Episcopalians and the Bible: Does Reason and Experience Trump Scripture?

In my last post I talked about the validity of reason and experience and why they are a legitimate part of the equation as we seek to deepen our faith and understanding.  Critics of the church, and, with a nod to Henry Peter’s comment on my last post I am including in the word “church” folks of all denominations and traditions who read the Bible the way that we do, would say that this is where we undermine or deny the authority of the Bible.  Let’s take a look at why we say that our critics are wrong.

We are not challenging the authority of the scriptures, those works that are included in our sacred canon.  What we are questioning is the interpretation of those scriptures that has become “canonized,” that for some has become as sacred as the scriptures themselves.   How does that work?  We have to start at the beginning.

We read the creation stories in the book of Genesis and we wonder.  How does this material align with what I have learned in school?  How does it align with that we have learned about the history, the geology, the biology of the earth?  If we accept a plain sense reading of those passages, if we take them literally, we seem to have a real problem.  There is a disconnect, a dissonance, between what the Bible, to which we grant authority, says and what our minds, our reason and experience of the world says.  So what to do?  Do we throw out one or the other?  Do we just turn our heads with an uncomfortable smile on our faces and ignore the fact that these two important parts of our lives don’t work together?   I think that to walk away from this moment of disquiet is to deny or undermine the authority of both our reason and our scripture.  We are in essence saying that the scriptures are not worth our time and attention and that we are willing to ignore them when to examine them head on would cause discomfort.  To walk away from this moment of disquiet is to infect our faith with an intellectual dishonesty that will undermine it and lead to its irrelevance in our own lives and in the life of the world.  We must ask the question, “Can our experience of the world be reconciled with what the scriptures tell us?”  In this case they can.  Here is how that might look.

When we look at the two creation stories in the book of Genesis we begin to realize that they share things in common with other ancient traditions and stories from the Near East.  The people who told the stories that are now written down in the Book of Genesis were responding to a very human need to explain our origins and beginnings.  It is also important to acknowledge the reality that these stories were told by generations and generations of people, sitting around their campfires at night.  They told them to one another and they told them to their children.  “Where did we come from Mommy?  Well dear, in beginning God made…”  Biblical scholars do not believe that Moses wrote the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.  They are the product of whole communities, generations of people, who were trying to explain things that they knew to be true, that their experience of the world told them must be true, and they were using the cosmology, the images and metaphors, and the language that was available to them to tell that story.

Further analysis of the text helps us to see that these ancient people weren’t as interested in telling us how the earth was made as they were in telling us about our relationship with the one who created it.  We don’t learn from the Book of Genesis how all of the stuff really came to be.  If we are reading the book of Genesis as a science textbook, even if we read it as a science textbook that would have related the ancient Near East’s understanding of the physical world,  we are going to be very disappointed.  That is because the book of Genesis was never intended to be a scientific treatise on the creation of the physical world.  It was a book that describes who we are in relationship to one another, to the created world, and to the God who created us.  And it is a book that talks about those fundamental relationships by telling stories.

When we approach the stories in Genesis in this way we are not challenging the authority of the scriptures.  We affirm the nature and depth of the relationships that the scriptures depict.  We affirm the deep sense that somehow, in ways that we cannot articulate, God is responsible for who and what we are.  And that reality establishes our relationship with God and with one another.  What we have let go of is an interpretation of these scriptures that tells us that God created the world in seven days, that the dry land holds back the deep and turbulent waters of chaos, and that the moon the sun and the stars are suspended in a dome that holds back the waters above us.

So have we allowed reason and experience to trump the scriptures?  Here is the final test.  Can we read the scriptures, the stories of creation in the book of Genesis in the way that I have described and still be faithful to the text?  Have we distorted the meaning of the text to suit our own needs or can we read them in this way, with integrity, and still find that the scriptures are powerful, authoritative and life giving?  The answer to this final question is “yes.”

Of course the stories of creation in the Book of Genesis are an easy place to start.  While there are clearly people who still want to claim that the Earth was created in seven days, witness the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, most people are not so comfortable letting go of the years of accumulated science that has shaped our understanding of the physical world around us.  So demonstrating the interpretive shift that allows us to reconcile our reason and experience with scripture is, in this case, more of a relief than a challenge.   There are however, other understandings that our reason and experience have revealed to us, that have challenged and are challenging historic, canonized, interpretations of scripture that I would like to deal with.  I mentioned them in my last post and in my next post I will address the fact that for the Episcopal Church, and for progressive Christians of all traditions and denominations, ordained ministry is no longer reserved to men alone, and that we no longer view homosexuality as a sin.  One revealed truth that is not so contemporary, another that continues to shake some parts of the church today.

I look forward to your comments and responses.



2 thoughts on “Episcopalians and the Bible: Does Reason and Experience Trump Scripture?

  1. It may also be worthy of attention that interpreting the Bible other than as literal history is scarcely a “modern” invention. Right there in Genesis there are two different chronologies of creation, conflicting in such matters as the order in which God made things and whether or not the creation of animals was for their own sake or as potential companions for the first human. Both cannot be correct at a literal level, but both were taken as sacred and regularly read in synagogue and temple. The ancient Jews must have been as aware as we that the chronologies cannot be literally reconciled, even as they would have regarded both as divinely inspired at the least or directly written by Moses the Lawgiver.

    Turning to the New Testament, the Gospels are not consistent in detail, even in such crucial questions as the events of Holy Week. As the casual reader will note (and Christians have for millenia) the Synoptics clearly state that the Last Supper took place on Thursday, and that the day of Crucifixion was the first full day of Passover. John states explicitly that Good Friday was the day of preparation and that Passover began at sunset AFTER Jesus’ death and burial. Both can’t be true at the literal level, but all the stories are taken as true in their essentials.

    Finally, one of the hallmarks of Anglicanism in my view is not only that reason and experience properly shape our interpretation of the sacred texts, which are to be taken as a whole, not as a disconnected collection of proof texts, but that faithful, informed people can and do differ in what the full meaning is. It is not merely that today’s church reads the same passages differently than yesterday’s church, but that members of the same community can and do differ on matters each considers important without breaking communion. This ethos extends beyond scriptural interpretation to broader matters of theology. What many of us regard as virtue and part of our special witness to Christendom is seen by others as being so “openminded” that our brains fall out. There may well be areas of consensus (e.g. that slavery is wrong), which contradict an earlier consensus. There are others, notably in the area of sexuality, where there is strong dissensus
    WITHIN a body eager to remain in communion with one another.

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