The Bible, Part 2

 

John 3, Wycliffe Translation, Lutterworth Church

John 3, Wycliffe Translation, Lutterworth Church

So last time (which, if you missed it, can be found here) I started by posing two questions: 1) what is the Bible about—that is, what is the story it tells? And, 2) Given that it is not a book but a library, and that of different types of book (and also that even within a single book there may be different genres of literature used), how do we approach the different parts in our search for a fully synchronized, harmonized understanding? Then I suggested that some of the “obvious” answers were, while not necessarily wrong, at least incomplete. This time I will, as promised, start to set out what I see as the answer to the first question (the second question will be dealt with in later posts).

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What, then, is this larger story? What could dwarf God’s dealing with sin? Simply this: The Bible is, first and foremost, a love story. It is, in fact, a “classic” love story (or perhaps we should say the classic love story). Novelists, playwrights, and film makers tell us that there are only a very few (5 or 7 or such) unique storylines that can be used and this is one of them. Not the tragic version, like Romeo and Juliet, but more like the fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty. This plotline, however, is not boy meets girl, they fall in love, then they live happily ever after. If anyone has ever written with that plot, I suspect their work has been consigned to obscurity. No, the plot is boy meets girl, they fall in love, then something new (a person, thing, or situation) enters and separates the lovers, seemingly forever. One, or both, of the lovers fights against and finally overcomes this obstruction, they are then reunited and finally live happily ever after. And this is the story the Bible tells.

Let us look at it in a bit more detail. In the beginning there was God. God is one, God is also Love. However, love demands an object, a beloved. This is one of the arguments that C. S. Lewis and others use to support the doctrine of the trinity: God, though one being, is three persons so that His nature of love can be expressed. However this does not seem to have been enough (which sounds a bit presumptuous, even blasphemous, and I would not dare to suggest it except that we have God’s actions to deal with). I think we get a glimpse of this in ourselves. No matter how much we love ourselves (in a good way) we still sense a lack; what we need is to be loved by an “other”, someone outside of and distinct from ourselves.

Did God need this or merely want it? The question is pointless. We experience both want and need, and often what we want is not what we need and what we need is not what we want. But this is a result of our finite nature and lack of self-knowledge. God is neither finite nor lacking in self-knowledge, so that in Him want and need become the same. Because our language comes out of our experience we have both words and must choose one in preference to the other, but let us always remember that it is not so in God.

Thus God needs an other, but there is none. So God creates first a space, then a context, and finally a creature that is self-aware and has free will, the essential characteristics of otherness. Just as God made woman because it was not good for man to be alone, so He made humanity because it was not good for God to be alone.

Some people will, no doubt, accuse me at this point of being criminally anthropocentric. Surely, they will say, you cannot mean to deny the possibility that elsewhere in this vast universe other creatures might have appeared that have both self-awareness and free will! Why, even here on Earth can we positively rule out the possibility that, say, dolphins posses them and maybe even know God better than we do? To which I say that no-one would be happier than I if either or both of those proved true. I can well imagine that my eternal enjoyment of god would only be enhanced if my voice were joined by a chorus of dolphins or E.T.! It is totally beside the point, of course. The Bible is the story of God’s love affair with humanity. I doubt any dolphin or ET has read it. To criticize it for not mentioning either of them is exactly as valid as claiming that Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a bad play because it contains no reference to Genghis Khan. Back to our story…

In Genesis 3:8 we find God walking in the garden in the cool of the day and apparently expecting to meet with Adam and Eve. They are in hiding because, of course, the great obstruction, sin, has already entered our story. But before we consider that let us look at this scene more closely. God has come (however we envision that—what really matters here is far less the historical veracity, or even existence, of Eden as a place, and so on, but rather what the story is telling us about the fellowship of God and humanity) in the evening, after all of the hurly-burly of the work day and dinner, during the time of rest and fellowship, and especially of lovers. Evening has always been the time lovers have chosen to pursue their courtship, free from the distractions of the world.  And so, I think, it is here. This was supposed to be the time that humanity would get to know deeply the god they, as yet, are only acquainted with. That is, they know God, but they do not know God. We see this in 1 John 2:12-14 where John says he is writing to the children because they “know the Father” but he is writing to the fathers because they have known “the one who is from the beginning”. That is to say that the children, just like Adam and Eve, know a little about God (that He is “Papa”) but the older fathers now know Him much more fully.

But, of course, sin did come in. The lovers are forced apart. All appears to be lost. Yet God does not give up. He has known that this would happen and has a plan. Indeed such a fall is necessarily possible once free will is given, and, as has been said, free will is an essential characteristic of the other. So God works to preserve His beloved even as He works to remove the great divide.

Not that the lovers are completely divided. Every so often one or the other slips a love note through. From the human side we see it in the Psalms and some of the cries of the prophets. There people sometimes manage to see past the ugly thing called sin and remember that the one who loves them is still there, still fighting for them. They let out the deep cry of their heart that so longs to be in His arms again.

Nor is God silent. Can we not see in His oft-repeated longing “I will be their God and they will be my people” not the vain desire of a tyrant wanting worship but the deep desire of the all-powerful one for a real relationship with humankind? And if we still have any doubt, we have only to read Job. The “patience” of Job is proverbial, but it blinds us to the real point of the story. The point is clearly laid out for us in the first chapter: “Look,” says God to Satan, “Job loves me!” Satan, of course, replies that Job doesn’t love god, but rather God’s gifts, and the rest of the book is the testing that vindicates God’s assessment. Understand Job and you will begin to understand the Bible. Here is God’s heart, His deepest desire, laid out bare for us. This is the whole point.

 

Next time I will carry the story forward through the New Testament (though I bet many of you can guess where it will end).

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7 Responses to “The Bible, Part 2”

  1. treegestalt Says:

    “Sin” seems to be intrinsic to “other”.

    If one happens to be God, then an “other” for oneself turns out to be necessarily “limited, incomplete.” So to produce a true Other, God needs to limit its nature in some way — While producing a living Other, conversely, implies infusing it with God’s sentience. Not a simple combination of constraints, here!

    If God were to create a finished, complete Other — Such a being would be stuck in eternal limitation. [Angels might be a ‘large-but-finite’ example, for all I know…]

    If God doesn’t want his creatures forever-banzaied… Then they need must be started in a condition of limitation, to develop from there. They need a history, starting from incomplete & imperfect but becoming less so.

    “It’s the first day of Creation
    which he only perceives as limitation”

    [Richie Havens, ‘Adam’]
    —- —- —– ——

    Another version of your ‘love story’, circulated among Hindus & Moslems & quite possibly others — speaks of a king’s son who goes mad. When the king’s servants come to take him back to the palace, he imagines they have come to arrest him for some petty crime — and so he flees. Only after a long and painstaking courtship can they convince him that no mistake has been made, that the king favors him and means him well despite what he sees as his own wretched unworthiness.

    This seems to me to be a large part of what Jesus has had such difficulties conveying to humanity…

    • thoughtfulspirituality Says:

      Really interesting thoughts, as always. I certainly agree with the ideas that God would need to create a limited but developing being (is that why He created a species rather than a single being?). What I am unclear on is your first statement. The possibility of sin is implied in free will but saying it is intrinsic seems to imply that it has to be there–or do you define sin as being limited and incomplete (a different definition than I would use)?

      I like the King’s son story, which does, as you say, tell much the same story.

      The move from incompleteness to fullness can be described as “growing up”, something I certainly see in Jesus’ ministry as well as much of the rest of the NT. There are so many Christian traditions that either want or allow people to remain children, and I find this a tragedy! The fear of so many believers to question the Scripture texts, to really engage with science, and to want to be given simple rules for living, all speak of a desire to remain children. God is gracious, but I do wonder whether such a desire pains Him as much (maybe more?) than the outright rebellion of sin.

      • treegestalt Says:

        What we think of as ‘sin’ is natural behavior — for a being who imagines itself limited & separate & in danger of ceasing to exist. That is, limited plus ‘having arrived at “the Knowledge of Good and Evil.”‘ Which was, despite the story, a natural development. Though it may have been triggered by that kind of situation — having done what one was ‘not supposted’ and fearing some thus-far unknown & unimaginable consequence…

        Starting from that isolated position, then having to negotiate with other limited beings, a being can start developing ethics and enough imagination to achieve empathy… but as long as isolation is the perception, and fear remains an ultimate bottom line, those ethics and that empathy must continue to ‘fall short’: hence ‘sin’.

        Jesus can “love his neighbor as himself” because he knows his neighbor “as himself.” Because he’s no longer imagining himself to be an entirely separate being.

        Anyone else is prey to imagining God according to his own distorted ideal. Hence, Jesus was enough to bewilder and frighten anyone who couldn’t trust God to be anything but The Great Bully… and so they had to do away with him.

      • thoughtfulspirituality Says:

        I think that is actually quite close to my own understanding, if put in different words.

        I do not believe that the early chapters of Genesis are, or ever were, supposed to be taken as literal history. The story starts properly with Abraham, but the writer(s) knew that to understand Abraham, you needed some background, so we get a condensed, poetic/heroic set of stories that outline the problem.

        My personal opinion is that at some point humanity became conscious of “good and evil” and also gained a concept, small and erroneous though it was, of God. As a race we had reached an age of accountability, as it were. At that point, probably inevitably (since god already knew it was going to happen) we made some bad choices and have been trying to change ever since. After a long time of trying and failing (including God putting in place the Old Covenant to prove the point), Jesus comes and points the way to healing and real growth.

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