Friday, July 22, 2016

Myths and Beliefs

I have a confession to make: I have a problem with authority, and here's an example of what I mean. Mary Linda and I watched "Cold Comfort Farm" a few weeks ago, and this scene with Ian McKellen brought some of my authority issues to my attention:

While I love the line "there'll be no butter in Hell", my inner critic is saying "how do you know?", and that question occurs a lot for me. It comes up, for example, when we pass a billboard along I-40 that says "When you die, you WILL meet God", and another along I-75 that says "The Holy Bible: Inspired, Absolute, Final". I am okay with "inspired", although I think they mean something else by it. What do they even mean by "absolute"? Being in a religious tradition that believes in continuing revelation, "final" doesn't work for me either. When I am feeling cynical, I feel like they are saying "the bible says what I say it does, period". There is a take-it-or-leave-it absoluteness in the way many people approach the bible, and for that reason, some people leave it.

Even so, I am still one who values the bible and I think that's because my approach to the bible is more along the lines of what Marcus Borg calls "historical-metaphorical", in that it isn't the factuality of the stories of the bible that are the important thing, but what they convey about the authors' understanding of God. This obviously implies that I don't think that the bible was divinely dictated. I find myself thinking about using the word myth when talking about some of the stories, but I don't usually say it out loud. I remember thinking it was somewhat scandalous in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" to hear Dr. McCoy saying "according to myth, the Earth was created in six days". I always understood the word "myth" to imply falsehood, which is one of the definitions that Merriam-Webster gives for it. Another definition is "a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon". It is in the latter context that I use the word in referring to at least parts of the bible, not as a judgment of any truth or falsehood. You don't have to believe that the world was created in six days to appreciate the message that the world is good.

What this means is that I keep in mind that there is a human element here — that the various authors of the bible were writing about their experience of God, but I don't believe they were infallible. Friends have always maintained, that as the bible was written by people influenced by the Holy Spirit, it must be read in that same Spirit, and I continually try to do that. One of the results of this is that I think of the various stories of the bible as influences on my understanding of the Holy Spirit, but not as things that should just be duplicated. To use a musical analogy, musicians study the playing of other musicians, learning various riffs, studying phrasing, practicing techniques, but the end result is not to play exactly like the musician they are studying, but instead to expand what they are able to play. Music is played in a context. You wouldn't normally play a Miles Davis note-for-note solo in the middle of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, but you might play the symphony in Miles Davis' style (as if he was playing it), or you may play it in your own style that is influenced by him — what an interesting creation that might be! The bible is an intersection of the Spirit of God, people, and a point in time. Living in a different point in time, the result of that intersection may be different — or not. We are all still human after all.

The Sermon on the Mount talks about turning the other cheek. I think as Friends we often just take that literally, but Walter Wink suggested that it had to do with asserting your equality with the person slapping you (based on which hand was being used to do the slapping). I find it interesting to view some of Jesus' actions as being similar to what early Friends were called to do with "hat honor" and "thee & thou", witnessing against class inequality. Now, maybe I will be called to literally turn the other cheek, but maybe there will be some other form of self-sacrifice that I am required to do, or maybe there will be some other way to assert my equality with someone or confirm someone else's. I think we get a richer view of the bible when we don't assume that things are to be copied literally. I have the same attitude towards the writings of early Friends. Sure, maybe we're supposed to go naked as a sign, but maybe our time calls for something different.

My confession here was spawned by the reference to "the enemy" in a previous post about an epistle from Alexander Parker. Right now, I don't think that I have to believe in a literal enemy, devil, tempter, adversary to see the truth in this epistle, because it describes a tendency for us to misunderstand what the Spirit is telling us, or a temptation to just say something we want to say even thought we don't really feel a leading from the Spirit.

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