Friday, November 16, 2007

Answering UltraRev's Question

On November 11, 2007, UltraRev asked a good question: "Whatever Became of the Public Reading of Scripture?"

He wrote:

"I wonder what the real thinking in pastor's head is when s/he plans a service and doesn't include a Scripture reading. The people I'm talking about are evangelicals with contemporary services. Do they think, "Well, the Bible is my truth not theirs so I don't want to shove it down their throats?" Is it, "Reading the Bible is so boring and it won't be entertaining enough?" Or similarly, "People just don't connect to reading the Bible out loud any more." Or is it some theological position about the Bible being narrative and not propositional truth, and we don't use the Bible like that (in a public reading sort of way) any more (and never were supposed to)?

In all of those cases they seem to allude to the belief that the Scriptures are some how lacking impact or something useful. Furthermore, it would seem they believe that God doesn't speak through the Scriptures anymore. How did evangelicals get there?

First, the good news is that not all evangelicals, muchless Christians, are at that point. But UltraRev is onto something here. Growing up Southern Baptist, I remember the only scripture ever read corporately was the verse or two our preacher read immediately before launching into his sermon. When I first visited a Covenant Church, and heard a Psalm, OT and NT reading, I was pleasantly surprised. And I was even more amazed when the the entire Passion according to St. John was read at Sacred Heart Cathedral, during a good Friday service I attended while a grad student at Notre Dame. (Moreover, we stood for the entire reading!)

Second, IMO the complete answer tothe Rev's question is wide and complicated, one of the driving themes of this blog. But here's my answer, as briefly as I can state it: Ideas have consequences. These consequences occur despite our having forgotten those ideas; and they occur even if we were never ever aware of them.
I. Prior to the 14th century, western philosophy and theology held these ideas:

1) Words/ideas have "depth:" they are connected with what is real ( and by extension, true, good and beautiful).

2) What is real reflects/participates in Him who is Real: Christ, the Alpha and Omega: God, the One in whom we live and move and have our being. So what is real is intelligible, able to be understood; but what is real is also mysterious, unable to ever be fully plumbed. The more real something is, the truer, more beautiful and good it will be.

3) Words are not the ONLY way to connect with what is real (for example, images and unutterable mystical experiences accomplish that as well) but language is a powerful way that humans are able relate to one another and to God.

4) Scripture is Truth, the very word of God, and thus a way (and the only perfect way, as opposed to general revelation, "the Book of Nature") that He relates to us.

If you hold all the above, you are committed to scripture as your means of connecting to God and what is true, good and beautiful. Maginalization of the truth presented in scripture will be a moral and intellectual sin, as so many reformers before the Reformation (St. Benedict, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Dominic, St. Francis, Fra Savanarola and others were wont to remind the Church).

II. BUT in the 14th century, a movement called nominalism arose that challenged these ideas. It held that

1.1) words do not have "depth." They are NOT connected with what is real, but are merely labels, ways human beings agree to "group" the particulars of their experience. In fact, there are no "universals;" things in the world only exist as particulars (cf. Hobbes and Locke, "the state of nature," where the basic unit is not the person-in-community, but the autonomous individual.)Connections/relations no longer have an objective, metaphysical foundation but are subjectively constructed.

2.1) Words thus are labels we agree upon, not reflections of essences and relations that exist independently of us, established by God. We become imprisoned within ourselves, or our language community, unable to connect with what's "really real" outside ourselves, except by the grace of God who provides us some sort of supernatural experience.

3.1) Thus the only way to connect with what is real (i.e., God) is not through ideas, but through "faith." Faith is now interpreted more narrowly to mean submission of one's will to the Sovereign God, who is similarly understood in terms of his divine will. (Cf. Luther, "The Bondage of the Will." This is what "voluntarism" is all about. IMO it has a lot more in common with Islam than with the good news of Christ.)

4.1 We hold scripture to be true just so long as we have faith in God. It has nothing to say to someone who doesn't already accept it as the Word of God. We must first take a "leap of faith" before we can appropriate its truths.

Thus begins an inevitable decay. If words are no longer ideas corresponding to reality, then how do we connect with what is real? Where do we go for truth? How can we be sure what we know is true?

III. Consequences for our day: The Way of the Theist:

(4.1) Luther and Calvin: we connect with what is real through our volition, not our reason. Once God chooses us, we are able to submit our wills to him, and once our wills are submitted, our minds are at last fit to receive his truth.

But this truth is no longer "thick." When we read scripture, we cannot allow multiple meanings; each verse has to have one and one meaning only, the (single) meaning intended by the writer. Protestant scholasticism gets all involved trying to settle the question of exactly what that meaning should be, and so many Protestants get hung up on texts and textual criticism. This eventually leads either to Higher Criticism ( a skepticism about what actually constitutes scripture, and finally confusion and/or despair that God even speaks through the scriptures at all) or else it forks off to the Grammatical-Historical method (and ever-drier articles and esocteric debates over the meaning in the original Greek.)

Consequence: Most people's eyes glaze over when it gets to this point.and they complain, "Reading the Bible is boring."

Other Protestants (including the Pietists) yearn for something more--the letter is dry, but the Spirit is alive! Individual subjective experience thus becomes the vehicle for relationships. Faith/belief is still understood as something opposed to understanding/knowledge: the baby of trust is retained, but the bathwater of dogma is going down the drain.

Consequence: "Well, the Bible is my truth not theirs. They just haven't seen the light yet, so I don't want to shove it down their throats"

Consequence: " It's hard for me to feel the Spirit when the Bible is read publically, so that's why I prefer to read it by myself."

IV. Consequences for our day: The way of the Agnostic/atheist:

(4.1.1) Kant: Everything is either "noumena"--what is really real and beyond our knowing (but which may be our duty to accept, as rational beings) or else it is "phenomena:--that which we are fit to perceive, through our senses, in space and time.

But you can see where this leads: God is outside of space and time, God cannot be seen, tasted, touched, measured.

Consequence: "The Bible not propositional truth; it is neither true nor false; it is not a matter of reason, but of emotion; more like poetry than science. Poetry is nice, but it's really a private, subjective sort of thing; a matter of taste. We don't expect everyone to listen to the same poetry, so why should we expect everyone to listen to the Bible in a public reading? What speaks to me is different from what speaks to you."

(4.1.2) Quantification and prediction increasingly become the hallmarks of what we will accept as "real," and the natural, material world edges out God for our attention. More and more, Nature/science eclipses God/scripture/church/anything spiritual (cf. Deism). God and scripture become less and less "credible," until finally Nietzsche announces His death.

Consequence: "Anyone who reads the Bible-privately or publically--is a fool!"

V. Final Observations

(5.1)We are creatures of habit. If we do not hear scripture read corportately, we will not develop the "ears" to hear it, and thus will find it difficult to follow.

5.2) We are creatures who are lazy and pleasure seeking. We live in an image-driven culture that rewards consumption and superficiality, and shuns words except as means of manipulating our desires. A must read: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business, by Neil Postman.

5.3) A few Emergent voices are questioning radical individualism and the practices that result from it. May they see the need to go further and question the presuppositions that led to this radical individualism in the first place! I predict that when they do , they will inevitably discover the riches of pre-nominalist Christian thought.

1 comment:

Dan said...

I always include scripture reading as part of the morning liturgy. I assumed everybody else did the same. A few months after coming here, however, a few people made a point of thanking me for having the scriptures read every week. "We never used to do that, except maybe a verse or two just before the sermon." I was quite surprised, never realizing that it was even negotiable. . .