A Literal Problem

Article originally published in the Auburn (NY) Citizen 11/8/14, titled “Westminster Presbyterian: The Bible Wasn’t Always Taken So Literally”:

Pope Francis

In a recent address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome, Pope Francis boldly restated the Roman Catholic Church’s position that the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, and the origin and diversification of life through evolution, is not incompatible with the Christian faith. As he put it, God was not “a magician with a magic wand.” I’m very glad that he weighed in on this subject.

This can be a sensitive topic. A significant number of Christians in this country would claim that the Bible must be understood in a highly literalistic way. This leads to the belief that in order to be a good Christian, a person has to believe in a literal reading of the accounts of the creation of the universe found in Genesis, the first book of the Bible: God created every aspect of creation distinctly and uniquely, with no reliance on evolution. Many of them hold that the universe was created by God in six literal Earth days. Others grant that the “days” may be metaphorical and not literal 24-hour periods, but that otherwise, the Genesis accounts are a literal accounting of how we all came to be.

I empathize with and respect these fellow Christians. In fact, I used to be one of them. Over time, though, I’ve come to understand the Bible differently — and, I’d suggest, in a way more consistent with the overall history of how the Bible has traditionally been understood.

The belief that the scriptures must be understood to that degree of literalism — that they are “inerrant” or “infallible,” at least in the way that these Christians would define those terms — is actually a relatively new development. It only started to take off in this country in the 1840s. My own Presyterian denomination was a major proponent of this understanding of the Bible in the late 1800s, until it renounced the viewpoint in the late 1920s.

In reality, from the very beginnings of the faith until now, the vast majority of Christians have not understood the scriptures to be read and understood that way. Of course, some portions were, and are, considered literal, but overall, the Bible has always been understood to be in many places allegorical or metaphorical. It was never intended to be as factual as the morning newspaper or a technical report. The Bible is the collected traditions and writings of a number of pre-scientific cultures, all trying to convey great, transcendent truths about God and us. These days, my own denomination puts it this way: “The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current. The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding.” (from the Presbyterian Church (USA) “Confession of 1967”

Why does any of this matter? Simply this: studies have shown that American students continue to lose ground in overall education levels compared against their global counterparts. There are multiple reasons for this, but one important reason is that some groups demand that high school curricula and textbooks minimize teaching of these scientific concepts that are for all practical purposes universally accepted as fact, while also demanding that other, far less scientific theories are taught — “pseudo theories,” as Francis put it — all stemming from a desire to bolster a highly literal reading of Genesis. Constitutionally, this is bad because it imposes the religious beliefs of one subgroup of one religion upon the entire, diverse student body. It’s also bad because it hobbles these students’ academic development — something that our country needs, and that they themselves will need in order to compete in the ever-shrinking global village.

Pope Francis is absolutely correct. In accordance with the way that most Christian traditions — Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant — understand the Bible, there is no inconsistency or conflict with being a Christian and accepting the reality of the Big Bang, or that life began and diversified via the process of evolution. Our human drive to understand our universe more deeply, and the knowledge gained through scientific endeavor, are gifts from God — not something evil designed to confuse us or draw us away from God. It’s been said, rightly, that God works in mysterious and wonderful ways. I believe that’s correct — and that the Big Bang and evolution are two of those ways.

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Being Rich toward God (sermon 8/4/13)

Luke 12:13-21

 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

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Pope Francis was making more news recently, this time with his trip to Brazil, meeting and speaking to throngs of the faithful – but not doing it in the way his recent predecessors have done, staying encased in a bullet-proof Popemobile and separated from the people. Instead, he rode through the city in an open vehicle and at various times inserted himself into the crowds, driving his security people crazy, and offering off-the-cuff interviews and comments, driving the Keepers of Dogma and Doctrine back in the Vatican crazy. Francis said his attitude about going to Brazil was to either do it right; being accessible and open with the people, or not do it at all – to leave it all on the field, as we might put it.

It seems that Francis is a different kind of Pope. When he needs to travel around Rome, he does it in a Ford Focus. He won’t live in the palatial papal quarters, but instead, he lives in much more modest accommodations in an apartment compound occupied by other priests, also. He dresses simply – you aren’t likely to see him decked out in the red velvet slippers with gold braiding that Pope Benedict was so fond of. He feels very strongly that in order to be faithful to Christ’s call, the Church can’t allow itself to fall victim to idolizing material things. That the resources, the blessings that God has entrusted to the Church, are best used in service to the genuine aims of the kingdom of God – feeding the spiritually and physically hungry, healing the sick, caring for the poor, all in the name of Christ.

Offering God a portion of what we’ve been blessed with, in order to carry out these great ends of the Church – in other words, stewardship – is a very important part of our individual lives of faith. And for the church to use those offerings faithfully, in a way consistent with God’s priorities, is an important part of our collective life of faith.

“All kinds of greed” – that’s what Jesus is talking about in this passage from Luke. Wanting more than you need, hoarding what God has given you in order to share it with others, using those blessings in ways that are more attuned to your own goals and priorities instead of God’s – these are all various forms of greed, and Jesus addresses them all in this lesson. As we heard, he gets on the subject when he’s asked to settle a dispute between two brothers over their inheritance.  He tells this story as a response to the greed that he saw as the underlying problem between the two brothers.

Sometimes, people point to this story to make the point that Jesus is anti-wealth. In fact, Jesus does offer us some very sobering thoughts about the dangers of wealth, but that doesn’t seem to be his real point here. The man in Jesus’ story hasn’t gotten his wealth by stealing, or exploiting other people, or in any other inappropriate way. If anything, he seems kind of surprised by his windfall. What seems to be the point of this story, and of a lot of Jesus’ teaching, is that, as more than one person has put it, our possessions actually possess us. Concern for our possessions very quickly make it difficult for us to truly care about what God cares about. Protecting and preserving our wealth and our material possessions distract us from true wealth – from what is really rich in God’s eyes.

God calls the man in the story a fool because he thinks he can hoard his resources all for himself, and because he spends his resources in the way he thinks is right, not the way that God thinks is right. All of his concern is about hoarding and selfishness; and spending money to build bigger barns in order to accomplish that selfishness, only compounds the problem.

In his story, Jesus teaches us the hard lesson that the Kingdom of God isn’t about keeping our blessings for ourselves. That isn’t why God has entrusted us with them to begin with. We’re called to use them in trust and faith for God’s real concerns, not for ours. That’s what Pope Francis is saying in his simpler way of being Pope. The fancy lifestyle, the lavish clothes, the luxury cars – these are all just forms of spending God’s money on bigger barns. They’re all expenses made while justifying them as important to preserve the stability, and dignity, and tradition of the church, while people who could have been fed, clothed, sheltered, exposed to the gospel, went uncared for. As unsettling as it is, each and every one of us – individually, and collectively as the church – will have to answer for the way we’ve used the resources God has given us. Have we been good and faithful stewards? Have we hoarded our resources? Metaphorically speaking, have we built bigger barns for ourselves in order to preserve our priorities over God’s? That’s what Jesus causes us to think about in this story, both individually and collectively. What good are bigger barns, if the grain that’s been stored up in them rots with age, while people go hungry? What good are bigger barns if there’s no livestock to fill them? What good are bigger barns if their cost obstructs, instead of advances, what’s important to God? Because really, God doesn’t want us in the barn-building business, especially if the barns are used to hoard and to hurt instead of to help achieve God’s real priorities. With God, it’s never about the barns; it’s always about trust and faithfulness, and using God’s resources properly.

Ramon lives in a poverty-stricken village in Honduras. Somehow, he struggled to put himself through the training required for him to become a Pentecostal preacher. He started a small congregation in his village, just a few people at first, but eventually it grew. And when it did, Ramon had dreams of building a nice little church building for them in the village, but his efforts were blocked in all sorts of ways, time and time again, no matter what he tried. Eventually, he came to understand that at least there, in that time and that place, God really wasn’t interested in a church building. But God was very interested in being present in the lives of the people of the village. So twice a week, Ramon clears out the living space in his tiny little house, and he sets up white plastic resin chairs in the house, and they spill out into the front yard, where chickens and stray dogs wander between the chair legs. And twice a week, the faithful come together to worship God in a way that’s a bit different than most of us are used to. It’s hot, and it’s sweaty, and it’s loud, and boisterous, and sometimes even chaotic. But God is present there, in the midst of those cheap lawn chairs and stray chickens, just as much as if it were a papal mass being celebrated in the Sistine Chapel. And those same, poverty-stricken faithful share whatever they have, offering a surprising percentage of their income, each week, dedicating it to God’s service. And in return, Ramon’s little church uses that money to take care of the things that God really cares about in the lives of the villagers – not paying off a building, that was really only Ramon’s dream – Ramon’s bigger barn – but it wasn’t God’s dream. Instead, that money goes to help provide clean drinking water. For transportation for villagers to get to the nearest medical clinic, and to pay for medicine that’s needed but that can’t be afforded. To buy shoes. To buy groceries. And doing it all specifically in the name of Jesus Christ, and while offering the villagers the hope and assurance of God’s love and compassion for them.

It’s for those kinds of things that God has given us what we have, and that God calls us to be faithful stewards of. As followers of Jesus, that’s one of our prime commandments.

There’s a principle of preaching that a sermon isn’t supposed to be all Law – all just beating people over the head with things that they’re supposed to do, but that ultimately, we can’t ever really pull off. A sermon is supposed to offer a message of grace. It’s supposed to offer a reminder of the truly good news that God has given us through Christ. It’s hard to find that good news in this passage, a story all about a fool, and what Jesus warns us not to be like. But there is at least one little crack of sunlight in the story, and it’s in the very last thing Jesus says. He mentions us needing to be mindful of being rich toward God. There’s some good news here, in that through Christ, we can at least see and understand what God considers rich and right. Through Christ, we can see and understand what God calls us to be, and to do – both as individuals and as the Church. We don’t have to fumble around or guess about what’s right; all we have to do is focus our gaze on Jesus himself. How he lived; what he taught. That’s the whole purpose of God entering into our world, in the flesh, to see, literally in person, what pleases God. It’s true that even though we can see the right path, we still might refuse to follow it, but the good news continues in that through the Holy Spirit, we can be emboldened and empowered to actually follow that path, as hard as it might be sometimes, as much anxiety and change and transition as it might mean for us. We can follow that path. Not perfectly, to be sure, but we can see it, and know it, and follow it. That’s God’s promise, that’s God’s message of hope and love in this passage, whether you’re a mild-mannered Pope from South America, or a loud, sweaty Pentecostal preacher in Central America, or a good and faithful parishioner in Middle America.

Thanks be to God.