the life of God.” For her, rather than a God who intervenes at the end of history, we see a dynamic model of eschatology in which resurrection happens all the time as events in the world are transformed in the divine life and then, in a sense, pass back into the world through God's ongoing creative-redemptive work. There is a circular motion in this view where historical time continually passes into God’s own experience, is judged and brought into a reconciled relationship with all things, but then qualifies the possibilities that God can offer to becoming occasions in history. And this 'cycle' continues on and on. So these two eschatological realities that Suchocki says are implied in the symbol of the reign of God are interdependent: “in God, beyond all histories, there is a fully actualized reign of God in which the world participates. But once again, the dynamics call for the return of motion toward history.”
Marjorie Suchocki

In the framework of process theology’s dynamic God-world relationship, we can then think of eschatology in terms of a ‘world without end.’ There is no possibility of even imagining an apocalyptic end of history here – however, following Suchocki, one can also talk meaningfully and plausibly about a resurrection, judgment, and everlasting life. There is even a sense in which we can speak of traditional ideas like heaven and hell, although hell for Suchocki is more like purgatory and thus all will eventually be reconciled into the divine life (yes, she's a dogmatic universalist). For her, God is heaven: through the ongoing prehension of the world process and integration into the divine life, the world becomes “partakers of the divine nature.”

While Cobb and Griffin place more emphasis on the existential struggle of meaninglessness, Suchocki is also concerned to show that great historical injustices like genocide are not simply tragic ends to valuable lives that God is only able to address by 'remembering' those persons in the consequent nature (objective immortality). On the contrary, she affirms subjective immortality, a process whereby God saves every finite occasion in the world in their full subjectivity, resurrecting them into the divine life for an everlasting intersubjective relationship - not merely a subject-object relationship as in Cobb and Griffin. She argues that those Christians who do not affirm a more robust resurrection theology such as this to instead focus on things like social and political progress ignore the reality that “those who have fallen victim to the earlier modes [of injustice] do not participate in the new order…such Christians frequently fail to see the tremendous issue of justice that stands or falls on the reality of resurrection.”

So Suchocki is clearly motivated by issues of justice, refusing to believe in a God who would lure a world into existence that has created so much suffering – as Hegel famously said, history is a "slaughter-bench.” But Christian hope rejects this as the inevitable reality, affirming a God who does not give up on her creation, who is powerful enough to reconcile injustices through resurrection. For Suchocki, God resurrects the ‘new creation’ into the divine life, reconciling it into the primordial vision of beauty, bringing healing to the relationships of oppressor and oppressed in a complex and dynamic movement in God’s life. As Suchocki writes, “In the center of God, the many are one everlastingly.”  This eschatological reality in God then acts as a model and lure towards the reign of God in history, passing back into the world. For example, Suchocki points out that the ecological crisis should be seen in the light of a renewed and resurrected nature in God, which therefore “has its own earthly analog as we incorporate responsible care for the earth…"