By The Rev. Dawn M. Frankfurt, St. James Episcopal Church, Wichita, KS
In the name of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
So far on my faith journey, I have learned a great deal and the understanding I held as a child have matured into something very different from I began. I have had numerous phases along the way when I’ve learned something new and then it seemed, in light of a new learning, that nothing I thought I knew made sense. This means that my understanding of God, the Bible, and Christianity has been through many evolutions.
I had a rector who often said that if you believe the same way today as you believed ten years ago, then you might want to check the pulse of your spirituality. With humor, he said, your spiritual life might be dead. He believed, as do I, that our spiritual journey keeps us moving on an emotional and intellectual trajectory we can’t predict.
Our reading from the Hebrew Scripture today is from the prophet Habakkuk, who lived in the seventh century before the common era, almost 10,000 years ago. His writings were different from those of his contemporaries because it honestly reflects his struggle to believe that God was good when conditions in the world around him seemed to get worse. The book of Habakkuk is the story of God convincing Habakkuk to trust in God and God’s hope for the future.
Here, in a slightly different translation is the reading we heard earlier: “Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and it will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.”
This is a promise God made – that though justice would take time, it would certainly come. We can probably relate to Habakkuk’s frustration and confusion as he wonders why an all-powerful God would allow evil to persist. We need hope for justice in the world as much as ever. When Habakkuk took his questions to God he received an answer. To trust God fully means to trust even when we do not understand.
That has been largely my experience – even though I have not lived through anything like the Babylonian exile. As I have learned and grown, it has been a miracle for me that even though many times I did not understand, I did not lose my trust in God.
In the Episcopal Church we rely on three things to inform our faith. Scripture, tradition and reason (picture a tricycle). In addition to Scripture, we rely on tradition which, through time, came from the Church. A problem arises, when tradition over-emphasizes biblical infallibility, historical factuality, and absolute morals and doctrines.
As Anglicans, we have found that the gift of reason is a check on tradition. It is a way to balance our reading of Holy Scripture without rendering it false. Science and scholarship have brought to light much which was not known when Holy Scripture came into being, or by the early Church which first interpreted it. As modern people, we have learned a great deal about the workings of the world. Without reason, the Bible itself can be a stumbling block because it literally ceases to make sense.
In his book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg lists many claims that people find difficult to believe when understood literally:
- That the earth and the universe were created in six days – and not very long ago (Gen. 1-3).
- That Adam and Eve were real people, and “the fall” brought death into the world (Gen. 2-3).
- That God sent a world-wide flood that destroyed all life, except for Noah; his family, and reproductive pairs of all animals who were saved in an ark (Gen. 6-7).
- That all people initially spoke the same language and only later were divided into different language groups (Gen: 11).
- That God ordered the slaughter of the Amalekites, men, women, children, and infants (1 Sam. 15:3):
- That God cares whether we wear garments made of two kinds of cloth (Lev. 19:19).
- That those who don’t believe as we do are children of the devil (John 8:44).
- That the second-coming of Jesus will involve the destruction of most of humankind.
When the Biblical text is limited to a literal reading, numerous people no longer believe. The idea that the Bible is a divine product and thus the infallible and inerrant Word of God ceases to exist. Today, we believe there is an alternative to biblical literalism. Borg, a contemporary theologian, uses three adjectives to describe the Bible. He calls the Bible an historical, metaphorical, and sacramental text.
Instead of ascribing the first five books of the Bible to a divinely inspired Moses, we understand that historically, the Bible is the product of two historical communities ancient Israel and the early Christian movement.
As such, it is a human product, not a divine product. This claim in no way denies the reality of God. Rather, it sees the Bible as the response of these two ancient communities to God. The Bible tells us how ancient people saw life with God. It contains their stories about God’s involvement in their lives, their laws and ethical teachings, their prayers and praises, their wisdom about how to live, and their hopes and dreams.
As a human product, the Bible is not “absolute truth” or “God’s revealed truth.” It is relative and culturally conditioned. To many, “relative” and “culturally conditioned” mean-something inferior, even negative. But “relative” means “related”: the Bible is related to their time and place – and “culturally conditioned” means that the Bible uses the language and concepts of the cultures in which it took shape. The Bible tells us how our spiritual ancestors saw things – not how God sees things.
When our knowledge of science seems to oppose a literal reading of the creation stories in Genesis, it is not the end of the Bible’s value to us, nor is it grounds for disbelief. We have the metaphorical – the more-than-literal – way of reading the Bible. It is a rich text with a multi-layered meanings. This is how scripture is able to speak to us in different ways at different times in our lives.
What we know about the origins of the universe (and nearly 14 billion years of the evolution of our planet and life on it), stands in conflict with the story that God created everything in six days and rested on the seventh. Even though Holy Scripture isn’t factual in its details, but it is still telling us the truth. The truth in the creation stories is that God created everything there is (however it happened) and that creation had a certain order to it. This is the truth, and in this more-than-literal reading, scripture does not have to conflict with scholarship.
Long ago, the Biblical texts were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. As the text was translated and interpreted it came to exist in the Latin version of the Bible called The Septuagint. At one time, only a very small, educated class of people could read, understand Latin, and have access to Holy Scripture. Most people in an earlier time did not read, and even if they were among the small number who could read, they were not able to translate to the language they knew from Latin. Therefore, the vast majority of people relied upon priests to tell them what was in the bible and what it meant.
It wasn’t until the Authorized Version of the Bible, the King James Version, was assembled in England in the early 17th century. For centuries before the publication of the KJV, people who were caught with English translations of the Bible were burned at the stake. Christianity has come a long way.
We are called to use our minds when we read the Bible – more than ever before. We have easy access to the Bible in print and on the internet. Priests do not simply tell us what the text means and leave it at that. We read it together, ask questions, and apply tradition and reason to what we have read. Through prayer, reflection, and study with other Christians, we can begin to access the vast depths of truth in the Bible.
Today, one of the ways we emphasize to ourselves that it is not just special people at the front of the church who read and understand Scripture. Our liturgy directs that members of the congregation should come out of the pews, stand in front of everyone at the lectern, and read the Bible in our own vernacular. This is one of the important ways the Episcopal Church today embraces welcome. Everyone, not just a select group of people, are welcome and included in the life of the church. When the priest or the deacon reads the Gospel, it is brought from the altar into the midst of the congregation symbolizing that Scripture is for all of us. Times change, but the truth remains the same.
The Episcopal Church teaches that Holy Scripture contains everything necessary for salvation. We do not think the Bible is a rulebook, a set of instructions, or a collection of easy answers. The biblical text speaks to us, leads to growth, and then speaks again as we gain an expanded way of understanding.
Though I grew-up taking the Bible at its word, understanding it literally, and believing in the red-letter version of the New Testament, I don’t still think that. Through seasons of fallow faith, and growing beyond my original notions, I have learned that while I evolve and mature on my spiritual journey, God is trustworthy and changes not.