To all US citizens, happy 4th of July. May this be a time of reflection on the best of our hopes, while we also consider the worst of our failures as a diverse and imperfect people.
In honor of this day, I recently recommended to the very energetic online Coffee With Paul Bible Study partners two fairly recent academic (you have been warned) discussions:
Biblical Criticism and the Decline of America’s Biblical Civilisation, 1865-1918 by Mark Noll, 2013 Astor Lecture, Oxford University. The lecture is a detailed and probing history of post American civil war readings of the Bible, centering around the key date: 1876. If you listen carefully, there are plenty of applications for why people read the Bible the way they do in any era. Mark Noll is a prominent evangelical historian and theologian who also is the author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1995) which states: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind,” and which asks, “why has the largest single group of religious Americans, who enjoy increasing wealth, status, and political influence, contributed so little to rigorous intellectual scholarship in North America?” The audio is not about that topic. (1 hour, audio only).
The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin. A stimulating panel discussion by atheist Richard Dawkins, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and philosopher Anthony Kenny. Although all three accept evolution as a fact, that is not the point of the discussion (and is not the point of my sharing this). The point is rather with the way in which the discussion was conducted and the stimulating way in which questions were asked and engaged. This was held at Oxford University in Feb 2012. (Video 1.5 hours).
So I presented this to my online study partners, and one very astute member of the group, after listening to the first recording, commented and asked (in part):
Q: “Critical thinking should not cause a person to lose Faith or discard the Bible as myth. So what would a true Biblical Civilization look like?”
This is a great observation and question. When faith is afraid to face honest and legitimate questions with reasonable answers, it is “chicken faith,” not Christian faith. While I don’t want to accuse people of this (and sit in judgment on others), I also don’t want this to mark my own faith. Hence the book: Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration. That is the entire concern of that book. Christians need to be able to face up to realities about the Bible and AT LEAST engage in reasonable discussions about such things.
This reminded me of something I saw on space.com recently: a beautiful picture of the “stunning new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of NGC 2467” (an actual star nursery)—a picture that would make any astronomy enthusiast beam with joy—right next to the most unlikely ad for this page. Here it is:
Astrology and Astronomy. What a combination!
It immediately struck me that this aptly represents just how Christians often (or normally) read the Bible—in popularized, hop-scotch, horoscope fashion. The fact is, many might define “Biblical Civilization” as just such a thing! However, Bible readers should have no more patience for this kind of approach to the Bible than astronomers do for astrology.
A Biblical Civilization
This is why I also liked the second listed video (above). In that video, atheist Richard Dawkins asks a very legitimate question to the Archbishop about “why God waited 4.7 billion years (or whatever) to finally get to the point,” and then again, “why should we turn to ancient sources in the first place?” They were running out of time, so a good answer didn’t happen, but I still respected the way the question got asked and how the Archbishop (quickly) replied.
Part of my own answer (because I DO accept a 4.7 billion year span) is that Dawkins, who does not believe in God in the first place, is making all kinds of unwarranted assumptions about “what God would have to be like.” In other words, even accepting a 4.7 billion year time before humans (which you might not accept, but that is not the point—let’s stay on this point!), I am not bound by somebody else’s opinion and assertion of what God must be like or what he must do, or what must be important for him, especially by somebody who thinks God is a “ghost” anyway.
Who says that God did not or could not “delight in” or enjoy every single minute of the 4.7 billion years that existed before all of the kids were born?
Now, I’m attempting to offer some levity, but the point is quite serious. I am respecting Dawkins’ question and asking him right back:
Accepting your assumptions about time, who are you to say that there could be no divine purpose to a long creative process, or that purpose can only exist when humans come along? Or what God can or can’t be? Or how God must act? And who are you to tell me that the Bible must be read in such a shallow way? I get that enough from Christians, I don’t have to accept those kinds of assumptions from them OR you!
Again, the question Dawkins asked is a good and legitimate question and deserves a good and reasonable answer from believers. (And my answer is, the Bible makes no claims about such things and was not written to such questions. So I don’t have to submit to your forced opinions about such things any more than I do from some Christians.)
So, I offer this as food for thought: A “Biblical Civilization” would NOT be one that is bound by only one particular view of how the scriptures apply to current questions. (That means that a “Biblical Civilization” will be one of disagreement and discussion, not lock-step conformity!) Rather a “Biblical Civilization” would be one of vibrant, open discussion of this question: “How do we apply ancient texts to current contexts?” And that right there is the most important question current readers of the Bible have to deal with.
Now, in that enterprise, Dawkins is ill equipped and totally off base. But so are most Christians! Dawkins (and most atheists I am aware of) fight against one particular kind of Christian viewpoint about the Bible, and then call it “the Bible!” Most Christians comply by accepting that approach!
I absolutely do not. A responsible and contextual reading of the scriptures considers first and foremost two things:
(1) Why these texts came into existence in the first place.
(2) Why they were kept and handed on by others.
It was NOT because the questions we are asking nowadays were being asked by them. It was because other questions were being asked, and we have largely forgotten those questions and those contexts. Genesis is not addressing the questions that science is asking today. And whenever Christians accept that platform (which most conservative approaches do), they have already shown that they don’t understand the nature of their own book! This is exactly why Christian teachers sometimes use texts out of context when they know better. It is because they are often more motivated by the “right answers” they already know are true than they are by the integrity of the texts they have right in front of them.
I suggest that a “Biblical Civilization” would be comprised of people energetic and responsible in discussion about our ancient and precious texts. And it would carry on this conversation without wrangling or frothing at the mouth. A “Biblical Civilization” would be a searching civilization.