A sharp and clearly-drawn dividing line exists between the Christian Right and Left. While the former holds that divine revelation was essentially complete by the end of the church’s earliest centuries, the latter believes that God continues to reveal truth to those faithful enough to seek it. Conservatives like to deride more-progressive Christians as somehow too self-interested to be credible in the debate. But the total U-turns on longstanding, Bible-based moral teachings these same conservatives accept whenever it suits them (on lending at interest, for example, or remarrying after divorce) show how hypocritical their “staunch traditionalist” pose really is. Using their minds and hearts when they read Scripture seems to be something they’re only willing to do when they’ll benefit from it more than somebody they dislike.
Many people make an idol out of the Bible. They seem to think that it arrived on this planet, like Mork from Ork, in some great, big egg from outer space. And that it is everything from historical epic to science text, Adam and Eve being a couple, for them, as historically-real as George and Martha Washington. (Steve, of course, existing only to be denied, their literalist God having been so busy pushing Eve at Adam that poor Steve never had a chance.)
There are essentially two different ways of viewing our faith tradition. One sees it as something dead, like a lion’s skin lying on the floor, its stuffed head still attached as a glass-eyed trophy of conquest. The lion’s under our feet, all our certainties are safe and untouchable, and we need worry about no potentially troublesome changes. The alternative viewpoint, however, sees tradition as something that continues to live, breathe and grow. “The Spirit giveth life,” wrote the Apostle Paul, “but the letter killeth.”
If the Holy Spirit is, indeed, alive, then the tradition must be ongoing. Jesus promised, in the Gospels, that the Spirit would abide with us until the end of time. What I believe this means, among other things, is that viewing religious revelation as having been a done deal long ago is itself unscriptural.
Conservatives (of every religious brand-label) like their religious tradition comfortably dead. They’ll sit there stolidly upon it and watch it really closely to make sure it doesn’t so much as twitch. But exactly where did they get the notion that they had any right to kill that lion, or even that this magnificent creature is killable? What a nasty surprise for them when it stands up and starts to roar again!
One of my favorite quotes (originally credited to Gracie Allen) is a motto of the United Church of Christ: “Never put a period where God has placed a comma.” And to yet another of their mottoes, I must add my amen: “God is still speaking.”
The best way to read the Bible is to recognize ourselves in it. It isn’t merely the story of people who lived and died thousands of years ago; the story it tells is, truly, our own — and it is ongoing. To read it with our hearts, as well as our minds, it is entirely necessary to understand Scripture this way. This attitude of ownership (it’s OUR story — not just “theirs”) also helps us erase that message that gets so stubbornly stuck in our heads: that the Bible belongs to our self-proclaimed enemies, but not to us. In his bestseller, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, Peter J. Gomes shows that the same Bible used to liberate the African slaves in America had been, for centuries, used to enslave them. The same thing is happening to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people today. Once the weapon of our oppressors, the Bible can now be recognized as a crucial key to our liberation.
Trying to point to cultural norms from twenty centuries past to bolster your “Scriptural” case “justifying” the unequal treatment of others is lame, to say the least. It works no better when you use it to clobber GLBT people than it did when slaveholders pointed to Paul’s Epistle to Philemon to “make their case” for slavery. You cannot treat other human beings as of lesser worth than yourself and remain a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. This is as true if you’re attempting to pass laws taking away their job security, depriving them of medical care or stealing their children as it would be if you were clapping iron collars around their necks and chaining them together to be sold like cattle. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” What part of that most central commandment of Christ’s do all these so-called Christians NOT understand?
That favorite claim of the Right, that they are always and without exception the guardians of sacred tradition, is nothing but nonsense on stilts. They cannot claim to respect this tradition without a willingness to honor the strong and persistent progressive trend that runs through it. Christianity truly has a scarred and bloody history, but the trend, thus far, has always been toward ever more recognition of human rights, equality, freedom and social justice. Those who use the Bible as an excuse to do no better than those who wrote it might as well go on eating in highchairs, pelting their dinner companions with strained peas and deflecting all criticism for their behavior by saying, “Well, it was adorable when I was one and a half.”
As the Bible makes clear, God meets us wherever we are — in all our confusion, ignorance and imperfection. But if we seriously follow God, we gradually grow less confused, ignorant and imperfect. Scripture is clear about that, too.
Americans used to get offended when informed, by killjoy realists, that George Washington never really chopped down that cherry tree. Many Christians, to this day, get hot under the collar at the mere suggestion that Eve might not ACTUALLY have persuaded Adam to eat that apple (or even — perish the thought! — that it might not have been an apple at all, but a peach, an apricot, a banana or a kiwi). We’ve got scientists — some with a whole alphabet soup of initials after their names, for crying out loud — running around Mesopotamia in search of the spot where Eden stood, or climbing Ararat to hunt for the wreckage of the Ark. And on and on goes every form of literalist lunacy, keeping things bright and happy in a lot of people’s little Peter-Pan-and-Santa-Claus world.
The very first of the Ten Commandments forbids having any other god before God. Excuse me, but venerating the Bible as “God’s infallible word” is idolatry. Nothing and nobody is infallible except God. I certainly understand the temptation so many believers have to put their brains on autopilot and accept nothing more than the stale old interpretations handed down from centuries ago. But the long-held dogma that Christian doctrine has been complete since three hundred years or so after Jesus’ earthly life has no basis in the very Bible many people call “infallible.”
In any sort of message, there are essentially three parts: the sender, the medium and the receiver. Those who claim belief in an “infallible” religious revelation assume not only that the Sender is infallible (a point on which I certainly agree), but that the medium (be it Scripture, tradition, hierarchy or any combination thereof) is also incapable of error. When we examine their claim logically, we see that without an infallible receiver, it all falls apart. For what good would an infallible Sender and medium be if it all ended up with a receiver who screwed up the whole works?
How would an infallible revelation even profit people who are fallible, themselves? We have no reason, in the first place, to believe that God expects us to understand “His” revelation perfectly. Life is far more than some cosmic classroom or quiz-show, the point of which could be reduced to “getting the right answer.” I can see the tremendous allure the theory has with many religious people; it seems to absolve them of any responsibility to think for themselves, and it allows them to feel smugly superior to all those who “don’t get it.” But that sort of thinking has caused too much misery, bloodshed and destruction to the human race for me to believe it accurately represents the way God operates.
A full-scale spiritual revival is well underway in the GLBT community nationwide. Only the dogged self-deception of the Religious Right keeps them from recognizing this. And of the new gay-founded churches springing up like flowers after a spring rain, a surprising number have a conservative, evangelical theology. How inconvenient for those who insist that all sexual minorities wishing acceptance in the churches are wild-eyed radicals out to revolutionize the faith!
In my own case, I’ve been pondering, lately, whether my continued tendency toward conservative theology is really motivated by conviction, or by the underlying fear that if I think too much, God’s really gonna get me. The fruit of my eight-year search for a church home, since having come out as a lesbian, has been a closer relationship with God than I ever previously imagined. I’m beginning to realize that God gave me a mind because “He” wants me to use it. While I still believe a conservative interpretation of Scripture can be gay-friendly, I find myself increasingly losing my phobia of new ideas. And though I doubt I’ll ever be an ultra-liberal, any traditionalist beliefs I retain from now on will have to make enough sense to survive fresh scrutiny.
Why would God lead us forward — as even the most conservative church tradition asserts the Holy Spirit does — if “He” expects everything to stay the same? A God whose revelation does not deepen and ripen over time is a God who is dead: a graven image, sculpted out of the clay of inert ideas. So what if the early Christians expected they’d seen the completion of God’s revelation in their lifetime? They also thought the world would end at any moment — which, no doubt, is why they expected no further transmissions from Heaven. Conservatives would have us believe that, two thousand years later, God is “still” silent. But try as they might, they can’t shut God up.
The only possible explanation, indeed, that the Right can offer for why God tarries in bringing the curtains down upon the world is that in the meantime, “He” wants them to “save” as many mega-billions more people as possible. These folks whore themselves out to every reactionary whack-job who hides behind the “respectable” cover of religion and sell their souls to politicians who send thousands of young people to die in a war in which still more thousands of human beings are slaughtered. They ignore the poor, persecute gays and do everything possible to annihilate refugees from South of the border. And then they’ve got the nerve to shake their heads, tut-tutting over all those “heathens” who refuse to be converted by such a stellar Christian witness! The buffoonery in which this crowd indulges makes their claim to a divine, soul-winning mission from God look more ridiculous with every day that passes.
Worship of the dead letter of history and the mistakes of the past is idolatry. I thank God every day that I have finally found a church-home where this crucial truth is understood. “God still has something to say to us,” asserted our pastor the other day. And this nugget of wisdom after I’d thought I had this essay finished!
“Wow,” thought I. “One of those wonderful, coincidence moments!” Then, I’m pretty sure, God winked.
A self-described “Libertarian Episcopalian lesbian,” freelance writer and the author of Good Clowns, a young adult novel published in 2018, Lori Heine published a blog called Born on 9-11 and was a frequent contributor to the website Liberty Unbound. A native of Phoenix, Ariz., she graduated from Grand Canyon University in 1988 and spent much of her life in the insurance industry before turning full-time to writing as a freelancer, blogger and author.