My Hermeneutical Lens

On February 11 and 12, I had the privilege of being a participant in the ORTLine 23, an online conference sponsored by the Center for Open and Relational Theology at which numerous books, published in the last year or so, were each presented by their author and responded to by 3 or 4 panelists. Dr. Thomas Jay Oord had invited me to be one of the panelists to respond to Brian McLaren’s latest book, Do I Stay Christian: A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned. I was thoroughly encouraged, but also deeply challenged, by McLaren’s book and was able to share briefly, at the conference, my very personal response. McLaren was nothing but humble, gracious, and appreciative in his response to the panelists. Not only in written word, but also in spoken, McLaren is one of best wordsmiths I’ve had the privilege to read and hear.

As a panelist, I shared that the chapter that stood out to me—given my history as a long-time follower of Jesus (46 years), a retired pastor (35 years), and an academically trained biblical studies student/scholar (last 15 years)—was Chapter 19, “To Free God.” In that chapter, McLaren basically explores the connection between how one reads the Bible and one’s theological views (i.e., how one understands God’s nature, working, and will). McLaren rightly notes that “all theological language is metaphorical … never capturing and containing the You who is addressed” (p. 144). He goes on, again rightly, to state that “we inhabit different metaphorical worlds. For example, in one time and culture it would make sense to talk about God as a shepherd” (p. 144). However, that metaphor doesn’t really communicate much, if anything, that is meaningful to inner city dwellers in today’s world, as it would and did to the ancient readers.

Thus, when we read the biblical texts, we need to appreciate that they, who composed these texts, lived in a patriarchal, prescientific, monarchal, and shame-based culture[1] (p. 145). McLaren writes,

For people in a culture of dominant patriarchy, of course their metaphorical language for the You [i.e., God] would be patriarchal. And for people in a prescientific age, an age of magic, of course their descriptions of the You would be magical. And if they lived in a monarchy and a shame-based culture, of course their description of the You would carry monarchal and shame-based undertones. How could it be otherwise? If that’s the case, why should their patriarchal, magical, monarchal, shame-based worldview dominate our approach to the You in our context? We don’t let the assumptions of our ancestors about anatomy, psychology, medicine, or physics dominate our thinking and work in these fields today. Why should we be required to let their theological assumptions dominate… (pp. 144-145).

The problem is that “traditionalists[2] fear that if the old metaphors, categories, frameworks, and language no longer dominate, they will lose the You toward which they did their best to point. So, the traditionalists issue this ultimatum: Either speak of God using old language and metaphors or don’t speak of God at all” (p. 145). McLaren goes on to state, however, that there is “a third option.” Instead of using the biblical texts as the ceiling of what we can know and say about God, we should use these texts as the ancient floor upon which we can build or the soil in which we can plant new seeds. I agree wholeheartedly with McLaren when he states,

When we make this subtle but profound switch from ceiling to floor (or soil), suddenly, before our eyes, the Bible and tradition are transformed into a library of texts that demonstrate the very opposite of what the authority figures told us. These texts and traditions do not reveal one final, ever-unchanging understanding of God. They reveal how notions of God have always been evolving over time, how they constantly grow, relapse, recover, adjust, and grow some more (p. 146).

For me, I read the biblical texts as ancient and diverse—at times even contradictory—texts providing ancient and diverse—at times even contradictory—portrayals and accounts of God’s nature, working, and will. I read these texts as having been composed (i.e., written, copied, and edited by various scribes) over long periods of time, the result of the historical, religious, political, and cultural contexts in which their scribes lived. By respecting and appreciating their contexts, I am able to glean wise principles and godly practices that can inform, guide, motivate, and even compel me in my contemporary historical, religious, political, and cultural context. I love McLaren’s analogy that these texts are not the ceiling but the floor for my continued endeavours to better understand, and speak of, the nature, working, and will of God.

As I write articles for this blog, and as I speak to individuals who have questions about the Bible and their faith, and as I research and write my doctoral dissertation, McLaren’s statement resonates both as a personal validation but also as a challenge:

It is risky to speak or write about God in fresh ways, building upon the past rather than being boxed in by it. The threat of misunderstanding and censure tempts many of us to participate in a conspiracy of ambiguity, using the word God and leaving room for both the Big White Guy on a Throne in the Sky and something beyond it. Perhaps that has been a necessary strategy in the short run. But in light of the ways the Big White Sky Guy has been weaponized to create an unjust and unsustainable world, we need to graduate from the conspiracy of ambiguity into a healing spiritual clarity as we move forward. … I don’t know exactly how we will do it. But I know it must be done. In this way, we are free, if we so choose, to stay Christian, because we are free to let our old God concepts die and see what rises from the tomb (pp. 148-149).

I will close out with a prayer, which I first found in the Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur (p. 43), upon which I reflect almost daily:

“From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth,

From the laziness that is content with half-truths,

From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,

O God of truth, deliver us.”

[1] I would add, that the ancient Near East was a “collectivistic” culture in contrast to the “individualistic” culture of our modern and postmodern Western world.

[2] I.e., biblical literalists which includes much of the conservative evangelicals and all Christian fundamentalists.

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