Finding Truth

A bible from 1859.

A bible from 1859. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are a lot of Christians around who declare, often quite loudly, that they believe the Bible. They will talk of its inerrancy and accuracy, and go on to add that it must be taken literally. Indeed, if one does not agree with all of that then one is judged as somehow less of a believer, if one is a believer at all. This becomes their shibboleth, their test of whether a person is in or out.

And yet, of course, none of them really believes that. No-one actually takes all of the Bible literally. They all still have both eyes and both hands, for instance, so clearly they take some parts as figurative. Nor do they seem to give much weight to the oft-repeated scriptural injunction to “judge not, lest you be judged”, or to “love your enemies”. If pushed, they may argue that it is not their enemies they hate but god’s enemies, that it is His honour that they are protecting. They miss the point that God told us to love our enemies because in doing so we imitate Him—for He loved us when we were His enemies, and willingly laid aside His honour to serve us.

When one examines this belief more deeply it becomes clear that it is often, if not always, an excuse for spiritual laziness. It is easy to assent to a literal reading (though hard to live it!) whereas it takes real work to understand a figurative meaning. To do the latter requires a lot of prayer, guidance, and an understanding of the whole of God’s revelation to give context to any particular text (not a complete understanding, which is more the goal, but at least a fairly robust framework).

This is not to say that there are not things in scripture that are meant to be taken literally. Indeed, there is much in Jesus’ teaching we would do well to take more literally, even those of us who profess to believe in a literal interpretation. Nor is it to say that the literal meaning of the words can ever be ignored in looking for the real meaning. But it is to say that we must recognise reality: that the Bible was written by a lot of people who did not necessarily all use words the same way, in a variety of styles like poetry, wisdom, apocalyptic, and that it contains idioms that do not convey the same meanings to us as they did to those for whom the books were written.

This spiritual laziness results in two very dangerous outcomes (at least). Firstly such literalists rarely actually know the Bible in a real way. They often assume that what they “know” to be true is, therefore, scriptural even though it may, in fact, be only what some teacher has said or a matter of church doctrine.  Thus recently I was involved in a discussion where I was assured that the “fact” that all suicides automatically go to hell was in the Bible even though no-one had any idea of where such a text existed or even if it was a New or Old Testament text. (Whether such a text exists, I do not know, though I am sure it is not in the New Testament, but that is besides the point which is that these Christians were insisting that the text had to exist because they “knew” the idea was true).

This confusion of truth with doctrine and of both with “Biblicality” can be a serious problem for it closes eyes and minds to the real message of God. Some writers have even suggested that annotated Bibles are a bad idea because people will remember that they read something in their Bible but forget if it was in the text or the annotations.

The second problem is that while such people often have all these accretions, which may or may not be true, added to their concept of what the scriptures say, they actually only know a part of what it actually does say. They are often great believers in memorizing scripture, by which they mean  “key” verses and “proof texts”—often wrenched from their actual context—which are supposed to be somehow adequate to encapsulate the truth. This might not be so bad if these texts were those through which the Spirit had spoken to them personally during their own study of the Word, but usually they are those suggested by some preacher or book.

Such a collection of proof texts on some subject can sound entirely convincing, for one is shown clearly how a given doctrine is written throughout the Bible. This is true, but it is only because there is another collection of texts that would tend to lead to a different, even opposite, conclusion that this particular teacher has avoided.  This does not surprise those who have learned that God is just that: God; That He is far, far beyond even our best understandings; That His truth should be most aptly expressed in paradox.

But paradox does not easily give itself to being sloganised and it takes real work to hold paradox in our minds and even more not to be paralyzed by it. Fortunately, however, that work is not really ours to do. It is the Spirit that leads us into all truth, if we will only open our ears and hearts. The real truth is that He will work in us and the truth is not to be captured in slogans, clever sayings, or a few proof texts, though it exists in a single word—Jesus—for He is the truth. Real truth is not something known but something lived.

Whereas so many hope that by memorizing the correct collection of texts they will be able to change their lives, those who are led by the Spirit realise that this is backwards, that we only really come to know the truth after we are living it. All of the things we learn about god from the scriptures are just meaningless babble until we meet God, and then they simply give us ways to talk about what we already know inside ourselves. All of the “laws” and guidelines on how to live are totally powerless to do anything but frustrate and depress us until the Spirit comes to dwell in us, and then they become not laws but descriptions of the life that flows abundantly through us.

Jesus, the truth, never taught doctrine, He lived. And, in living, he faced the dilemmas of life and law but answered, not by studying the dead letter but rather by doing. I wish all of “Christ’s Ones” would find truth this way; How much grief, useless work, and division would be avoided!

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One Response to “Finding Truth”

  1. the four noble truths « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci Says:

    […] Finding Truth (thoughtfulspirituality.wordpress.com) […]

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